Jenni always wants what she can't have (zenni) wrote,
Jenni always wants what she can't have

Because critical analysis is more fun without having to reference

The female characters of Doctor Who and Sherlock

Tiny preface! This was... going to be a small vent. But at essay-length I can safely say it got out of hand. If you make it through, I'd love to hear what you guys think, and I'd love to have a discussion about this!

Spoilers for Doctor Who (gonna be safe and say all the new series), and Sherlock (season 2).


The new series of Sherlock really bothered me at times with its portrayal of female characters, and the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became with this show, and Doctor Who's treatment of its women.

I don't know how much I'm adding to the debate, the extent of which I am in either fandoms is following some Who/Sherlock-heavy blogs on Tumblr, and I feel like the issue has been explored really well, by people more articulate and more knowledgeable than I am – I'm basically just thinking out loud at this point.

Both Who and Sherlock are shows that consistently fail the Bechdel test. If anyone needed a refresher, a show or movie passes the test when it has 1) more than one female character, 2) who talk to each other, and 3) about something other than a man. Ever since I learned of this litmus test, I've been applying it to a lot of the media I consume, and it's depressing how many don't pass it. More movies than TV shows, in general, but there's debate as to whether the Bechdel test should be applied to a show in general, or specific episodes. In either case, these two shows still pretty much have no hope.

I'm actually just going to focus on Who first (part II: Steven Moffat is not necessarily sexist, but he cannot write strong female characters). With this show, the Doctor is obviously the eponymous character, and the stories with revolve around him. It's unfortunate that all 11 incarnates have so far been white men – and of course race is another issue in this show that I won't get into – because I think the character can be a fantastic role model for women, perhaps not in her actions, but to have a multi-faceted, interesting, and strong woman travelling all of time and space, having excellent adventures and being awesome in general.

That is not to say none of the Doctor's companions are role models. They're usually female, and it's great seeing more women on TV. They're smart, they're kind, they're tough, and they are completely brilliant in all their ways. The thing is, though, they're written by men, and their lives revolve around a man. By virtue of being the Doctor's companion, they're robbed of a part of their basic agency – the Doctor drops in, they're whisked away. They do amazing, amazing things, and then they usually leave him not by their own choice, but his.

I say 'usually', because I think Martha's the only companion of new Who who chooses to leave the Doctor on her own, and even then that choice is fraught with complications in relation to her feelings towards the Doctor. Rose is forced away into the alternate universe – which, actually isn't the Doctor's doing, I'll give you that. Amy is made to break her faith in him, and is deposited into a new life. And Donna... just thinking about what happened to Donna makes me mad.

Real life writes the plot sometimes, and these actors have to move on, but is it so much to ask that the characters are given a worthy send-off? More Roses, whose exit was not just arbitrary and had such an emotional impact, on both the audience and within the story on the Doctor. More Marthas, who chose her own way out, even though it was a difficult decision for her to make. Fewer Amys, fewer Donnas, and fewer Rivers.

And then, with River, we get to the Moffat portion of this. In general I preferred Moffat's run on the show, because I really like his storytelling (also a slight personal dislike of David Tennant's acting methods at times, and on a shallow note, I feel like Moffat's run has had prettier cinematography), so although Donna is my favourite companion, I'm more likely to pick up series 5 to rewatch. I know the interviews he's done, and some of the comments he's made, but I don't believe he's necessarily sexist. I think he really loves strong female characters, and I think he tries really hard, but he just has no clue how to write them.

The most infuriating thing about River, is that she started off, in Silence in the Library, as intriguing and layered, and then the more we saw of her, the more her story revolved around the Doctor, to the point where I don't even know if she has anything other than him. She has somehow devolved, and now her life is literally all about the Doctor. She was programmed that way. She gave up all of her regenerations for him, and she can look forward to an existence of looking forward to him, eventually dying for him.

Taken alone, River is great. She's intelligent, she can kick your ass all the way to next Tuesday, she's 'one of the boys' (the irony of that expression in the context of this spiel is not lost on me). She's confident, sassy, and she can hold her own in any situation that's thrown at her. Taken in context of the larger story, it doesn't invalidate her skills and her personality so much as it warps her motives and her origin, that she's no longer her own person, and she can't exist as her own individual, unless in tandem with the Doctor.

Moffat's female characters are overwhelmingly like River. His characters in Who, even while keeping in mind the fact that they're supporting characters, could be so much more. During the RTD era, all of Moffat's episode featured a female supporting character. Again, this shows me that he really is trying, and again, to varying degrees of success.

I haven't watched The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances in years, but I seem to remember that episode arc's featured character was pretty much defined by her role of caretaker, as a mother, rather than her as a person. Correct me if I'm wrong, because I really only remember the gist of a lot of series 1 episodes.

The Girl in the Fireplace, again an episode I haven't seen in a while, but I get the impression that Madame de Pompadour spent the rest of her days pining over the Doctor after he left. You know, this from an otherwise accomplished, influential woman. I know it's a romantic tragedy ending, and it's not as exciting from a storytelling point of view to have her letter contain something like, "I've really missed you, my old friend, but my life have been pretty rad and anyway I loved the King who was actually you know, there for me consistently", but this detracts from the depth of her character, and reduces her to nothing more than a one-off love interest.

Sally Sparrow I think is an interesting case, and it's hard to find faults in my favourite episode of this show. I appreciate that Blink is a Doctor-lite episode, and he's very much the supporting character to Sally's main. This gives her more room to develop, and for the audience to get to know her as a character in her own right. The story is still set into motion by the Doctor more or less, but Sally's the one who lives it, and it just goes to show her good qualities, such as her curiosity and her courage. She's her own person, pretty much independent of the Doctor, he just happened to play a part, sort of, in a major event of her life, except... what was that bit at the end, guys? Guys? I understand it's unfinished business, but she doesn't get to move on with her life until this Doctor-driven thing is solved? Why? And why does it only apply to her love life? So she's magically ready for a relationship now? Why wouldn't she be ready before? It didn't seem to have an impact on the other aspects of her life, I mean she's gone into business with Larry, and that's not exactly a small change. Why do they need to end up as a couple? Does remaining platonic invalidate their experiences? Do you need an other 'half' to be whole? I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS.


Moving along chronologically, that brings us to Sherlock. I'm skipping much of Amy's issues – the least of them being the fact that her 'best friend' is a man she's met once when she was seven years old, and from then on he basically dominated her life – and the character development she goes through in series 6, which is exactly none. The reason why I even started to think about this, other than the fact that I basically haven't overanalysed anything since graduating, was because the portrayal of women in Sherlock made me so angry.

The most obvious source of this anger is from how Irene Adler was written. Irene was awesome! She was intelligent and witty and self-assured and sexually confident, and it's portrayed positively – or at least not negatively – which is sadly such a rare thing in fiction. Look she resourcefully used everything at her disposal to best her assailants! Look she totally outfoxed Sherlock and figured out the mystery of the missing murder weapon! Irene's awesome! Dude she wasn't actually dead and now she's back to make the story interesting again! She's gay! But she still loves Sherlock! And that's totally Moffat elevating Sherlock (“he makes people fall for him regardless of sexuality!”), but human sexuality is fluid, so I recognise that it’s awesome in that context, even though it wasn’t intended that way! She has her own motives for doing what she does! She’s her own boss! She defeated Sherlock but she’s not a Mary Sue! Because she has weaknesses! Like her feelings for Sherlock! Which Sherlock uses to his advantage! And now her agency has been taken away from her and she’s forced to beg-


Wait what.

A Scandal in Belgravia’s ending is a sore point for me. I’d like to ignore it, pretend it never happened (just like I pretend The Blind Banker of the previous season never happened. I have SUCH DISDAIN for that episode, hot damn), purge it from memory, anything. This is exactly how you do not write a female character, by making her strong, by making her the equal and even superior of your title character, and then undermine all of that by taking it away from her. To make her ‘female’ quality her Achilles heel wasn’t the worst thing to do, because weaknesses make for a nuanced character, but to contrast that to Sherlock, who won because of his masculine emotionlessness, tearing down her previous victories and reducing her to a foil to Sherlock’s brilliance. Make her a part of his emotional growth. And then. And then, to add insult to injury, she gets to be saved by a man! Yay everyone lives!

Except a part of my soul died and I just threw up in my mouth a little. Let’s summarise: you start off with a fantastic female character, based on the only woman who’s ever defeated Sherlock in Conan Doyle’s original (which, I have to say here that 1. I recognise the TV series is a loose adaptation of, and 2. I’m not personally familiar with), and you show us this picture of this fierce and independent woman then snatch it all away from us not only by having Sherlock best her, but also revealing that she had been working for Moriarty, that she was a pawn in his plan all along, and then further dismiss her by using her to set up Moriarty as the arc villain.


I have a lot of feelings about Irene Adler, and while all the ways the resolution to her story made me yell, I think it speaks volumes that the other female characters don’t make me angry. They don’t make an impression on me at all. Sally Donovan is such a non-character that I had to double check her name on Wiki. (And yet she was still able to emerge as somewhat of an untrustworthy, villainous part without much reason. Applause!) (Okay, so that was justified story-wise.) (But it doesn’t change the fact that she’s not given much of a personality beyond ‘suspicious’ and ‘defensive’, and exists solely to further the plot of the male protagonist, as well as giving Lestrade some room for development. For such a small role, this two-fer is impressive.)

Originally I wasn’t going to talk about Mrs Hudson, because she’s just... there. She’s the character you see the most of throughout the series, other than Sherlock and John, but I have no opinion about her. Despite her presence, she’s as much as a non-character as Sally Donovan is. I was talking to ittykat, and between praising awesome female characters in other shows (CJ Cregg of The West Wing, and the title character of Nikita), we had a conversation that went thus:

Me: I have a lot of feelings about Irene
Kathy: Just like I have a lot of feelings about Nikita?
Me: Yep
Me: Irene, and then Molly, and I’ll be done
Kathy: Did you do Mrs Thingy
Me: Mrs Hudson
Kathy: Yes. I was thinking Hawkins, and I know it’s not that >.>
[It might just be memory issues, or it might be the unmemorable nature of the character. You decide.]
Me: I should do Mrs Hudson now that I think about it. She’s not really her own character.
Kathy: She’s definitely not. She’s furniture. She’s a pet.
Me: A lot of people defend Moffat by saying that Sherlock’s line in an ep, “Mrs Hudson leave Baker street? London would fall!”, as proof that he’s not sexist.
Kathy: A woman leaving the kitchen? LONDON WILL FALL
Kathy: See how that works there >.>
Me: Noink.

All the joking aside, she also makes the point that Sherlock’s ‘putting up’ with Mrs Hudson isn’t so much about her value, but more his desire to not have anything change in his life. Either way, Mrs Hudson, like all the other female characters, is only there because her purpose is in relation to male characters. We know less about her than we know about a single-episode support act, and there’s no effort made to give her depth.

(Sure, someone can argue that all characters, regardless of gender, exist in support to Sherlock, catalysts to his growth. To them I say, false, because even some supporting characters in this show experience change, go through arcs, just not the female ones. Or you know, come back when there’s a show called Sherlotta and she’s the world’s greatest consulting detective and she has UST with her best friend Jane.)

Finally, we get to Molly. Every time Sherlock does something borderline sociopathic I will remark to someone, Sherlock is a horrible human being. This is non-so-pronounced as when he’s dealing with women. He antagonises Lestrade and his brother, but he downright dismisses people like Mrs Hudson, Kitty Reilly, and Molly. It’s the character, sure, but it’s also a reflection on the attitudes of the showrunners, when these remarks are made to be funny, or clever, or seen in a positive way. (They may know it’s ironic, but it’s still sexist)

I had hope for Molly in The Reichenbach Fall. She’s still sweet, and kind, but for a tiny moment, she stood up to Sherlock, she made him speechless. Again, this is all part of Sherlock’s development, but at the same time, it was a change in her, small enough to be believable, just big enough to write off as a victory.

Which is why I think I was disappointed when she wasn’t among the list of friends up on the rooftop (the hopeful theory is that she was somehow complicit in Sherlock’s grand plan). Yeah, yeah, that’s a personal thing, and it’s more dramatic to have less people, and I was glad that Mrs Hudson and Lestrade were both who he considered important (and maybe Jim didn’t want to target her given he’s used her before?), but I couldn’t help feeling that Sherlock just didn’t respect Molly enough to consider her a friend.

So Moffat, hear my plea. You can’t do anything about Who, except River, I guess, but I have so little hope there. Sherlock can still be saved – this season was much better than the last. See if season 3 can be awesome with more Molly growth, give Mrs Hudson a story, and if you go the John-gets-married route, please, please be kind to his wife.

Baby steps.
Tags: fannish: tv

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