Is Steven Moffat a Feminist Writer?
Guest contributor Gregor Schmalzried examines if Moffat’s stories are in fact female-empowering.
To get this out of the way, I never bought into the “Moffat is sexist” accusations that frequently spawn on a certain blogging platform that most online Doctor Who communities tend to ignore or at least treat very critically. Still, the subject comes up regularly, again and again. The debate is far from over, as proven by the fact that Karen Gillan herself was confronted with it on a recent press conference.
I think it’s time to shift the debate. The way I see it, the fantastic stories and characters Steven Moffat gave us since the series’ revival in 2005 are not only not at all sexist, but largely quite the opposite, they are women-empowering and to me it doesn’t seem a stretch to call a lot of them feminist. If you find this statement far-fetched, let me go through the four most significant feminist elements in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who stories.
Amy and Rory
Whenever a couple are among the main characters in action and adventure cinema and TV, there’s one character dynamic that appears so frequently (especially the farther you go back in time) that it can be hard to even get worked up about it: A man who’s always up for an adventure and eager to take every risky opportunity as long as it’s fun and a woman who stands back, asks whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to overthink this and worries about her hair or fingernails suffering. She’s the needy of the two, who would rather have a quiet evening at home than spend it being chased by villains.
In the case of Amy and Rory those roles are reversed. It’s the guy who’s the needy one, it’s the guy who’s wary and careful and it’s the girl who’s perfectly fine going off and doing her own thing. Visiting alien planets, seeing the stars, fighting monsters, that’s what Amy does and Rory needs about half a dozen episodes until he’s really up for it as well. And even after that, Amy is still clearly the more adventurous of the two and her importance is also made predominant by the fact that she and Rory are regularly referred to as “the Ponds” as opposed to “the Williams’”.
Jenny and Vastra
There have been many jokes made about the omnipresence of homosexual characters in Russell T Davies’ stories, but a closer look at them reveals that they really aren’t that big of a deal. Most of them just casually mention being gay in passing and never do we see a gay kiss or relationship onscreen. Jack Harkness is the only gay character who appears in more than one episode and I don’t think it’s wrong-headed to mention that he’s a bit of a bisexual stereotype. And please believe me, I’m not criticising here, I’m just making observations.
Steven Moffat however gave us Jenny and Vastra who are not only regularly featured on the show but also probably the least conventional and stereotypical gay couple ever on television. I mean, one of them’s a lizard woman. It should also be noted that while they both have more or less clear-cut sad back stories, they are highly confident and intelligent women with their own agenda who live in a time in which relationships with either lizards or partners of the same sex were highly unconventional to say the least. To give these characters a place on tea time television is something that would have been unusually bold even for Russell T Davies.
There is something about Alex Kingston which is rarely talked about, for the simple reason that both she and Matt Smith portray characters that are an awful lot older than they appear. For this reason, you don’t usually think about it, but there have been some people during the last years who have pointed out the (quite distinct) age difference between the two. Although she doesn’t really look it, Alex is almost twenty years than Matt. The double standard that it’s completely normal for an older man to be dating a young woman in a movie or a TV show, but weird (and a lot rarer) the other way around is something feminists have rightly been complaining about for a long time now. Furthermore, when Melody regenerates into Alex Kingston, she looks about thirty years older and still explodes with joy over her new body.
River is a very interesting character in general. Similar to Jack Harkness, she often feels like a character from another show that casually turns up in Doctor Who to see how the Doctor’s doing. Of course her story is very closely intertwined with the Doctor, but at an important point in her life, she consciously chose to stop running after him and live life her own way. She never travels with him for too long. Yes, she may be his wife and she may love him, but she still got her own stuff to do.
Believable and layered heroines
Steven Moffat loves writing female characters. That doesn’t have to be feminist on its own, but I still find it striking that of all the returning characters Moffat has come up with so far, only two (Rory and Strax) are men, while seven (River, Amy, Vastra, Jenny, Clara, Kate Stewart and Madame Kovarian) are women. Additionally, there rarely goes an episode by without an interesting female one-off character. And since one thing feminists are always hoping for in television is representation, we can tick that box already.
The next question would be: Is it good representation? And my whole-hearted answer is yes. Although there are of course exceptions (Tasha Lem springs to mind), almost all of Moffat’s female characters are fully-rounded interesting characters with strengths and flaws. To name just a few, there is the heroic and tragic teenage mother Nancy, the smart and authentic Sally Sparrow (who became a big fan favourite after just one story), the kind and determined Madge Arwell or the distrustful and responsible Clara Oswald. All of them showed a great range of emotion and character. I could go on, but the best way to demonstrate how well Moffat’s writing really works would be a recap of Amy’s story in series 5 (unfortunately, there’s not enough space to get into a lot of detail):
After being terribly disappointed by the Doctor as child, Amy has more or less come to accept the Doctor as an imaginary friend of her childhood. She feels insecure and the desperate need to not be a child anymore, shortens Amelia to Amy, starts working as a kissogram and is on the brink of entering a marriage she’s not sure she’s ready for. Then her imaginary friend returns on the night before her wedding, on the night before the day she’s meant to grow up. She runs away from her responsibility, learns to embrace her sense of adventure and wonder again and after a turbulent series she learns that there’s no reason why she can’t have both, being married to the man she loves and travelling with the Doctor. Which is particularly beautiful since she came after a streak of companions that were married off at the end of their respective runs.
I deliberately worded the headline as a question, because I didn’t want to do a traditional “4 reasons why blah blah” article. I wanted to give my thoughts on the subject while not pressuring anyone into agreeing with me. A food for thought-article if you will.
I also didn’t address most of the common sexism criticisms of Moffat, because those already were addressed on dozens of occasions all over the internet. I didn’t want to write a defence of Steven Moffat, I wanted to turn the tables and write down why I think that he doesn’t only deserve not to be constantly cyberbullied by a small, yet very loud part of the fan base, but actually deserve some praise for his treatment of female characters. But still, I’m always open to constructive criticism. I would say that what I just wrote was some positive constructive criticism and therefore I can deal with some negative, as long as it’s not… you know, that certain blogging platform.