Girls need superheroes.
Not just any superheroes, but female ones. They need to see themselves portrayed on screen as strong and bold.
Representation in media and pop culture matters. Seeing yourself, or someone you can relate to on screen, provides validation and gives you a prism through which to see yourself. It allows you to imagine yourself as the hero. Which is why our culture desperately needs more female superheroes.
A 2012 study found that watching TV, and seeing yourself represented in some way on screen can boost a child’s self-esteem. Seeing Supergirl or Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel fight bad guys and save the day allows the young women watching to feel empowered. It lets them know that they too can fight whatever “bad guys,” or bullies exist in their lives. It tells them that being a girl doesn’t mean they’re weak.
A huge step forward was made a few weeks ago with the newest season of the British sci-fi television show Doctor Who. The show tells the story of a humanoid alien, called “the Doctor”, who travels through time and space using his wits to save the universe over and over again.
The show first aired in 1963 and ran through 1989. It was brought back in 2005 and has been running since. The show has been able to continue for so long because the Doctor is able to regenerate. When one actor decided he had had enough they writers would “kill” the current incarnation and the Doctor would regenerate with a new face.
For over 50 years the Doctor had been portrayed by a man. The women on the show were relegated to the role of companion, sidekick, or girlfriend. All very brave, and often heroes in their own right, but never the main character. This changed a few weeks ago with the current incarnation. Actress Jodie Whittaker has taken up the mantle and is the 13th regeneration of this age-old hero.
For the first time in over fifty years the Doctor is a woman. For many fans of the show, myself included, this means a lot.
The Doctor is a very special kind of hero. Steven Moffat, one of the longtime writers for the show has said that “when they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun—they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter—they gave him a box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat-ray—they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts! And that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.” The Doctor makes fans feel empowered through knowledge. He fights back with brains, not bullets. He is the type of hero that anyone, armed with books and a desire to help people, can become. The Doctor embodies the goodness of mankind and is everything I’ve always wanted to be.
I’ve always been pretty cynical and skeptical of the world around me. A glass half empty kind of person. But seeing the world through the eye of The Doctor—an alien who is constantly amazed by the goodness and kindness of humanity—has trained me to look for the good in everyone and be a more positive person. I think that part of the reason I care so much about social justice and activism is because of The Doctor. The Doctor taught me that you don’t just give up and let things happen. You make a stand. You do what’s right. Even when everyone else runs away.
When the new casting was announced lots of men were furious. They didn’t want their favorite hero portrayed by a woman. They felt it “wasn’t realistic.” To them, I say: an alien that can time travel and regenerate is totally realistic, but you draw the line at that alien being a woman? Seems more like sexism to me.
And there is a tremendous amount of sexism within geek culture. Women and girls are portrayed in comics and sci-fi movies as over-sexualized damsels in distress. Girls who show an interest in science-fiction are pushed out by young men who see it as “their territory.” Historically, science- fiction stories have centered on the exploits of men, and modern fandom culture has become a cesspool of misogyny and homophobia. So it’s no surprise many of these men decided they would stop watching Doctor Who once Whittaker joined the cast.
But it’s their loss. She’s a phenomenal actress and does an excellent job portraying The Doctor. And for the first time since I began watching Doctor Who all those years ago I feel a renewed connection to the show and the character. I can see myself in her. I can see myself as the hero.
Having female superheroes teaches girls that they can be heroes in their own right.
We can be powerful and passionate.
We can save the day.
We can even save the universe.