Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Moffat

I’ve been reading several blog posts in several blogs about how Steven Moffat has a sexist approach to female characters in Doctor Who and Sherlock. However, after watching most of Doctor Who (well, haven’t seen season 7 and am only about halfway through season 4, but have seen everything else, including the Christmas specials right up to The Snowmen), and the first two seasons Sherlock, I find myself wondering about those posts.

A very recent blog post about Doctor Who pointed out Moffat uses cardboard cut outs for his female characters that seem to be based on Whedon’s Buffy. I’m not sure about that, to be honest. A lot of Moffat’s female characters actually hold themselves well, whether you look at the companions (Rose, Martha, Donna, or Amy), at the recurring female mystery (River Song, at least until the end of Season 6), or at female characters that only appear once or twice. Here in Germany, though, Doctor Who has never caught on well (for whatever reason, probably because the first airing of the original series was completely mixed up). It’s not considered a children’s program, either, you’ll usually find it filed under science fiction. And Sherlock definitely isn’t a children’s program, even in England.

Moffat got into a lot of trouble over Irene Adler in the second season and the Chinese refugee in the first season (in “The Blind Banker”). While I have to admit the story of the Blind Banker could have done with a bit of polishing, here a few thoughts on Irene Adler.
I can’t help thinking people are putting too much into ‘The Woman.’ I’d like to point out first that Irene Adler only features in one story Doyle wrote, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I’d also like to point out I am annoyed myself with always putting her in the ‘villain’ category in the movies, usually roping her up with Moriarty at some point (even in the newest movies). But I have to point out, it seems, something else about her: she’s neither nice, nor innocent, nor helpless. Miss Adler is an opera singer in the story. At Doyle’s time, performing artists were not part of the ‘good’ society, no matter whether they performed in seedy bars or opera houses. In addition, she has had a relationship with a man, without being married to him. She’s quitting it, because she is about to be married and will leave England behind. She has pictures that could provoke a scandal (although I don’t have the impression the original Irene would have used them). Holmes is trying to steal them from her, but has to admit defeat (which puts her above most of the people he comes across, admittedly). If you work it from this, making the ‘new’ Irene a Dominatrix isn’t too far off. Just as a performer isn’t a prostitute, but was seen very much like one in the Victorian era, a Dominatrix is very much seen as a prostitute, but she doesn’t have sex with her customers (which means, depending on your definition, she might not be a prostitute at all). This Irene keeps pictures as a safety measure, just in case she might need them. This Irene makes Sherlock sweat ‒ and not only because of the tension between them. There is nothing obviously sexual between them, Sherlock seems pretty asexual to me, Irene admits to Watson she’s a Lesbian. Just like the original Sherlock Holmes was attracted to Irene’s intelligence and cunning, so is the new one. Brains is the new sexy, as it is put in the movie.

Now a step back into the TARDIS. I wonder if it might be possible for the Doctor to one day regenerate into a female form, but I very much doubt it (though it might be fun). From the beginning (from what I have read and can remember from the ragtag episodes they aired over here), the Doctor has had female companions. Not a surprise, therefore, that the new doctors, from No. 9 onwards, also have had female companions (although the 11th Doctor also has a male companion in Rory). Let’s take a look at what a companion has to be like, obviously. She can’t be too tied to her time and place, because a woman with a huge family and a time-consuming job could not just leave it all behind and travel through time and space. She has to be adventurous. She has to be brave and capable of making her own decisions (since as often as not, the companions find themselves alone in a foreign place in the series). She has to be able to understand strange things and people (since most places will be alien in every meaning of the word). Rose, Martha, Donna (as far as I can tell, after only part of season 4), and Amy all can claim to be like that.
Does it make them Buffy cut outs? Not any more than being the brave, strong, powerful hero makes Buffy herself a cut out. Whedon’s new take was to make his vampire hunter hero a heroine. To take the blonde cheerleader that would normally be the first victim and make her the person to slay the monsters and save the day. Saying the companions are Buffy cut outs is the same as to say every strong female character created since Buffy (including characters Whedon himself created since Buffy) is only a Buffy cardboard cut out.
When it comes to other female characters, I can’t see that much of a problem with them, either. Most act like you might expect a woman to act in their time. Some are scheming, some are timid, some are strong. Just like some men in the stories are scheming, timid, strong. Compared to some of the women in daily soaps, most of the women in Doctor Who are glowing examples of womanhood, if you want my view. And, as some people pointed out in the comments of the blog post mentioned above, the male characters (including the Doctor in some aspects) are just as much of cardboard cut outs, because that is how series and movies work, by presenting us with characters we can understand, because we have, to a certain degree, seen them before. There’s just one hero, but, as Joseph Campbell wrote, he has a thousand faces. Villains might have a few thousand, as it were.

If we go back to Sherlock now, to take a look at the series as a such, there are few women, indeed. But if we take a look at the original, there aren’t many women there, either, apart from clients. Yes, a new approach might have changed gender for some characters (as Elementary does with a female Watson ... or the Doctor Who Christmas Special 2012 with Madame Vastra, who is supposed to be the base for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who changed the lizard-woman to a human male). The most drastic change would have been to make Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade female and Irene Adler and Mrs. Hudson male. But such a drastic change is highly unlikely to occur any time soon.
What do we know about recurring females? The female sergeant can’t stand Sherlock (but so do several of her male colleagues). Mrs. Hudson is taking care of her lodgers, even though she is not their housekeeper (and says so on occasion). Mycroft’s female aide is an aide and does what aides do. End of story. Where is the sexist view in that? Admittedly, the coroner having a fling with a man might have spiced things up, but not every series can have a Jack Harkness. A male landlord might be caring less his for lodgers. A male aide wouldn’t make the slightest change to Mycroft’s behaviour. Sexist? I don’t think so. Mrs. Hudson has a dept to Sherlock for helping her out. She’s a nice person, so she does care about the people who share the house with her. A man her age might feel the same about them. And most people who meet Sherlock despise him, so the female sergeant (I think she is) isn’t an exception, she’s the rule. A lot of personal assistants are male, so the female aide Mycroft employs is actually a nice change. Then there is the nice woman at the lab who obviously has it for Holmes. Given the fact that he isn’t interested in people ‘that way,’ no matter the genre, it's obvious she’s not going to get close to him and he’s not going to understand her any time soon.

I can’t help it, I can’t see the terrible sexist tendencies in those series, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I’m too old, too stupid, or just too Feminist for them.

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