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.

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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.