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Why It Makes Sense that the New 'Doctor Who' Is a Woman

Jul 19, 2017
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BBCSMITH BRAIN TRUST – The BBC's "Doctor Who" series has long embraced the idea of change. It's been written into the script for years, with the timelord protagonist's biological ability for regeneration and new incarnations.

And now the series is preparing for what is perhaps its most striking transformation. For the first time in the British sci-fi series' 54-year history, the Doctor will be portrayed by a woman. Jodie Whittaker will become the 13th timelord, taking over for Peter Capaldi, who will leave the show in December.

For "Doctor Who," the decision to cast a female Doctor may be less about a general acceptance of women in leadership roles as it is "a calculated decision" aimed at gathering attention, breaking with outdated gender stereotypes and driving additional viewers, says Christine Beckman, professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"If you think about the box office success of 'Wonder Woman' and the visibility that came with the all-female cast of the 'Ghostbusters' remake, they show that women leads can drive audiences to the theater (or TV)," says Beckman, who is also the director of the Center of Social Value Creation (CSVC) at the Smith School and the Smith Diversity Officer.

Nonetheless, the decision was sure to draw criticism, Beckman says. 

The so-called internet trolls who were typing their disdain after the BBC's announcement this week are not unlike the ones who sought to tarnish the "Ghostbusters" remake with sexist vitriol. But the benefits, Beckman says, in terms of viewership and popular accolades will likely outweigh all that.

"The market power of women – they are an important audience – is being recognized," she says. "Understanding the typical viewer – and how to expand viewership – must be something they considered carefully in making this casting decision."

An estimated 50 percent of the series' ardent viewership is female, considerable for the sci-fi genre. And given that, perhaps, in the parlance of the series, it was about "timey-wimey."

"Pop culture," she says, "may be a leading not a following indicator here. The corporate world has been slow to change."

The progress in senior corporate executive roles remains slow, suggesting that had the series been "CEO Who," rather than "Doctor Who," the casting might have been more likely to continue to be male. Research finds that most people still reflexively perceive scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs as male. 

Women are increasingly better represented in significant science-related professional roles, says Waverly Ding, associate professor of management and organization at the Smith School. "On the science front, the picture is brighter," says Ding. "Particularly in biosciences, the percentages of women obtaining doctoral degrees has been improving over time."

"In terms of how receptive people would be about reversing the old stereotype and having a super-woman-intellectual, I'm optimistic," says Ding, who has studied the gender gap among academic scientists who are asked to join corporate scientific advisory boards. "I think people are more receptive these days."

At times, pop culture has been accused of reinforcing those old gender associations, though over time there have been improvements. Think Olivia Pope in "Scandal," Carrie Mathison in "Homeland," or Rey in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

In the early episodes of the popular TV sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," the scientist lead characters were all male, and the primary female character was a pretty blonde waitress who aspired to be an actress. The gender-stereotypical casting drew criticism, and in later seasons, female scientist characters were added to the main cast.

The protagonist of the long-running "Doctor Who" series always was genderless – a 1,000-year-old time-traveling alien with a changing appearance and a blue time machine that's also a surprisingly spacious-on-the-inside spacecraft, the TARDIS. 

But the Doctor has always incarnated as a white man, and that drew growing criticism about the series' lack of diversity. Women on the series have always tended to be sexy assistants to the Doctor.

The series producers chose a serious actress for the role, "a star on the rise" in Jodie Whittaker, says Henry C. Boyd III, clinical professor of marketing at the Smith School. And he says that sends a signal that the new Doctor incarnation will be as substantive as any that preceded it.

Whittaker, who has portrayed Beth Latimer on the acclaimed British series "Broadchurch," has also had turns on "Black Mirror," which Boyd describes as "a pretty cool show – like the Twilight Zone on steroids." 

"It's a really interesting sci-fi, with a little bit of drama, and some black comedy in there. But it's one of these shows that a lot of people find mesmerizing," says Boyd. "And a lot of young people are drawn to it because you have these unusual storylines, and because it's very well-written and can be thought-provoking."

And that's much of what makes "Doctor Who" work. "It's about sci-fi, it's about drama and it's about having actors who can deliver," says Boyd. "It totally makes sense why they would choose her for the role."

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.