I’m going to level with you here – I’m crying as I write this.
I first became a Doctor Who fan in 2007 – just in time to fall in love with Martha Jones and watch as the writers systematically tore her to shreds to make Rose Tyler look like the incredibly classist ode to white sainthood they wanted her to be. (Sorry, that sounded bitter. Another conversation for another time.) Martha was like me – she was a woman of colour, she was a med student, she had a snappy retort for every occasion and she had the kind of adventurous spirit that led her to get into a battered and very anachronistic box for a chance to see the universe. I think a lot of the reason I’m so bitter about the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who is how he treated one of the very first women on TV with whom I really identified.
The next time one of those came up on Who was several years later. Here she is:
Damn it. I still can’t watch that without crying.
Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you. For context, here’s a little background about me:
September 11th, 2001 changed my life. I remember coming to school that day to see the faces of people who’d known me since I was in preschool suddenly darkened with fear and suspicion. Damn it, I was eleven years old. I didn’t fly a plane into a building and I certainly didn’t want to kill anyone. I was as scared and angry and hurt as anyone else. The difference was that everyone else formed a big group called Us and started treating people like me – the little group called Them – like we were going to take them down next.
I put up with being Them for years. Hell, I still have to put up with it. It’s easier now that I don’t cover my hair any more and I wear short skirts and high heels and a lot of makeup, easier now that I can pass for an “exotic” pretty girl with a nice tan, but it still comes up every now and then. I’m one of Them.
I have spent so, so long laughing nervously and telling people not to be frightened.
I never thought I’d see that on the telly.
I’ve read a lot of very clever, very thorough critiques of the character of Rita. They have lots of good points. Maybe the line was a throwaway joke that could have been taken in a lot of negative ways. Maybe Rita was unfairly stereotyped. Maybe she was just another woman of colour who got to die so the Doctor could save white people.
I’m sorry, but I don’t care. I don’t care because I have spent more than a decade now asking people not to be frightened of me, and I never, never, not once in a million years, thought I would get to see someone who looked a little like me and talked a little like me say it.
I never thought I’d get to see someone like me on Doctor Who. Not ever.
That little throwaway line, that’s my life. Every time some fanatic bombs a building, I have to ask people not to be frightened. Every time there’s violence in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Palestine or Syria, I have to ask people not to be frightened. Every time some madman in a shalwar kameez gets interviewed by a reporter and they get a soundbyte of him that can be twisted into “Muslims want everyone in the West to follow Sharia”, I have to ask – carefully, nervously, like it’s all just a joke – for people not to be frightened.
I’ve never killed anyone or even wished death on anyone because their beliefs were different from mine, but people are frightened of me. I have said those words or some variation of those words – don’t be frightened – hundreds and hundreds of times since I was an eleven-year-old sitting in a classroom full of people who looked at me like they didn’t even know me any more. I have said them to teachers and friends and people I don’t even know. I have apologised for crimes I haven’t committed, for blood that isn’t on my hands, so. many. times. that my reaction now is exactly like Rita’s.
Smile. Little eye-roll. Nervous laugh. Don’t be frightened.
That is life for thousands upon thousands of young, fairly Westernised, probably moderately progressive Muslim women living in predominantly white countries around the world, and it has been for more than a decade now.
And they showed us on TV. For once – just once – we got to tune in and see ourselves.
Steven Moffat has done a lot of problematic things. He has said a lot of problematic things. He has written a lot of problematic characters. But he gave me something I never thought I’d get. He gave me someone like me on the telly. I know a lot of you can identify with that feeling – the feeling that just once, just once, someone stopped treating you like you were invisible and made you feel like you were a part of the world, someone who could show up on a cheesy, clever, ridiculous science fantasy TV show about a madman in a box who goes on adventures. We ache for that, don’t we? We ache for that moment when we’ll turn on the telly or look in a magazine or up at a billboard and see someone who looks and acts and speaks just a little bit more like us.
Rita was my moment. And yeah, I’m still crying. I cry every time I think about it. I cry because just once, there was a girl a bit like me on TV and instead of being a terrorist or a mad person or an illiterate savage in need of help, she was clever and witty and funny and valued and brave and full of compassion and vim and vigour and life. The Doctor didn’t treat her badly or like she was less-than just because of her faith. (Didn’t he even seem a little happy? Didn’t he even seem like he thought she was pretty cool?) It was almost like she was worth something.
Almost like people like me might be worth something.
Almost like people like me might matter enough to get our stories told alongside everyone else’s.
I may never stop crying about this.
Steven Moffat is a cishet white man with a lot of issues about women who does a lot of things the wrong way. I’m not going to say he shouldn’t be criticised for the things he does badly, because he should. I’m not going to say he shouldn’t have to do better, because he should.
But he gave me my moment. That’s something. That’s a start. Journey of a thousand miles, you know.
This was my first step.