So you may have seen the headline that swept the Doctor Who fandom last week. No, not that one--the one concerning Matt Smith, that is. The other one. It was carried by a large number of major news outlets, as well as all the sci-fi, geeky, and television websites that usually report on the show. In fact, if the BBC hadn’t chosen this weekend to reveal Matt Smith’s decision, maybe this would have been the biggest headline in Who (though on second thought, maybe that’s exactly why they chose this time. Get rid of the negative press).
The headline being some variation on the following: “Doctor Who is not racist.”
It’s quite a good headline, in the sense that it catches your attention and it makes you click. But it also completely misses the point. The point being, of course, that it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that this show in fact really is. But let’s back up and take this from the beginning.
The impetus for this claim is a book that’s due to be published next month, called Doctor Who and Race. It’s a collection of essays edited by Lindy Orthia, on all kinds of aspects of race in the long-running sci-fi show. You can read all about the latest hype on it here, as well as read bios of the contributors, and abstracts of all the articles.
Personally, I think it looks fascinating. There’s been online commentary on the way that the show treats race for years, and I think it’s about time the topic had its own anthology. As well as treating some of the more obvious issues like casting of the Doctor (always a white male) and his companions (only two individuals of color, both of whom have had their identity minimized), the essays also discuss race as an allegory, the show as a product “of its time,” its portrayals of colonialism and slavery, and its dealings with alien races.
But here’s the thing. The book isn’t even out yet--not until sometime in July. I’d guess that a grand total of ten people have read it, if that. So all these articles? Well, they’re just rumors gone viral, nearly all badly rewritten versions of one another. And nearly all of them quote, completely out of context, a passage that calls the show “thunderingly racist.”
And as a result, the BBC felt the need to issue this statement:
Doctor Who has a strong track record of diverse casting among both regular and guest cast. Freema Agyeman became the first black companion and Noel Clarke starred in a major role for five years. Reflecting the diversity of the UK is a duty of the BBC, and casting on Doctor Who is color-blind. It is always about the best actors for the roles.
Newsflash: to claim that your company (or show, or organization, or individual) is color-blind means that you are so privileged you aren’t even aware of it. To claim that you always pick “the best actors for the roles” (or the best person for the job) indicates that you don’t even think that an actor of color would be suitable for those roles. And to point out that in the 8 years since the rebooted show came on the air (not to mention the previous 48 years), there have been two actors of color is equivalent to saying “some of my friends are black!”
It is, in short, a completely unacceptable response. The BBC did not stop to listen, or think. Its executives, or content writers, or media liaisons did not pause (at least not long enough) to consider their response. They rebounded right away, going on the defense. Denying everything. Trying to point out how well they are doing at representation and diversity. Using the words “color-blind,” the traditional euphemism for “we don’t have to think about people of color now.” And in the process, they made a pretty big mess.
What they should have done was say yes--maybe we are racist. Maybe we have pretty poor representation of diversity on our show. Maybe we could work on that. And then go forth and do so.
What they forgot was who was posing these concerns. Fans. People who have watched the show for decades, who gush about it to their friends and co-workers, who love it down to its core, are the ones who are criticizing it. That quote about the show being “thunderingly racist”? Well, the surrounding essay was actually discussing the problems of fans who love the show so deeply, and yet are simultaneously disappointed and disgusted by the way it has dealt with race. That’s a bit ironic.
Just because I criticize something does not mean that I don’t love it. On the contrary, if I take the time to study it, to think about its problems, and to write on it, that means that I love it all the more. And that I believe that it has the capacity to be improved.
So BBC, please get off your high horse for a second. Halt those spokespeople for a few days. Quit thinking of your reputation. Instead, please take some time to listen. These issues are important. They deserve to be written about, and deserve to be heard. And do yourself a favor--before you criticize a book, wait until you’ve actually read it first.
Are you planning on reading Doctor Who and Race when it is released? How do you think the BBC should have dealt with this press? Tell me in the comments!