Far be it from me, a patron of dubious pleasures, to deride your taste. While it is true that I am in the occasional (okay, regular) habit of diminishing things you may personally happen to enjoy, it is not my intention to diminish you. Nor, I would argue, should this be considered the possible effect of any act of cultural criticism, no matter how Razer-ish and/or feeble. You are, after all, far more than the sum of your tastes, and if you believe you are not, you should probably see a doctor. I don’t give a turd what Nick Hornby has to say on the matter.
So. Please keep this in mind as I offer a look not directly at the television program Dr Who, but at the press currently surrounding this entertainment. That I personally happen to find Dr Who about as engaging as a TED talk on the topic of “Elon Musk is super awesome and I can’t wait until he puts proprietary wires in my brain!” is not something I will mention.
Oops. I did. This is not, however, the point.
The first and teeny point is that liking things on telly or elsewhere is almost always defensible. Or, at least, this generally requires no earnest defence. If you take delight in the fuzzy incest porn of Game of Thrones or you think of Margaret Atwood as a Great and Prescient Novelist for our times, you go, Glen Coco. Who gives a rat’s what I think, really, because the important thing here is that you are spending your leisure hours doing something that makes your working life more endurable. Goodness knows, if I didn’t have my own cheap and secret enjoyments, which possibly include obsessive repeat viewing of Sex and the City, especially Season 5, I would never amass the energy needed to perform paid labour. We need our shitty entertainment, for without it, the shitty system of capital accumulation we uphold through our toil would break. Can’t have that.
What we can have, perhaps, is a bit of a chinwag about the social significance we attribute to the cultural things that we like. Even leaving aside the Hornby idea of taste as something more than a class filter, but as the actual starting point of the being that has it, there is a current dominant view that liking something is akin to having an actual world view. This is our major point, today, comrades.
We have learned to outsource our opinions to the culture industry just as surely as we outsourced poorly paid labour to the Global South.
You know how it goes. Liking the TV version of Atwood’s mediocre work of speculative fiction serves as a substitute for feminist knowledge. Liking Chris Uhlmann, particularly in a public social media context, for his recent “mic drop” serves as a substitute for foreign policy knowledge. Liking any one of the millions of words Andrew Bolt has written serves as a substitute for knowledge of any kind. We have learned to outsource our opinions to the culture industry just as surely as we outsourced poorly paid labour to the Global South. You want to know what I think? Look at the things I like, and perhaps those others I revile.
In recent hours, Dr Who now joins The Handmaid’s Tale in providing the convenience of feminist thought that involves no thinking. Of course, Dr Who, whose protagonist will now be played by a woman, may turn out to be more legitimately feminist than Handmaid, which, one might argue, is little more than fetish material for the progressive masochist. Still. For crying out fuck. Is this really the victory for which generations of brave dissidents have fought? To be “represented” as powerful?
Congratulations to Jodie Whittaker, of course. And a heartfelt Sisterhood is Powerful to the many ladies, and some gents, who experienced a frisson when they learned that the oppressive distinction between Time Lord and Time Lady could be demolished with a non-binary reboot. But JEEZ. I mean JEEZ. It seems every other day I am called upon to celebrate the progressive victories of the culture industry, and every other day, the material expression of these victories seems to matter less.
I am not so pure as to pretend that I do not very much enjoy the constructed spectacle of an arse-kicking dame. As poor as I found Wonder Woman—a film that seeks to fantasise, rather like Chris Uhlmann, that international conflict is not a complex matter but one for which a single body of evil may be held to account—I really, really enjoyed watching ladies throw heavy things.
Representation, or its lack, in your favourite, or least favourite, entertainments may not matter as much as you think.
And, perhaps, I’ll enjoy watching Ms Whittaker upturn space-time—I am certainly enjoying the hope that Peter Capaldi may now be free to return to his important work as Malcolm Tucker. But, I cannot permit all this widespread pleasure to go on without reminding you pleasure-seekers that representation is not reality. Again, the central function of cultural representation is to permit us to feel that we have had a progressive victory, so we can go to work every day and not smash or seize the means of production.
These French automotive workers were not, I imagine, advocating chiefly for the blue-collar class to be adequately represented on So You Think You Can Dance. These Filipino Facebook contractors are not troubled by the appearance or the non-appearance of nipples on the social media giant—they’re a bit too busy wondering if they can erase the appearance of beheading videos by the end of the day. And, no, Feminist_Dr_Who_Fan_87. This is not a case of “what-abouttery” in which I crudely throw the evidence of the world’s most marginalised in your face for the sake of diminishing your own problems. I am simply reminding you—or, perhaps, just asking you to consider—that representation, or its lack, in your favourite, or least favourite, entertainments may not matter as much as you think.
I am aware that this is an unpopular view. The popular view is characterised in this upbeat post entitled “This One ‘Doctor Who’ Tweet Proves Why Female Representation Is So Important For Kids”. Or, somewhat more haughtily in the New Statesman which declares “representation matters”, without explaining why or how.
“A female Doctor,” writes some bloke called John, “will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero.”
Cultural sedatives have become a necessary part of our lives. Mistaking these for items that will lift anything but our hopes is a dangerous delusion.
Most little girls, and little boys, come to that, will never “play the lead”. No child of any gender will become a superhero. And no boy or girl writer who deigns to think of themselves as progressive can continue to ignore the harmful aspiration they champion when they insist, over and again, that cultural “representation matters”, continuing to ignore the reality it truly and necessarily fails to represent.
For the past 30 years in the West, the promise of upward mobility, of being genuinely empowered in a democratic or economic sense, has dwindled. Our wages are stagnant. Our chances at rewarding labour have been eaten by the finance sector, the poor imaginations of policy makers and automation. If “representation” matters so much, where is the “representation” of a reality we can observe in the viral appearance of payday loan predators, the “split payment between two cards” option at the Coles checkout or pawn shops?
I am not “empowered”. I am a broke middle-aged woman who sells her personal observations as an Uber driver sells their entitlement to a vehicle that is not full of strangers. I do not own a house, a car or anything with a greater exchange value than my mobile device, which actually remains the property of a telco. And me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I am not alienated from my labour and derive daily pleasure from describing our descent into hell. What do people who work in a callcentre or the arse-end of a financial services provider get? The chance to be “represented” better. Well, golly gee.
Again. Liking things is fine. Our cultural sedatives have become a necessary part of the pattern of our lives. But to mistake these for items that will lift anything but our hopes us temporarily and falsely is, in my view, a dangerous delusion.
Of course, better representation of women, people of colour, people with a disability and other overlooked groups is a pleasure. But to mistake it for a salvation that “matters” is an egregious mistake. When we employ improvements in the culture to help us maintain the belief that the material is also improving, we have lost the political ambition we like to say we have when we applaud Dr Who, or Wonder Woman, or whatever, as progressive.
If we want thoughts about the material future, we must think them. We cannot trust the culture to represent them into being.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR BY DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT HOW TO SUPPORT MORE AETS JOURNALISM HERE