Friday, November 28, 2014

Steven Moffat, Sexism, and Femme Fatales

There’s a strain of anti-Moffat sentiment that claims he’s not only a terrible writer, but that’s he’s sexist and couldn’t write a woman well to save his life. Tumblr has perhaps the loudest community of Moffat-haters (with posts tagged #moffat hate); here’s an example:

But Noir? I know Noir. And I knew Femme Fatales, and I think that by properly defining a Fatale and showing how few of his women actually fall into that trope, I can at least show that his women are extremely varied and well-developed characters, and, on that level, his approach to women is overall worthy of praise.

People often define Femme Fatales as “evil women”. This is understandable; they do tend toward the evil side of the spectrum, and the name literally means “dangerous woman”. But a “dangerous woman” could be virtually any female adventurer, soldier, cop, or mother whose child is in danger. A Fatale isn’t dangerous because she can or will kill you; she’s dangerous because she’s a woman.

While the Fatales have been around for a long time (Lady Macbeth, for instance), the trope solidified with the Noirs of the 1940s. For the sake of definition, Film Noir is atmospheric crime fiction about the darkness of the human soul. There’s a wide variety (including a number of popular sci-fi examples like Blade Runner, Dark City, and Looper), but the classic example and genre codifier is The Maltese Falcon. Other classics include Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly; the modern standard would be LA Confidential. They’re typically thought of as revolving around a private detective, and often do, but are just as often about cops, civilians, or the criminals themselves.

And while not all women in Noir are fatales, that’s certainly where they thrive.

In the early 1930s, Hollywood often portrayed sexually liberated women in a positive light, in response to the flappers and similar movements among young women to extend First Wave Feminism’s expanded women’s rights to include sexual freedom. (Which actually rather appalled the First Wave Feminists, who did not suffer and fight for rights like voting so kids could have fun.) But the combination of the Hays Code and the Great Depression swinging against the decadence of the ‘20s and back into high morality forced Hollywood to adapt. For a while, Screwball Comedies kept that alive, but those, too, largely died out by the early 1940s. The last bastion of sexual liberation and any sort of power over men were the Fatales.

Femme Fatales use their sexuality to draw men into a world of danger. They can appear innocent, and, on rare occasion, even are, more or less. (Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep) More often, however, they’re the ones to watch out for - they’re sirens, more sophisticated and with vivid personalities, but still beautiful women who lead men to their doom. They can lie and manipulate with ease, and present themselves however they need to. Men are in love or in lust or both, and they can’t help but be. And the Fatales use that as their great power over men, and lead them into a violent world that, more often then not, gets them killed. Half the time, the femmes plug the heroes themselves.

There are a lot of aspects of this accusation, but the one that’s really caught my eye is the suggestion that all his women are exactly the same, and, very often, that they’re all femme fatales. Now, although I’ll proudly proclaim to be a feminist, my feminism certainly isn’t the most developed or studied. As I’m also a man, so there’s a limit to how much I can defend the charge of sexism against Moffat. I don’t think it holds water across the whole of his career, with most examples named being individual lines of dialogue ripped out of context, but it’s not really my best topic.
Kathie: I didn't know what I was doing. I, I didn't know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?
Jeff: Baby, I don't care.
                                                          - Out of the Past
Their sexuality gives them their power, and the danger is that they’ll draw men into a dangerous world… and men fall for it because they can’t resist the fatales.

So how many of Moffat’s characters in Doctor Who and Sherlock are Femme Fatales? (This anit-Moffat crowd rarely mentions Coupling, and never brings up Press Gang, Joking Apart, or Chalk. Which is lucky for me, because I haven’t seen Coupling in years, only seen a few episodes of Press Gang, and have never seen the others.)

[Update 11/30: It was noted on Tumblr that I forgot to mention Jekyll, which I also haven't seen. That said, I just noticed that it's on Netflix Instant, so I'll rectify that shortly, and maybe even talk about it here.]

Let’s start with the most obvious and undeniable Fatale, Sherlock’s take on Irene Adler. Notably, Moffat goes all the way and just makes her a straight-up dominatrix, a woman whose very profession is sexually dominating and controlling men. She dominates and controls the entire narrative, making Sherlock, Mycroft, and, to some extent, even Moriarty dance around her, using her sexuality blatantly and aggressively. (although, interestingly, she doesn’t explicitly sleep with anyone) Most obviously, she completely throws both John and Sherlock off their games by meeting them stark naked. It works on John in the obvious way, while having the additional level of giving Sherlock nothing to see from her appearance.
Irene Adler: Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.
Sherlock: You think I’m a Vicar with a bleeding face?Irene Adler: I think you’re damaged, delusional, and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.
Much more subtle is her long-term seduction of Sherlock; she flirts with him for six months and plays elaborate mind-games with him, which keeps him seemingly focused entirely on her for that entire time. Once her hooks are in, she fakes her death, then reveals that she’s alive, then finally shows up in his apartment, appearing as vulnerable as possible -- sleeping in his bed in casual clothing devoid of her style, looking exhausted rather than seductive. Only then does she pull her masterstroke, showing Sherlock the puzzle, and asking, “What can you do, Mr. Holmes? Come on, impress a girl.” For the final touch, she leans in very slowly to kiss him, and in all that, he solves the code in moments, never considering whether he should be telling her or not.

There’s a lot more to her character that’s worth mentioning - her intelligence is on Holmes’ level, and, like Holmes, her emotions are largely buried, and she’s ultimately surprised at her genuine feelings. She’s self-centered, bohemian, and intensely charming. She’s completely in control of her life. And while she is the antagonist, she’s not a villain, for all the damage she does. Sherlock sees her as an equal, not an adversary, and ultimately averts what looks like a brutal, tragic ending.

Compare her to Mary Watson, who is most decidedly not a fatale. Certainly, Mary is dangerous, but it has nothing to do with seduction or even with her manipulations. She’s dangerous because she’s a former assassin who uses bullets with literally surgical precision. She doesn’t draw others into danger, at least not with any harmful intention. Mary’s sexuality seems extremely reserved, almost conservative; certainly, it’s entirely between her and John, behind closed doors. Any manipulations are either small, petty acts of revenge (using Sherlock’s skills to figure out who to give the lesser seats at the wedding) or ways of getting to a target (her friendship with Janine). And even with Janine, her friendship seems genuine aside from how she’s using her.

And Mary and Irene have wildly different personalities. Where Irene has a vivid and direct wit, often tinted with sex (“I would have you on this desk until you begged for mercy twice.”), Mary has a subtle and teasing sense of humor (John: “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” Mary: “You should put that on a T-shirt.”). Irene has a similar sociopathy to Sherlock’s, but Mary, despite her former profession, seems generally emotionally healthy. She’s friendly and works for a happy life.

The other major recurring women, similarly, are distinct in personalities, goals, and natures. Mrs. Hudson’s sweet persona belies a surprising toughness under fire (hiding Irene’s phone while the CIA is torturing her for it) and an apparently rather saucy past in her youth. She’s outgoing and kind. Molly Hooper is a quiet introvert, brilliant in her field, and tries to act more innocent than she is, whether to put off a good impression or even to hide things from others. These are all women with distinct personalities and lives. And, notably, women with lives that extend well outside of the two men who drive the show, even on a show centered on those two. Even Molly, as much as her unrequited love for Sherlock drives her to some deeply unfortunate actions, seems to have a vivid enough social life to draw several boyfriends, and has an engagingly off-center coroner’s view of things at times. (I would actually like an episode that focused a bit on her own life, though that’s neither here nor there.)

Which brings us around to Doctor Who. Since this began as a focus on Femme Fatales, let’s start with those who either flirt around this definition or are at least accused of being Fatales.

Since this article was inspired by Time Heist, let’s start with Madame Karabraxos. She’s certainly a villain - a greedy banker who kills her own clones when she’s done with them and liquefies the brains of anyone who even thinks about committing a robbery, then incinerates their next-of-kin. She does this by cruelly keeping The Teller, one of the last of its species, locked away, and threatening to kill its mate if it doesn’t comply. Evil? Definitely. Even her one humanizing quality is a suppressed self-loathing she takes out on her clones. But none of this has anything to do with her sexuality; it’s entirely about her greed. I suppose her fashion sense gives off a hint of sexy librarian, but that’s irrelevant to the danger she represents. She’s a callous, cruel, greedy, theatrical villain… which, it should be noted, is the first one I’ve mentioned.

It’s worth mentioning that Moffat and co-writer Stephen Thompson give Keeley Hawes a second character to play - Ms. Delphox, her clone, who shares looks but only shows hints of the same personality; she lives under a cloud of fear, knowing that she could be killed by Karabraxos at any whim. It’s not a terribly deep or complex character, but it allows Hawes to be more than just an over-the-top villain and also play a more poignant henchwoman.

On to the other Madame, Kovarian, head of the Silence. Kovorian, as the head of an alien religious sect hell-bent on killing the Doctor in order to (she believes) save the universe certainly represents tremendous danger. But again, it has nothing to do with her sexuality (although I suppose you could read something into her sexuality given Tasha Lem’s approach to religion and sex [mix, stir, and shake vigorously]), nor with swaying the Doctor romantically. She’s the devious, terrifying side of religious fervor that brings and, ultimately, desires destruction over love. Like Karabraxos, she’s a highly theatrical villain, but unlike Karabraxos, she shows no sense of self-loathing or torment, nor does she mind getting her hands dirty and being in the midst of the horrors she creates. Her motivations, as mentioned, are deeper and more complex, and drive her to do very different sorts of horrors.

Which brings us to the most theatrical of theatrical villains, Missy, née The Master. Obviously, I’ll be talking more about her in a few entries, but suffice to say, she’s only gotten more evil over her regenerations. Again, though, Missy doesn’t seduce the Doctor, nor, really, even try to bring him to his downfall, not exactly. Moffat does go from RTD’s “barely even subtext anymore” approach to the Doctor/Master romantic undertones to “straight-out snogging”, but that has nothing to do with Missy’s plan; she’s just simultaneously overjoyed to see her best friend, figuring out a nice way to mess with his head, and seventeen different kinds of crazy (at least). She brings brand new variations on her old tricks and a few new ones, but she’s still committing horrific atrocities in the name of ruling the universe. It’s just that, in this case, she wants The Doctor to rule it. It’s a unique motivation that drives her to do horrors in a wild, random way, utterly unlike the precise machinations of Kovarian and the focused violence of Kalabraxos.

Compare these, then, to the picture posted above. The similarities between Irene Adler, Madame Kovarian, Madame Kalabraxos, and Missy? Well… they do all wear dark clothing. Like villains. And heroes looking cool. And regular people trying to look slick. Or business-like. Or slimming. Or because the just like black. And they all wear their hair up, which is, admittedly, kind of an interesting choice, that’s about the end of it. Adler, Kovarian, and Missy are complex, vastly different characters, and while Kalabraxos certainly doesn’t get a lot of depth in her limited screen time, she’s a different take on a villain.

There’s one other Who character who certainly flirts with the Fatale tradition - River Song. River is… complicated. She’s certainly very sexually assertive, though how far you take that depends on what you want to read into the subtext. But, again, her seduction of the Doctor (and, apparently, Cleopatra and JFK) has nothing to do with drawing him into danger, though she certainly wants to go on adventures with him. She calls herself a psychopath, but she certainly isn’t one. Emotionally damaged and created to be one, but not actually one. She’s far more in touch with and driven by her emotions than any of the characters discussed so far except maybe Missy, and she obviously acts very differently on her feelings toward the Doctor, and completely differently when not traveling with him.

While we’re at it, it’s worth looking at, briefly, Amy and Clara, and seeing their similarities and differences. They’re both flirtatious, but Amy’s flirting is direct and unsubtle; when she flirts with someone, it pretty much means, “I want to have sex with you right now.” (Or something more romantic, depending on the circumstances, but it’s right there on the surface.) Whereas Clara’s flirting is light and innocent; her sexuality, while implied to be a complicated depending on how similar she is to Oswin Oswald, is generally reserved and her own business, while Amy is pretty straightforward about hers. Both are brave, but where Amy’s bravery tends to come from a bravado that gradually weakens, Clara’s comes from weaponizing her own fear. Their adventurousness also differs; Amy wants to do it all her life and dives straight into it, while Clara does it largely as a hobby (part of her control-freak nature).

They also go through wildly different character arcs. Amy, essentially, has to grow up. She starts with both childhood fantasies and adolescent sexuality holding her back, and while the latter is largely resolved once she’s married and honeymooned, the former doesn’t start to waver until the Doctor forces the issue. In the process, she goes through what amounts to rape by the Silence, a traumatic birth, and a frustrated but ultimately happy motherhood. Afterwards, she deals with a divorce and reconciliation with Rory, then tries to live a regular life, interrupted by the Doctor. Finally, she travels with him as a mature adult, who has truly chosen how to live the rest of her life… which, ironically, is what prepares her to live a happy life without the Doctor or all of Time and Space. She knows, finally, that she’s happy simply with Rory, and forges a wonderful life on her own.

Clara goes through a bit of maturing as well, but she has different issues; she’s a control-freak to a sometimes awful degree, she lies to those she loves to build up her own sense of who she is, and she needs so badly to feel “special” that she can’t take being ordinary, or facing the horrors and tragedy of ordinary life. The (sort-of) final shot of Death In Heaven, as she walks into a crowd, becoming ordinary and resolved to it, brings something of a close to this story, though we’ll see where this goes in the Christmas special (and, possibly, beyond).

But you can see in both their stories a profound difference from, really, any previous companion: a genuine interest and passion in telling stories of real women’s lives. Rose may have been developed as an ordinary woman, but she essentially abandoned that for wacky adventures and, ultimately, melodramatic tragedy; Martha and Donna went through similar arcs. In the classic series, the only companions to approach this level of complexity and characterization are Barbara, Ian, and Ace, and only Ace has anything resembling the story of a real woman (buried somewhere under all the whimsy and bomb-making). There have been a lot of great companions, and this lack hasn’t held back any of the ones I named (I’d put Donna, Barbara, Ian, and Ace on my list of 10 favorite companions, and Rose and Martha wouldn’t miss it by much). Having their stories more rooted in the fantastic and less in reality doesn't hold them back from being wonderful characters, nor has it (nor should it) keep women from drawing strength and inspiration from their stories.

But Moffat, through his characters, has shown an impassioned desire to tell tales of what real women face and overcome, and tell a wide variety of them.

And this is true of Press Gang and Coupling as well. And, really, this is the crux of it: he doesn’t just write women well, he writes a wide variety of women, from the most extreme theatrical villains to the editor of a junior paper, with depth and admiration. They’re praised and beloved for their power, equal and even superior to men even in shows about men, and flawed only by being deeply, painfully human.

In the end, I think this is what separates feminist from sexist: seeing women as human and as equals to men. For 25 years, Steven Moffat has done exactly that with his writing. Not always well, not always without problems, but always striving to make complex, compelling, and wildly different women, showing all different aspects of their lives, and seeing them as equal to men. There has never been a more consistently feminist era of Doctor Who, and rarely has there been a more consistently feminist show on television, even today. That’s not to say he’s beyond criticism, but that criticism should start from acknowledging how much he gets right, and how to go forward and do better from there.


  1. Hang on, hang on. I was with you for a while there, I like all the Moffat era analysis. But the characters you just dismissed as 'not real' are extremely important to a lot of people--to a lot of women, and frequently because they do feel real to them, because they identify with them strongly. You can't dismiss them as meaningless. Especially when the reason you give is just that their stories involve wacky adventures, melodrama, whimsy and bomb-making. It's a show about time travel. Weird is in fact normal.

    1. I definitely did not intend to suggest that the fantastic is meaningless. I mean, I wouldn't be writing this blog if I actually thought that. As I said, I love those characters; I meant what I said as a contrast, not a criticism, as such. You're absolutely right, and I apologize for coming across like I meant anything different.

      I've rewritten that paragraph to clarify what I was saying.