In other news, why is this news?
In the past month or so, we’ve heard about Power Rangers’ Trini the Yellow Ranger, the “first queer big screen superhero”, and Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment” (verdict is still out on what that even means) in the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake. Last week Doctor Who joined the party by announcing that the Twelfth Doctor’s latest companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), is openly gay – a first for the series.
The new season of Doctor Who, which will premiere on April 15, will be the tenth since the show was revived in 2005 under head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies and the thirty-sixth season overall. This season will notably be the last for current showrunner Steven Moffat.
Unlike Disney or the Power Rangers franchise, Doctor Who (especially since its 2005 revival) has a history of LGBTQ representation, including pansexual companion Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who travelled with the ninth and tenth incarnations of the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, respectively). Harkness appeared in 12 episodes between 2005 and 2010, and also starred in the spinoff series Torchwood, which ran from 2006 to 2011.
Of course, an openly gay central character in a television show like Doctor Who’s Bill Potts is different from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movie moments. This is true regardless of whether or not said moment involves a central protagonist (in addition to Power Rangers, last year’s Star Trek Beyond’s revelation of Hikaru Sulu as a family man with a male partner merits a mention) or a secondary antagonist, as is the case with Beauty and the Beast. However, this distinction is also worth mentioning because Disney introducing their first gay character (in 2017) – who happens to be the villain’s sidekick and is literally named “the fool” – is comparable to showing up to a party unfashionably late and bringing a pathetic gift to boot.
However, one thing all of these recent announcements have in common is that they were announcements, which begs the question – why?
More inclusive representation – whether that be related to gender, sexuality, race, religion, age, or anything else – is not just a matter of being the right thing to do, it’s in service of good storytelling. When you work with a wider array of characters you can build more new and interesting stories. But this trend of “announcements” is starting to make the representation featured therein seem less like something done in service of good storytelling, presenting more accurate reflections of audience demographics, or any other similarly noble cause, and more and more like a marketing ploy.
There’s an old writing mantra: “show, don’t tell.” Instead of showing us inclusivity, there seems to be a growing trend of telling audiences in advance about inclusivity, like some strange new version of a content warning – because, indeed, for certain sorts of prejudiced people who might have otherwise watched the program in question, that is the purpose such announcements serve. Ultimately, these would-be viewers are actually the only ones who “benefit” from these announcements: unlike audiences uniquely put off by LGBTQ representation, those who would be specifically attracted by it would be just as likely to be intrigued, if the content was allowed to speak for itself, by reaction pieces and general social media buzz generated afterward. This sort of publicity would be equally capable of inspiring viewership because movies play in theaters for several weeks, and how often do people even watch TV live anymore anyway?
These announcements provide slightly more instantaneous gratification, but they build up hype instead of meaningful discourse – there isn’t enough information available for meaningful discussion because the material in question hasn’t actually been released yet. This in turn has the potential, as we saw recently with Beauty and the Beast, to build a controversy over something that could turn out to actually be more or less nothing. Would the offended parties, after all, have even noticed that “gay moment” in Disney’s latest if they hadn’t been sent looking for it with a magnifying glass? However, as Beauty and the Beast and the latest Fox News ratings show, controversy can sometimes serve to boost viewership stats instead of reduce them. Bill Potts might be a world away from LeFou, but the announcements proceeding Beauty and the Beast’s and Doctor Who’s releases are equally pointless.
Doctor Who actress Pearl Mackie says of Potts that, “[Being gay] is not the main thing that defines her,” and that might full well be true once we actually meet her. But we won’t get to meet her for nearly two weeks. Until then, she has gone from the Doctor’s new companion to the Doctor’s first openly gay companion. Her sexuality has indeed come first because it is literally one of the first solid facts we know about her. Until April 15, at least, her sexuality will be her defining characteristic, and that’s a shame. The BBC article claims that Potts’ sexuality would have been “revealed pretty much straightaway in her second line of dialogue” – so why not just let the dialogue do its job?
When it comes to increased representation, sometimes it’s all right to let things be a pleasant surprise. Goodness knows we could use more of those in the world.