So because I am a crazy lady who cares about her stories and her feminism, I have basically spent the whole week having imaginary internal arguments with Steven Moffat about the sexism in Sherlock and Doctor Who. And because I am also a crazy lady with a blog, I have decided to get all of this angsting off my chest in a cathartic, therapeutic way by having an imaginary interview with Imaginary Steven Moffat right here on the internet, in honour of the forthcoming Sherlock episode.
Thus, I give you: My Imaginary Interview With Imaginary Steven Moffat!
Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog.
ISM: Thank you. Though I feel I should start by apologising.
Me: Oh? Why?
ISM: I’ll be honest. I have no idea who you are. My Imaginary Agent booked this gig at the last minute, so… you have the advantage of me. (Laughs)
Me: (Laughs) Fair enough! Well, in brief: my name is Foz Meadows, I’m a fantasy author, a geek, a blogger and a feminist – and as you’ve been honest enough to start with an apology, I probably should, too.
ISM: And why’s that?
Me: Because – straight to the point – I’ve basically got you here to talk about the concerns of many that there’s a theme of sexism in your work, specifically Sherlock and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Who.
ISM: Look. I’m very tired of these accusations. Neither I nor anyone on the team is either sexist, or a misogynist, and frankly I find the suggestion offensive. As I’ve said before in response to Jane Clare Jones’s piece in the Guardian:
I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings. I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong.
Me: Right, OK. I understand that. And like I said, I apologise, because you’ve come in here not knowing that this is the topic under discussion, when clearly it’s something you feel very strongly about.
ISM: There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a sexist. I respect women.
Me: All right. I hear what you’re saying. But as you say, there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between what a writer believes in real life and the things they write about, and on those grounds, I and a lot of other fans would contend there’s a case to answer.
ISM: This interview is over. I’m leaving.
Me: I’m sorry, Imaginary Steven Moffat, but it’s not, and you’re not, because this is all happening in my head. You’re Imaginary Steven Moffat, not Real Steven Moffat, and while I’m sure he might like to leave at this point, this whole thing is, as they say, my party. One way or another, we’re going to thrash this out.
Me: Right. So, before we get to the meat of things, I’d like to make one thing clear from the outset.
ISM: Go on, then. Clearly I can’t stop you.
Me: Thank you. What I want to begin by saying is – and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me – that contrary to how it might seem, I am actually a fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock.
ISM: (Snorts) You’ve got a funny way of showing it.
Me: I can see how it might appear that way, and I’ve definitely used some strong language to get my point across. But I’m sick of this idea that offering up real criticism of the things I love somehow makes me a bad fan. If I didn’t like your shows, I wouldn’t bother critiquing them, because I wouldn’t bother watching; but that doesn’t mean that all their good points are enough to make me excuse the sexism. A lot of what’s on TV is far worse than anything you’ve put out, but that’s why I avoid it. Certainly, I’ll complain about the damage they do, but not in personal terms, because I have no attachment to the material. But I do care about the Doctor; I do care about Sherlock Holmes. These are both characters who’ve existed long before you ever started to write them, who have dedicated fandoms and histories that precede your work by decades. You were two years old when Doctor Who first aired, and Conan Doyle was writing in the 1800s. That’s a long time for people to become attached to these stories.
ISM: So what you’re saying is that by taking over two existing narratives, I’ve come along and ruined a good thing – that all the previous interpretations are better, and that because my work doesn’t meet your standards, it’s crap.
Me: Not at all. You’re a fantastic writer. You have great ideas, you put together great production teams. A lot of your work I really love. But what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between picking up an existing story and creating something new, because existing stories come with existing audiences.
ISM: So I should just avoid doing anything original with old material?
Me: No, no! It’s not that you shouldn’t try new things – I love that Sherlock is set in the modern day. It’s just – remember what I said earlier, about not critiquing shows I don’t care about?
Me: Well, I’d say that’s true of the majority of people. So when a new, original show rubs us the wrong way, it’s a very easy matter to disengage: we don’t have any investment in the story beyond what we’re willing to put in at the outset. And if you, as a writer – as all writers do – start to build up a portfolio based on your individual kind of storytelling, then as you move from project to project, you’ll start to collect fans whose primary investment in each of your new stories is the fact of your involvement: that you, Imaginary Steven Moffat, are the one in charge. By the same token, though, some people might not like your storytelling style; maybe they’re just ambivalent, or they’ve never heard of you, or they like it, but not enthusiastically enough to consider themselves a fan. Maybe they even hate it. But if you start writing about characters that are dear to them – like Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes – then those people will end up watching your shows, too. And unlike your usual fanbase, their primary motive isn’t your involvement, but the presence of existing characters. And this is important, because it means that a significant proportion of the people responding critically to your output will end up critiquing, not just the show itself, but the way you’re telling it. And because the characters aren’t yours, their opinions can’t just be written off by saying the show isn’t for them; because clearly, those characters are for them, or they wouldn’t have bothered watching.
ISM: I don’t think I’ve ever said these shows aren’t for fans of the originals. Quite the opposite.
Me: No, I’m not saying you did. But what I’m ultimately getting at here is that perhaps one reason why the accusation of sexism has upset you so much is that it’s no something you’ve had to deal with from your usual fanbase, and you’re confused as to why people like me, who are being heavily critical, are watching to begin with.
ISM: You do think badly of me, then.
Me: A little bit, yes.
Me: Look, I’m trying to be honest. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and I certainly don’t expect you to be. But part of fighting sexism is acknowledging that, precisely because we’re not perfect, our ideals and our actions don’t always match up.
ISM: You’re making it sound like I have lapses; like I suddenly forget that women are equal to men and behave like a Neanderthal. It’s ridiculous. I’m not a sexist; I repudiate sexism; therefore, there is no sexism in my writing.
Me: But that doesn’t logically follow, does it?
ISM: Excuse me?
Me: Well, look at it this way. It it possible to offend someone unintentionally, even when you’re trying to be polite?
ISM: What, you mean like a back-handed compliment?
Me: No, I mean genuinely by accident. Like, say I meet someone at a party whose outfit I think is stunning, and I compliment them on their style by comparing them to a particular celebrity who, unbeknownst to me, they completely loathe.
ISM: Obviously that’s possible, yes.
Me: OK, right, good. So, sticking with that example, what if I know beforehand that the person hates the celebrity, and I still make the comparison?
ISM: That would be deliberately offensive, yes.
Me: Yes, it would – but what if, even knowing what I know, it’s my firm belief that the person’s dislike for the celebrity is unreasonable? That because I’d consider the comparison to be complimentary, they should, too, and that by making the comparison, I’m partially trying to bring them around to my way of thinking?
ISM: Still offensive, but in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, though.
Me: Of course. It’s a more contextual point. But can we agree that, even though I’ve paid the compliment knowing it will be badly received, to my way of thinking, I’ve not actually said anything offensive? That because I wouldn’t be offended if someone said that to me, I haven’t set out to be insulting, and that if the person is insulted, then that’s down to their beliefs more than it is my actions?
ISM: Technically, yes, I agree. Though you shouldn’t be surprised if they still react badly to it.
Me: Of course not. But compare all this to what you’ve just said about sexism. Intentions only carry us so far. Believing that you’re not sexist doesn’t prevent you from perpetuating sexism any more than intending to be complimentary prevents me from being insulting. And when you react to the knowledge that some people find your work sexist, not by considering the possibility that it is, but by continuing to assert that we’re wrong to see it that way – by saying something you know we’ll find it offensive – then, as you say, you shouldn’t be surprised that we react badly.
ISM: Yes, all right, very clever. But this is all metaphorical; you haven’t actually addressed the content of what I’ve written.
Me: OK, then. Consider Irene Adler. In the original Conan Doyle story, A Scandal in Bohemia, she beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game, marries her fiancé and leaves England victorious, while he is left – according to Watson – with a new-found respect for the intellectual capabilities of women. There’s also an inference that he’s attracted to her, because the only payment he takes for the case is her photo: at the very least, he certainly admires her.
ISM: And Sherlock admires her in my version, too. He definitely respects her.
Me: Yes, but he also beats her; she “beats” him with a riding crop – which is a nice play on words, I grant you – but he’s the one who actually wins. And then at the end, you’ve literally made her a damsel in distress, rescued from execution by terrorists in Karachi.
ISM: Look, I’m sorry, but it seems like a pretty poor definition of sexism to say that men can never beat women. Following that logic, any story where women don’t come out on top is sexist.
Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you were writing an original story where your male protagonist triumphed over and subsequently rescued a female antagonist whom he nonetheless respected, that would be one thing. But when you take an existing, much-beloved story where the female antagonist not only wins, but is vaunted by the male protagonist for doing so – where this is, in fact, the primary basis for his admiring her – and change it so that things end up the other way around, then yes, I’m going to call that sexist.
ISM: (Angry) So you’re saying I wrote Adler the way I did because I’m a sexist? That wanting to write a fresh interpretation had nothing to do with it, and all I really wanted to do was put her down as a character?
Me: (Frustrated) No! What I’m saying is that you elected to make Sherlock look really badass by having him first defeat and then rescue an intelligent Irene Adler, but without appreciating the fact that making male characters stronger at the expense of their female counterparts is one of the oldest, most sexist tropes in the book. Using the trope unconsciously doesn’t make you a sexist: but it doesn’t strop the trope from being sexist, and if you refuse to acknowledge that some narrative conventions are founded on sexism, then you will invariably include sexism in your work.
ISM: So men being cooler than women is sexist?
Me: No, not just being cooler than. Being cooler at the expense of. Can you see that there’s a distinction?
ISM: (Pauses) Hypothetically, yes, but I don’t see how that applies in the case of Adler.
Me: Sherlock is made to look cool and competent because Adler’s feelings for him prove her undoing. That’s coolness for him at her expense: she loses her professionalism – the phone being “Sherlocked” – while he gains credibility for spotting the error. Then she has to beg him for protection: she loses her dignity so that he, in refusing her, can gain mastery. Finally, she loses her competence – the ability to get herself out of trouble – while he gains power for rescuing her.
ISM: But now we’re just back again to this tired idea of sexism meaning any story where women lose to men.
Me: No, we’re not. Because as an existing character being reinterpreted, Adler is quite literally loosing her essence. In Conan Doyle’s original, she has professionalism, dignity and power, and the story ends with her in possession of all three. But in your version, Sherlock strips these qualities from her to enhance himself, and for no other reason than that you wrote him that way.
ISM: (Uncomfortable) All right. I can see how people might be… I can see why some people might not like that ending, though I know a lot of them have. But the story is about Sherlock, after all – it’s his show, it’s his party. Why shouldn’t he be the best character?
Me: Imaginary Mr Moffat, if you think that losing once to an exceptional woman is enough to stop Sherlock Holmes from being the best character in his own show, then we really do have a problem.
Me: The fact is, you have a habit of depowering your female characters to make your male protagonists look stronger. That doesn’t mean your women are badly written, or that your male characters are sexist, or that you are. It means that, somewhere along the line, you’ve unconsciously absorbed two very old and very powerful narrative ideas: that a protagonist who routinely proves himself better than the other characters is a strong protagonist; and that an exceptional man can be made even cooler by his rescue of an exceptional woman. And because we live in a society that’s still overrun with sexism, you’ve also taken on board the idea that it’s acceptable to make jokes about women’s bodies.
ISM: I think you’re going too far, now. I’ve conceded the point about Irene Adler, but now you’re grasping at straws. Where did all this appearance stuff come into it?
Me: Molly Hooper. Sherlock is constantly criticising her make-up, her clothes, her appearance, her sexuality. Twice, he makes her cry. He even criticizes her weight, making it a negative thing that being with her new boyfriend has caused her to get heavier, when in Conan Doyle’s books, that same exchange was a friendly one between Holmes and Watson, with the weight-gain being part of a cheerful, positive assessment of how marriage agreed with John. In Doctor Who, too, when Mels regenerates into River, the first thing she does is start talking about her body, what clothes will fit and how she needs to weigh herself. For an entire season, Amy is reduced to being a womb in a box – the Doctor even destroys the ‘ganger that took her place, because she’s not “real”, even though he’d just spent the whole episode telling people that ‘gangers deserved human rights – and then later, you let Old Amy die in favour of saving her younger counterpart, even though Old Amy has been suffering for forty years. In both cases, a copy of Amy dies because her body is wrong – she’s not the real, young Amy, and so she can cease to exist with impunity.
ISM: This is a separate point, though, to the one you were making before.
Me: Separate, but related to why critics think there are sexist themes running through both interpretations.
ISM: I don’t see it. You’re taking all these scenes out of context. This isn’t about plot, and it’s not about changing an existing character. Molly, Amy and River are my creations. You’ve gone completely off-message.
Me: OK, I’ll admit to having jumped around a bit. My apologies for that. But I’d like to run with another hypothetical.
ISM: Do I have a choice?
Me: Not really.
ISM: (Muttering) My Imaginary Agent is so fired, I can’t even.
Me: Right. So imagine I’m the writer and creator of a TV show called The Last Amazon – it’s about Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen from Greek legend, being an immortal, kickass warrior who’s lived through to the present day and has now teamed up with a team of geeky sidekicks to fight the forces of mythological darkness.
ISM: If you say so.
Me: Now, this is mostly an SFF show, but with mystery elements. Sure, there’ll be flashes of romance and sexual tension from time to time, but mainly it’s about magic mixing with technology, solving crimes and having crazy adventures.
Me: Apart from Hippolyte, most of the geeky sidekicks are women. There’s one or two men involved, but in almost every encounter with the female characters, they either suffer hilarious put downs or are told to shut up. One of them has a massive crush on Hippolyte, but she’s a kickass Amazon warrior – she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and makes hurtful jokes at his expense, which is played for laughs. The female camaraderie is the real emotional heart of the show: ladies looking out for each other, being awesome, and only really dealing with men on the sidelines. In fact, men are mostly encountered as victims: handsome surfer youths who’ve been drowned by Sirens, loving fathers who’ve been ripped apart by Harpies, little boys who’ve been kidnapped by Neriads, wise old men who are callously killed by the descendants of Circe. Sometimes women die, too, but those deaths are always more perfunctory, less brutal and less emotionally intense than those of men. Most killers are, by contrast, women: goddesses and girl-monsters all, and there’s a general sense that, by taking them on, the female protagonists are fighting the worst aspects of their own gender: protecting the less powerful men from the predations of cruel, murderous women.
ISM: Very subtle.
Me: And yet, the reverse dynamic is the sacred foundation of almost every crime procedural, ever. Except for the put-downs part. That’s just for your benefit.
Me: Anyway. You’re watching this show because hey, Greek mythology is awesome! And you really start to get into it. But then you notice the fact that the women are always putting down the men. You notice that, while the female costumes are cut concealingly, to make them look well-dressed and competent, the pretty young men are always shown shirtless or wearing revealing clothes – and that’s offputting, because it’s ultimately unnecessary. You notice that the men, though clearly doing important work in the background, are never given due appreciation by the other characters. You notice that time and again, they’re the ones imperilled and threatened; they’re the weak link the villains always seek to exploit. You notice that the men are always ruled by their emotions, falling in love with the women at first sight, their romantic epiphanies made grandiose while the women are allowed to remain aloof. You notice that the women often make jokes about how the men look – about their weight, and their hair, and their attractiveness, their probable penis size and how good they are in bed; sometimes they’re even shown to call their male partners the wrong name, which is played for laughs. You notice that, given a bunch of new characters to protect in a perilous situation, it’s always the men who end up dying for dramatic effect. You notice that, while the female characters are given room to develop in lots of different ways, the men are primarily defined by their sexuality: as lovers, adulterers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers, but rarely anything else. And when Hercules, Hippolyte’s historical love interest, shows up on the scene, you’re dismayed to find that, far from being the competent warrior who won her love and then left her, as per the old story, he instead shows up as a high-class escort – one who claims to be gay, but then falls for Hippolyte anyway – while she then humiliates and rescues him in short order.
ISM: Like I said. Subtle. And long-winded.
Me: I’ll get to the point, then. Having watched The Last Amazon, you, as a male viewer, start to feel that I, the female creator, might be a bit of a misandrist. Certainly, there are elements of misandry in my characterisation, or of sexism at the very least. You cannot find any male characters who come out on top, and while you still appreciate that this is meant to be Hippolyte’s show, you don’t see why there can’t be more of a balance where the portrayal of men is concerned. You’re not the only one to have noticed the problems, either. You write about them, detailing your complaints in blogs and newspaper articles. And then I respond, because I’m angry at your criticism. I say that I’m not a sexist; that I find it offensive that anyone would use the word misandry to describe what I do, because obviously I believe women and men are equal – and after all, I’m married! I say your claim is ridiculous, and don’t address your specific concerns beyond saying that you’re out of line. I am not a sexist, I protest; therefore, my show isn’t sexist. End of discussion. So how would that leave you feeling?
ISM: I’d be angry. Frustrated. At the very least, I’d start to think that, if you really disliked sexism, then you’d want to make very sure that you weren’t perpetuating it by accident, rather than just assuming it was impossible. That you were reacting defensively, automatically, without any sort of self-assessment at all. The unfairness of it would nag at me until one day, having had various arguments with you in my head about what you were doing wrong, I realised that we’d never be able to have a proper conversation, and so decided to write down an interview with Imaginary Foz Meadows about all the misandry and sexism in The Last Amazon. Because even an imaginary dialogue would be better than your angry, non-response to the legitimate complaints of fans who are sick of seeing their gender slighted and demonised in the media.
Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, thanks for joining me.
ISM: It’s been a pleasure.