Is it terrible to admit I was underwhelmed by the Doctor Who announcement? Not for the, “Oh my God, a shape-shifting Time Lord can’t have breasts” reason, obviously. That would make me a retrogressive idiot, and there were enough of those about in the hours that followed. Nor because the actor chosen was Jodie Whittaker and I had set my heart on Tilda Swinton. True, I thought Whittaker was lacklustre in Broadchurch. But the show’s producers have said she aced the audition, so I will watch with an open mind. No, it’s more that the great unveiling felt a bit too gimmicky, a bit too superficial, a bit too let’s-pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-so-enlightened to signify real change.
I am treading carefully here, because I understand how much it meant to some young fans; to the daughter of Jenny Trout of Michigan, for example. The video of her squealing “Doctor Who is a girl!” was a delight to watch, but also an indication of just how much girls crave interesting role models. There shouldn’t be any No-Go areas for their imaginations; they must be free to fantasise about being kick-ass superheroes, geeky scientists and yes, even an extra-terrestrial from Gallifrey hurtling through the space-time continuum.
Yet even now – when men’s rights activists would have us believe masculinity is endangered – TV and cinema can be a testosterone-laden environment. At a recent screening of War For The Planet Of The Apes, I sat through previews for Dunkirk and Kingsman: The Golden Circle in which a succession of men did manly things (and there was a fleeting shot of a woman in a bikini) followed by the film itself which was basically male humans fighting male apes (the only girl involved having been rendered mute). So, up to a point, feminist remakes, reimaginings and spin-offs, such as Ghostbusters, Ocean’s Eight and Doctor Who, are to be welcomed.
Yet unless such hat-tips to the notion of gender equality are reflective of societal change, there’s a risk they merely set girls up for disappointment. If they are being used to communicate a message that runs in direct opposition to reality, they are at best cosmetic.
Shortly after Whittaker’s unveiling – and while misogynists were busy demonstrating the extent to which women are still trashed and objectified – the BBC released a list of 96 stars paid over £150,000, and a stark gender pay gap was exposed.
Now, again, I am treading cautiously because there are factions for whom BBC bashing is an agenda-laden vocation. To the Daily Mail et al, the BBC is a left-leaning, Brexit-opposing nemesis which must be brought down. And so – for a decade – they have taken pot-shots at its “fat cats”, with their inflated pay checks (while doing nothing to sort out their own glass houses).
Since the list was published, this alliance of wealthy hypocrites has been fomenting outrage about the salaries of the likes of Chris Evans (£2.2m) and Gary Lineker (£1.75m) in the full knowledge that, while BBC director general Tony Hall earns £450,000, Paul Dacre takes home £1.4m plus £59,000 in perks and benefits. I know which institution I would rather invest in; and which represents the better value for money.
The same bastions of political correctness are backing irate presenters such as Jane Garvey, Emily Maitlis and Jenni Murray, none of whom are on the list. How thrilled those women must be to have both the newspaper which spawned Page 3 and the one that spawned the Sidebar of Shame fighting their corner.
Still, such double standards notwithstanding, the gender pay gap exposed by the list is glaring. There are no women in the top seven highest earners, with Claudia Winkleman at number eight on £450,000-£499,999.
But it is when you start comparing individual celebrities that the scale of the discrepancy becomes indefensible. Why is Huw Edwards on £550,00-£599,000 and Fiona Bruce on £350,000-£399,000? Why is John Inverdale – he of the “[Marion Bartoli] was never going to be a looker” comment – on £200,000-£249,000 and Clare Balding on £150,000 to £199,000? Why is Dan Walker on £200,000-£249,000 while his BBC Breakfast co-presenter Louise Minchin earns less than £150,000?
Those at the upper end may claim they do more programmes; Walker, for example, says his extra money is for work he does on Football Focus, but the fact is an informal system of patronage – a drink out with boys here, a “you remind me of myself when I was young” there, means that, more than 45 years after the Equal Pay Act, women are still being paid less.
The BBC is not alone in its inflated salaries for big names (excessive though those sums are, its most popular celebrities would earn more elsewhere) – or in its gender discrimination. Estimates from the Office of National Statistics suggest the UK pay gap stands at 19.2 per cent for full-time and part-time workers.
But as a public service broadcaster, it ought to be leading by example. Instead it fought against the publication of the names on the grounds it would make it easier for their rivals to poach the talent.
Thankfully the backlash is having a positive impact, uniting the women in sisterly solidarity. With 10 of them said to be contemplating legal action, the BBC is finally confronting the disparity. Hall has promised to close the pay gap by 2020 (even if that means pay cuts for the men) and Maitlis (who is being paid far less than her Newsnight co-presenter Evan Davis) has been offered a revised contract. After a slight hesitation, Hall also confirmed Whittaker will be paid the same as her predecessor, Peter Capaldi, who earned £200,000-£250,000 (well, what else could the corporation realistically do?).
Next year, the transparency imposed on the BBC will be extended when all companies with more than 250 employees will be forced to disclose how much they are paying in salaries and bonuses to their male and female staff, with big discrepancies expected in city firms. The threat of equal pay claims and a public shaming is likely to galvanise some of them into action, which is important because without some serious strong-arming, the gender pay gap is unlikely to close until 2069.
This legislation – driven by Scottish Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson – should serve as a catalyst for real rather than symbolic progress. A female Doctor Who helps defeat outdated gender stereotypes for sure. But it is disingenuous to tell girls they can be or do anything they want, unless we can guarantee they will be as highly valued and well remunerated as boys with the same big dreams.