In July, the world of geekdom had a communal pink fit over the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first-ever female lead on Doctor Who. The usual forces were blamed: quotas, the loony left and the ever-present political correctness GONE MAD (not my caps).
Not every Doctor Who fan threatened to take their toy sonic screwdriver and go home, but there did seem to be a lot of outrage surrounding how illogical this gender switch was – about a show where the lead character travels in time and lives forever.
This week’s announcement that Whittaker’s female doctor would have two male companions (and a female companion as well) seemed to generate a lot less rage. The BBC said Bradley Walsh will play Graham, Tosin Cole will play Ryan and Mandip Gill is to star as Yasmin in the upcoming series.
The casting of male companions is not radical since the doctor has had a variety of fellow travellers, male and female, earthlings and aliens over the years, but the casting of Walsh and Cole does provide a TV rarity: a pop-culture role model where a male plays the supporting role to a female in charge.
As a dad of two young boys, I am not worried about female actors stepping into the roles of men. My sons can always cast an eye back on the past 50 years of television if they are ever feeling a wee bit emasculated. What does worry me is the lazy men-in-charge model might come to seem the norm to my kids, so this latest development is a win.
My eldest son is a Doctor Who fan who took his hero’s gender switch in his stride, but when asked to name a man on TV who plays second banana to a woman, he struggled. He decided on “something in space with uniforms”, which I eventually deciphered as him watching Star Trek: Voyager with me … once.
And he’s right, the dynamic of Captain Kathryn Janeway and her 2IC Commander Chakotay is a strong and believable combo from a series that always tried to push racial and gender barriers on the airwaves. The two are a real team, where gender is irrelevant save for a hinted-at (and totally unnecessary) romance in later seasons.
Trying a bit harder, I came up with a pair of Olivias: Captain Olivia Benson on Law&Order: SVU and Olivia Pope in Scandal – but it was slim pickings.
All too often when the female boss does occur it falls into the “bitch boss” trope where an angry, childless ball-breaker is on a mission to crush the hopes and dreams of all her employees because she secretly feels she is not good enough (remember the no kids thing?).
Think Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty – and you could throw in Cersei Lannister for good measure.
There have been plenty of horrible male bosses, too, but due to the silver screen ubiquity of a man running the show you do get the opportunity for more nuances in a number of these roles.
I do not want my kids to grow up thinking that a relationship with a female boss needs to be problematic, that a woman in charge is someone our hero must overcome to succeed, or romance into submission.
I would like them to see female bosses as the norm, not the exception; and while most of that is on me and my wife and how we raise our kids, having a few positive role models in the TV shows that we watch is not going to hurt.
For all the froth of the keyboard warriors concerned about their heroes losing their penises, female bosses are still a rarity, male subordinates even more so.
And to paraphrase Macklemore from Same Love: one time-travelling female boss with a man posse isn’t gonna solve it all – but it’s a damn good place to start.
Paul Chai is a freelance journalist.