Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Steven Moffat isn't sexist

Note: This article contains spoilers

The welcome return of the hit-series Sherlock on New Year’s Day was a marvellous piece of television drama. Though the series still lives in the shadow of the masterpiece which was the first episode of series one, A Study in Pink, the updating of the Conan Doyle novels remain hilarious, thrilling, wonderfully acted and hugely enjoyable.

However, as is often the way with adored franchises, it has become controversial. The charge was levelled in The Guardian that Steven Moffat (the co-creator of the show who also runs Doctor Who) depicts women in a regressive manner in both of his shows. The trigger for this was the appearance of Irene Adler, portrayed in the show as a dominatrix, who is fiercely intelligent, but susceptible to her emotions, ultimately fatally for her plans.

Now, it seems quite essential at this point to say that I have not read the Conan Doyle books and can only treat the show on what it did on its own. I say this because a lot of the criticism has been centred on the fact that Moffat changed the ending. In the book (A Scandal in Bohemia), Adler wins. In the show (A Scandal in Belgravia), her emotions toward Sherlock are her undoing, and Mr Holmes triumphs at the very last. Having not read the source, these differences did not bother me.

When I watched the show, I found nothing derogatory in the portrayal of “The Woman”. She was strong, intelligent and emotional. Sherlock was also strong, intelligent and emotional. Adler was betrayed by her emotions at the very end. Sherlock was flawed by them throughout, committing many errors either because he was intrigued by Adler or because he was trying to impress her (how male of him). There was not a distinction in the programme, as has been suggested, between “masculine” reason and “feminine” emotion. Both central characters of both genders were a mixture of both.

It has been said that Moffat, in his work on both Sherlock and Doctor Who, cannot write women successfully. It is certainly a criticism which carries some weight. At best, Moffat is simply much more adept at writing men than women, but to move from his trait of being less able to portray women (a flaw which men such as Martin Scorsese have) to saying he is sexist takes it far too far. It is unjustified.

For instance, that Adler is in league with Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty, is not a sign of her weakness, or her subservient, pawn-like role to Moriarty’s unflinching, male genius. It is a sign of her value to the criminal mastermind and his dependence on her. Moriarty was almost entirely absent from the episode, whilst Adler was very present and very brilliant of her own accord, without direction.

Adler was not a paradigm of the modern woman, or a feminist’s dream, or a vacuous male fantasy. She was not a feminine character portrayed in a derogatory fashion. Above all, Steven Moffat is not a small minded man who pigeon holes women. His writing of them may be somewhat less than his writing of men, but simply in terms of creating a human character, not in terms of treatment of gender.

However, there is one thing that many of us may be able to agree on: happy though I am that Alder survived and is able to come back later in the series, the end of the episode was a heap of old nonsense.


  1. Nice review of the episode.

    For a different look at this episode, check out my review .


  2. Good article, a thoughtful riposte to the sexism charges. I personally find a lot of misogyny in Moffat's writing, but you make a good case for Scandal - it's a story I can give the benefit of the doubt because while it is possible to interpret Irene Adler's storyline as sexist, you make a good argument for interpreting it differently. Because I love Sherlock and don't want to have an episode I enjoyed to be spoiled by views I find offensive, I choose to watch it in the way you suggest :)

    There are valid reasons for the story choices - Sherlock HAD to beat her in the end, he's the hero; her working for Moriarty was to bolster him as a threat rather than reduce her status, etc.

    It is often possible to explain away Moffat's choices for female characters in this way. It's is when his work as looked as holistically it becomes a problem. For instance, why did he have to make Irene Adler a sex-worker? You haven't read the books, but I assure you, she is not. Why can Moffat only imagine a female character being powerful because of her sexuality?

    Agan, thanks for an interesting read!

    1. I suggest that you look up how opera singers were viewed by society during the time the original story was written. It might answer your question about Irene's work in the BBC series. (I'd explain it myself, but I'm afraid I'm not very good at expressing my thoughts... Sorry!)

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