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.

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.

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?