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The Problem with Stephen Moffat’s Female Characters

*This article contains spoilers about Sherlock Season 4, Episode 1, as well as general information about the character of Clara Oswald in Doctor Who.*

After watching the first episode of Sherlock’s Season 4 at the beginning of this year, I was frustrated: Mary’s death didn’t make me feel as sad as I felt that it should have. I am accustomed to feeling things when characters whom I have grown to love are killed. I kept wondering, Am I heartless? Was I not really paying attention to one of my favorite shows? After reading some reviews of this debut episode of Season 4, I quickly realized that the problem was in the writing. Writing which—just like one of my other favorite shows, Doctor Who—is done by Stephen Moffat.
Here are some things you need to know about Stephen Moffat: he is the showrunner for two of the most popular shows on the BBC right now, he writes compelling stories, and he is very good at putting in some mind-bending twist at the end that leaves you asking, “Whhaaaaat?!”

He has made some very sexist comments, though there is speculation that some of these quotes were taken out of context. (He is also staunchly opposed to making the Doctor a woman.) He also chooses to write women who revolve around their male counterparts.

In Sherlock, we get an antisocial, brilliant man who never shows any interest in women but manages to attract multiple women (both of whom get quite attached). He hurts people and makes their lives difficult, but they still love him and make sacrifices for him because overall, he does good for the world and he’s there for them when it counts. In Moffat’s Doctor Who, we see an eccentric but appealing young man who is inconsistent and asks too much of people, often not making the effort to consider the emotional implication of his actions for the people to whom he has grown close. But everyone still loves and makes sacrifices for him because he’s so awesome and so necessary.

If you need more concrete evidence of these problems, the research has been done. A group of university students applied the Bechdel test–a test that looks how speaking times and how often women speak to other women about a topic other than men—to Doctor Who and found that the seasons lorded over by Russell T. Davies (Seasons 1-4 of the revival) did much better than those overseen by Moffat.
I can give him a little credit. Maybe women just happen to revolve around male characters because these two shows both focus on powerful male characters, and Moffat knows that to make Doctor Who especially more compelling for a modern audience—and a wider age range—including romantic storylines and sex appeal goes a long way. (Doctor Who has started to include many more subtly dirty jokes in the last few seasons since he took over.) But the main thing I take issue with is that he has a habit of writing female characters whose whole character arc center around the male character, and not just in the sense that they are tied up with him as they pass through the series. They often die or have their lives thrown completely off track by him. For example, his latest companion, Clara, is the Impossible Girl, and her entire life purpose is to save the Doctor, a fate which not even falling in love with a stable human man can alter.

The fact that Clara fancies the younger-looking Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), then finds her feelings altered and her devotion to the Doctor lessened when he regenerates into the older Twelve (Peter Capaldi) almost plays an important role in acknowledging the possible problematic nature of the show’s tendency to pair the Doctor with a young woman (who would have trouble not being attracted to many of his regenerations and sometimes is). Moffat had the potential to make Clara another character who had fun with the Doctor and then had to move on and continue with her own life—an ending which, though on the surface-level is less emotional and entertaining than death or separation forever—can be made even more heart-wrenching in subtle ways. (It is, after all, sometimes much more difficult to give someone up by choice when their existence in your life could very well continue, albeit damaging. This outcome would, I think, be more relatable, and thus bring back part of the attraction of the show at the beginning of the revival, i.e. normal person goes on crazy time-travel adventures, then returns to “normal” life and finds happiness on their own.) Instead, Clara turned into a character who essentially existed for and even in a way because of the Doctor. We got an end for Clara that was gimmicky and paradoxical, much like many of Moffat’s other big moves and season conclusions.
I did not find it plausible that Mary would take the bullet for Sherlock. She finally has the life she wants: she has a new baby, a husband who adores her, and stability. Why give that up for a man who can never truly love anyone? The excuse for her behavior is that it was an instinct because of her military training. But that still complicates the issue for me, because it still does not make sense that her love for Sherlock—who got them into this situation in the first place—would trump her love for Watson and Rosie. The nature of her death caters to this pattern Moffat has where his male characters make a ton of mistakes, but everyone worships them anyway.

I stumbled upon this article that claims that the main reason Mary’s death did not work was because she was not developed enough for us to get to know her well. But Mary was destined to have a small character arc—her character dies in the books as well—so maybe Moffat decided it wasn’t worth really getting into her character. The problem with this thinking is that for us to really care about her death and to believe Watson’s anger at Sherlock afterwards, we need to care about her, and to care about her we need to see a nuanced character. We really need to see her more. But this show is about Sherlock, you might say, and perhaps even about the relationship between Sherlock and John Watson. Even if that’s true, I wish Moffat hadn’t created a female character and tried to break our hearts with her death just to further develop the relationship between two male friends.

I am so tired of women dying for Moffat’s male leads. In the situations in Doctor Who, these women are typically saving more than just the Doctor, or at least they think they are – through his continued survival, many other things in the universe will maintain normalcy. We, as viewers—hopefully of any gender—like the Doctor because he embodies a person who always chooses good; he is optimistic; he is clever, and he will not give up no matter how many obstacles he faces. We see his moral compass waver sometimes when his friends get hurt, a quality which makes him vulnerable and more relatable than he normally can be due to the fact that he is inherently more impressive than we are as a brilliant time-traveling alien. It is the same case with Sherlock, although it is more difficult to tell when he has made the wrong decision and put someone in danger. ​
I still love both shows and will continue to watch them. I am excited to see how Sherlock changes, and I am even more excited to see what Doctor Who’s new showrunner—Chris Chibnall, the head writer of Broadchurch—does after this current season. But I can still disagree with Moffat’s portrayal of his female characters. TV is just a story, sure, but these stories take up our conversations and sometimes even form the basis for the emotional and interpersonal decisions we make.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3, 4

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