Opinion Steven Moffat, writer of Doctor Who and Sherlock

Published on January 11th, 2012 | by Meredith Burdett

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Is The Grand Moff Sexist?

Is Steven Moffat sexist? Does he find women the weaker sex that always needs a man to step in and do the hard work? Does his body of work on television reflect this?

Steven Moffat, writer of Doctor Who and SherlockThe answer is quite simply no. But there are people out there who find some of his episodes of Doctor Who, Sherlock and other shows a wee bit tinged in male domination.

A recent post on the New Statesman website by Helen Lewis Hasteley has presented an interesting and lively debate about whether some of Moffat’s scripts bestow that the writer has a problem with women. This comes from a blog written by Zoe Stavri, who takes part in the debate, who expressed that the character of Irene Adler in the new series of Sherlock was not as strong in gender specific ways as she was in her first appearance in literature over 120 years ago.

The pros and cons of the debate are both fascinating and have some very strong points to make. Hasteley is very much in the pro Moffat camp, arguing that the writer has changed the female characters in his various scripts for the better and put them on an even keel with their male counterparts. Stavri on the other hand, who is also a Moffat fan, notes several changes in classic characters that may not be for the better including this:

“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.”

One might argue that it’s not the fact that Irene Adler is beaten in Sherlock that should be focused on but the littler moments that empower her. She may well have been beaten by the detective but she had both Sherlock and Mycroft in her power at one point. To best one Holmes is clever but to best two at the same time is downright genius. Looking at Moffat’s other work; he gives women some of the most powerful roles in Doctor Who, elevating them higher than any male could dream to reach. Look how Madame de Pompadour takes the Doctor’s breath away in 2006’s The Girl In The Fireplace. The 900 year old alien literally sacrifices his home and his friends to be with her in the blink of an eye because he realises that Pompadour is every part his equal. Let’s not forget that this is the man who also created River Song, one of the strongest characters to ever appear in Doctor Who and certainly not someone who could ever be bested.

Moffat writes stories these days that involve male leads and so ultimately the focus will be from their perspective but that by no means is an indication that he doesn’t know just how powerful woman are. However, if we all agreed on something there would be no excitement in the world so have a read of the debate and give us your thoughts on the matter!

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What happens when an eight year old kid watches the 1993 repeat run of Planet of the Daleks? He pretty much ends up here writing about the show that grabbed hold of him and never let go!




18 Responses to Is The Grand Moff Sexist?

  1. avatar elle24 says:

    This topic has been debated for a while in the feminist-geeky corner of the blogosphere. There’s excellent contribution from Jos on Feministing, who points to a brilliant post from Lindsay Miller, written half-way break of the most recent series, about why shouty, pouty Amy Pond is so depressing to watch. And that was before it was revealed that her post-Doctor career was in perfume advertising… And don’t get me started on that line from young River about taking an archaeology degree so that she can find a man.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Moff. I’ve just been re-watching (and adoring) Blink. But he has lost it in the last couple of years. Almost all his recent women have been little more than sex objects or baby-makers. Rose, Martha, Donna were all well-rounded characters that intelligent female viewers (or at least this one) could relate to, flaws and all. They all grew from their time with the Doctor, and he learned just as much from them. But I despise Amy — the sort of brain-dead giggler I would flee from in real life, who brings nothing to the programme but legs and hair and an inability to act. And I am sorely disappointed that River is increasingly defined as wife and daughter rather than as a kick-arse academic.

    So roll on the next series, with new women characters who are more than just their bodies and their relationships to men. Please!?


    • Hi Elle24 – You appear to be confusing Amy Pond with Karen Gillan.

      I despise Amy — the sort of brain-dead giggler I would flee from in real life, who brings nothing to the programme but legs and hair and an inability to act

      This is hardly objective and makes for a very confused read. You also seem to be basing your judgment on Series 5 Amy who was less defined than Series 6.

      As for River, why shouldn’t she be defined as a wife and daughter AS WELL as being a kick-ass academic, which we’ve always known she is? Or would you prefer her to be two dimensional?

    • avatar ralph says:

      Wow you made a lot of mistakes there:
      1) Her career ISN’T advertising perfume, it’s clearly her own brand (this was confirmed by Moffat but it’s blindingly obvious, it’s called petrichor and the tag line is “for the girl tired of waiting”).
      2) What on earth are you talking about?! All of the other characters took step backwards. Rose became dependent and obsessed with the Doctor, her crush on him became her defining characteristic, so extreme that she eventually had to be given her own clone. Martha certainly didn’t move forward and Donna had her memories wiped. Amy is a character who started with a number of neuroses which were CAUSED BY THE DOCTOR which she met head on and addressed. She started off unsure about what she wanted in life and by the time she leaves the TARDIS is a far more certain and less emotionally scarred individual.

  2. avatar TonyS says:

    And just look at “Coupling”. No-one could call Susan the weaker sex in that!

  3. avatar RoryJ says:

    I agree TonyS – I think his full range of writing exposes a range of strong female characters.
    From a DR Who perspective, surely the theme of the Dr providing ‘protection’ for his more vulnerable companion isn’t a new one?
    Personally, I’m much more intrigued by the re-occuring Moffet theme of the ‘lone child’ and the ‘disjointed family’ – very ‘Guillermo del Toro’…I suspect such themes are psychologically paving the way for some level of cosmic family reunion next series…

  4. avatar daniel says:

    That beautiful curly hair
    Open necked shirt
    Peircing eyes

    Sorry my mistake, I thought it said is he sexy!


  5. Hmm.. storm in a teacup. Considering Moffat’s wife’s career I very much doubt that he is in any way confused over the potential power of either sex!

  6. avatar c says:

    ‘She may well have been beaten by the detective but she had both Sherlock and Mycroft in her power at one point. To best one Holmes is clever but to best two at the same time is downright genius.’

    well, sure. but then it turns out she didn’t: Moriarty did; & then in the end it was Adler’s personal ‘weakness’ that undid Moriarty’s plan. though personally i would attribute this less to anything like sexism (i’d look elsewhere in the show for that – say Molly Hooper or that pointless cop whose only role is to remind us she thinks Sherlock is a freak, or the cumulative effect of those characters tossed into a male-dominated show – though the sum presents something more complicated than just sexism per se) than to the Moff & co’s misplaced faith in their rather forced (& i daresay unnecessary, but i suppose we should wait for the series ender to actually say one way or the other) Moriarty arc.

  7. avatar A. Brown says:

    We’re just in this particular Moffatt phase, i think. I wouldn’t say he was sexist anymore than any other male writer trying to write female characters in a balanced way. The last series of DW had a rather over-used ‘Father loves son’ theme, eventually counter balanced by ‘Mother Christmas’ in the Xmas special. What no one seems to have commented on is how the Moff era appears to have less Black and Asian main speaking/acting lead roles compared to the RTD era; does that mean the current DW production team are racist!?

  8. avatar Doctor Whom says:

    @Elle24
    ***And I am sorely disappointed that River is increasingly defined as wife and daughter rather than as a kick-arse academic. So roll on the next series, with new women characters who are more than just their bodies and their relationships to men.***

    That line let down your argument. Defining River as a wife may well be reducing her to her relationship to a man. But you can’t say that about defining her as a daughter because whose daughter is she defined as? Amy’s. Is Amy a man? Admittedly she’s also Rory’s daughter but it’s pretty clear that it’s far more significant to the story that she’s Amy’s child than Rory’s.

    So defining her as more of a daughter than an archeologist may reduce her kick-assness but it can’t conceivably be said to do so in a sexist way.

  9. avatar Doctor Whom says:

    Don’t forget that we also see the Doctor defined less as a kick-ass Time Lord and more as a husband and a son-in-law. So roll on the next series, with a Doctor who is more than just his relationships to women. ;)

  10. avatar The Wardster says:

    I cant think of anything witty to say…

    But Im suprised, from my male point of view, Amy (apart from river) has been the strongest female character in the rebooted show.

    Although Donna was very funny, her Chav side and her intelligence, her flirting with any man that looked her way – then theres how she is introduced to us, as a woman that is desperate to get married and of course all the scenes of her once she forgot the doctor made her weak.. what she needs a man to go on adventures and expand her mind? otherwise she’ll stay in and watch x-factor?

    Martha, suposed to be a doctor, who never felt like a medical student at all(see what I did there.. the doctor, who..bit) she was no match for the doc and appeared only to be traveling in the tardis because she fancied the doctor, then left due to him not reprocipricating these emotions, that seemed a bit weak to me.

    And then we have rose.. again another chav, leaves her boyfriend because she meets a man who has a much bigger car erm i mean tardis than her current boyfriend…who she was in love with till she saw the docs big box…seems very fickle to me.. o yes and she was in love with him..but only when he was David Tennant…the pretty one…not fickle at all..erm..

    Where as Amy is fiesty, fiery, funny not playing a chav that failed all her GCSE’s or someone head over heels in love with the docotor.. yes she flirts, yes she has “her boys running around after her”. And yes they are nice legs, but Ive never seen Amy as weak. She didnt need rescuing when she was trapped in that hospital, and managed to survive for 20 years plus taking on killer robots herself and building a sonic screwdriver. Rose would not do that. And Donna certainly wouldnt do it (unless she has a metacrisis with the doctor(a man) and gets a super brain). I cant see Rose or Donna murdering someone who stole her baby(maybe martha would, but that would go against the hypocratic oath)… Or for that matter bringing River into the world..

    Even if Amy was wearing the inside out face of Susan Boyle she would still be the best companion of the bunch. I dont think there is sexism at all in the show.. and if we are going to be realistic, surely every time they go back pre-20th century, they should be given a lot more stick (no pun intended) every time a woman speaks out or tells a man what to do?? Us men werent always as liberal as Rory…look at Rory, he’s really the screaming girl of the bunch.

    As fornon who.. Irene Adler, has anyone actually read the book? I have. Theres not alot of her actual character in the story, how can they infer that Irenes stronger in the book? What rubbish. She is barely in it. And no she didnt win in the book.. she just escaped.. and holmes kept a souvineer..Just like the show, yes Irene may have had one up on Holmes..unlike watson..Moff made it quite clear, she is as clever as holmes…. if its the predicament that he got her out of at the end of the, thats caused this feminism (dr)who-ha then its madnes..

    Also, when did blogs become news? When did journalists get so lazy they just make news out of the rantings of bloggers. Makes no sense.

    Hopefully we will see my inside out face comment in a newspaper soon.. which I wouldnt buy as Id rather use the internet for my news anyway.

    • avatar James McLean says:

      Is Moffat sexist? No, I think the sexist label is insulting as it conjures the image of a man who treats or thinks of women badly in day to day life – I think Moffat writes women from his own male perspective, incorporating some very typical male fantasy elements into the dynamics and perhaps ignoring/missing/avoiding some of the more subtle complexities that distinguish male from female.

      Irene Adler is an example of the male fantasy – a very strong sexual woman, a Black Widow, to be conquered. Which Sherlock does. By the end of the story, she’s not only fouled up her plan through her fixation with him (that transcends the pointer earlier about her being specifically homosexual), he then has to save her from a typical male hero situation in the Epilogue. Very different to the Irene Adler in the book, who is admired for being a woman in a man’s world without relying on the Victorian perception of womanly charms. .

      River Song.. same thing. Very strong, dominating figure that boasts smarts and a rather icky sexuality. But bottomline, as at the end of series 6, her world is the Doctor. She’ll do anything he says ultimately. Her power is lost when it comes to him. Ultimate male fantasy – strong woman, but not SO strong she isn’t devoted to the lead man.

      Even Madame Du Pompadour – very strong character but fixated on her Doctor to the point of death, again the woman admiring the hero to quite excessive lengths – a male fantasy once more.

      Amy Pond. Sassy Amy Pond… sassy until she becomes a couple, then a baby carrier and then loses her baby to an evil order who steal her daughter and manipulate her… something maternal Amy seems to cope with very easily… doubt many mothers (or fathers) would. Similar themes again – devoted to the Doctor and devoted to Rory – in fact in Series 6 it at one point looks like its Rory who will stroll – shock! Her personality shifts from the out going girl to the devoted girlfriend. Not impossible shift, but its hard really to say that as a woman she ends up doing little more than look towards her men and have a child.

      Yes, very simple generalized points. My point is I don’t think any of the above – EVEN if true – proves Moffat is sexist. All it would prove is that Moffat uses fairly standard male fantasy female dynamics in his shows – which given the heroes are strong males isn’t THAT surprising, but what I would question is the notion that these female characters are strong examples of female characters. I think they are examples of strong female fantasy characters for men.

  11. avatar Mugen Pharoah says:

    There’s far worse sexism going on elsewhere in TV and in society – hello X-Factor! Hello Page 3! Hello the English Language in general! amongst others and all much more worthy of attack and criticism- I personally don’t see Moffat’s writing as sexist at all. And even if it is it’s a tiny tiny part of a huge global problem.

    Yawn again for any excuse for Moffat bashing! I much prefer the Moffat era to RTD’s, prefer Matt Smith to Tennant and Eccleston and Pond to Rose or Martha (Donna was great though) that’s just my preference but I don’t see the RTD era as a golden age of Doctor Who gender equality.

    And what really is so bad about being a wife and mother? I’m a husband and father – assuming one is less significant is sexist itself anyway…

    One thing that is so annoying though is the boring epithet of ‘feisty’ for any female companion, most recently seen describing River Song in promotional material for the PS3 game. Time to get a new adjective people!

    Still I’m with Peter Purves and Sydney Newman on saying there should be a female doctor one day…and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that happen sooner rather than later (I think Moffat is sowing the seeds…the eleventh Doctor’s checking his hair and an adam’s apple when he regenerated, the Corsair’s gender switching incarnations in the Doctor’s wife…just a thought)

  12. avatar Jon says:

    I remember watching coupling and thinking that, if anything, it was derogatory about men. They were portrayed as cowardly, sex addicted and socially inept at every turn and couldn’t do anything right, even when doing the right thing was blindingly obvious. That puts it clear in my mind that Moffat isn’t sexist, or he wouldn’t have written the series that way.

    It’s possible that Moffat has a weakness for writing women, certainly, as his male characters are stronger, but all writers have weaknesses.

    RTD’s was that he couldn’t plot an ending to save his life and was completely incapable of telling the difference between funny, annoying and downright stupid (Slitheen anyone?).

    Joss Whedon’s is that his male characters are mostly either badasses or comic relief. Pick a line from any badass character (even the beloved ones like Mal or Spike) and I guarantee you won’t be able to think of another badass character who couldn’t deliver that line just as well. Same goes for comic relief (pick one Xander scene, swap him for Wash, and tell me with a straight face that it doesn’t work just as well)

    The problem with the internet age is that everyone feels themselves entitled to be critics, and as a result everyone focuses on what they can’t do rather than what the do well.

    Moffat’s dialogue is excellent, RTD’s characterisations of minor one-shot characters are usually pretty strong, and Joss Whedon is excellent at writing female characters and strong plots.

    I think people need to focus less on what people can’t do, and enjoy what they do very well.

  13. avatar sherlocked says:

    Some sparkling quotes from The Moff:

    “There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”
    “Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
    - Time Lad scores with sex and Daleks

    And anyway, who says the Doctor would have a problem with having two girlfriends? When people ask “How could the Doctor love Reinette when he already loved Rose?”, I just say “Have you ever met a man?” No problem.
    - Doctor Who Magazine #385

    It’s been a few years since he’s said those, but watching Sherlock, I don’t think his views have changed that much.

  14. avatar mark says:

    I find this feminism view of the BBC series of Sherlock Holmes to be very odd.

    The so called feminists who are in uproar over this seem to either forget or ignore that the entire series is based on work Sir Conan Doyle whose writing is celebrating strong men.

    It was never designed for strong women. It is about one highly intelligent man at odds with the ordinary world around him and Dr Watson a man who comes the closet to understanding.

    If feminists want Strong women to be represented. Maybe they need to find alternative fiction.

  15. avatar Joe Cassara says:

    The modern feminist sees gender injustice everywhere. In fact, pick any contemporary special-interest group, and you’ll notice how irrationally hyper-sensitive they are.
    Their ramblings are best replied to with an eye roll accompanied by a pat on the head.

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