On Sunday, the BBC announced that Jodie Whittaker would be taking over as the 13th Doctor for the upcoming season of Doctor Who. After decades of male Doctors, and several seasons of a showrunner whose gender politics are less than kind to women, the change is long overdue. Ratings drooped under Steven Moffat’s reign and the imagination doesn’t have to stretch far to connect the dots–female sci-fi fans expect better, and it looks like we’re finally getting it.
Not everyone is so pleased by the change, however. As the average misogynist took to twitter to complain about how they “they don’t call it Nurse Who for a reason,” several British publications bizarrely voiced their opinion by way of digging up screenshots of nude scenes Whittaker had done in previous work. The Sun, among a few other British magazines such as Mail Online and The Daily Star, published nude screenshots of Whittaker under all variety of disturbing headlines–Whittaker’s “saucy screen past” and her “Dalektable” figure were put under a microscope mere moments after her accomplishment was praised by previous actors who played the role.
I shouldn’t have to make the point that this would never happen to male actors–the proof is in the literal pudding, as we have had four men who previously played the Doctor in the New Who resurgence and none of them had naked images pulled to the forefront of the conversation when they were cast. A double standard like this comes at the intersection of a multitude of societal factors, most notably the fact that women’s bodies are on constant display for consumption, and women actors are expected, infinitely more than their male coworkers, to retain an almost inhuman level of beauty and sexual attractiveness for a presumed male audience. Then that presumed male audience usually feels entitled to oggle. So the showrunners ensure there’s a sex object for this audience they created. (I think in the show they call this a “self-perpetuating time-loop”.)
Objectification itself refers to the debasement of a person to the status of an object, to be used (looked at) for pleasure by the viewer. It’s no secret that this happens to women disproportionately. But beyond a simple double standard, publishing naked photos of singular women has always been explicitly tied to an uncoordinated effort by patriarchal forces to subjugate women writ large. It’s objectification in the form of sexual violence, and it’s about power. Using nude screenshots serves to undermine the accomplishment of Whittaker, and it exists within the context of our misogynistic society as much as any other non-consensual publishing of photos does.
Whittaker isn’t the only woman who has had her nude image used without her consultation. Earlier in July, Rob Kardashian published nude photos of his former fiance and mother to his child Blac Chyna. Blac Chyna reportedly sent the photos while the two were in an intimate relationship, and did not anticipate or want them to be spread. A conversation about “revenge porn”–the act of publishing intimate photos as an act of vengeance against the subject–has surfaced around this discussion.
Like most forms of online harassment, revenge porn has an undeniably gendered split, with men numbering overwhelmingly as perpetrators: 90% of revenge porn cases involve male perpetrators and female victims.
You might also remember when Jennifer Lawrence and many other female celebrities had their photos hacked and leaked a few years ago. Almost all were female. No surprises there.
Photos like these get spread around because the subject matter is highly taboo. Getting a sneak peak into the private lives of celebrities has always been salacious, and uncovering a famous woman’s sexuality doubles that feeling.
But this kind of behavior goes beyond celebrity gossip, and has real roots in a culture that allows and excuses violence against women. As the ultimate example of the war raged against women online, GamerGate illustrates the acute way sexual violence is lodged at women who step out of line in more creative and disturbing ways than just revenge porn or leaked pictures. In 2014, dozens of women were driven off the internet with a combination of death threats and the promise of imminent sexual violence. In her now-famous Ted Talk, Anita Sarkeesian discusses the exact kinds of threats online harassers hit her with after she dared to critique video games’ treatment of female characters: violent rape threats, hand-drawn pictures or photoshopped images of her being violated by video game characters, and online games people could play to enact violence on her likeness flooded her inbox. Even her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornography.
They had no real images of Sarkeesian to work with, and yet the actors behind GamerGate enacted violence against Sarkeesian through sexual intimidation anyway.
So what about the publishing of photos that aren’t private or fabricated with the intent to harass? Pulling naked stills from Whittaker’s past roles doesn’t really relate to revenge porn or GamerGate, does it?
In some ways, no, it doesn’t relate. Those were paid gigs that she acted for and consented to, and they weren’t meant for an intimate partner. Certainly in the moment of filming they weren’t meant to harass or subjugate Whittaker. The scenes appeared on television; they were always open to the public. Theoretically, anyone could find them.
But the initial conception of the scene isn’t what’s in question here. It’s the context in which the magazine found, screenshotted, and published nude stills at the moment the Doctor Who fandom faced an outpouring aggressive online misogyny. Whether the nude photos are real images taken out of their intended context or fabricated images used to induce fear, photographs of women’s naked bodies have been used as weapons against them for a long, long time. Some psychologists, who have studied the phenomena of sexual objectification, even believe this to be a catalyst for violence against women–as in, once you objectify her, your propensity for violence against her increases substantially.
The Sun published these screenshots right alongside articles about how the casting of a woman as the Doctor is transparently pathetic pandering to political correctness, clearly sending the message that Whittaker’s sexy screenshots were acceptable, but her role as one of the most prolific characters in TV history was not. No matter whether or not the episodes were technically available to anyone, the magazine’s article exists within a context where sexual objectification is treated as both a value for women to aspire to and also a weapon used against us. It’s barely a stone’s-throw away from GamerGate red-pill politics: Women have a place, and it’s not here.
When I started watching Doctor Who, I was about fifteen. I began in the Tumblr fandom, because it was the safest place I could stretch my nerd-girl wings and fly–but there was always another boy who assured me he knew the show better, loved the show more, had more of a stake in the characters. Still, like all other fans, I fell in love with the mixture of emotional complexity and exciting adventure offered by Doctor Who. My friends and I held regular conversations in which we discussed who was “our” Doctor–a shorthand for which Doctor we thought captured the character’s essence the best, or which one we loved the most. I felt as bonded to the character as any other fan, whatever form he took in regeneration. But as time went on, it became clear that the show didn’t feel quite as bonded to me. I remember the disillusionment that came after the casting of Matt Smith, and subsequently the casting of Peter Capaldi, and how my little online community of super fans grew tired of being told again and again that our faces and bodies could never appear as that of the most wonderful being in the universe. Eventually, we just stopped watching. Our Doctor was never going to materialize.
But this casting–no matter how many frivolous articles try to reorient the conversation around the Doctor’s sex appeal and ignore the her power–is an invitation back in. Moffat is gone. A female Doctor is here. The attempts to objectify Whittaker in light of this casting have a long history in the way women are devalued through sexually explicit content, but it doesn’t change the fact that her presence on the show will tell little girls watching–and some formerly-disillusioned women like me jumping back into fandom for one last hurrah–that we do belong. No amount of objectification can take our Doctor away from us now.