The Appropriate Appropriation of Doctor Who
June 28, 2022
In 2021, former and future Doctor Who showrunner, Russell T. Davies stated that only gay actors and actresses should play gay roles in TV and films. His justification? "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up."
Now I don't want to make this entirely about Davies, whose commitment to reviving Doctor Who I greatly admire, because this issue isn't about any one person and goes to the heart of the zeitgeist. Critics on the right side of our increasingly outdated political divide now call these kinds of attitudes 'woke', and are flatly resistant to them - often for bad, kneejerk reasons, sometimes (although the left refuse to admit it) for well-considered, principled reasons. The question of principle is, at heart, the important one here. What principle is Davies and the many others who object to 'cultural appropriation' and its kin trying to act upon here?
I must confess I do not find it clear.
If we were to construct a maxim from Davies' formulation, the obvious choice might be 'do not cast someone in a role that does not match the performer's identity characteristics'. But this formula is nonsense. When casting Nazi characters, must we cast Nazis? Are schizophrenics required to play schizophrenics? Can only a genius painter play Van Gogh? Likewise, if gay performers must play gay characters, does that mean straight performers must play straight characters...? The entire principle of the acting profession is to take on roles that are different from who you are in life. So isn't the key question of casting 'can this person deliver a engaging performance in this role?' not 'do the background circumstances of this character match the circumstances of this performer'? Have we forgotten than acting is entirely a game about consensual deception...?
In terms of Davies analogy with blackface, while it certainly is the case that this practice is now judged utterly scandalous (although Justin Trudeau seems to have weathered this faux pas surprisingly well), it's not always clear which point of offense is supposed to be in play here. Is it meant to be a kind of 'inappropriate appropriation' - i.e. non-black people should not pretend to be black people nor borrow their cultural heritage - or is it that black characters require black performers? Because if so, does this also mean that white roles must only be played by white performers...?
To my knowledge there was no major political firestorm about casting the excellent Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes, who in the original book of Dune has "long sandy hair", is tall and thin, possesses "a sparse beard" and has "fathomless blue eyes under heavy brows". It's absolutely certain that this character is male in the book, and most plausible to assume he is light-skinned. So was this an example of, shall we say, 'appropriate appropriation'? Or is this just a creative casting of a talented actress in a role that the latitude of adaptation leaves open the possibility of a different gender and ethnicity? But if this was not an instance of 'inappropriate appropriation', we ought to ask: why not?
The answer seems to be that the inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation are not underwritten by a positive moral value at all, as clearly indicated by the fact that 'appropriation' is an accusation. What we are dealing with here is a kind of cultural reparations by the backdoor, which is to say, white guilt and its myriad middle class cousins. Because straight, white, males are taken to have had the most power in the past, you can never be considered to have appropriated 'straight', 'white', or 'male' culture. Recasting these identity traits is always fair game. But 'gay' roles must go to gay acting talent, 'black' characters to black performers... in other words, minorities are to be granted privileges that majorities are excluded from. This is what is now sometimes called 'equity', but a more honest name for it might be 'partisan inequality'.
This entire situation is a complete mess. White ethnicities only make up 10% of the humans on this planet - they're not a majority at all. Rather, white people are seen as privileged because European colonial empires (which the United States is now very sadly perpetuating) gathered so much global power. Nowadays, the identity characteristics associated with the most powerful citizens of these historical empires (straight, white, male, and let's not forget Christian) are to be excluded in the name of what amounts to ad hoc reparations. And on this line, I must point out that since it is the former colonial nations where gay people have finally and thankfully won acceptance, those representing gay identities are guaranteed to be beneficiaries of significant degrees of structural privilege as well. It's just not something we notice because we only really pay attention to our shared culture (the colonial culture whose centre of gravity now lies with the United States). We perpetually and wilfully ignore what's going on in Africa, Oceania, the majority of Asia, South America and so on and so forth.
I don't want to harp on Davies too much here... I actually think it was fabulous that his show, It's a Sin, used gay performers for its key roles. But I don't for one second think that a straight actor or actress can't play a gay role, nor that a character written as one ethnicity can't be played as another - the Royal Shakespeare Company has repeatedly demonstrated the tremendous breadth of artistry that can be drawn out by experimenting with casting choices. Yet whenever I try to sympathise with Davies' view that the casting policy he adopted ought to be everyone's moral principle, I have to ask myself the same awkward question: why is a white man being brought in to follow on from the two previous white men, who followed on from the same white man who is being brought back? If we are trying to adopt cultural values that embed some bizarre concept of reparations, why are the relevant positions of power still tending to end up in the hands of white men (even allowing that we might have managed some movement on the 'straight'). Whatever might be happening with the casting of the Doctor, the actual power over this franchise is undeniably still being passed around between white men.
Here's the truth of the situation. Davies is being brought back because the role of showrunner on Doctor Who has become a near impossible job, and there's literally nobody else in a plausible position to take it on. This is a desperation move on the part of the BBC, a kind of metaphorical parachute. I'm sure the BBC would put an ethnic minority in charge if they could, but there's no non-white, non-male showrunner willing and able to do so. Frankly, it wasn't until Chris Chibnall took over the reins that there were non-white writers working on the show. Chibnall opened up the writing pool, but still ended up writing most of the episodes himself, and as a result nobody has gained enough experience to have a hope of mastering the requirements of the top role. It is also relevant here that Doctor Who fandom borders on being a cult, and the membership of this particular congregation is vastly white, male, and English-speaking, myself included.
The absence of anyone who wasn't white and male that could be trusted to take over the most difficult franchise job in global television reflects the structural privileges that allowed Davies to get the job in the first place (and in the political landscape of the BBC of 2005, I can assure you that Davis' being gay was most definitely a selling point, not a liability). The truth is, sadly, Davies might pragmatically be the only person in a position to take over this perilous job right now - and that reflects the very same ethical issue that Davies is attempting to address with his 'gay jobs for gay performers' maxim. We feel a powerful moral pull towards being open to cultural diversity, but we absolutely stink at it because no individual is culturally diverse. Diversity, by its very definition, is a quality of collectives, not of individuals, and no matter how many boxes an individual ticks, they still possess a singular cultural background - their own.
Now take care when we stray into this topic, because nonsense lies just a short distance from the path we want to walk upon. We don't want certain identity characteristics to afford economic and cultural advantages, even though they do. But neither do we apparently want to give up the economic and cultural advantages we in fact all possess to enormous and unprecedented degrees. Gay people, finally accepted after a rather rough millennia or two, are recipients of very similar degrees of structural privilege as straight people because our nations' histories as colonial powers has given us all vast degrees of inherited privilege, an issue to which we are largely blind. It is easy to look up and complain at what the 'haves' have got, but very difficult to look down and recognise that globally you are one of the haves.
When we, the privileged minority of our planet, let either guilt or bias govern our ethical principles concerning culture, gender, sexuality and so forth, we disrespect everyone. Any hiring policy that favours minorities invites the criticism that they were hired for something other than their talent, which fosters greater resentment between our cultural factions. I have no doubt the new performer taking on the role of the Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, will excel in the role - I can't wait to have a chance to discover his Doctor! But let's not pretend that the decision to cast a black actor wasn't political. This just happened to be a situation that middle class guilt will permit as appropriate appropriation.
Likewise, Jodie Whittaker has been a joy as the Doctor, despite all the grumblings this evoked in the corners of the fandom. Moving to a black male actor undoubtedly seemed like the logical succession from the previous appropriate appropriation of casting a woman. But I can't avoid looking at the Dalek in the room: does anyone seriously think that the franchise could have cast another white male as the next lead given the state of the culture wars...? We could quite reasonably ask when or if it will ever be considered permissible to put another white male in this role without it being considering some kind of inappropriate appropriation, despite the fact this is who the character was for half a century. As long as partisan inequality masquerading as equity governs our ethical thinking about society, we are not really addressing our social problems at all, we're simply moving air bubbles around under a sheet of plastic.
Here's a novel thought that's only a few hundred years old: how about we try to approach these issues from the idea that we are all, as humans, equally deserving of respect. This means we should endeavour to respect the differences and similarities of people who are black, brown, gay, trans, Muslim, Zoroastrian and every other quote-unquote minority you might care to mention. But we also have to respect white, straight, Christian, and yes, even unambiguously male people too. Then we don't need to wring our hands at Davies going back to running Doctor Who because, after all, who else at this point is both qualified and willing to take the poison chalice...? But at the same time, we might, if we can just get this right, ensure that the conditions for working on that venerable and wonderful show might come to allow writers, directors and producers from any and all cultural backgrounds a decent shot at getting enough experience working on high-budget television shows that we might, within our lifetimes, have a Doctor Who showrunner who can manage fewer than two out of three of straight, white, male.