Sherlock’s sexy, but not sexist

Cards on the table. I love Steven Moffat, the British screenwriter currently in charge of Sherlock and Doctor Who. If it were possible to have him cloned, I would find it tempting. Coupling? Hilarious. Jekyll? Creepy. Press Gang? Sorely missed.

So it pained me to see him accused of sexism after he changed the character of Irene Adler in BBC1's recent Sherlock episode A Scandal in Belgravia from an opera singer to a dominatrix. And then - spoiler alert - instead of outwitting Holmes, she was undone by her decision to let her fearsome crush on him inform a crucial password. He, in the end, had to save her from death at the hands of some cross-looking blokes with swords.

Jane Clare Jones in the Guardian called this a "jaw-dropping finale, which somehow managed to smoosh together a double bill of two of patriarchy's top-ten fantasies" - a powerful woman laid low and a big, strong man to rescue her.

Blind love

Maybe my love has blinded me to Moffat's supposed trouble with women but I find this analysis hard to believe. The character of Adler in the new series of Sherlock is undoubtedly less strong than her forebear in the books but there are loads of sound dramatic reasons why you would make
this change. Building a series arc about the "consulting criminal" Moriarty being behind all Sherlock's troubles, for one. Not demolishing the allure of Holmes the Invincible so soon by having him outwitted, for another.

Not making every woman in your drama a strong, confident intellectual isn't the same thing as being systemically sexist. As the IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan once 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."

Leading men

Stepping away from Sherlock, it's fair to say that Moffat's Doctor Who episodes are not as bristlingly right-on as those of his predecessor Russell T Davies. Still, this is the man behind great Who characters such as River Song, Amy Pond, 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 a long-running drama? The Doctor will always be the most interesting character in Doctor Who, in the same way that Holmes is the linchpin of Sherlock. Moffat simply had the "bad fortune" to inherit two series with well-loved leading men. The answer is a few more Buffy the Vampire Slayers (also the solution to a number of other problems with TV today, incidentally).

One last thing: during Moffat's time in charge of the Tardis, there has been a female companion who is - shock, horror! - married. 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. Admittedly, it was a bit weird that the mother in the Christmas episode was the only one who could save the day because, apparently, having a working uterus makes you "stronger" than anyone else - but wasn't it refreshing to see a mother in a TV drama doing something other than washing up or nagging?

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis