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The deconstruction of “race” as a discourse in Dr. Who … oh who are we kidding?

By July 24, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

It is possible to do the academic study of popular culture well.  It just isn’t common.  My hypothesis is that all too often the academic study of popular culture is undertaken by scholars who really just want to write fan fiction.

In 2001 a whole bunch of academics so enjoyed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that they created an online journal (“Slayage”) dedicated to “Buffy Studies.”   It was every bit as poorly written and conceived as the name implies, and came across as the loving work of people with graduate degrees who wanted to say “Wasn’t that series SO COOL!” at the top of their vocabularies.

Here’s a paragraph from (at the time) Loyola library student Hilary Leon’s article “Why we love the Monsters:  How Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Wound Up Dating the Enemy” (PDF):

“Drawn inexorably by their slaying duties into the world of the creatures they fight, Buffy and Anita spend much of their time among those who are not human. In her roles as necromancer, police advisor, and executioner, Anita is surrounded by criminals, killers, and practitioners of the dark arts. She is also, inevitably, faced with non-humans who do not fit her original, rather simplistic definition of “monster.” Buffy faces a similar dilemma: her closest contact with undead activities in Sunnydale turns out to be himself a vampire, a fact she discovers only after their first passionate kiss. Neither woman intentionally seeks a lover among her enemies, but for each a variety of factors culminates in an unexpected and powerful attraction to the predators she is sworn to destroy.”

That’s not academic study – that’s a less interesting plot synopsis.  The conclusion, after 7 pages of this:  ”Rather than being forced to choose between the humans and the monsters, Buffy and Anita accept the complexity of their roles, and ultimately address both sets of responsibilities: to humankind, and to their own passions.”

It’s text that could come straight off the boxed set. 

“Slayage,” incidentally, has continue on, and is now the bi-annual “Journal of the Whedon Studies Association.”  Which makes me laugh in a way that also makes me cry.

I was reminded of “Slayage” when reading that a book of essays called “Dr. Who and Race” – a book taking the position that Dr. Who is “Thunderously” racist – will come out in July.  Chapters include:

  • Doctor Who, cricket and race: The Peter Davison years
  • Baby steps: A modest solution to Asian under-representation in Doctor Who
  • They hate each others’ chromosomes”: Eugenics and the shifting racial identity of the Daleks

The book’s criticisms of Dr. Who’s racist attitudes, according to media reports, include the issue that there has never been a non-white Doctor, that a 2011 episode included an “inappropriately slapstick take on Hitler” and the fact that Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor (from the 1980s) was obsessed with Cricket, which … something something … British Empire.

One wonders, sometimes, if academics studying popular culture ever realize how they sound to the people in popular culture.  Does that never happen?  Or are they just absolutely shameless?  Because I’m so embarrassed for them that I’m going to have a hard time getting up in the morning.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t criticize a book I haven’t read yet.  But … come on, people:  Dr. Who’s been on television for nearly 50 years straight.  Finding racist content on television from 1950 – 1990 is like finding White Trash at Wal-Mart.   The fact that white actors were cast to play minority parts was a common TV practice;  referring to primitive cultures as “savages” was the language of the time.  Easy jokes at the expense of minorities were a staple of damn near every television show that played for a laugh.  It was wrong, devastatingly wrong, but it had everything to do with the media culture and nothing to do with Dr. Who specifically as a show.  You could probably write the exact same book about Sesame Street.  Really take that cricket loving Muppet down a peg.

As for a critique of the new Dr. Who … well, give it a shot, I guess.  But you’ll find plenty of shows on TV now with fewer minorities, fewer inter-racial couples, and less to say about colonialism.  Which makes it look suspiciously to me like they’re writing a book about Dr. Who just to write a book about Dr. Who.

Again, academia as a kind of fan fiction.

But that bit about Hitler?  From the episode (I presume) “Let’s Kill Hitler”?  Yeah, it was a week episode.  But dammit, the line “Get in the closet, Hitler!” was funny.

You have to laugh.  Thunderously.