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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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

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.