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Yet Another Post on Sexism in Moffat's Shows

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that Steven Moffat is the Ben Steed of his generation. For those not up on their BBC TV writers of thirty-plus years ago, Ben Steed was a writer for Blake’s 7 (among other things), now widely remembered in Blake’s 7 fandom as that sexist pig. This is a shame for the late Steed: in many respects he was a good writer, but he allowed his bigotry to distort the virtues of his stories, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of many fans across the decades. Steven Moffat seems committed to an updated version of the same trajectory, and it’s a shame for him too because he, too, is a good writer, but that fact is increasingly being obscured by the sexism* of his shows.

The Lessons of History

Ben Steed wrote three Blake’s 7 episodes: “The Harvest of Kairos,” “Moloch,” and “Power.” Together they comprise the most sexist moments of a show generally well ahead of its time in its gender discourse.

In “The Harvest of Kairos,” a Marty-Stu named Jarvik comes very close to defeating our motley band of anti-heroes in heroic combat against the space battle skills of handsome young man character, Tarrant. Along the way Servalan, one of the most self-assured villainesses in the history of TV, falls madly in love with him after he forcibly kisses her, picks her up, flings her over his shoulder, throws her on a couch, grabs her neck, and tells her to be quiet. Jarvik then goes on to defeat powerful hand-to-hand fighter Dayna after mocking her mere girlishness (though she does get some good blows in), while the only other female character, the usually fairly proactive Cally, stands around and does nothing.

Steed’s second episode, “Moloch,” is his least offensive. The core characters are written reasonably, and while some poor native women are sexually molested, this is presented as Bad. Servalan gets threatened with rape, but at least she doesn’t fall in love with her would-be rapists and retains her typical Servalan composure. The creepy thing about “Moloch” is the “lovable rapist” character, a charming cockney Federation soldier who befriends amiable comic relief character, Vila. This ex-con, conscripted into army, tells Vila his problem was always women.

“You like them?” Vila guesses.

“No,” he replies.

The implication seems to be he’s gone to prison for murdering (and possibly raping) women. Later, he mentions explicitly that when he gets angry, he kills people, and he encourages Vila to rape Servalan, yet he’s written as Vila’s jovial new best friend. It’s just very creepy.

And then there’s “Power,” which features a social breakdown in which men and women have become two separate societies battling against each other. The men win. Where to begin with “Power”? -- more forcible kissing (this time by protagonist, Avon); a smart, mature woman who found true happiness being dragged away from her scientific work and all the people she ever knew to be the bride of a barbarian; the line about how a man’s power will always be greater than a woman’s; the way it’s ultimately a selfish, unbalanced woman who kills the last nice girl…

Anyway, the rough thing about all this for Steed is that his vitriol against women eclipses his strength as a writer. All three of Steed’s episodes show a true science fiction writer’s concern with social extrapolation. “The Harvest of Kairos” questions the extent to which computing can replace the human element in war and politics and has an interesting sci-fi device with a rock-like alien that reflects telepathically the identity of whoever sees it.

“Moloch” not only furthers the theme of technological caution by depicting a society controlled by its own evolutionary extrapolations (in the form of a super-evolved autocrat of its own creation); it also produces a nicely nuanced depiction of the Federation sphere of influence in a state of contraction following the Andromedan War that opens Season 3. This adds depth to the arc of the series by exploring what might happen on the frontier worlds when the Federation’s grip slackens and Federation soldiers, separated from a rigid command structure, are left roving the provinces. (The answer, in a nutshell is, “Give her to your men,” which is a pretty reasonable depiction of a bored imperial army, stripped of authority, playing with the natives.)

Even “Power” fits well within the series’ larger arc, moving the characters into their Season 4 configuration on a new planetary base. Both the male and female cultures depicted have complexity and a sense of history behind them. Moreover, Steed creates differentiated personalities, life histories, and multiple relationships for at least five guest characters within a single episode, while also handling major roles for Avon and Vila as regulars.

Yet these virtues don’t get discussed because we’re too busy discussing how much we hate Jarvik and how “a man’s [power] will always be greater.” And, make no mistake, we are discussing the right things: Steed’s sexism is egregious, and we cannot let it pass. But it’s too bad that he let this become his legacy.

Meanwhile in the 21st Century

Moffat and his creative team do not write this egregiously. Of course, they don’t. Thirty years have passed, and our standards of pop cultural gender discourse have progressed (albeit too slowly). Today, one simply could not get away with saying flat out, “Men will always be more powerful than women.” But to say that Moffat’s writing is not as sexist as Ben Steed’s is damning with faint praise. His writing (and/or the writing he endorses) puts women down again and again. And again. And eventually, even in stories where we accept that the main characters are men and the focus will be on them, it becomes impossible not to get distracted by the persistent putdowns.

I see the problems Moffat's handling of female characters in Doctor Who and Sherlock as falling into two main categories:

1) Viewing women through a lens of putdowns, stereotypes, and disrespect: Molly being a figure of fun for her unrequited love, Sherlock semi-permanently tuning out what Mrs. Hudson says because it doesn't matter, the (quite pretty) fangirl in Doctor Who who has low self-esteem because she envies her prettier sister, forced kisses, the Doctor praising Clara by saying she's a "man," the unquestioned assumption that John should notice his wife is pregnant before she does, various damsels in need of rescuing, and so on. These attitudes are generally shown through the words and actions of the male characters or coding (through dress, emphasized plotlines, etc.) of female characters.

2) Writing female characters as if they were not human agents. This is far more pernicious as it does not just belittle women; it denies our personhood: erasing the entire prior life of Mary Watson so that she is literally nothing but Mrs. Watson, not holding her morally accountable for her actions as an assassin, not holding Irene morally accountable for her own rather psychopathic behavior, not investigating at all the type of life experience Clara had being splintered into different lifetimes at different points of the Doctor's timeline so that we have no idea what her basic perception of reality is like, reducing Queen Elizabeth to a girl obsessively in love with the Doctor. These attitudes are usually shown through a combination of the female characters' own words and actions (often childish, unhealthy, immoral, or just implausible) and others' responses to them (typically that this is okay/normal).

These two types of writing reinforce each other. When it is acceptable to mock and belittle a class of people, it becomes easier to view them as intrinsically inferior human beings, and of course, if one's views a class of people as inferior, it readily becomes acceptable to mock and belittle them. In this narrative context, female characters are routinely…

* robbed of agency (the ability to be drivers in their own lives, plots: Mary blackmailed, Amy imprisoned, Clara locked out of the TARDIS)

* robbed of moral responsibility for their actions (i.e. not written as adult people): see Mary and Irene

* sexualized, i.e. they must be sexually attractive or attracted to someone (most often the lead) as an important part of their identity/reason for being in the story: Amy initially, River, Clara (in a last-minute way, as if she couldn't be allowed out of the series without "fancying" the Doctor), Queen Elizabeth, Irene, Molly, various minor characters who ogle/flirt with the Doctor/Sherlock)

* primarily present to be rescued by, listen to, or offer loving support to the male lead: the substantial exceptions may be River and Irene, who have considerable agency but both take turns at needing to be rescued by the hero (Irene in a strange, tacked-on way after the plot of her episode is over).

* made fun of for being unattractive, silly, and/or old: Molly, Mrs. Hudson, parodies of fans

* in plots that make marriage/achieving long-term romance the chief marker of "a happy ending": Amy, arguably River, Molly, Mary, Queen Elizabeth

* not taken seriously in their own careers/vocations: Amy and Clara flitting between careers with no show of preparation/training, Molly more prominent for unrequited love than forensics, Queen Elizabeth full stop

There have been many essays on gender in Doctor Who and Sherlock, so I won't rehash all the details. Here are some links:

”Sherlock” Wrote a Female Character out of a Classic Story

Mary and Sherlock: I have No Idea Whatsoever What Just Happened There

Knows Nothing of Practical Gardening (Mary)

Mary and Irene

Doctor Who Christmas Special Was Everything Fans Dislike about the Moffat Era" (Not only about gender)

How Moffat Ruined Doctor Who for My Little Sister

Despite these problems with female characters (and various other arguably deserved criticisms), Moffat is, in many ways, a good show runner. His tenure has lots of moments of excellent wit (ex. much of the Sherlock-John-Mary discourse), creative plot devices (ex. the Angels in Doctor Who), interesting new twists (ex. the Doctor traveling with a married couple), strong characterizations, and even many nice moments for female characters: Amy, Clara, River, Irene, Mary all get wit, skill, and some proactivity. But more and more, this is not what we're talking about; the sexism has become so systemic that it pushes itself to the fore.

And just in case it were true, as Moffat has sometimes intimated, that all viewers really care about is the male leads anyway, this type of writing hurts the male leads, as misogyny always hurts men too. See, for example, How Moffat Ruined Doctor Who for My Little Sister, which eloquently describes the sense of betrayal a long-time fan feels at seeing a role model of hers, the Doctor, speak in a way that belittles and silences her as a woman. He has ceased to be a positive role model for her.

For me, it is difficult to like Sherlock when he deceives a woman into agreeing to marry him just to get into a building: in a season where he is consistently shown to be more emotionally aware than he had been, this comes off as indefensibly cruel (though the show treats it as no more hurtful than standing someone up on a date).

Moreover, I should not have difficulty distinguishing the Eleventh Doctor from Sherlock Holmes. They are very different men. Yet in the recent runs of both series, both characters got put through scenes of swanning about, loudly showing off to admiring women in very similar tones. The repetition of the trope places it outside the realm of individualized character development and into the realm of social message, whether intentional or not.

This disregard for women – and for (mostly women's) critiques and expressions of genuine hurt and dismay – is backfiring for both series. Both are still entertaining, but they are now entertaining in spite of an albatross weighing them down. The solution is simple: when everyone is treated with respect, everyone wins. When everyone is fully human, everyone is a stronger, better-realized character. This is not new news. But if the message doesn't get through soon, Steven Moffat may go down in TV history right alongside Ben Steed. Steed had talent; he could have been known for more than being a bigot. Moffat still has a chance to be.




* A terminology note: I'm drawing a distinction between “misogyny” and “sexism." “Misogyny,” to me, denotes assumptions that belittle women. Almost all writing in a patriarchy is at least a little misogynistic. Mine certainly is; it’s hard to avoid writing from within your own culture's assumptions. “Sexism,” however, suggests to me a conscious investment in resisting women’s equality. Doctor Who and Sherlock under Moffat’s command are misogynistic (almost all TV is), but it’s hard not to see frank sexism in the persistence of the blows they strike against women.
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