You know I can’t resist a good Doctor Who / Steven Moffat discussion. Especially when feminism is involved.
Yesterday, the extraordinary Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds posted a response to some less-than-great criticisms levied against Mr. Moffat and the storyline he had written for Amy Pond in the most recent series of Doctor Who. Stephanie did a really great job of indicating how some of these feminist critiques of Pond’s character and arc are actually more reductive and sexist than anything Moffat himself had done.
Now, a couple weeks ago, I would have simply cheered and been on-side with Stephanie regarding this, because I really didn’t understand why people seemed to regard Moffat as being sexist. None of his work on Doctor Who really leapt out at me as such, he seemed to be doing a better job with his female characters and exploring female experiences than Russell Davies had, and he was easily head and shoulders above the vast majority sci-fi writers’ handling of women. I’m looking at you, Lost.
But then I watched Sherlock. In particular, I watched the second series premier, “A Scandal In Belgravia”. And what I saw was one of the most misogynistic stories I’d ever seen on television.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sherlock, and think Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer. And believe it or not, my reasons for liking this particular show go above and beyond my absolute infatuation with Benedict Cumberbatch and his gorgeous, glacially blue eyes. But there’s only so much “bitches be crazy, amirite?” I can handle before I start getting a bit upset.
In the source material, Irene Adler is an incredibly clever antagonist, whose power is firmly intellectual in nature. She’s so clever, in fact, that she manages to crack Sherlock Holmes’ entrenched Victorian misogyny and disregard for the mental abilities of the fairer sex, and he ultimately concedes that she’s his intellectual equal.
This is NOT what happens in “Scandal In Belgravia”.
Instead, Irene Adler is a dominatrix. She’s clever and confident, yes, but her power is purely sexual in nature. Most of her tactical advantage doesn’t lie in her being particularly resourceful or perceptive or intelligent, but mostly in the fact that she’s fucked a lot of powerful men. Her catch phrase throughout the episode is that she “knows what (insert powerful man here) likes”. She’s just a woman, as this story presents things: she doesn’t need to have any resources, she just relies on attracting men who do.
Over the course of the episode, she gradually seduces Holmes and creates for him a fantasy that he can’t resist. This allows her to exploit and use him, the way she uses other powerful men. At the climax, she reveals that her love for him wasn’t real, and that she was merely using him. But Holmes gets the better of her in having noticed that she did indeed have feelings for him. Then in the final shot he ultimately completes the sexist fantasy by saving her once she’s finally been reduced to damsel-in-distress.
It is the ultimate misogynistic fantasy, playing upon all the most prevalent fears and negative attitudes towards women.
The idea that women are merely deceptive whores who can’t do anything for themselves and use their sexual position to exploit men into doing everything for them. The idea that despite their duplicitous nature, no matter what they say, they secretly really do love you. No doesn’t necessarily mean no. And finally, even if the bitch fucked you over, she’ll still ultimately need you to come save her in the end. It is the consummation of every arrogant male power-trip I’ve ever been exposed to.
What makes this particularly insulting is that Moffat constructs this out of a literary character that really did represent a huge step forward in being able to perceive women as being able to be equal to men… equal even to superhumanly great men like Sherlock Holmes himself. A character who represented the capacity of women to be intelligent and capable on their own. But Moffat’s Adler? She’s nothing without the body she uses to attract men. Her nudity, and status as sexual object, is even referred to as her “battle dress”. She has no power but sexual power, and ultimately even that is taken away from her, and she becomes just a silly girl who needs to be rescued from her own bad decisions.
As icing on the cake, Moffat decides in this episode to dismantle the wonderfully charming and progressive portrayal of Holmes in this adaptation as asexual. Where in the first series this was an all but entirely explicit character trait, he suddenly reverses Holmes character and makes him just another heterosexual man, with traditional, normative heterosexual desires. Not even interesting heterosexual desires. This version of Sherlock Holmes could have been the most fascinating and positive portrayal of asexuality to have ever been done in pop culture. But instead Moffat chickened out just so as to create this easy, silly, cheap and sexist fantasy.
Now, I’m not going to agree with every feminist criticism of Steven Moffat, and I don’t think Amy Pond is a poorly written character, nor do I find her offensive or insulting or demeaning. I think as a whole, Moffat does a pretty good job. But if he’s capable of appalling teenage-boy-daydreams like “Scandal In Belgravia”, I really start having my doubts about the guy. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, this will turn out to be just a fluke; an isolated misstep in an otherwise brilliant career… but I definitely worry now, and definitely start wondering whether there are problems I’ve been missing. And I’m definitely not going to be as ready to give him the benefit of the doubt as I have been in the past.
If he kills Amy Pond, though, I am done.