This past weekend, I got into two apparently unrelated conversations with online acquaintances that at their basis amount to the same thing.
The first revolved around the one and only television series I am at all dedicated to, which is Doctor Who. I've been a near-fanatical Whovian since my wife persuaded me a few years ago to watch a selection of iconic episodes like "Blink," "Silence in the Library," "Turn Left," and "Empty Child," resulting in my being hooked for life. The conversation I got into, which honestly crossed the line into a heated argument, had to do with the choice three years ago of Jodie Whittaker for the Thirteenth Doctor, replacing Peter Capaldi (and a string of eleven other white males stretching back to the series's beginnings in 1963).
The topic came up because of rumors (thus far unsubstantiated, as far as I've seen) that Jodie Whittaker may be leaving the show at the end of this season. I mentioned how disappointed I'd be if this was true, and how much I liked her portrayal of the character -- that she'd be in my top three Doctors ever -- and this brought up the same "the Doctor is male" nonsense I first saw popping up all over the place when she was chosen.
The choice of a woman, this fellow said, was "virtue signaling." So, actually, was the choice of an American-born Black actor (Tosin Cole) to play one of the Doctor's current companions, Ryan Sinclair, and British people of Indian descent both for another companion, Yasmin Khan (played by Mandip Gill) and also the most recent regeneration of the Doctor's arch-enemy, the Master (played with brilliantly insane glee by Sacha Dhawan). The whole thing, said the man I was talking to, amounted to the writers of Doctor Who saying "Look at us, how enlightened we are, having a bunch of people of different races in prominent roles."
My response was that Doctor Who has long been on the cutting edge of representing people of all configurations -- three early examples being in 2005 the character of Captain Jack Harkness giving new meaning to the word "pansexual," two years later the Tenth Doctor pairing up with Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyewan) as companion, and a bit after that, the fantastically badass couple Vastra and Jenny, not only a lesbian romance but an interspecies one.
Nope, he said. That was virtue signaling too.
At that point I told him I thought all he was doing was making excuses for maintaining the illusion of a straight white male hegemony despite the fact that it doesn't accurately reflect the reality of who is actually out there, and he told me to "fuck off with my leftist agenda" and the conversation ended.
The other, marginally less frustrating conversation centered around my novel released a year ago, Whistling in the Dark. I was asked a question about Dr. Will Daigle, one of the main characters both in this book and in its sequel Fear No Colors (scheduled for release in March). The reader said she liked the character just fine, but why did I "choose to make him gay?" It had nothing particular to do with the plot, she said; nothing he does in the book couldn't equally well be done by a heterosexual person. Then she asked the question that made me realize immediately the parallel with my earlier discussion with the disgruntled Doctor Who fan: "Did you feel like you had to include a gay character to be politically correct?"
Whenever I'm asked about why I wrote a character a particular way, my usual reaction is to say, "I didn't make the character that way. The characters come to me the way they are, and I just write it down." But I realized that the reader's question went way deeper than that, that she wasn't asking me why I gave the character of Aaron Vincent green eyes or the character of Rose Dawson long gray hair she wore in a braid. She was asking me about inclusion and representation, not just how I visualize characters.
So I said to her, "Okay, tell me some reasons why Dr. Will shouldn't be queer." And she sputtered around a bit and said, "Well, I didn't mean that, of course." But having already had my blood pressure spiked by a bigot earlier that day, I decided I'd made my point and withdrew from battle.
I found the whole thing profoundly frustrating, both because of the self-righteousness of the people I was talking to (especially the first one), and because they were seemingly blind to two things. First, representing diversity isn't just "nice;" it's reality. As far as the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, I'm reminded of the wonderful quote from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "When I'm sometimes asked, 'When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?' and I say 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."
Second, representation is important. How many of us have looked up to characters from fiction, especially ones we found as children, and formed our attitudes of what is right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable, based upon their actions? Being a white guy I can't speak to the racial and sexist aspects of this, and wouldn't presume to claim a visceral understanding of those perspectives; but as someone who is queer and who hid it (literally) for decades, I can say with some assurance what a difference it would have made to me if there had been positive LGBTQ role models in the books, television, and movies I'd been exposed to when I was a teenager. Honestly, the only LGBTQ character I can remember from those days is the character of Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) from the brilliant sitcom Soap, but those of you who recall the show will probably remember that Jodie's homosexuality was almost always played off as a joke -- it never came up in any other context than generating a laugh.
Hardly something that would establish queer identity as normal and positive in the eyes of a bisexual fifteen-year-old boy growing up in a conservative, religious culture.
Myself, I've had just about enough of the phrases "politically correct" and "virtue signaling." In what context is it wrong to avoid being offensive, to include people of all races, ethnic origins, religions (and lack thereof), and sexual orientations? To create fictional characters who represent the length and breadth of diversity that actually exist in the world? To break stereotypes like "white men have to be in charge" and "queer people should stay hidden"?
If you want to ask why when the time comes the Fourteenth Doctor should be played as (for example) a Black lesbian woman, you better be prepared to answer the question of why the character shouldn't be.
Anyhow, those are some early-morning thoughts about representation and inclusion. I wish I'd thought to say all this to the people I was arguing with, but I tend not to be a very fast thinker (thus would make a lousy debater). It took me a couple of days to let it all stew, and I decided instead to write about it here.
But maybe I'll send a link to this post to my two adversaries, if later on I'm feeling like kicking a hornets' nest.
What are you afraid of?
It's a question that resonates with a lot of us. I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them. (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.) We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.
In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears. It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]