‘Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand…’: Fanboy Panic and Doctor Who Fandom

23rd October 2010 • Feature by Dewi Evans •

In Between Men, her seminal study of homophobia in history and literature, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick posited a phenomenon which she called ‘homosexual panic’. According to Sedgwick, homophobia is an offshoot of sexism, since keeping women subordinate means rigidly separating heterosexual marriage from the homosocial relationships (male friendships) required on a daily basis in the running of government, in gentleman’s clubs, in public schools and so forth – institutions from which women were omitted, to be confined to the home which is deemed their proper sphere. As long as men are defined in relation to women the power of the male hierarchy will always depend on women being defined as subordinate (and upon the perpetuation of the myth that their subordination is not a construction, but an innate feature of their biological nature). Such a system is totally upset when men are seen to be just as good as women for the purposes of certain social roles – such as love making, or life companions. Society is policed through the collective making a pariah of anything beyond the proper bounds of behaviour as collectively conceived. Hence, homophobia, which polices the proper parameters of what it means to have a relationship with a male or female acquaintance.

Influential as it is, Sedgwick’s argument is historical, and functions mainly as a critique of the nineteenth century. It also has its flaws. It serves a useful purpose, however, in demonstrating how prejudice always works towards maintaining a dominant order by constructing and maintaining its ‘others’ as such – ensuring that they are constantly excluded, always monstrous and never (heaven forbid) the same as us. Take the fact that almost all gay men on TV are camp as christmas. This certainly owes something to the fact that a great many gay men actually are like that. At the same time, however, it’s no coincidence that such representations have always proved less objectionable to the public than otherwise ordinary folk who are attracted to members of their own sex. It helps a certain section of (no doubt deeply confused) male individuals to reassure themselves that they couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’. It helps society to define the roles it metes out and, in this way, to maintain the status quo. The paranoia which obtains in such a climate is christened, by Sedgwick, ‘homosexual panic’ – the fear that you might, secretly, be one of them and a concomitant obsession with behaving in a manner that signals emphatically that you are not.

Sedwgick’s argument is does not just serve a gay agenda, however. In fact, it can be viewed in a wider context as an attack upon a trope that’s repeated wherever prejudice rears its ugly head. Recently, for example, we’ve been informed that evil immigrants are no longer evil if, upon opening their mouths, they prove to be in possession of a melodious singing voice. On a more trivial level, I’m frequently told that Blood Brothers isn’t a proper musical – it’s just a play with songs in. Give them a good script, a working class milieu and well-thought-out characters and it seems people soon forget about all the dancing (or, more sinisterly, all that foreign otherness).

The things is, though, we’ve come to expect this of our newspapers and even of people we know. We accept it, fight against it in a small way and move on. Sometimes though, you come across an instance that truly shocks you – not because of its importance or significance, but because of its sheer petty spite. Such an example occurred in the Guardian last week.

Doctor Who is now one of the most popular drama series in Britain (again). Its minutest plot details are now the subject of debate in broadsheet and tabloid alike – hence, a fairly substantial article can be spun from a throwaway line in The Deadly Assassin (1976). The columnist is clearly enough of a fan to find the contradiction of this line of interest and spends a good few paragraphs discussing it as a matter of great moment in and of itself – exactly the way that fans do on internet forums. But (she is quick to point out) she herself is not really a fan. Not really. What ‘every “Whovian” knows’ isn’t really of great significance to her. Oh no. She’s chosen to write about it in a national paper, but that doesn’t mean anybody outside of a few mad wankers on the internet will actually find it of any interest. You can actually see what might be called the ‘fanboy panic’ (I’m not one of them!!) unfolding as you read. She finishes the article, for example, with this snide, unnecessarily bitchy remark:

It was a stroke of PR genius to slip the hotly anticipated fudging of the Doctor’s longevity into a children’s series: the episodes are now sure to draw in the viewers. However, Whovians (famously likened by Sarah Jane creator Russell T Davies to a swarm of mosquitoes) will be disappointed that there is no technical reason given for the change: it is simply stated in passing.

Whovian Simon says: “Many of us old-timers have looked forward to the story that addresses the end of the Doctor’s life span. I’m gutted that it appears that something so integral to the show’s long-term storyline has been passed over in this way.”

She, of course, is not like poor Simon. As an enlightened fan, like all the rest of her dear readers, she’s not like those idiots pestilential ‘mosquitoes’ on the internet. But why mention the ‘mosquitoe’ comment at all? To be honest, I myself agree with the comment (up to a point), but why bring it up? What relevance has it to the actual story about the details of this latest plot development? After all Simon’s concerns are no different from her own concerns as implicitly stated earlier in the article:

Fans have always thought that the 13th doctor would be the last, thanks to a 1976 Doctor Who episode, The Deadly Assassin, featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor in his fourth incarnation, and revealing for the first time the regeneration limit. But a passing comment in a children’s television programme later this month is set to rewrite history and cast the Doctor, iconic hero of the world’s most successful and longest-running science fiction series, as immortal.

This need to separate normal ‘fan’ from geeky ‘Whovian’ is nothing but arrant childishness. I disagree with Simon and think he’s going more than a little over the top – but I’m still not ashamed to admit that I’m as ‘Whovian’ as they come. As ‘Whovian’ as Miss Guardian Writer, in fact. In the second quotation, for example, the columnist fails to mention that the regeneration rule was only a ‘passing comment’ in The Deadly Assassin as well – and even a passing interest in such a detail (not to mention the way in which it has been passed off in a CBBC series for goodness’ sake) is enough to qualify you as someone with more than a passing interest in the show. There are degrees to fanishness, certainly – but they are not as simple as ‘freak’ and ‘normal passing interest’. They’re varied and nuanced. And it’s crass to play to the galleries by suggesting otherwise.

The fact is that behaving in this way ensures that the columnist and her readers have someone to react against. The ‘real Doctor Who fan’ is still a potent figure of ridicule, despite the show’s success, so such a dichotomy is important if one is to be made to feel at home with one’s love for the show. But it has the unfortunate effect of maintaining the taboo of being a ‘fan’ – it maintains the need for parameters, the need to demonise others because of an insecurity with oneself. And it is never OK to perpetuate such an attitude. Never. To set up an us and them dichotomy merely so that ‘we’ can be made to feel better about ourselves by demonising ‘them’ is nothing but incipient tribalism and is about as clever and funny as gang warfare.  And although the consequences are infinitely more serious when dealing with race or gender, it’s a slippery slope – as any bullied schoolchild will tell you. The practice is just as despicable when applied to a matter as apparently trivial as the kind of TV you watch, the kinds of clothes you like to wear, the kind of music you like or a myriad other ways in which you choose to express your appreciation for it and, indirectly, the way you choose to express yourself. It’s despicable because it’s the same impulse that leads to the Daily Mail attacking people merely for being from a different country. Or gay. Or on benefits. Articles like this one depress me. They depress me because they demonstrate that, however enlightened we purport to be, society will always need it’s demons.

Dewi Evans is a part-time university tutor, librarian and PhD student who hopes one day to devlelop into something resembling the bastard hybrid offspring of Russell T Davies, Benny Summerfield and Evelyn Smythe. Despite living in the Brecon Beacons and working in Cardiff, he has never been a) a cannibal or b) a member of Torchwood (to the best of his knowledge anyway).

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