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 associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

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