Do even anti-segregation films have no roles for women?

Whether it is done as intentionally as in <em>Elysium</em> or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world.

Elysium is excellent. As with District Nine, director Neill Blomkamp takes social inequality and shows it to be ridiculous and indefensible, while still letting you enjoy watching sci-fi. In doing so he may make as much difference as anyone striving for social change. Suddenly directors are members of the front line, part of the people that change the world. Just one question then, isn’t it ironic that a film about segregation contains only one fully-rounded female character, and even that role was originally written as male?

When I left the cinema my first thought was not “why aren’t there more well-written women?” It was how much I wish that I had written it. Yes, it’s a similar topic to his first film, yes, it’s also made from a short and that shows, but the impact of the agenda is undeniable. If he never works again, Blomkamp can retire knowing that influenced how people think about the way we live. Andrew Ellard, writer and script-editor, has written Tweetnotes on Elysium, as he does on many films (@ellardent). I knew he was critical of this one, and was looking forward to arguing, but he makes good points on the lack of depth to the world, characters, and plot, and the bolt-on nature of the love-interest heroine, Frey, and he is right. The film could have greatly benefited from his insight at a rather earlier stage than this. I still wish that I had written it. Why did it take Ellard to tell me that the character of Frey was not fully-integrated or even fully-formed? I didn’t just fail to object, I didn’t notice, and I’m a girl. I watched a film in which the second female character is a two-dimensional plot device and I just didn’t notice. I’ve seen this done so many times that I have clearly developed some dedicated neural pathways for just waving it through.

Blomkamp set out to write a film with “at least one central female character”, not an overly revolutionary aspiration in a film about equality. Elysium has a central unromanticised female character, but one that was only switched to female when “it suddenly occurred to him the character could be a woman”. Like the heroines of Salt and Flightplan, this role is strong partly because it was written to be a character before it was rewritten to be female. I don’t know why he needed to spot a character that he could gender-switch, rather than writing a decent female one from the start, and I don’t know why he felt that other characters could not be switched. I am aware that Blomkamp has taken on a role where you can never be good enough: fight normative values, and your film will always still be too normative. Even if it doesn’t contain only wealthy, white men, even when it critiques that very gated community, a film cannot avoid reflecting the wealthy, white male perspective that usually funds, supplies and distributes it. This is a film that sets out to teach an anti-segregation message and still failed the Bechdel test, which checks that at least two women in a film talk to each other about anything other than a man. We’re used to seeing films with only token female characters, and tests like the Bechdel help alert us to what we’ve stopped noticing, if not when we stopped noticing them.

It’s been a long time since comedian Richard Pryor balked at the all-white casts of films like Logan’s Run, musing that the future setting implied that “White folks ain’t planning for us to be here”. He did it so acutely and so wittily that he got people to listen. He didn’t single-handedly create a perfect and equal world, but he did start a gradual change in perceptions that got people to realise what they were acclimatised to. A similar creeping shift is gathering around Game of Thrones’ exceptional lead Peter Dinklage. It is hard for an actor who is four foot five to be remembered for his brilliant way with dialogue, but then it is hard for an actor who has to compete for screen time with zombies and dragons to be remembered at all. Dinklage’s dwarfism has nothing to do with his perfect acting, but it does dictate that the role he plays must be appropriate to his size. In the glamorous world of the on-screen, unusual physiques are disproportionately under-represented, yet Dinklage does not play a token role focussed on his stature or enabling the remaining cast. He portrays a complex and multi-faceted part, flawed, three-dimensional, award-winning, and now carrying top billing. Versions of the limited-range excuse have been used by many writers seemingly incapable of including fully-formed female characters, because women can only play women, and apparently these writers can only envisage men. Perhaps it is time to change what we envisage. We don’t need more strong representative characters, we need more characters who happen to be representative and happen to be strong. Characters who are casually short-statured, or female, or black, or transgendered, and also interesting, because of their personalities, motivations and conflicts, or anything that actually matters.

Whether it is done as intentionally as in Elysium or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world, that shapes the way we think, that reinforces and ideally challenges our values. If I’m shown a world with one central woman in it, I should notice. I should be surprised. I should not be impressed, I should be disappointed. As Pryor said, perhaps it is time we got on with making our own movies. Then we’d be in them.

A still from Neill Blomkamp's new film Elysium.
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who tells the rest of the world about Britain

If any silly kids’ show can say something about the country's changing view of itself, it’s this one. 

Over the past 54 years, the hero of the TV series Doctor Who has been to the end of the universe, where the stars are going out and civilisation is all but dead. He has seen the Earth die in a ball of flame, and he has been propositioned by Kylie Minogue while standing on the deck of a starship called Titanic.

But next year, he will go somewhere he has never been before: the ladies loo. This Christmas, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor will die and regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, a 35-year-old whose most high-profile role to date was as the mother of a murdered child in the ITV crime drama Broadchurch.

On Sunday 16 July, both social media and the old-fashioned kind were flooded with discussion about the Doctor’s new gender. Inevitably many non-fans were also abroad, demanding to know why anyone should care about the casting in a silly kids’ show. The obvious answer is that, after half a century, this show means a great deal to some of us. But there’s a more practical reason why the decision matters, too: Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most valuable brands.

The original version of the show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, may have been known for its wobbly sets and aliens made of painted bubble wrap. Since Russell T Davies brought the programme back in 2005, however, it has picked up a global following. In the past few years, it has finally broken America; in 2014, the cast and crew went on a publicity tour, including stops in Australia, South Korea and Brazil. In Mexico, the show is broadcast under the frankly superior name of Doctor Mysterio. All this means that Doctor Who is an opportunity to present a view of Britishness that isn’t based on imperial history, or class politics, or cricket, or cake.

Because of the flexibility of the programme’s format, if any silly kids’ show can say something about Britain’s changing view of itself, it’s this one. And what it has just said is that it’s time men stopped dominating everything.

Regeneration – the process by which one Doctor dies and the next is born, enabling the show to recast its lead – seems so baked into the Doctor Who formula now that it’s strange to think that it wasn’t there all along. Yet, for his three years in the role, William Hartnell was never the first Doctor: he was simply the Doctor.

Hartnell played the character as irascible, patrician and grandfatherly (literally, in the case of his first companion, Susan). He was also imbued with a certain imperial self-confidence. In one early episode, he hit a Frenchman round the head with a spade.

In 1966, however, a new producer decided to recast the role. The standard narrative is that Hartnell was too ill to continue; more likely, since he was both expensive and difficult to work with, he was pushed out. The replacement, Patrick Troughton, made no attempt to impersonate Hartnell. Instead, he played the Doctor as an entirely new man, less grumpy and more funny.

Over the following decades, each new Doctor added something to the character. Jon Pertwee brought action, Tom Baker bohemian silliness, Peter Davison youth. Colin Baker brought a hint of menace and almost got the show cancelled. Sylvester McCoy brought a sense of mystery. In the half-American-funded 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann became the first Doctor – and this seemed quaintly shocking at the time – to kiss a girl.

Most of these men were either great character actors (Hartnell, Troughton, Davison) or flamboyant showmen (Pertwee, Tom Baker). While the show was off the air, though, stories speculating about its return generally attached names from the latter category, such as – and here are two men you rarely find mentioned together – Alan Davies or David Hasselhoff.

It was a statement of intent, then, when Russell T Davies cast Christopher Eccleston as his Time Lord: the show may seem silly but we’re taking it seriously. Since then, playing the Doctor catapulted both David Tennant and Matt Smith to fame and work in Hollywood. In 2013, when we met a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, it wasn’t a guest turn for a comedian but the last major role for the late John Hurt.

So what does the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor say? For one thing, it marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation, capable of comedy and tragedy and delivering convincing technobabble, often in a single line. Perhaps it also suggests that the new lead writer, Chris Chibnall, feels under pressure to shake things up a bit.

But it also says something about how our heroes should look. The box-office and critical success of Wonder Woman has highlighted both the huge appetite for female leads and the shocking lack of them. As a result of Whittaker’s casting, for the first time in Doctor Who, a woman will play the lead, not just his (or her!) companion.

Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

0800 7318496