I keep being surprised to find people who love Doctor Who and Sherlock but hate Stephen Moffat. One thread seems to be to say that he has a ‘woman problem’.
One new friend posted this one her Facebook wall:
“Here’s a game for my fellow #Sherlock and #DoctorWho fans…name me a principal female character written by Moffatt that isn’t a puzzle, a problem, or a sacrifice.”
OK, before I rise to the challenge, I should set the stage: I’m a lifelong Doctor Who fan who came on board at the end of Leila’s journeys with the doctor, and grew up under snotty-Romana-then-flirty-Romana, whiny Tegan and the gloriously glamorous AND SMART Nyssa (I so wanted to be her). I barely survived Mel and Perry and was rewarded with intelligent and fierce Ace who might have been great if they stories hadn’t been mince, just before the show went on indefinite hiatus.
When it came back, i felt utterly betrayed by Russell T. Davies, who let the Doctor become a romantic figure (“Is this a kissing show?”). Part of the appeal, as a kid, of Doctor Who, was the idea that you could either BE the Doctor or run away with the doctor. It was an intelligent, family show, where young people ran off with a (mostly-)avuncular alien and had adventures. Now, as a grown up and new parent, I felt very queasy at the idea of parents being asked to trust this man with their barely-adult children, if he was going to get all sexy. Ugh. Plus there was an awful lot of emotional angst and despair.
Then along came Moffat’s episodes. I was thrilled to see powerful, cheeky women who were largely dismissive of the doctor — certainly not defined by him — and who, more often than not, turned out to be self-rescuing princesses.
Powerful Women In Moffat’s World
The Empty Child turns out to be not just about a creepy child but about his courageous female relative. Before she even meets the Doctor she is saving kids and being incredibly resourceful (and cheeky) while doing so. With the help of the Doctor she’s even more powerful and becomes not just her own savior but that of her family, her country and quite possibly the world. Huzzah! Everybody lives!
Then along came Sally Sparrow, who carried a whole episode, solved the mystery and saved almost everyone, including her man AND the Doctor, before he even knew who she was.
And OK, The Girl in the Fireplace was a big icky because the little girl fell in love with the Doctor and waited for him, but to her credit she became the most powerful woman in France and saved herself from harm by being level-headed in a crisis and summoning the one person she knew could help.
Other Moffat Women Who Are Not Puzzles, Problems or Sacrifices
Linda from The Press Gang – She was the editor of the school paper, with all the power and all the flaws you’d expect of a leading character. (I watched and enjoyed this long before I’d heard of Stephen Moffat)
Jeckyl’s wife – She wasn’t a character who appeared much in the show, but she was his motivation for resisting his demons. Does that make her a ‘problem’? If so, then love is a problem, and that’s not an idea to which I can subscribe. No, she doesn’t help out much, but Jeckyl is a show about a man wrestling with his demons. I don’t remember him letting ANYONE help much.
All the women in Coupling – OK, one of them was fairly bonkers, but so was at least one of the guys. Yes, the main woman was a problem for the main character, because: drama and comedy and romance And the other two characters (one male, one female) were pretty and shallow. So ti was completely balanced.
Molly Hooper – Yes, Molly is defined by her relationship to Sherlock, but she has skills and an education and you know she’d be just fine if he disappeared off the face of the earth. You can imagine her having a life without Sherlock and that, I think, counts. But she’s not a leading character (as requested in the initial question).
Detective Donovan – again, not a main character, but still, not a weak, traditional helpless female.
Mrs Hudson – yes, she’s doing traditional domestic work, but she is a well-rounded character.
Mary Moorstan/Watson – I think it’s unfair to criticize Moffat for writing a character who was introduced as a romantic interest, and writing her as…a romantic interest. She’s given a kick-ass job, a mysterious past, more skills than her husband, an ability to make his life better and be made better by him, and she gets more screen time than any other email character in this male-male buddy-cop version of a classic detective story. In the original stories, Mary appears to allow Watson to get heroic for a minute and then, when the practicalities of domestic life got in the way, she was promptly killed off with no ceremony, off-screen (and with no complicating offspring).
Puzzles, Problems & Sacrifices?
And to the extent that any of these women are puzzles, problems, if they weren’t, where would the conflict come from? If we want characters to be interesting, they can’t just be badass and perfect. Are they used this way more than the men?
Yes, Amy sacrifices her future in this timeline to be with Rory in his timeline. But would you rather be the blundering bloke who accidentally gets zapped back in time or the determined, devoted character who CHOSES which of the people she loves she’s going to be with?
Yes, Clara sacrifices herself (twice) but she comes out of it all right. As does, eventually, Buffy Summers, who has a much harder time of it, I’d argue and Joss Whedon is lauded for writing ‘strong female characters’. In contrast Rory sacrifices himself so often it becomes a punchline. And I didn’t hear anyone complaining about Aslan…
Which leads me to a point: Moffat grew up in a culture steeped in Christian messages. We’re very big on self-sacrifice in Britain in general and in Glasgow in particular: socialist and Presbyterian/Catholic and chip-on-the-shoulder as we were throughout the 20th century. It’s a culture that believes suffering is good for the soul and that no greater love hath man than he lay down his life for a friend, and all that.
The Doctor sacrifices all the time, in this current incarnation (except when he runs away for a while before facing up to a challenge. A lesson worth learning).
What Else Moffat Does Right
His women have jobs that are not traditionally female, they have skills and abilities, they are sassy and opinionated, they might like a bit of romance but they don’t cease to exist without it.
His couples (especially his married couples) are devoted to each other. They don’t gain their strength from putting the other half of the couple down. They bring out the best in each other, even when they’re bickering. I LOVE this. It is rare and beautiful and healthy.
His scripts are clever. You have to pay attention. They are witty, and all the characters have more going on than they’re telling you. You can always imagine them in their own, spin-off story.
He’s hopeful and funny. Unlike the end of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor who, which was a maudlin, drawn-out sob-fest full of regrets and misery, Moffat writes stories with endings in which “Everybody lives!” or, even when they don’t get what they want, there’s hope that they’ll get something they can live with (e.g. Clara). We’re not finished with Sherlock yet, and we’ll see where that goes.
So I Respectfully Disagree
No, I don’t think Moffat has a woman problem. I don’t think all his women are problems, puzzles or sacrifices in any way disproportionate to the dramatic needs of the stories he tells or the way he treats men (most of his bad guys are men!)
Few things annoy me more than a shallow, one-dimensional helper-female character, but I just don’t see it with Moffat, unless you’re determined to find it. I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing complexity or dramatic needs to make a character all powerful just because of gender,