Dr. Who, mermaids, elves, and the "go woke, go broke" phenomenon
In August of 2022, the British science fiction show Dr. Who created a culture war stir with the announcement (made by co-star Neil Patrick Harris) that the next iteration of the titular character would be gay.
For those not in the know, Dr. Who is a Time Lord—an alien humanoid who travels through time battling bad guys (usually with wits rather than violence). Time Lords have a particular quirk: when they die, they are resurrected in a different body, but maintain the same memories and (mainly) personality. The regeneration of Dr. Who after death made it possible for the show to survive the exit of actors who played the lead role. But as progressive audiences began to demand greater “representation,” this also opened the show to changing Dr. Who’s identity in more basic ways: race, gender, and sexuality, for example.
But has catering to progressive demands helped the show, or has it contributed to a “get woke, go broke” downswing in viewership? It’s worth taking a look.
Firstly, it must be said that there’s little agreement on what it means for a show to “go woke”—or for that matter, whether “woke” is even a fair term to use—which complicates and confuses things. Does highlighting a strong lead female character like Wonder Woman, or a sexually and ethnically diverse group of characters such as in How to Get Away With Murder make a film or show “woke?” I don’t think so.
“Wokeness” often invokes a more ostensible allegiance to sociopolitical narratives on the left and implied moral criticism of audiences who may disagree. Thus, the political sermonizing that came to typify shows like Law and Order: SVU are arguably “woke,” but simply casting different races for fictional characters isn’t necessarily so—although I do think creators need to be wary of double standards when it comes to cultural material. If it’s bad to cast white actors in culturally non-white roles, it should be just as taboo to cast non-whites in culturally European stories. Double standards breed resentment. Definitions of “wokeness” also often speak to motives: Did showrunners make their choices because they made artistic sense, or to scold those with more conservative worldviews and show off their own moral bona fides to progressives?
The newest Dr. Who, reportedly to be played by Ncuti Gatwa, will be the 14th iteration of the character, and will make history not just for being gay, but also for being the first black person in the role. I've been a fan of the character since watching the old Tom Baker iteration (1974-1981) on syndication in the U.S. growing up. At its best, the show blended sophisticated storytelling with compelling narratives and a willingness to end storylines tragically in ways that might challenge viewer expectations.
Beginning in the mid-2010s, however, I did notice the show becoming a bit preachy, particularly along progressive narratives. I’d describe myself as an “Obama progressive” myself, but the ostensible inclusion of sociopolitical worldviews in what was, at heart, a family show could feel jarring and often reduced immersion for me. Later that decade, the show began experimenting with the notion that Time Lords could switch gender, beginning with the villain The Master becoming Missy (The Mistress) after one regeneration. Played phenomenally by Michelle Gomez, Missy was a seething, fascinating nemesis to the Doctor. The series also introduced gay sidekicks to much acclaim.
These successes may have made the showrunners of Dr. Who overconfident in their ability to play with the core identity of the character—who, despite different actors, had always been a white, rather asexual male (though one variant of the Doctor does become romantically involved with female companion Rose Tyler, a rare example of a romantic storyline in the show). As a result, a recurrent situation in media culture wars arises: established franchises seek to provide more diversity in content—a worthwhile goal—and yet, instead of producing new content, they change the dynamics of existing characters and appear surprised at the blowback, which they immediately attribute to bigotry of some kind.
A lot of big media companies have found themselves wading into culture wars, either eagerly or reluctantly. The Star Wars franchise seems almost perpetually at odds with its own fans. A new gay Superman (technically the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane) has divided fans. The reboot of Sex and the City makes clumsy and cringe-worthy lurches at “wokeness.” The traditionally red-headed Little Mermaid will be played by black actress named Halle Bailey. The new Lord of the Rings franchise Rings of Power has similarly evoked concerns of playing to modern identity politics. There is clear tension between media companies feeling pulled to increase diversity in casts, but often doing so with franchises that already have established fan bases with a deep fondness for existing characters.
I suspect there are several issues at play. The first is that media producers may actually have overcorrected in their representation of LGBT+ and non-white characters. There’s no question that the media has historically underrepresented many minority groups (as well as women). But evidence suggests that black and LGBT+ characters are now overrepresented. Second, I suspect there’s a perception that these decisions are less organic creative choices than they are pandering to a vocal minority of progressive activists (themselves mostly elite and highly educated). Third, big companies often come across as hypocrites. Disney’s “don’t be a racist” scolding can come across as a bit rich coming from a company that, not long ago, unabashedly filmed a movie near concentration camps in China, then vociferously thanked the ruling bureaucracy for the privilege. Fourth, in echoes of the Gamergate controversy, I think media companies and activists sometimes mistake a small group of vociferous online trolls for the larger fan community. Sure, there are real bigots out there, but some fans also have legitimate concerns and complaints, and media companies’ messaging has sometimes appeared to besmirch entire fanbases based on online comments that may often be coming from trolls. This can put companies in needless conflict with their audiences.
In many ways, it’s easier to create new content than it is to retrofit old content. People develop relationships with existing characters, and to some fans, changing their identity can feel like murdering those old characters. In some cases, the existing fanbase may have been tepid anyway (like the 80s Battlestar Galactica), and the reboot benefits from stellar writing and a new direction. It's also probably easier to retrofit a secondary character, like Dr. Who’s Master/Missy, than the main character for the same reasons. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that such fundamental changes are often met with hostile reactions.
So how much does the “woke” turn of existing media products matter? Dr. Who’s ratings have been slipping in recent seasons. Is that because the Dr. Who franchise introduced a woman Doctor, and now a gay, black Doctor? My guess is that, in part, probably yes—though dismissing this as entirely due to “sexism” or “racism” is facile. True, perhaps there were some viewers who just hate seeing women or black people in strong roles, and I reject that as any moral person should. But I doubt these people are as numerous as progressive activists often imply. The issue of relationships between characters and fans may have been a bigger sticking point. Perhaps the Doctor just didn’t seem like the Doctor anymore to them. The sense—however true it may be in reality—that this was forced in allegiance to “wokeness” rather than an organic process may have hurt the franchise as well.
I admit I stopped watching Dr. Who during Jodie Whittaker, the 13th Doctor’s run—though not because the character had become a woman. Rather, the storylines and dialogue had just gotten stale to me, and it felt like they were trying to cram too many secondary sidekicks into the narrative. Sure, to a lesser extent, it did feel like the show was drifting toward preachy “wokeness,” but that sort of thing predated Whittaker’s taking on the role. It’s also true that, while the regeneration trope allows for many new opportunities, the show will always lose some viewers after a particularly beloved Doctor leaves.
Unfortunately, sophisticated economic analyses of the “get woke go broke” concept are lacking. My best guess is that, generally, picking sides in cultural debates is probably costing movie companies a significant number of viewers. Some big companies like Disney can afford to hemorrhage fans, but individual TV or movie franchises will likely suffer. There is also the risk of companies that brand themselves as progressive putting themselves in the position of getting eaten alive for any subsequent transgression or deviation, whether it’s intended or warranted or not. Ben and Jerry’s offers one recent such example, though the implosion of progressive spaces more generally is well documented.
The better option, to me, seems to be to focus on creating new, quality content rather than constantly chasing progressive bona fides or seeking relevancy by swapping the identity characteristics of time-honored and beloved characters. Diversity and representation are worthwhile goals, but if it comes off as inorganic, it’s unlikely to work for viewers—or for companies—for very long.
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