November 26, 2021 - 11:45am

“In recent years we have seen Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker, the Equalizer all replaced by women, and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby,” said Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley yesterday. “Is there any wonder we are seeing so many young men commit crime?”

Fletcher’s claim was bizarre. A small number of male heroes had become women, therefore young men were going on sprees? One is tempted to reply, “Is there any wonder we are seeing so many people think that MPs are idiots?”

A causal link is unlikely, to say the least. I can assure Mr Fletcher that boys were slashing seats on public transport when Jon Pertwee was Doctor Who, and that the violent crime rate — despite a slight increase in the few years before Covid — is still significantly lower than its post-war peak in the mid-90s.

It’s easy to laugh at the calibre of our MPs. But I think we should be laughing at the very idea of role models, for either sex, and their assumed influence. There is a ludicrous ‘monkey see, monkey do’ attitude ingrained in the minds of both the people who make TV and films, and the people like Fletcher who complain about TV and films.

All societies are based around approved behavioural norms. Infants learn these norms from everything and everyone around them, but I would suggest that anybody over four doesn’t really need special reinforcement in these from fiction.

Is the effect tangible, even on tiny children? Rainbow would often show Zippy punished for a variety of moral misdemeanours but I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that Zippy didn’t produce a model citizenry. People still grew up to lie, cheat, steal and kill. I refused to smash up a Space Invaders machine when I was eleven because of my temperament and a whole host of real-world social conventions, not because Zippy had been castigated for his thoughtless destruction of Bungle’s tambourine.

Aren’t those of us over four just interested in people — fictional and real — whose character reminds us of our personalities, or an idealised version of our personalities? I fear that as a child I was drawn in particular to Doctor Who not because of his sex, his appearance, or his casual moral goodness (which after all he shared with every other children’s TV character) but because he was glib and made inappropriately facetious remarks. Our personalities are our own — we are not formed by our idols but attracted to the qualities we share. The idea that society can be re-engineered — men becalmed, racists re-socialised, girls empowered — through pop culture is therefore silly. 

I would suggest that the real problem with many of the female characters in today’s culture is that they’re so incredibly bland. In some respects they have gone backwards — the girls of my generation had women as variously quirky as Dr Who’s knife-slashing cave girl Leela, Super Gran, potty Peggy from Hi-de-Hi, and Blake’s 7’s psycho politician Servalan, not to mention mainstream pop stars as un-‘girly’ as Patti Smith or Poly Styrene.

Steering society is beyond the power of television and probably beyond the power of government. But sadly, the most joyfully frivolous things are now weighted with political and social significance, which is how we get to the ludicrousness of Fletcher’s speech. Our culture is out of kilter. Let us return to taking only serious things seriously.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.