a scandal in bellahouston: the strange case of steven moffat and his leading ladies;

NB: Contains spoilers for the last series and 2011 Christmas Special of Doctor Who as well as Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia.

My friend Kathy at Her Five Dollar Radio, who complains she doesn’t have a blogging ‘voice’ while at the same time posting these fabulous feminist cross-examinations of music and pop culture, recently linked me to a fantastic look at how to be a fan of ‘problematic things’, ie fandoms with particular race/gender issues etc. You can take part in these fandoms without necessarily being an arsehole or a bad person, the original poster argues, as long as you acknowledge that the problems exist and that it is right and proper that People On The Internet might on occasion get a bit shouty about them.

I am a fan of problematic things. Particularly I think Steven Moffat, writer and executive producer of popular BBC fandom-spawning series you may have heard of including Doctor Who and Sherlock, is a fanastic, clever storyteller and an amazing writer of dialogue. It is rare that I do not thoroughly enjoy an hour in the company of his characters at the first watch, but these days it is becoming even rarer that I do not wake up the next morning with a shudder and a slight feeling of nausea and did-so-and-so-really-say-THAT?

My problems did not begin as early as some. When Amy Pond sassed her way onto the screen in a police officer’s outfit straight from the Ann Summers Phoar Catalogue as the Doctor’s new companion I thought she was fabulous, and I still do. Was that why I then found myself so personally offended when, just before last season’s mid-season not-actually-a-finale, we found out that the Amy Pond who had been running around having adventures with the Doctor and her husband in a denim miniskirt and cowboy shirt I now own exact replicas of was in fact not Amy at all but rather a ‘flesh’ avatar powered by her consciousness while the real Amy was trapped in a box somewhere completely unaware that she was pregnant?

Well, no. While the phantom pregnancy was in itself a horrible storyline, when you’re watching what is essentially science fiction you have to expect that such horrible storylines are dramatically necessary regardless of the gender of the character involved in that storyline. Never mind science fiction – that’s true of any genre, although will likely not take place on a spaceship somewhere. In this case the storyline had the potential to be an incredible piece of psychological horror had any of the characters involved dealt with or appeared to be in any way affected by its sheer horror. Of course how this could have been tackled in a family friendly Saturday teatime drama is beside the point.

I joked that this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, in which Claire Skinner’s character was the only one capable of saving the day, read like a big apology with Moffat setting off fireworks and screaming WOMEN! THEY’RE GRATE, AREN’T THEY? until I realised with the benefit of hindsight it looked as if the show was saying that women are of course the strongest force in the universe once they have achieved their ultimate purpose and put that womb to use. Which, for those of us who have already made a conscious decision to be childfree is kind of like being slapped in the face repeatedly with the knowledge that we are never going to be any good but hey, it’s Christmas! Family-friendly warm and fuzzies for all!

Which brings us to the second series of Moffat’s 21st century reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes story with co-writer Mark Gatiss, which opened on New Year’s Day with “A Scandal in Belgravia”. This was loosely based on “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which I have never read despite my Holmes-obsessed Small Friend Claire buying me the complete stories for a birthday or Christmas about a decade ago but in which I understand from Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet that the incalculably smug Holmes is finally bested, by one Irene Adler (please note that I say “incalculably smug” as a statement of fact and not a character flaw, as this will become relevant later). Except that wasn’t quite how it worked out in this case, but it made for a pretty entertaining story regardless.

MOAR LYG:  i put gin in my milk to kill all the germs;

Later, Stringer checked Twitter and told me that people were saying that Sherlock was sexist.
“That’s nice, dear,” I replied. “Is that Channel 4 thing about phone-hacking on yet?”

Bear in mind I hadn’t gone to sleep yet.

I’m assuming most people reading this blog have head of the Bechdel Test, which measures the active presence of female characters (or as I like to call them, characters) in film and television with reference to the following criteria:

– are there two or more, named, female characters?
– do they have a conversation during the film?
– is that conversation about something other than a man?

River Song and Amy Pond

"No Mum, Doctor as in gynaecologist - I'm overdue a cervical smear. And is there any family history of cancer/polyps/endometriosis I should be aware of?"

When you start to think about it, you will be stunned by how many films in particular fail this test. That Moffat-penned episodes of his shows often do too is therefore unsurprising, but it should be pointed out that that doesn’t necessarily make him sexist.

But this was part of what was swimming around my head when I woke up the next morning. “I think I’m going to blog about Sherlock,” I told Stringer, after a collection of increasingly incoherent tweets in which I tried to outline my argument. “I don’t in a hundred years think Moffat is misogynist, but if he stopped giving his leads such god complexes perhaps we could avoid the sheer amount of swooning every other character is subject to.”

“Maybe, but bear in mind he didn’t create either character – the Doctor has always had a god complex, and Sherlock Holmes’ is possibly the most famous in literature,” Stringer replied.

“Whatevs, no need to mansplain it.”

“You know that still isn’t a word, right?”

And this is where I have to hold up my hands and say yes, when it comes to the portrayal of gender in popular entertainment I am something of a hypocrite. We hear Watson’s (ex-)girlfriend tell him he’s a “good boyfriend” to Holmes and it’s funny, because it’s rare we get to see a male character reduced to the simpering sidekick role traditionally occupied by the leading lady. Pretty much every character in both Doctor Who and Sherlock is in thrall to the almost-titular character, with Martin Freeman’s Watson being a prime example. If Rory Williams, for example, isn’t I don’t think that’s anything to do with gender – more a reaction to him seeing the Doctor continually putting the person he loved most in all the world in jeopardy. Rose Tyler’s mother was the same in the beginning if you’ll remember, right up until David Tennant rose from the dead after the third day and I could no longer hear the dialogue over the sound of my own dry-retching.

What seemed to have gotten most people seething, and indeed what woke me up foaming at the mouth the next morning, was little more than a throwaway line of dialogue. Adler quickly identifies as lesbian, but evidently not so much that the clever, clever man is able to undo her every scheme because of her great big girly crush on Sherlock. Surely any lesbian with any taste at all is going to fall for Sherlock, with his quick wit and incredible social skills and pale face like a long-hardened melted candle? He’s such a man’s man that even the actor who plays him, Benedict Cumberbatch, has a name that sounds like a type of sausage.

MOAR LYG:  choose your words wisely;

That’s if she even meant it at all of course, because we all know how much the boys like it when you say you’re a lesbian. I’d argue that neither Adler nor Sherlock’s sexualities (if indeed the latter even has one) is beside the point, as their attraction is first and foremost an intellectual one – or as Rachel so eloquently puts it:

[W]hen John insists to Irene that he’s not gay so can’t be involved with Sherlock, she says she is gay and is interested in him, drawing a direct parallel between their situations. Sherlock isn’t a natural choice for either of them, but they are both drawn to him.

…I think there are lots of intriguing things going on here about what it means to be in a “relationship”. We see from this that for Sherlock, an inbox full of unanswered text messages constitutes something like a relationship. For John, having a series of girlfriends means less than working with Sherlock. It’s unconventional and not always healthy, but it’s definitely interesting, and it makes sexual orientation and so on more fluid.

At least, that’s how it would sound if you were giving a writer the benefit of the doubt and not merely wondering if perhaps he only threw it in there to piss off the same people who were already pissed off about that time River Song rewrote the entire history of the universe for some skinny bloke.

Anyway, for me at least it’s a minor quibble. No, my issue with Moffat’s Adler is far deeper. Let me refer you back to the top, to where I say that although I haven’t read the source story I was under the impression that this was the case in which Holmes was finally bested, and by a bird at that.

In this retelling Holmes is not bested (due to forementioned big girly crush). Oh, and it turns out that the bits where Holmes and Adler spar as intellectual equals? She’s merely play-acting, following on from the advice of muppet arch-nemesis Moriarty. Here I am going to quote the blogger Stavvers, who was the first person to address this issue thereby saving the rest of us from hosting comment threads filled with fanboys telling us we are overreacting to what is essentially a piece of light entertainment (thnx hon!):

That’s right. Irene Adler goes from being the fierce, resourceful, clever woman to being somebody who had to ask a man for help in order to succeed. She is not allowed to be brilliant in her own right, only through the advice from a dude who has some tension with the main dude in the show. In the space of a few lines, Adler is reduced from an active force to a passive pawn in Moriarty and Holmes’s ongoing cock-duelling.

There you go. That, there, is why I am pissed. We will say nothing about the end of the episode, when it gets even worse, because I’m still half-convinced that the whole thing was a paramastaburtory dream sequence on the part of Sherlock.

That said, the episode was still hugely enjoyable and I will still be watching the next one. Just… don’t ask me what I think in the morning, k?

  • PK

    You are totally winning the internets. Cheers.

  • Stringer

    Very good post. And I agree with a lot of it. I also think you do the arguments more service than a great many people, often myself included.

    All writers have blind spots -though I can’t see any for me- and unfortunately I think Moffat’s is that his CLEVER sometimes gets in the way of the HEART. The message his ‘love’ stories send always seem to me a well intentioned message, love wins out, love crosses time, galaxies and even sexuality, and it makes people do heroic and selfless things. As mushy as that sounds in a comment, I think it’s a good theme to out into the kind of high-stakes drama that he’s writing at the moment. That’s a way of creating those stakes.

    But a friend of mine made a very good point recently; he said that Moffat uses short hand a bit too much. When it comes to getting from A to C, he’ll often give short shrift to B if it’s something we can all work out for ourselves. As much as it’s good for writers to give the audience work to do, sometimes we do need to see the obvious things, because that’s often where the human moments are, the little telling things that round a character out. A and B show the characters making the decisions that define them, but B is often where we see why they make those decisions.

    I see a lot of the feminist points that are made in relation to Moffat, but I don’t see them in the same way. As angry as I was (and it came close to ruining the show for me) about baby-gate, I was also angry that the only discourse was about Amy and the baby. Let’s not forget there was another parent who also had a horrible thing done to him in that scenario. On the same track, I think Moffat’s writing of women suffers because he does so much with them up to a point. I think if we look back at all his WHO episodes, and include this recent SHERLOCK, then aside from Watson and Rory, he writes much stronger and meatier supporting roles for women than he does men. Sally Sparrow. The best Rose. The best Donna. Madame thingy. River. Adler. The woman in the Christmas special. Amy (when written by Moffat). These are all exciting, well written characters, who get to move plot forward, get great dialogue, and get to truly befuddle the lead character in ways that nobody else in the stories ever do. But then, because of what you identified about the two central characters, that also means these characters seem to fall further. Ultimately, we’re talking about a 50 year show in which the universe and everyone in it revolves around the central god-like character, and another show that’s called SHERLOCK, where a character named Sherlock rules the roost. He gives the women so much “moxie” (a word we need to bring back) to begin with, but eventually they cant escape the gravity of the shows that they’re in.

    But people who were upset about the treatment of River were upset because he’d written such a fun character up until the point they became upset. The reason the treatment of Irene Adler sticks out so much to those who’ve never read the original is because she was so much fun to begin with. Etc. And he writes some truly dull and expositional men.

    I was young when I watched it, so it might not stand up, but I remember PRESS GANG as a show that revolved around a well written female lead. But it’s easier to write these kinds of roles when you’re not getting distracted by how clever you are at timey-wimey stuff (yes, Moffat, i’m talking to you there.)

    And i’m not saying this to try and twist a genuine concern over his treatment of women into a sly way of saying; “woe is me, men get such poor parts,” not at all. The shows revolve around male leads, so that would be a very stupid way to try and change the conversation (so i expect the Daily Mail to do it any day now) But all i’m meaning is; I think he suffers from trying to do to much, rather than from ignorance, if that makes sense.

    Is this to say that there’s not a better way to do it? No. I wont stickup for it completely and say it couldn’t be done better or fairer. It could also be done worse, though. I find it bizarre that some (nobody here) people who attack Moff over gender issues now seem to prefer RTD, who did far worse things and showed less emotional truth. Anybody watch the fourth series of TORCHWOOD? Where an evil vagina at the centre of the word was sucking in mens blood? And where a woman was insulted by a misogynist, objectified, then shot twice and burned alive by the same weak man? Yuck.

    My main issue with SHERLOCK is as a fan of the source material. There was no reason, that I can see, to change the ending so much. And this is a case where I totally agree that he didn’t need to depower Irene as much as he did. That was a poor choice. I still give her more credit than many of the critics; the fact that Sherlock outwitted her ONCE doesn’t take away the fact that she spent so much of the episode out witting him. But it does take the shine off it.

    As for her “gay” thing, I’m still on the fence. I’m not comfortable with it. I need to watch it a second time. At the moment i’m still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; she spends the whole episode lying. She tells people what they need to hear. The only point we really know what she thinks is when Sherlock reads her pulse, but even then, that’s just a pulse, and it’s interpreted by a self-centred man; it could still tell us more about him than her. Sherlock feels a womans pulse race and then decides instantly, “this person is madly in love with me.” That still seems to obvious a conceit for me, in a series that surely is going to throw is arrogance back at him as the Moriarty theme unfolds. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it was a poorly thought out choice that insults a large number of the viewers, I don’t want to judge without more viewings.

    Shall we say, rewatch it on Friday?

    Not that I’m comfortable, either, with any instant snap decision in the other direction. Just because a character is described as one thing -I don’t think as a writer- means that the character needs to be cheapened by only ever being that thing. Which is a risk that many critics run. let’s see them as people first, and see the aspects of their character as things that can change and be revealed over time. If everyone in a story only ever stuck to the the first description given of them, we would never have any stories. And if it’s okay for Watson to be a straight man except for that one guy, then it’s okay for Irene to be gay except for that one guy. Since she and Watson essentially have the same amount of actual sexual relations with him (unless i missed anything since we tuned in a bit late.)

    Again, that may change on a second viewing.

    But you already know I agree with you on a few key issues. I’m still angry about the way the baby storyline was handled. I’m still miffed that he made such changes to the ending of a key HOLMES story, and changes that affect the way such a great character is viewed (hey..wait….didn’t Adler come off far worse, and far more manipulated in the SHERLOCK HOLMES movie a couple years ago?)

    And one other thing aimed at some of the critics out on the blogosphere in general (not here); There are blank pages on your computers. You clearly have the time and passion to write, and you clearly have views you want to express. How about, rather than coming to shows about some of the most established self-centred male characters in british pop-culture, then complaining if they’re not moulded to your world view…how about you use all that energy, passion, and blank pages to create some new stories and characters that do? People like Moffat are where they are not because the world is wired to make him succeed -because the world is NEVER wired to make a writer succeed- but because they…write. So go write. Writing is the best revenge to any issue you have with a poor story telling choice by someone else. Go write it bigger, better and fairer. Prove that it can be done.

    And hey, he is a man. Just as I am. All writers -even those of us who want to withdraw from the story- are putting ourselves on the page. We don’t always get it right when we’re writing people of the opposite sex, gender or race. And more than that, sometimes we get it flat our wrong. I’ve written some terrible female roles, I also hope i’ve written some good ones. Hopefully, we learn when we get it wrong, and we get better and more honest at it. If he makes such a big error as the baby-thing in future, then he may lose the trust he’s earned from me, but he’s still got it for now.

    If he makes such big and needless changes to Sherlock stories, then, again, me and him might be having imaginary words.

    • I am slightly concerned that the comment that you left on my post is longer than my original post. But hey, as long as you pretty much agree with me 😉

      • The Bezzer

        We do broadly agree on a lot of things, but with reference to baby-gate – Amy got kidnapped and cloned and whatever and waited for the Doctor and Rory to come rescue her. A bad thing happened to Rory too (which SHOULD be recognised, not least if we’re ever going to start seeing both parents as equal caregivers in this society) but he got to go and do something about it. He retained his agency, while Amy’s remained taken from her. (until she did your woman in the finale)

        The only other thing I’d say is that not every critic is a writer – in fact they’re often mutually exclusive skill sets. For people like us who learn from taking things apart, criticism is a step on the way to writing, but elevating Moffat’s just cause his stuff’s been on the telly and ours hasn’t doesn’t work for me. Bad writing is bad writing and fail is fail, and I don’t care if someone’s won every award going and been in every medium, they can still have a clunker every now and then. But I’m taking the point on board – my first novel is out there, and my screenplay’s about to go in for its competition. Good times, eh?

        I do like the ‘doing too much’ point though – sometimes I think Moffat might be under pressure from the scale of the personalities he’s writing – these guys are Gods of a kind and so naturally they suck screentime and brilliance in more than anyone else on the page. Trick is to get the balance though – and he has done that sometimes, it’s not like he’s going out and trashing every character. Just that when he does, they tend to be women and it’s usually in a way that people get very annoyed about.

        • Stringer

          I’m not elevating moffat for being on telly, though. Almost the opposite. I’m pointing out that writers write. He’s gotten where he is because he writes. On the whole internet criticism is backseat driving, I find. And I’m doing some of it here, too. But the proof of the pudding is in the writing. I’ll break apart pretty much everything I watch, but so that I can learn and write, not to bring that breaking apart to the net.

          This is certainly not a dig at everyone on the net, however it does give a voice to those backseat drivers. The same people who want to tell me what I should be doing in my books, but who will never actually write a book themselves. Writers need to challenge these people, IMO. The answer is always to write a better version.

          AND WHY ARE MY REPLIES ALL SO LONG THIS WEEK.

  • I have a couple of really simple things to suggest about the rubbish Sherlock twist that revealed Adler to be a puppet of Moriarty:

    It felt to me like Moffatt/Gatiss trying to shoehorn in a peg to hang the overarching series plot on to. The episode didn’t require it (at all, in fact it rather spoiled things) but maybe they needed to squeeze Moriarty in somewhere, anywhere, they could.

    I haven’t read the original Holmes books since I was a little boy, so could be wrong, but wasn’t Adler *always* a puppet of Moriarty?

    • Monica

      No, she was never a puppet of Moriarty. They appeared in separate stories and their paths never crossed.

      • Stringer

        indeed, the puppet of moriarty thing is now so prevalent because of the Guy Ricthie film, that turned her into a manipulated damsel in distress. And, yeah, Moffat did that too to a degree. I also have a theory; the ending was shot very differently to the rest of the episode. It felt tacked on. I wonder if it was added afterwards to appease someone?

  • The Bezzer

    You know I was particularly pissed off about this – not least because Adler is one of the few bits of all the wankfests about every incarnation of Sherlock that I liked. I’m over dudes with God complexes, but I love the visuals of this show, and the bits that Moffat and Gatiss do right – rapid-fire dialogue of such smartness that it calls to mind a certain American writer also criticised for his handling of women. But I digress.

    I’ll read that being a fan of problematic things in short order (too many open tabs, ffs) but I broadly understand that difficult position. I think it’s okay to be a fan of problematic things if the people creating them in some way acknowledge that they’re problematic (overtly, or by implication). Moffat seems to… keep doing the same things and passing them off as clever. And to everyone who says ‘if you don’t like it, don’t watch’, that’s far too easy. People need to be held responsible, by critics or by public opinion. Not to mention that taking issue with one aspect of a show doesn’t prevent one from enjoying the rest.

    River Song is probably the best parallel to Adler, in that she showed up being this sassy broad who was the Doctor’s near-to-equal. She had some of his kit (the screwdriver), could time travel independently of him and most importantly didn’t take instructions from him. She was funny, sexy and scary, whether or not she was in the Doctor’s company. And then it turned out she was doing it all for the magic peen, which: URGH. (By the way, the conclusion most people came to by the Who finale was the one I came to a few episodes back and was told I was ‘jumping the gun’ and ‘give the writer a chance’. Then he did exactly what I said he was doing. Ho hum.)

    Amy Pond is one of the most annoying characters in Western canon, so I’m not even going there.

    Here are my options for the ‘lesbian’ thing with Adler:
    a) She was lying. So Moffat (continuing his obsession with ‘them lesbians’ from Coupling days) thinks it’s just fun and titillating to reduce an entire sexual orientation to a punchline or quick deception
    b) She does identify as a lesbian, but Sherlock is so Godlike that he overcame biology, chemistry and her own choices. Wow.
    c) She idenitifies as bisexual or queer, and Moffat wasn’t smart enough to realise there’s a spectrum. You don’t have to say you’re a lesbian to sleep with women. You can be ‘mostly’ into women. So her saying she’s gay is clumsy and inaccurate. And he doesn’t care enough to get that right.

    I love a good bromance as much as the next ‘we never get proper gays on telly’ viewer, but one more reaction shot of John squirming at the constant misconception that he’s bumming Sherlock and I’m going to throw things. Either they have subtext and we play with it, or they’re just mates and leave it there. But the over-egging of the gay pudding is insensitive and annoying.

    A lot of that is up to interpretation, but the facts are as you’ve put them – Adler goes from being a character who canonically bests Sherlock to not besting him. And then there’s that fucking ‘on her knees about to be beheaded’ shit which is way too disturbing to not have deeper roots. Anyone who CHANGES a woman’s successful solo getaway to that scenario (from which a dude saves her, natch) has a problem with women, or a problem with writing women. If he made it up for his own characters, it would be more valid. Or if he changed Sherlock’s other stories to him being defeated when he won in the original stories or whatever, but nope, save that crap for the women.

    Also, how is this not just well-written fanfic with a big budget? Someone else’s characters, someone else’s canon, and you just stick it in an AU setting? A random thing I have been pondering, as a final aside 😉

  • KW

    That caption. THAT CAPTION. It pretty much embodies everything I wanted the River & Amy relationship to be, and wasn’t.

  • KW

    Oh, and don’t forget that Sherlock measures her interest in him in a physical way – heartbeat, dilated pupils – so it isn’t purely intellectual. Naturally, John’s interest in Sherlock is PURELY INTELLECTUAL BROMANCE, YO. Ugh.

    • Yep, this. Knew I would miss something out.

  • Jenny Wren

    Although I’m not massively familiar with Who since Moffat took over, one thing that has struck me recently is that his women so often sacrifice their own goals for the leading man. It’s difficult to imagine it happening the other way round.

  • Aw, you quoted me 🙂 I like this post. And I too am pretending that the last 5-10 minutes didn’t happen…

    • lis is on her phone

      I liked YOUR post. Obviously 😉

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