Sunday, December 22, 2013

We Must Not Be Afraid to Criticize Our Heroes: An Open Letter to Steven Moffat About Sexism

RIDDELL: You know what I want more than anything?
AMY: Lessons in gender politics?
RIDDELL: A dinosaur tooth to take home. Dinosaurs ahead, a lady at my side, about to be blown up. I'm sure I've never been happier.
AMY: Shut up and shoot.

Dear Steven Moffat,

My all time favorite television writers are as follows:  you, Joss Whedon, and Aaron Sorkin.  Your versatility between genres shows great range and scope.  I fell in love with your writing when I saw the American version of Coupling, and grew to love it even more when I watched the original British version and realized that all of the trite, obvious jokes in the American version of the show were the ones added in by the American writers.  On the night my mom died, I wanted to watch something light to take my mind off of the most traumatic event of my life, but yet still smart enough to engage my mind and make me laugh.  I chose Coupling episodes.  It just seemed to fit perfectly.

Your work on Doctor Who has taken the show to a level that surpasses literally every era in the show's history.  "The Time of Angels," "Flesh and Stone," "A Christmas Carol," "The Impossible Astronaut," and "Day of the Moon" transcend the entire series.  Even Douglas Adams, a true legend in science fiction, didn't write episodes that are on par with any of the episodes I just listed.

But in the past few years, you've been accused of sexism on many occasions.  I've tried to defend you sometimes, as best as I could as a straight white male.  And I stand behind some of the things I've said before.  I do think you've made some incredibly strong female characters, like River Song, who you should be completely proud of.  But I've reached a point where, sometimes, I can't defend some of the things you've done.  I'm trying, Steven.  I'm a pretty big fanboy of yours right now.  So when you write an episode where the gender politics make me cringe, I experience cognitive dissonance.  I find it hard to reconcile how great of a writer you are with how obviously sexist some of the things you do are.  I don't think you hate women.  I'm hoping you're not really a misogynist.  I'd like to think you're lacking some self-awareness right now in a way that is making you come off as a different person than you want to be seen as.

The first time I found myself unable to defend you in any way was in "Let's Kill Hitler":
AMY: I don't understand, OK? One minute [River]'s going to marry you and then kill you.
DOCTOR: Ah, well, she's been brainwashed, it makes sense to her. Plus, she is a woman. (Amy scowls at the Doctor.) Oh, shut up, I'm dying.
Sometimes, at parties, people tell really offensive jokes because they're in an environment where they know that all of their friends will understand that they don't actually mean it.  Their friends know they aren't sexist, racist, homophobic, etc., so they know their friends won't take it seriously when they tell this sexist, racist, or homophobic joke.  Whether or not this sort of thing is okay is a discussion for another time, but I would tend to lean towards "not."  This line from "Let's Kill Hitler" felt like a situation where you were treating the entire Doctor Who viewing public as if they were at one of these parties with you, like you thought that the entire viewing public would see this and say "Oh, well, Moffat's not really sexist, so it's okay."

Steven, people don't all think that, nor is it okay.

People today often put racist/sexist/homophobic comments in the mouths of characters they intend to be stupid, so as to parody that ignorant strain of thinking.  I think of Archie Bunker as one of the greatest examples of this tactic.  You might be more familiar with the British Character he's based on:  Alf Garnett.

You did the exact opposite in this moment.  The Doctor is, arguably, the smartest being in the Universe and is, usually, the most enlightened.  But you showed that, in moments of desperation, he reverts to negative stereotypes about women.  When all niceties have worn off, the smartest man in the Universe thinks that women are moody and vindictive.  That's not an okay message to send to anyone, especially the younger viewers of what you yourself have called a "children's show."

A similar moment happened in Steve Thompson's "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS":
DOCTOR: Take the wheel. Not the wheel. I'll make it easy. Shut it down to basic mode for you.
CLARA: Basic? Because I'm a girl?
DOCTOR: No. (The Doctor snickers)
It wasn't an episode you wrote, but it happened on your watch.  As the head writer, it's your job to watch for offensive little things like this.  It's such a little thing.  The line isn't even sexist until the Doctor gives that little snicker and that look that turns his "No" into an obvious "Yes."  Just like your line in "Let's Kill Hitler," it's such a throw-away line that you would have literally lost nothing by cutting it out of the script.  It takes no effort to say to Thompson "Hey, man, we're going to cut this.  I know you're not sexist, but it's going to make people think that you--and, by extension, all of us on the writing and production staff--are sexist."

I think your predecessor, Russel T. Davies, created the most pathetically weak female character in the history of the show: Donna Noble.  Peri Brown seems like an Amazon warrior compared to Donna.  Donna Noble is a Cathy cartoon with less backbone, and only the great comic talents of Catherine Tate were able to give Donna a few vaguely redeemable moments.  But you gave Donna two of her worst lines in the two-part episode you wrote for her:
(Donna kicks in the door)
DOCTOR: Nice door skills, Donna.
DONNA: Yeah, well, you know, boyfriends... sometimes you need the element of surprise.
This struck me as a pretty strange line. It almost makes Donna seem kind of rapey. We've already seen that she's so desperate to get married that she chose her job based on where she's most likely to find a husband, and then literally begged a man to marry her. So now you're saying that she's such an obnoxious girlfriend that she has to bang down locked doors to get to the men she wants who are trying to hide from her? Or are you saying she has so little trust in her boyfriends that she has to break down their doors to check and see if they're cheating on her? Either way, it makes her pretty weak and pathetic.
DONNA: Wait, no, just... hang on. So... this isn't the real me? This isn't my real body. But I've been dieting!
This is so sexist it borders on the absurd. A woman has just found out that everything she thought was her real life, including her two children, were illusions created by a malfunctioning computer program, and her first thought is "Then I could have had that slice of cheesecake anyway?" You were stuck with a horribly offensive character here who is literally a cobbling together of the worst female stereotypes in Western history, but you didn't have to make things worse by making her out to be clinically narcissistic in horribly stereotypical ways.

In all of these little lines, I wonder how many people these scripts had to go through without anybody convincing you not to keep these lines in the episodes. Especially the one from "Let's Kill Hitler," and the similar exchanges from "The Wedding of River Song" and "The Bells of Saint John":
MONK: Is it an evil spirit?
DOCTOR: It's a woman. (The Monk crosses himself.)
CHURCHILL: Tick tock goes the clock, as the old song says. But they don't, do they? The clocks never tick. Something has happened to time. That's what you say. What you never stop saying. All of history is happening at once. But what does that mean? What happened? Explain to me in terms that I can understand. What happened to time?
DOCTOR: A woman.
Some of the others might have slipped by past some people who were not particularly sensitive or who were too afraid to question their boss, but I find it hard to believe that not even one person told you that these particular exchanges from "Let's Kill Hitler," "The Wedding of River Song," and "The Bells of Saint John" were not okay. And I wouldn't be surprised if that person was Alex Kingston or Karen Gillan. What did you tell them? Did you tell them to calm down? That they were being too sensitive? That it was only a joke? They were right to tell you not to put that on the air. Maybe they weren't even doing it for their own sake. Maybe they were doing it because they cared about you and they didn't want you to make yourself look like a jerk in front of the entire world.

The first time an entire episode's plot gave me pause was an episode you didn't write, but which you should have vetoed. When I first saw "The Girl Who Waited," I found it to be the most sexist thing to happen in the franchise since Katy Manning put together an entire character based on an old joke book about blondes. I'm sure neither you nor the writer, Tom MacRae, intended this to be the case, but it's what happened.
OLDER AMY: The me version of you. I refuse to help them. I won't let them save myself.
AMY: Why?
OLDER AMY: If you escape, then I was never trapped here. The last thirty-six years of my life rewrites, and I cease to exist. That's why old me refused to help then. That's why I'm refusing to help now. And that's why you'll refuse to help when it's your turn. And nothing you can say will change that.
AMY: Three words. What about Rory?
OLDER AMY: I called my robot Rory.
AMY: You called your robot Rory?
AMY: Oh, so you didn't call it the Doctor, or Biggles. Our favourite cat?
OLDER AMY: Do remember that summer when he came back to school with that ridiculous haircut?
AMY: He said he'd been in a rock band.
OLDER AMY: Liar. And, and then he had to learn to play the guitar.
AMY: So we wouldn't know he couldn't play it. Mmm hmm.
OLDER AMY: All those boys chasing me, but it was only ever Rory. Why was that?
AMY: You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful. And then you actually talk to them, and five minutes later they're as dull as a brick? Then there's other people, and you meet them and think, not bad, they're okay. And then you get to know them, and their face just sort of becomes them, like their personality's written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful.
BOTH: Rory's the most beautiful man I've ever met.
AMY: Please? Do it for him.
OLDER AMY: You're asking me to defy destiny, causality, the nexus of time itself, for a boy.
AMY: You're Amy, he's Rory, and oh yes, I am.
(Rory has been waiting outside all this time.)
OLDER AMY: I am going to pull time apart for you.
I once lost a Facebook friend trying to defend your writing.  I tried to defend you from her accusation that Amy is defined solely by the men in her life, Rory and the Doctor.  I still think this isn't the case in every episode, but in this particular episode, it is the case.  Here, Amy is defined solely by her relationship to Rory.  Old Amy won't save herself for herself, so she'll save herself to ensure that Rory has a wife.  Old Amy, in this scenario, has no sense of her own internal worth for herself.  She doesn't want to erase the past decades of her existence to rescue her younger self from this horrible fate, but she'll do it for Rory's sake.  For Rory.  In this moment, her function becomes that of being Rory's wife, and nothing else.

That is a degrading and humiliating message to send to women.  Would you put together a safe driving campaign with the slogan "Buckle up for your husband's sake"?  Amy and Rory's relationship is one of the few love stories in the Doctor Who franchise, but it's by far the greatest because both characters are so strong.  In this moment, though, Amy becomes so weak, and it disappoints me as someone who admires her character.  If she's not willing to save herself for herself, then she becomes less than a person.  She becomes someone's wife and nothing more.

Where "The Girl Who Waited" struck me as incredibly sexist on first viewing, "The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe" made me a little uncomfortable on first viewing, and it took a few more times viewing it for me to figure out what bothered me about this very problematic episode.
LILY: The stars are going inside her. She's taking the whole forest.
MADGE: Oh, this is marvelous. Oh, this is really quite wonderful.
DOCTOR: Madge? Are you all right? Talk to me. Madge, can you hear me?
MADGE: Yes, I can hear you. I'm perfectly fine, thank you.
DOCTOR: Fine? You've got a whole world inside your head.
MADGE: I know! It's funny, isn't it? One can't imagine being a forest, then suddenly one can. How remarkable.
DOCTOR: You're okay. She's okay.
MADGE/QUEEN: She is strong.
MADGE: Ooo. That wasn't me. This is all really rather clever, isn't it?
DOCTOR: She's strong. She's strong. Ooo, stupid me. Stupid old Doctor. Do you get it, Cyril?
DOCTOR: Lily, you do, don't you?
DOCTOR: Course you do. Think about it. Weak and strong. It's a translation. Translated from the base code of nature itself. You and I, Cyril, we're weak. But she's female. More than female, she's mum. How else does life ever travel? The Mother ship!
A friend of mine referred to this as Madge steering the ship by the "power of feminism."  Frankly, I feel it's quite the opposite.  The forest wants to leave and it needs a vessel with which to escape.  So it needs a woman.  It turns down the Doctor and Cyril because they are male, but kind of accepts Lily because she's female and completely accepts Madge, either because she's already been a mother or because she's of childbearing age.

Maybe you meant this to be that women are strong because they can give birth.  But what it really felt like was "A woman's primary function is being a mother."  Lily and Madge's gender is boiled down to one thing:  its ability to carry life.  They are walking wombs waiting for something to pick up and transport.  I'm not a woman, but I can only imagine that, as a woman, it might become humiliating after a while to be told by the media that my main function is as a baby maker, and that all of the other things I do are inferior to my function as a potential mother.  That I'm a machine, not a person with a soul.

Still, that part of the episode was far less offensive than this:
DOCTOR: That's it, focus on Reg. Be careful, but focus on him.
MADGE: Oh, I don't know.
DOCTOR: How did you meet? You and Reg. Tell me how you met.
MADGE: He followed me home. I worked in the dairy. He always used to follow me home.
LILY: Look at Father. He looks so young.
MADGE: He said he'd keep on following me till I married him. Didn't like to make a scene.
There's a certain school of thought that would think of this as romantic, as Reg was so in love he put in all this effort to win over this woman.  Another school of thought, however, would say that Reg doesn't respect Madge's right to consent.  And, right now, the second school of thought is starting to become more popular in some circles, and its making some much better points.

When people talk about the phrase "rape culture," they're referring to a culture that doesn't value a woman's God given right to say "no" to a man.  You didn't invent this problem.  Centuries of both works of fiction and advice we've passed on to both men and women over generations have left us with this idea that, when a woman says "no," she's just playing hard to get.  That women are being told to play hard to get, some say (and I agree with them) is dangerous.  I encourage you to read more about this in this great Rachael Kay Albers article from

Reg took Madge's "no" as a "yes."  Nothing about what she said even suggests she was intentionally playing hard to get.  On the contrary, she seems to have had no interest in him, and he continues to push to try to turn her "no" into a "yes."  This is the kind of thinking that tells young men "When a woman says no, she might mean yes," and that's when some mentally disturbed men start to turn a woman's "no" into a "yes" by force.

I'm not blaming you for the rape of any women, here, but I am blaming the rape culture you contributed to. I'm saying you passed on a very bad cultural norm that needs to be stopped if we're ever going to be able to bring down some of these horrifying rape statistics in this world.

Other people have accused you of being sexist for reasons I disagree with.  Still, I encourage you to look into their criticisms, think long and hard about what they're saying, and try to keep it in mind when you write your episodes.

I don't think we should be afraid to criticize those we respect.  I am an American who voted for Barack Obama twice and, while both my country and my president have disappointed me--and have disappointed me more than you ever could--I still love both of them.  And I believe that to call them on their errors is not a sign of disrespect, but actually a sign of love and respect.

My girlfriend was telling me she felt the same way recently when reading East of Eden by one of her favorite writers, John Steinbeck.  I've heard the most ardent feminists I know bemoan the unfortunate sexism in what they admit is the great writing of Charles Bukowski.  "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?" asks feminist electro-punk group Le Tigre in their song of the same name about filmmaker John Cassavetes.  "Misogynist!" and "Genius!" are the replies they shout back to each other, demonstrating how difficult it is to believe that the same two things are true of the same man.

Maybe you don't deserve this kind of respect.  I never met you.  You might just be a jerk and a misogynist.  As someone who so respects your writing, I'm choosing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and hope that you're just misguided.

So, when I say these things, it's because I respect your work so much.  Your writing is too good for this, Steven.  You are possibly the smartest writer in the history of the greatest science-fiction franchise in history.

So, for the love of God, start acting like it!

Trevor Byrne-Smith

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