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I had this draft lying around, so I figured, let’s do some Tuesday content, eh? I’ve already written the so-called “Definitive Moffat and Feminism Post,” which was intended as a sort of preliminary mission statement summing up my take on the Moffat/feminism controversy prior to my covering the Moffat era, and which instead went kind of viral and became the most read thing I’ve ever put on this blog. And I’ve talked about some of these issues in isolation – people looking to see my argument in a detailed form, particularly my feminist readings of specific Moffat stories, will probably find my posts on (deep breath) Joking Apart, Coupling, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Beast Below, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, The Wedding of River Song, and The Angels Take Manhattan enlightening. I am not going to retrace the feminist reading of the Moffat era that I’ve made in those posts here in detail, although there’s no real reason that anyone should have to read those posts to get the argument I am making here.
More broadly, however, I would politely point to the fact that I have nearly a dozen existent essays on topics related to Moffat and feminism as evidence that this is an issue I have thought about somewhat extensively. Perhaps more to the point, I would note that my opinions on Moffat’s work are based on having seen literally every episode of television he has ever written, having listened to nearly every DVD commentary track he has ever recorded, and having read countless interviews with him conducted over the course of around twenty years. I am reasonably confident, between my qualifications as a PhD in media studies and this level of background research, that I am among the, oh, let’s say fifty people in the world most qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject of Steven Moffat’s career. I do not say all of this as some sort of prima facie evidence that I am correct, but rather to note that this is not a debate in which I am an idle participant.
These disclaimers seem to me necessary because the suggestion that Steven Moffat is misogynistic has become quite widespread, to the point where it’s often taken as a sort of assumption such that the only debate is “how misogynistic.” This claim, despite its popularity, is, in my view, incorrect, not simply on the level of “it is something I disagree with,” but on the level of “it is possible to factually disprove this claim.”
This, then, is my attempt to conclusively refute the claim that Steven Moffat is misogynistic, and, in a related but distinct move, definitively demonstrate that he is, by any reasonable standard, a feminist writer. Given the degree to which my previous and supposedly definitive take on the topic has been widely read, this, presumably, will sink like a stone without anyone ever reading it, not least because it is something like nine thousand words long. So, you know, feel free to make a cup of tea or something.
First, to define some terms. It is worth being precise about what we mean, after all, when we say “misogynistic” and “feminist,” as both words have various shades of meaning differentiated primarily by the priorities of the person saying them. Which is to say, thanks to Jack Graham, one of my favorite bloggers in the world, for quite a bit of inspiration and motivation in this. Specifically thanks for his guest post on my blog, “Anti-Moffat,” which is a tour de force, and which I’ll talk about later.
First, let me say that I self-identify as feminist, and while I am undoubtedly flawed in this regard, I would like to aspire to the accomplishment of being not misogynistic.
Now, on to what that means. Ultimately, both words refer less to actual tangible things in the world than modes of critique. We might include a third interesting term here, “misandrist,” because it’s relevant inasmuch as it is also a mode of critique. The point of the label “misogynistic” is a sort of negative critique, which is an important tactic. It is absolutely necessary to call out the many, deep, systemic, and damaging flaws of the world. To reduce this to a brutal example for the sake of expediency, let us take it as read, in other words, that calling out misogyny and rape culture is an absolutely essential tool to ending the horrifying statistics about how frequently women are the victims of sexual assault.
What of “feminist,” then? I would suggest that it is a correspondingly positive critique. If “misogynistic” means that a given thing supports a horrifying ideology of oppression, “feminist” means that a given thing… well, does not support it? Is not misogynistic? The trouble is, the ideology of oppression we’re talking about is so utterly pervasive that such a thing does not seem to me to exist. It is possible to argue the insufficiencies and failures of any text from a feminist perspective. This, in many ways, returns to the question of tactics. If calling out misogyny is a tactic in achieving the material end of reducing the constant physical danger that people are in just for the fact that they are women, then like any tactic it has its advantages and disadvantages, and cases where it is more or less effective.
It is in this regard that “misandrist” comes up. To return to myself for a moment, I do not merely self-identify as a feminist, I self-identify as a “man-hating feminist.” By this I mean specific things, most notably that I am fundamentally uncomfortable with large swaths of male and masculine culture in my society. In specific terms, fascination with guns and with committing real-world violence absolutely horrifies me to the point where I have trouble being friends with people who own guns. The entire mainstream dating scene paralyzes me with discomfort – bars and drinking culture are such masculine spaces that I cannot stand being in them for long periods of time. I have very few male friends who I interact with in meatspace as opposed to online, because people who gender present as masculine make me uneasy. I am unable to handle sports except for soccer, which I enjoy precisely because of its odd status in the United States as a sport we’re not particularly good at and that you are slightly non-normative if you like, and because of the politics involved in its growing popularity in the United States, which specifically manifests as people who invest actively in aspects of other country’s culture, as American soccer remains charming in its unpopularity. (Soccer culture in America is such that more people are fans of the English and Spanish leagues than are of the American league.)
It’s also perhaps relevant to note that I am a white heterosexual cisgender male who is married to a white heterosexual cisgender female, with whom I someday intend to raise kids who will, mutual fertility willing, be white, though lord knows what else. Statistics suggest heterosexual and cisgender, though the most likely scenario is obviously not the only one that one ought plan for. Gender’s obviously an even shot assuming cis.
All of which said, I opt to code this series of facts about myself under the label of “man-hating feminist” because doing so affords me certain advantages in life. I could just as well self-identify as “misandrist,” incidentally, though “man-hating feminist” seems to me funnier for a cis male, and I do love a bit of humor. But broadly speaking, I use the term for the reasons that Amanda Hess articulates in a rather fabulous bit of pop culture critique, “The Rise of the Ironic Man-Hater,” which everyone should read. The tl;dr version for those who do not take that advice is that ironically leaning into the critique that feminism is equivalent to hating masculinity is a useful tactic in building solidarity, and underlies the fundamental absurdity of the argument that misandry is a thing in the same way that misogyny is. I should also perhaps note that as someone uncomfortable with social exposure to masculinity but still someone who does not want to be a hermit, identifying as broadly sympathetic to and aware of the realities of female experience, which, for understandable reasons, often include many of the same feelings about masculinity that I have is simply a useful tool for being able to spend more social time with women than with men.
I use this rather lengthy bit of example to point out the way in which particular modes of critique and presentation have different effects – self-identifying as a misandrist and labeling other things as misogynistic are, at the end of the day, tools and forms of critique that are good at accomplishing specific things. Which brings us nicely to the other label, “feminist,” which, as noted, does not serve any use as a descriptor of the simple opposite of “misogynist.” I would suggest that “feminist” is a sort of meta-term best used to describe certain goals and sets of tactics. That is, “feminist” broadly means “the tactics and ideology of accomplishing material change to the systemic inequalities of culture (aka its misogyny), and/or someone who consciously uses those tactics/agrees with that ideology.”
So, let’s focus in on Doctor Who, and ask what, precisely, we might want out of a feminist version of Doctor Who. Given that it is a family show that it is easy to get kids invested in but is also easy to watch and enjoy as an adult, and that it is one with historical staying power such that it will probably exist for future generations who were brought up on it to bring up new generations on, just as it already has over the fifty years of its existence, I would suggest that a very basic, usable definition of a feminist Doctor Who, by which I mean a Doctor Who that can be used to further the material goals of feminism is “it’s a show that I could use to teach my children feminist values.”
So to return to the core question, when I say that Moffat is feminist, I mean that he creates popular culture that I believe can be used to teach feminist values to children, and when I say that Moffat is not misogynist, I mean that the tactic of calling out his misogyny does not strike me as particularly useful as commonly practiced.
Given that, let’s take an article that includes a reasonably large portion of the standard evidence used to argue that Moffat is a misogynist: “10 Sexist Steven Moffat Quotes.” You can read it, but I’m going to go point-by-point through all ten for the sake of thoroughly demonstrating my case.
I should perhaps note that I’ve just picked this one out of the ether. Well, not quite out of the ether – it’s actually just the last thing that someone showed me in trying to make the case that Moffat was a misogynist. But having read the feminist case against Moffat pretty extensively, it’s representative. I could pick any number of other critiques, but in the end, I’d be making basically the same points about them. So let’s just do these ten quotes.
“Between the marriages, I shagged my way round television studios like a mechanical digger.”
Somewhat puzzlingly, the linked article describes this as Moffat being “proud” of his sexual conquests. Very well – it is, certainly, a statement about sexual promiscuity that has certain implications in terms of how we read Moffat as a white heterosexual cisgendered male existing in a fundamentally misogynist society and could theoretically be considered a boast of the sort that is fundamentally associated with said misogyny. All of which said, I would like to highlight the phrase “like a mechanical digger,” because I think there is something interesting in the notion that this phrase constitutes pride.
Because for me, there’s a certain anxiety in that phrasing. It sounds mindless and repetitive and dull. Even if you do highlight the dick joke within it, it seems to me to highlight a sort of horrified banality. “Between the marriages” speaks volumes too – after a divorce and before he found someone he wanted to be with. The quote to me gives every impression of describing self-destructive behavior in the wake of emotional trauma. I think you’d be on firmer ground arguing that it’s a joke about sex addiction than you would be arguing that it’s a boast. Really – here it is in context:
“The first time, I probably married too young. By the time I met Sue I’d got older, less irritating, stopped being so bloody opinionated and become more honest. Really, I was terrible.
Between the marriages, I shagged my way round television studios like a mechanical digger. Sue and I got together at the Edinburgh TV Festival and she likes to tell the story of how I was en route to another date the night we met. Conveniently she’s blanked from her memory the fact that she did the same. She was just as dreadful as me.”
This is not a man boasting about his sexual exploits – this is a man admitting that he did properly dreadful things for years as he learned not to be horrible to women.
Moving on, then.
“When I met [his wife] Sue I was living in a fabulous, minimalist bachelor pad in Glasgow. I moved down to London to be with her and before I knew it I was living in a massively feminised house where shoes were left all over the place and every surface was covered with cushions and vases.”
Much like the previous quote, this seems to me to describe someone having difficulty adjusting to a change of lifestyle – in other words, to be a description of someone admitting to past misbehavior. This seems especially likely because of the word “cushions,” of all things.
I should explain – Moffat’s career in television stretches back to 1989, when he wrote a children’s series called Press Gang, more about which in a bit. One of the shows he made in the twenty years of television production before he made Doctor Who was a show called Coupling, which is explicitly an absurd sitcom representation of his relationship with his wife from their first meeting up through the birth of their first child.
In the second season episode of Coupling “Her Best Friend’s Bottom” there is one of the best known bits of Coupling, a monologue in which Steve (Moffat made no bones about what Coupling was about, as you see) goes off at great length about the utter stupidity of throw pillows. It’s perhaps worth noting that this monologue is very, very funny. Really – have a watch if you like. It is also worth noting that the monologue ends with Susan (Moffat’s wife Sue Vertue, incidentally, is the producer of Coupling) absolutely cutting Steve off at the knees for the fact that he is being a complete asshole in this entire monologue. Yes, it’s funny, but Steve is in no way straightforwardly sympathetic here – indeed, the line immediately after the linked scene above ends consists of Steve finally confessing the awkward secret he’s been keeping from Sue all episode and them having the conversation they needed to have, thus revealing all of Steve’s comedic bluster about the stupidity of throw pillows to be a lame and childish defense mechanism to avoid talking about what was really bothering him.
Again, in other words, Moffat is engaging in auto-critique, not just with self-loathing narration about his life, but in his writing. And if you want the motherlode of this, go back a to Coupling’s spiritual prequel, Joking Apart, a sitcom retelling of Moffat’s divorce in which he’s at times a profoundly unsympathetic character who is shown to be largely responsible for his marriage’s failure. This is one of the most basic things Moffat does – he writes scathing self-critiques about his failings as a man, then dresses them up as comedies where the joke is on the character based on him. Indeed, for anyone who has taken the time to look at Moffat’s entire career and actually think about his common themes, it will be fairly obvious that he writes both Sherlock and the Doctor as characters in the same tradition as his auto-critique self-inserts. Indeed, given the frequency with which Moffat focuses on the failures of masculinity, if anything, I would argue that Moffat is extremely prone to something approaching misandry, with all the irony that term implies.
“Your wife turns into a boat, and shortly after that, you never sleep again and you clean shit off someone. It doesn’t seem like a very appealing prospect. Obviously, the moment I saw my child, that was different, but up until that point, I was thinking, ‘how long before she gets back to normal size? Will this damage anything?’”
This is notably more or less Steve’s reaction to things in the final episode of Coupling. The episode ends with Steve looking at his kid for the first time. It’s the substance of the entire final scene – Steve’s sense that he’s having a completely inappropriate reaction to the birth of his son. And the final moment is Steve finally goes over to look at the baby, and, still unable to get himself to feel something, makes a lame joke about how his son “looks pretty average. No eyes, though.” And the nurse explains that the baby isn’t opening his eyes because the light is so bright. And Steve, in voiceover, says, “so I shaded his eyes. And then… and then he looked at me. And oh my goodness me, I became someone else entirely.” And so ends the show about Moffat’s sexual exploits in meeting his wife.
Which is to say that maybe, just maybe we need to start giving Moffat a bit of credit and assume that he might have a somewhat complex relationship with feminism and masculinity. So that when he says:
“If you take most men aside when their wives are pregnant, most men are pretty frightened and worried and faintly disgusted by the whole experience.”
we might assume that the quote is not, as the listicle says, Moffat saying “and frankly it was all just pretty gross, right boys?” and instead a quote about a man recognizing how scary becoming a father is, and admitting to that and writing about it and trying to have a conversation about masculinity that isn’t the cultural default. That, in other words, his declaration that pregnancy is terrifying and unnerving for men is not actually the endpoint of the discussion, but a moment of admitting tacit and under-discussed male anxieties for the purpose of exploring them and, ultimately, movnig beyond them.
This is, I hope, a sufficient demonstration of how Moffat grapples with some of these issues. Certainly I hope that it establishes that one of his default modes is auto-critique, so that when he says something about the process of casting Karen Gillan like:
“And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy’…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work.’”
we might recognize that the joke is that Moffat is not necessarily great at casting, and that he was comically, stupidly wrong.
And yes, there’s the tacit acknowledgment that Moffat wanted the female lead of his show to be sexy. Which is not great. It is, indeed, a bit misogynistic. Except… what’s the show that you can really spare from this critique? Where’s the massively popular action-adventure show where the female lead isn’t sexy? Because I can’t think of one. So yes, score one for misogyny expressed by Moffat, but, notably, not one that’s particularly illuminating. You can play the “it sexualizes the female lead” card on literally any major action-based television show. This is one of the basic truths of feminist critique – that our culture is so horribly, brokenly misogynistic that literally everything in it can be validly subjected to feminist critique. Which is why I view this, ultimately, as a matter of tactics. When you have an infinite number of targets, it behooves you to be mindful of what you shoot at. All television is as misogynistic as Moffat’s Doctor Who when it comes to casting sexy female leads. But I don’t think you can find a huge number of writers who do that sort of feminist auto-critique illustrated with regards to Coupling and Joking Apart.
Which is my basic objection to the “Moffat is misogynist” argument. Sure, yes, there are moments where he is, but in every case you can tackle anything with that argument, and I question the tactical wisdom of targeting something that can be used in a more unusual way when there are so many easier targets. It’s the same way I feel about that (methodologically flawed but still ultimately productive and useful) study about Doctor Who and the Bechdel Test. Sure, more episodes could pass than do, but for God’s sake, how often do people think other massively popular shows pass it? I’d wager a vanishingly small number of episodes of NCIS or House or Game of Thrones pass. Moffat was, what, 40% or something? No, it’s not enough, but there’s something perverse about targeting one of the best pass-rates on television.
But almost all of this is about shows from ten years ago. Let’s look at Doctor Who and Sherlock, those being where the Moffat argument lives these days. Next quote, please:
“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”
So, there’s a sort of two-stage critique here, and I’d like to take another digression, this time to a well-linked and quite intelligent essay from a few years ago called “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women,” which predates the Moffat era, but raises an interesting point, which is that putting women on pedestals as flawless pillars of strength is still a form of objectification, which is absolutely true. To quote the piece,
“I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.
So the feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.” They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.” “Weak” meaning “flawed.”
Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws. Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout. Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless. And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw. Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice. So that doesn’t count.
So what flaws can female characters have? Uh, I don’t know. How about the same flaws a male character would have? This is especially important in comedies, because, nowadays, male writers are so clueless about writing funny women that female characters in sitcoms, sitcomish-movies, and comics tend to be the Smart, Gorgeous Snarky Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world. In other words, Not Flawed and Not Funny.”
OK. So let’s look at Amy and River. Let’s first of all note a basic fact about them – they are female leads in an action-adventure show. There is almost no way for them not to be “strong” characters in the sense of “Strong Female,” simply because the job requirement involves running around as things blow up and generally being snarky and awesome, because that’s simply a genre trope. Everyone in Doctor Who has to be able to be funny sometimes and to have badass moments.
And look, that matters. Right there, that matters. If I have a daughter, you damn well bet I want her to be raised with stories in which girls are as funny and strong and fast and brave as boys. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but it’s immediately a useful tool for raising feminist children. That’s not to take away from Mlawski’s point about the ways in which this conception of “strong female characters” can be flawed, but nevertheless, having female action-adventure heroes is still massively important.
Let’s also note the particular phrasing Moffat offers. First, let’s look at the two eye-catching words: “sexy” and “fetish.” The context here is that he’s actually talking about Irene Adler from Sherlock, so the specific details of sex and fetish matter to the topic. Moffat is admitting he likes dominatrixes here. But he’s notably also including characters from his kids show that doesn’t have dominatrixes, or, at least, doesn’t make them quite so explicit. So while the fetishistic aspect of this is certainly present, it’s not what defines the point.
In other words, lets instead note “powerful women who like cheating people” is a plus for Moffat. By all means, let’s flip back to the whole “misandrist” irony thing, for one. But for another, let’s note what that means in terms of River and Amy, who do not really cheat people, but who are nevertheless powerful women. And let’s specifically note their male friends, the Doctor and Rory, who are regularly shown to defer to them and follow their leadership.
I’d like to again say that matters. If I have a son, similarly, you damn well bet I want him to be raised with stories in which boys listen to girls, and to have masculine heroes who are heroes for reasons other than being the loudest or the biggest or the toughest. I want them to know that heroes respect women and don’t think they’re better than them. And I think Moffat absolutely shows that with the Doctor and with Rory. There are a couple of scenes that aren’t my favorites, certainly, but on the whole, taking the entirety of the Pond era, I look at the Doctor and Rory and see men I would be jaw-droppingly proud if any son of mine tried to emulate.
But let’s go one further, to the flawed female characters advocated by Mlawski. Because Amy and River are unmistakably flawed. They have challenges that are interesting and nuanced. Amy is trying to figure out how to reconcile childhood idealism and the realities of adulthood. River’s story is often about grappling with the death of the person you love, and with growing old. There’s also a really nuanced and powerful plot with both characters about overcoming trauma that serves as a critique and rejection of standard issue rape-revenge plots. That’s not to say that trauma is a flaw, obviously, but it is to say that these are characters who are not invulnerable and simplistic caricatures.
And whatever gender child I have, when it comes time to talk to them about consent and rape culture, having given them Doctor Who to watch for most of their childhoods, I’m going to remind them of how A Good Man Goes to War ends with a reminder that what really matters is how Amy and River heal from their traumas, and their stories and their experiences, and use that to stress that one of the most important things they can do is listen to the stories of people who have been hurt by the world and learn from them.
So I’m going to walk off the stage a bit and give the spotlight over to my sister, who is one of the coolest and best people I know, and who also has an anxiety disorder and sometimes can’t deal with the world and cries, talking about Moffat and feminism with me in the aftermath of Deep Breath.
Sister: I don’t get why everyone hates Moffat, and also seems to think he and Capaldi are completely at odds and possibly hate each other? So many people on tumblr are all “I can’t reconcile my absolute faith in Peter Capaldi with my intense distrust and dislike of Moffat”
Me: I am writing a huge thing on Moffat and feminism right now, actually.
Sister: Did Clara in the last episode not clear that up for everyone?
Me: We live on the planet of the pudding brains.
Sister: Or are they feminists that oppose women being written as people?
Me: I think they’re feminists who are too shallow to notice characterization. I thought of you immediately in the “Clara confronts the cyborg” scene, by the way. And thought “Jesus Christ, Moffat is writing my sister as the companion, this is phenomenal.”
Sister: That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said about me, thank you. I liked the bit where she was crying but that didn’t make her any less badass.
Which was, of course, the exact moment that reminded me of her. A scene in which a character is allowed to be scared of death and is still able to be totally effective, because strength and frailty aren’t opposites for women or for anyone else. I mean, you want characters who are flawed? How about a self-professed bossy control freak who goes to pieces when she’s on the back foot but who is still awesome and smart and capable? Because that’s a character I’d be proud to have any child of mine, whatever gender, look up to and enjoy.
So there’s feminist Moffat, which is to say, Moffat writing something that I as a parent and a human being can use to help raise feminist children. And he’s been doing it since Press Gang, with its lead character of Lynda Day, a bossy control freak who was compelling and brilliant and effective and still tragically wrong sometimes, and who was sometimes strong and sometimes weak and always one of the best female characters in children’s television.
We still have four quotes, though, so let’s quickly wrap that bit of the exercise up and move on to Jack Graham, as promised.
On the subject of not casting a woman as the Doctor:
“It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it – and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this – were women … saying, ‘No, no, don’t make him a woman!’”
Given the context we’ve painted, I should think this explains itself pretty well. He thought about it, and he thought it was not the right tactical move in 2014. And he talked to people about it, and took on the advice of women, and came to that decision. You might disagree, and I think I might as well, but look, as a writer who is visibly trying to advance feminist goals, he gets to decide his tactics. It’s as good a defense of not casting a female Doctor as exists.
On the same topic:
“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the queen should be played by a man.”
Well, first of all, barring surprise revelations of Prince Charles’s gender dysphoria, the next queen will be played by a man. Mirren also, it should be noted, actively lobbied for the part, saying she’d like to do it for a year. So yes, Moffat teases her for lobbying for the part. Fair game, I should think. I mean, I don’t think it’s Moffat’s best joke, and I kind of wish he hadn’t said it, but I have trouble getting too horrified. Which leaves two more quotes, which I’ll tackle together.
“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”
“Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
First of all, let’s note that there’s some context issues here – Moffat has said that the interview in which those quotes appeared took him out of context, and that he was describing the views of characters on Coupling when he said this and not his own views. That said, there’s a thinness to this defense given the degree to which Coupling is autobiographical. These may not be completely accurate representations of Moffat’s views, but it’s difficult to argue that there isn’t some sort of grain of truth to them, in his view. So let’s look at them for a moment and try to understand the point of them.
First of all, let’s look at the description of women as “needy” and “hunting for husbands” and contrast it with his love of powerful women who like cheating people. Because I think it’s significant, as it raises a real question about the quote, which is whether Moffat is describing an “is” as opposed to an “ought.” That is, what if Moffat is observing a world he considers to be broken and ugly, and making a comedic depiction of that world that reflects the problems back at the audience. He’s describing a world in which women are pressured to find husbands and settle down, whereas men are given freedom to run around and have lots of sex and fuck around. Women, if they want to have jobs and families, have to plan years of their lives around it and then overcome entrenched discrimination to actually pull off their plans. Whereas to become fathers, all men have to do is have sex without using birth control. These are not new observations, especially not to anyone familiar with feminist issues.
Now, I agree, the quote as given doesn’t quite seem to say that. But this seems to me where the lack of context comes in, because while the quote doesn’t say that, on the whole, Coupling absolutely says that. So let’s take another quote from Moffat, shall we? Namely, what he said when asked about complaints that his writing is misogynist.
“I think it’s important that there is a feminist critique of television because things that go unquestioned go unchanged and what goes unchanged becomes institutionalized and what becomes institutionalized becomes your fault. So, it should be questioned. I think some of the criticisms that are aimed at me personally are absurdly over the top and unfair, but then, who said the prosecution has to be fair? And it’s a case that needs to be prosecuted.”
There we have it. A writer who is willing to accept criticism of his work that he finds actively hurtful because he thinks it’s more important that there be feminist media criticism that holds the world accountable for its ideology than it is that he not have his feelings hurt.
I am comfortable saying that this man is feminist, and that he is considerably less misogynistic than the culture he exists in. And I think any argument that tries to suggest that his work is not feminist (in a practical sense as well as in the sense of authorial intent) or that it is misogynist has to grapple with the strong evidence that he is a consciously feminist writer who is trying to critique problematic masculinity.
Speaking of which, that other supposedly sexist quote about masculinity being disrespected. Again, remembering the context problems, I want to highlight the bit where he says “if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class,” and suggest that Moffat is on his larger point about masculinity – the same one he’s making when he engages in auto-critique. In fact, let’s go back to that quote about being terrified of fatherhood and suggest that this is perhaps a quote about the lack of good models for masculinity in the world. In which case I’ll just offer another counter-quote, on the subject of the Doctor as a hero.
“It’s hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes are important. Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History books tell us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now, but heroes tell us who we want to be. And a lot of our heroes depress me. But, you know, when they made this particular hero up, they didn’t give him a gun – they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray. They gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts, and that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”
Which is exactly what I’d expect a man who is deeply skeptical of conventional representations of masculinity to say about Doctor Who. And is exactly why I think Doctor Who is a morally good show, in the sense that I think it is easily used to try to make the world a better place, most especially in terms of its role in shaping the development of kids.
So, let’s move on to Jack Graham’s “Anti-Moffat.” Which I will refute by saying… it’s absolutely correct. But let’s also look at what Jack is actually doing, or at least put Jack in the context of his larger body of writing about Doctor Who, which consists primarily of criticisms of how Doctor Who does not sufficiently support revolutionary Marxism. I’d further point out that a fundamental reason Jack talks about Doctor Who in this context is the fact that the show comes so close to supporting truly radical and leftist positions and worldviews that its shortcomings are frustrating in a way that the shortcomings of a lesser show aren’t.
Indeed, it’s worth contextualizing Jack’s work in terms of the larger Doctor Who fandom he’s a part of. Jack doesn’t just write about Moffat – he writes about the entire fifty-one year history of the show. And he writes for a world and an audience that believes truly horrible things like that The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a story with a Fu Manchu knockoff played by a white actor in yellowface makeup is not racist. (It’s horrifically racist.) Or that The Twin Dilemma, in which the Doctor attempts to strangle his companion and at the end of which she decides to stay with him despite his total refusal to apologize for his violent physical assault of her, is not in fact a horrible depiction and normalization of domestic violence. He writes for a fandom that has meticulously collected lists of what episodes you can see Katy Manning’s underwear in . Which is to say that for all that the show does right today and has done right in its history, it’s still a show whose fandom is plagued by people like Ian Levine, a man who unironically describes getting fewer than fourteen episodes of Doctor Who a year as “evil” and who openly votes for whatever party he thinks will best fund the BBC because the only political issue he cares about is getting more Doctor Who. Given all of this, there is a lot to be angry about and critical of with Doctor Who and its fandom.
Which is to say once again that social justice critique matters. One of the things I love most about Jack’s writing is his decision to hold the world fiercely accountable for its flaws, and to baldly demand perfection of it. The world would be a poorer place without it. And the same applies to feminist critique. Ignoring the flaws of Moffat’s work is foolish. And if you want to take a radically feminist (and I would like to note that I despise the movement that currently identifies as “radical feminism” for its entrenched and unacceptable transphobia, and that I dearly hope for the idea of radicalism in feminism to be reclaimed from TERFs as soon as possible) perspective that holds Doctor Who accountable, go for it. It’s a thing that should exist, because there are too many Doctor Who fans, mainly male ones, who really do need to be yelled at for their beliefs and interactions with the series.
But I think it’s dishonest to do so in a way that doesn’t acknowledge that Moffat is giving the world new tools for raising children who are thoughtful and mindful about feminist issues, giving actual and consciously feminist women female characters they feel reflect them better than those on other shows, and being actively critical of the misogyny of the world around him.
In the end, whether “better than average” counts as “good enough” is a personal decision. But for me… look, as I said, some day I am going to have kids, and sometimes I am going to have to sit my kids in front of a television set and let them watch for a few hours while I get some work done. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of three shows I’d rather them watch than Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who when it comes to giving them things that will raise them to be the brave, feminist rabble-rousers who steadfastly refuse to sit down and let injustice happen in front of them that I want desperately to raise.
So yeah. Steven Moffat is a feminist. The case that he’s a misogynist is badly made.
That said, let’s take a few counter-arguments to all of this and evaluate them, shall we?
As a man, why are you telling female critics of Moffat’s representation of women in DW that he’s really a feminist and not misogynistic? I’m white and I don’t go around telling PoC what is and isn’t racist. Feminism at its core is about the liberation of women (which will incidentally help men in a lot of ways, of course), and while I do think there’s a place for men within it, you’re talking over women to defend a man that lots of women have stated problems with. That’s not feminist.
Another equally true statement is that I’m advancing the views and voices of women I know, whose readings of Moffat-era Doctor Who have informed and influenced my own.
And this is why I’m at least comfortable with existing in the debate. There is a place for men within feminism, I agree. And it’s not mainly the benefits I’d gain from feminist political victories that motivates me, but rather the benefits that would be gained by women I know and love.
So yes, as a feminist man I have to be careful. A huge part of that is listening, which, I mean, it’s not for me to judge, but I think there’s pretty ample evidence that I have been and am. There’s respecting female spaces, and, I mean, I’m not expecting to get on the Verity! Podcast or into the next volume of Chicks Dig Time Lords or anything – I’m here on my blog, saying my piece.
But look, women disagree with other women on this topic, so short of simply not discussing Doctor Who and feminism, which would be a little weird given that I care a lot about both Doctor Who and feminism, there’s no way I’m not going to be disagreeing with some women. I don’t think that disqualifies me from identifying as a feminist, though.
Okay, but suppose all your analysis about Moffat’s subtlety in his writing is completely on point – doesn’t the fact that a lot of actual women have objected to his jokes and treatment of female characters on his shows suggest that even if his goals are feminist, he’s not succeeding? If your goal is to be ally to a marginalized group (presumably a male feminist’s goal), isn’t a big part of that stepping back and paying attention to what they say?
Yes, of course it is. But let’s not forget that there is life outside the “moffat hate” tag on Tumblr. We’re talking about a show with global popularity that millions of people watch, that gets consistently high AI figures in the UK, that’s critically acclaimed. We’re talking about a writer who just won an Emmy, which he can add to an already impressive list of awards. If you watch any of the Doctor Who World Tour videos it is clear that Doctor Who is beloved by a diverse group of people. The audiences are full of women, and, given the sheer number of locales the tour went to, show great diversity in other ways. There are loads of smart women writing great stuff about the feminist virtues of the Moffat era, which they are clearly fans of.
In addition to this there is a group of people who think that Moffat is misogynistic. They are visible, certainly, and go viral on Tumblr a lot. Notably, much of the writing and criticism supporting the view is on platforms whose business models depend on social media popularity, so the fact that “Moffat is a misogynist” posts are popular on Tumblr is likely to be a cause of the argument appearing in other media.
Which is to say, I think there’s pretty strong evidence that most people do not consider Moffat’s writing too misogynistic to enjoy, including literally millions of women. When this is compounded by demonstrable falsehoods in many of the most popular arguments for why Moffat is a misogynist, yes, I think skepticism of the claim is warranted.
And, to further push this point, when you look at the utter savagery of the critique of Moffat, I think there’s a real problem. It’s one thing to point out that the scene where the Doctor asks Rory’s permission to hug Amy is a bit crass, or that the “Space” and “Time” mini-episodes are not exactly Moffat’s finest hour in terms of his handling of female characters. These are absolutely true statements. It’s another thing entirely to so thoroughly and viciously demonize Moffat and his writing that the critique becomes a condemnation of the very idea of anyone enjoying Moffat’s writing. Given the number of people who do enjoy Moffat’s writing, and more to the point the number of feminists who do, I think the anti-Moffat side has a lot more to answer for in terms of erasing and ignoring the voices of women than I do.
I mean, I’ve got several thousand words here where I’m looking at and carefully evaluating the criticisms of Moffat. Whereas I’ve never once seen a feminist critique of Moffat that takes seriously the fact that there are women who look up to River, and think about why they might do so.
Aside from Moffat’s group of women who told him they wanted a male doctor, when did he actually listen and humbly agree to address criticisms people were having? For that matter, if he’s a feminist, why hasn’t he hired more female writers? We all know there are good female writers who want to work in television, both here and in the UK. Why not bring more of them on?
I don’t know. But crucially, neither do you. Neither of us know who the almost-rans were for writing slots. We do not know who was considered. We don’t know what efforts to hire female writers may have taken place or what happened to them. Which is to say, it’s a good question, but it’s not one that can easily be answered.
Some speculation is possible, certainly. We know that BBC policy is that Doctor Who can only be written by people with pretty extensive television experience, to the point that Davies had to lobby a bit to get Rob Shearman in on the first season. So the larger institutional bias of television works doubly against Doctor Who here – the pool of female writers that Moffat can actually ask is too small. We also can note that the BBC pays much, much less than American television, which makes many of the names thrown out like Jane Espenson tricky, simply because they’d have to take a pretty massive pay cut from their already full-time writing careers.
But there’s a lot more that we don’t know than that we do, and speculation here is a mug’s game.
I wish he’d hire more female writers too. I’m glad he’s hiring more female directors.
“Except… what’s the show that you can really spare from this critique? Where’s the massively popular action-adventure show where the female lead isn’t sexy? Because I can’t think of one.” Except this doesn’t refute the argument that Moffat is not a misogynist, only the argument that everyone else in TV is less of one than he is. I know you must know that being no MORE misogynistic than the average showrunner, isn’t the same as being a feminist.
Yeah it is.
Well, OK, let’s fine tune it a bit. Being less misogynistic than the average showrunner is the same as being a feminist.
Look, some of us have to live outside of Tumblr. We have to think about things like what media we want to give our children, we have to think about what media we want to embrace for the basic function of being social, we have to live in the world of today, with all its misogyny and shittiness.
Perfection’s a fine line to draw, and as I said, it has its uses. But one thing I don’t find it particularly useful for is trying to make the world better in the immediate term. I want things I can point to right now, today, and say “look, here’s something new and fresh that’s picking at the scabs of misogyny in early September 2014 and saying things that haven’t been said before.”
So yes, being the best of what’s available is feminist. Because progress happens over time. I hope more and better feminist media comes along and unseats Doctor Who, and that Doctor Who scrambles to adapt and becomes more feminist still, and that people notice the number of women who show up at Doctor Who conventions and realize that it’s possible to make sci-fi media that appeals to women and that this is worth doing.
But none of that is going to happen unless we start from the mess we’re in today, and start using the best tools we have available.
Which is why I find people rejecting interesting tools with distorted and inaccurate arguments that hold the tools to a standard nothing else can meet either frustrating. I mean, the anti-Moffat camp is really, brutally vicious. It’s trivial to find people who use awful, slut-shaming language in criticizing Amy Pond. As someone who knows multiple feminist women who love Amy and are emotionally invested in her as a character because she represents things they care about, I find that pretty massively fucked up, not least because slut-shaming someone’s role model, by extension, slut-shames them.
But more importantly, there are things that aren’t being widely embraced as feminist that millions of people uncritically watch and embrace, and that are just as misogynistic if not moreso than the Moffat era. There are things that actually need to be criticized with the sort of uncompromising and unyielding absolutism that people direct at the Moffat era. And yet they aren’t getting nearly the attention as the Moffat era. Instead, a huge amount of attention goes to people are being vicious towards the thing that other feminists are embracing and using as a tool for activism.
At the end of the day, I think attacking something that’s being used productively by other feminists is something to do carefully. And I think, as I’ve shown above, that instead of doing it carefully, feminist critique of Moffat is based on selective readings, willful ignorance of context, and a complete failure to consider Moffat’s larger career. I think it’s sloppy, bad literary analysis being used to bully and insult other feminists.
And I really do have a problem with that.
So yes. Moffat is a feminist. And if you disagree with that claim, I think you are factually incorrect, in a way that is the media studies equivalent of disagreeing that man-made climate change is happening or that American prosperity was built on the back of slave labor. No, of course Moffat isn’t perfect on feminist issues. But nobody is.
But he’s very, very good. And that should be a fundamental part of any conversation we have about him.