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Friday, 31 May 2013

Doctor Who is a Little Racist, and Maybe we Should Think About That

Because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings.
--Kate Orman, contributor to Doctor Who and Race, evidently vastly overestimating her audience. 

The only thing more disappointing than the Daily Mail's response to Doctor Who and Race has been the response to the Daily Mail's response to Doctor Who and Race.

It's hard, of course, for me to get pissed off at the Daily Mail for doing what the Daily Mail does and whipping up a crapstorm without having all the facts, though it is more than a bit surprising that a newspaper so shockingly homophobic that more reputable papers keep a yearly count of how many slurs it uses sees it fit to go after someone else for prejudice. And it's a bit hard for me to get pissed off at people for reacting to the piece, period, seeing as it'd be kinda dumb of me to assume most non-British people are familiar enough with the Mail to immediately recognize it as scum.

And besides, other publications such as the Telegraph and Radio Times have seen it fit to pick up on this story, so most people didn't hear about this from the Mail anyway. Fair enough, both to the frenzied fans and the other publications themselves. It is, in the latter case, a very good way to stir up public sentiment (and, more importantly, sell issues.) I mean, how dare someone accuse this beloved televisual gem of being, of all things, racist?

Never mind the fact that is can be and has been. And that's what's worrying to me.

Doctor Who fans, in general, have no trouble admitting that Doctor Who is...well, pretty awful. It's ratio of bad ones to good ones isn't healthy, but understandable for a show that's run thirty-three seasons. But we love it anyway, because when it's good it's staggeringly so, and even the worst episodes are either entertainingly bad or have enough good bits to become redeemable. In other words, by and large, the fandom has a healthily, lovingly critical attitude towards its subject, one that allows us to be more accepting of its faults than, say, your average fan of Star Trek or Star Wars.

But being racist is a different sort of criticism, one immaterial to the quality, and one that--frighteningly, I suspect--is very very difficult to work up a reasonable defense for. And that's where this whole thing becomes disappointing for me, because the fandom, rather than try to muster up any sort of reasonable thought on this, has immediately gone into rabid attack mode. How dare they attack our show? All that racism was a long time ago! Whatever criticisms you have currently are immaterial! And so forth.

That's not to say nobody is trying to solve this with intellect. My colleague and friend Ley Wynn has, on this very blog, made both some decent points and some I don't agree with at all--her assertion that there are simply no quality black actors going after the lead role is baffling considering Patterson Joseph has been in the running for the past three Doctors (and in terms of basic human decency)--but at least she's trying to handle this whole thing without offhandedly dismissing it, and by employing critical facilities. Which is more than I can say for fans and news publications both.

It's the same attitude you see with people accusing the current regime of sexism, but in reverse. The "Moffat is sexist" crowd, rather than trying to reconcile sexism with Who or try to see why this is happening or sort out what it is that's irritating them so much, have found it far easier to simply drop the show. The "Who isn't racist" crowd, on the other hand, is also thinking uncritically, but the problem is that the racism view isn't coming from them. If they came to this conclusion themselves, I suspect they too would simply drop the show.

So what is it about thinking critically about this criticism that scares everyone so much? Part of the problem, I think, is that we've attached a stigma to racism, and before you decide to lynch me understand that I'm not saying "we've attached a stigma to hating people of different races, and that's bad." Because attaching a stigma to that sort of mindset is very very good.

No, we've attached a stigma to racism in terms of thinking about where these attitudes come from, why they exist, and how they're reenforced. We, as a society, have said "racism springs from older attitudes, anyone who still thinks like this is living in the past, and we do not need to give it an iota more thought than that." And because of that, Who fans, by not going into attack mode, run the risk of being tagged as racist, and that other people will see us in the same light we fear seeing the show.

And here we have a group of not just academics, but fans--who have seen Tomb of the Cybermen, who have seen Talons of Wein-Chiang, who have noticed that two of the characters from the Davies era that received the most abuse were black, who have decided that rather than writing off the show or putting on blinders maybe we should discuss these things and see if they're as harmful or unharmful as different camps say, and look at that in terms of historical context and current racial attitudes.

And we've just shut that whole thing down and decided we'd all far rather not talk about it, and that it's easier to stigmatize the book--which, after all, is called Doctor Who and Race, not Doctor Who is Racist. We've already decided that, regardless of the conclusions they come to, none of this is worth talking about. None of us so much as wants to run the risk that the book concludes Who has a problem with race.

So, to anyone who's made it this far in the article--read the book when it comes out. Do it. And then agree, or disagree, or whathaveyou, but do it because you actually thought about what the book was saying, and not to preserve your self-worth. You'll be glad you did.

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