Does Steven Moffat have a problem with women?

A debate over the Doctor Who and Sherlock writer's attitude to female characters.

On 1 January, the first episode of the new series of Sherlock aired -- a retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle story A Scandal in Bohemia called A Scandal in Belgravia. Among several changes from the source material were a few which provoked comment; particularly the decision to adapt the character of Irene Adler ("the woman", as Holmes calls her).

Instead of an opera singer, she was now a dominatrix. And -- spoiler alert -- instead of outwitting Sherlock, she was undone by her decision to make a crucial password dependent on her fearsome crush on the great-coated detective.

That night, Zoe Stavri wrote a blog post called "Irene Adler: how to butcher a brilliant woman character", which argued that "it's pretty when a story written over 120 years ago has better gender politics than its modern reimagining". Jane Clare Jones, writing for Comment is Free, concurred. I, however, disagreed, arguing that there were sound dramatic reasons for the changes.

So I invited Zoe to debate the issue on this blog. Here is our email exchange --

Helen Lewis: First up, cards on the table. I really like Steven Moffat's work; he'd be near the top of any list of British screenwriters working today, and if it were possible to have him cloned, I would find it sorely tempting. Coupling? Hilarious. Jekyll? Creepy. Blink? One of the best pieces of television I've ever seen. Sherlock? So good I watched the first episode again the instant iPlayer would let me.

Maybe my love has blinded me to the fact that he's supposedly a sexist, but I find it hard to believe. The character of Irene Adler in the new series of Sherlock is undoubtedly less strong than her forebear in the books - she doesn't outwit the detective - but there are any number of sound, practical non-sexist reasons why you would make this change. Building a series arc about Moriaty, for one. Not demolishing the key allure of Sherlock the invincible so soon, for another.

Not making every woman in your drama a strong, confident person isn't the same as being systemically sexist. I always remember what The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan told me: "One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism."

Zoe Stavri: Cards on the table: I, too, adore the work of Steven Moffat. I found myself turning joyful metaphorical cartwheels when it was announced that the man who wrote some of my favourite Doctor Who episodes would be running the whole show. Moffat's writing sizzles and his plots twist with intricacy and never fail to surprise and delight.

I find it difficult, then, to reconcile my love for Moffat's shows with a stripe of sexism I feel runs through it all. Particularly egregious was the first episode in the new series of Sherlock, which is based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story in which Holmes finds himself completely and utterly outsmarted by a woman.

In Moffat's take, not only are Irene Adler's smarts demoted to being due to advice from Holmes's male nemesis Moriarty, but Adler ends up as a damsel in need of rescue.

I would be more willing to excuse this as serving a gender-blind narrative function were it not for the rest of Moffat's body of work I have watched. Let's start with Coupling, which was was funny enough to make even this sour-faced feminist crack a smile, despite much of the humour revolving around the notion that men and women are different species with men wanting sex and women wanting a relationship.

Compared to the men in the show, the women characters are somewhat flat and one-dimensional, desperately scrapping over getting men into their tightly-woven female webs.

Then there's Moffat's run on Doctor Who, which has featured some downright problematic content. Take, for example, the two Moffat Christmas specials. In the more recent one, the plot was resolved by motherhood being the source of women's strength and womb-magic saving everybody. The Christmas before was about a woman in a box who was occasionally taken out for men's amusement.

Put together, a worrying picture emerges. I'd hoped to see Irene Adler done justice on the screen, but she received a similar treatment to the rest of Moffat's women.

HL: OK, I will give you that Moffat's Doctor Who episodes are not as bristlingly right-on as those of his predecessor, Russell T Davies. But still, this is the man behind River Song and Amy Pond and Madame de Pompadour and Sally Sparrow. You could make the argument that these characters are primarily explored in relation to a man, but isn't that the nature of long-running drama?

The Doctor will always be the most interesting character in Doctor Who, in the same way that Sherlock is the lynchpin of Sherlock Holmes. Moffat simply has the "bad fortune" to inherit two series with well-loved leading men. The answer is a few more Buffy the Vampire Slayers (that is also the answer to a number of other problems with TV today, incidentally).

It's interesting that you raise Coupling, because for me that's the hardest to defend. The characters - both male and female - are fairly broad brush, but I'd excuse that as the nature of the sitcom. Does it pass the Bechdel test, though? Possibly it's rare that the female characters discuss anything other than men, but again - the clue is in the title. It's a comedy about relationships. And I don't agree the women are more one-dimensional: of all the character, Jeff is the subject of the most mockery, and is the least "realistic". Is that misandry?

One last thing: Steven Moffat's time in charge of the Tardis has meant there has been a female companion who is - shock horror! - married. I love that. I love that in Moffat's world, you still get to have adventures once you're married, and even when you've had a baby. And yes, I found the "this one is strong" Mummy-knows-bestery of the Christmas episode a bit yukky, but it really was refreshing to see a mother getting to be part of a TV drama doing something other than washing up or nagging.

ZS: You raise a very good point about the nature of long-running dramas and how Moffat's current two shows happen to be centred around men. This is certainly relevant to the issue, and represents the broader problem of sexism in the media: there are far fewer shows, films and books with women in the leading role. I definitely don't expect Moffat to single-handedly solve this entrenched problem, yet there are ways to create a strong woman character in a male-centred show which Moffat has missed entirely.

Returning to Sherlock, there were unfortunate implications to Adler being "beaten" by Sherlock, recasting an independent woman character as one who is ultimately less good than a man and needs to be rescued. This does not exist in a vacuum: it exists in a broader context wherein female characters are largely inferior to men anyway, and in the minds of many, women are still the weaker sex. To take a source material which subverted the Victorian expectation of a weak, emotional woman and return it into something which exemplifies this archaic archetype is inherently problematic.

Moffat has also expressed concerning opinions about women, describing his viewing of Karen Gillan's audition tape as "a shame she's so wee and dumpy" in an episode of Doctor Who Confidential. Ultimately, she ended up in the role as Amy Pond because on meeting he realised she was tall and slim.

To me, a better measure of sexism in the media is not the subversions along the way, nor the Bechdel test, but where the woman characters ultimately end up. In Moffat's work, this is almost universally "in the arms of a man". Whether as a contrite tamed shrew like Adler or having fought their way there through improbable science, they all end up in the same place.

You can find Helen and Zoe on Twitter - @helenlewis and @stavvers

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.