Twelve men played Doctor Who before a woman – I think young boys will cope, Nick Fletcher

At a certain point, it all becomes white noise. One of the necessary side effects of having a sitting government that routinely traffics in mistruths, blunders and intolerance is that one tends to become inured to it all. It takes increasingly crass or stupid soundbites to cut through – though our elected representatives seem all too willing to oblige. Yesterday saw a particularly egregious case of ministerial pig-headedness, as Conservative MP for Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, used a debate about International Men’s Day to voice his gripes about prominent male roles being recast with women in recent iterations of Doctor Who, Ghostbusters and Star Wars.

“Everywhere, not least within the cultural sphere, there seems to be a call from a tiny, yet very vocal minority, that every male character or good role model must have a female replacement,” he told his fellow MPs. “One only needs to look at the discussion surrounding who will play the next James Bond. And it’s not just James Bond – in recent years we’ve seen Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker… all replaced by women.”

Lest you think there’s any sort of sexist undertones here, Fletcher was quick to assure you that his main concern was keeping young, porous-brained naïfs from turning to a life of villainy. Citing the Kray twins and Peaky Blinders gangster Tommy Shelby, he asked: “Is it any wonder we are seeing so many young men committing crime?”

Now then. Even leaving aside the ridiculous crux of his argument – that “cool” on-screen male criminality is turning our youth into violent criminals (as opposed to, say, underfunded social services, poverty, structural inequality and political disenfranchisement) – Fletcher could hardly have picked worse examples. The Ghostbusters argument was the kind of line you heard from internet trolls back in 2016, when the gender-switched reboot was released. It’s been literally a week since Ghostbusters: Afterlife came out, a film that served as a knee-jerk apology for the 2016 version, restoring the original male ’busters to their pedestal. Doctor Who may feature a female lead, but there were 12 men in the role before her – and, what’s more, she’s on her way out.

The Star Wars example may be the most head-scratching of the lot. Not only has Luke Skywalker emphatically not been replaced (he’s appeared in three films and a TV show since Disney revived the franchise in 2015), but the recent Star Wars sequels have been careful to afford a sizable chunk of their leading roles to men. Daisy Ridley may have been the shiny new Jedi, but John Boyega was right there too, as was Oscar Isaac. (The same goes for Doctor Who, which currently features John Bishop as Whittaker’s sidekick.)

One can only imagine the kind of intellectual tailspin that a film like Ocean’s 8 must have provoked in Fletcher. Yes, they’ve replaced the men with women. But they’re playing cool criminals! Did it actually serve to propel boys towards a life of stolid law abidance? Or drive a spike in heists carried out by young all-women gangs? At the end of the day, the (oft-disputed) matter of whether on-screen violence begets real-life violence is a completely separate issue to gendered casting on TV. It’s a sloppy conflation to make.

After his remarks were met with widespread mockery on social media, Fletcher attempted to clarify his comments on Twitter, dubiously claiming that he had “not linked Doctor Who being a female to crime being committed by men” as had been “alleged rather lazily by several individuals”. Maybe Fletcher has a more rigid definition of “linked” than most of us. If an MP positions two sentences next to each other in what appears to be unbroken rhetoric, are we to now assume that the first sentence may in fact be a decoy, an unrelated observation about Doctor Who thrown in for no reason that just happens to seem like it’s part of his argument?

Conservative MP Nick Fletcher seen in parliament yesterday (25 November)

(Parliament TV)

The harmful thing about Fletcher’s asinine reasoning was that it undermines the actual purpose of Men’s Day, and insidiously misdiagnoses the problems men really suffer from. Many of the problems facing men stem from the same issue that people of all genders face: a warped, artificial and deeply entrenched set of societal beliefs about what gender is and should mean. The issue isn’t that fictional women are depriving the culture of space for prominent male role models; it’s that boys, and men like Nick Fletcher, are conditioned to think that they are only allowed to find aspiration in masculinity. Positive depictions of masculinity are important to young men! But they’re also important to girls and non-binary youths, and positive non-masculine role models are, equally, important to everyone.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s some young boy out there who has lost faith in Doctor Who, who is bereft of a positive male idol. Flipping through the channels, he might find a BBC Parliament debate, chancing upon Nick Fletcher delivering a speech to mark International Men’s Day. Yes, he might think. Finally, an image of masculinity I can get behind. So he grows up and runs for office as a Tory politician. Maybe there are some fates from which our boys really do need saving.

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