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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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.