I’m not going to use the word “misogyny” after this line right here. Other people have called him stronger things: sexist, homophobic, even racist. For a lot of people those terms have a tinge of intention to them (you can’t be, say, a sexist, without intentionally trying to push women down), and I’m honestly not sure that’s what’s going on here. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to go nearly that far to cross into what John Watson would call a bit not good.
In fact, I’ll go better: privilege is bad. And in my humble assessment, it’s at least one of Mr. Moffat’s biggest problems.
Let’s start with the obvious: Steven Moffat is a fanboy. If there’s any question on this point, consider his recent statement in a TOR piece on “The Sign of Three”:
I remember being a 12-year-old kid thinking, Oh, why didn’t we see Sherlock be the best man? Please, can we see that? That would be the best story in the whole world, and I don’t care if there’s a crime in it or not, because it must have been the best and worst speech of all time!
Now, being a fanboy isn’t a bad thing. I mean, I’ve been a fangirl since the first time I saw DS9 and started writing stories about Bashir and Garak (which are painfully bad and have never seen the light of day). A decade later I took the leap and posted my (still painfully bad) first Tolkien novel on the internet. Then I got some feedback, traded ideas with other fans, and actually got to something I like to think approaches good. Lather, rinse, repeat. A decade later I have experience managing fannish events, editing (beta’ing) other peoples’ stories, and generally being a good member of fandom. Last autumn Mr. Moffat’s Sherlock show took over my mind, and since then I’ve written quite a bit of meta-analysis and, more recently, fanfic about John’s and Sherlock’s relationship.
So when I say being a fangirl (or -boy, as the case may be), I really do mean it.
I’m not sure Moffat does, though. In another interview he gave in the wake of Sherlock’s third series, he says,
“I’ve been on [social blogging site] Tumblr once a while ago and it seems just to be a place where people who really want to kill me gather,” he joked. “I don’t know why that put me off…” [...]
“The creative response of fans is amazing, it’s extraordinary,” said Moffat. “And it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the cradle of the next generation of television and fiction producers – really it’s hugely important. But it’s a one-way thing.
“What happens is – and I was part of this, I am part of this – is you see something you love and you start doing your own version of it, you start disagreeing with the actual version, you think ‘My version’s better’, and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.
For the curious, this was about the point when I started pounding my head against the wall.
A few preliminaries. First, yes, Sherlock fans have produced some undeniably weird things (here, and here, and here, and, okay, pretty much all of these). They also noticed some things you probably would have just as soon had them miss, . We’ve boiled the emotional intensity of John’s loss down to a single image in a way that those (still awesome) restaurant fights in “The Empty Hearse” or John’s screaming match with Mrs. Hudson never really did. We notice things (like this, and this, and this, and this, and quite a few other things as well. Then there are the things that worked out to be pretty much one-for-one correspondences that I might write off to coincidences if Gatiss himself hadn’t insisted the universe wasn’t so lazy. One example:
Like all fandoms, there is some bad work, some work that’s good but tangentially related, and some that presents a serious critique of the original source material. Speaking for myself, the two Sherlock fanfics I’ve posted are both gapfillers making a real effort to fill in gaps left by the show or offer alternate perspectives on canonical scenes that actually make the show more understandable. So to say every fanfic story is inevitably drawing away from the original into something new?
Now, on the “people on Tumblr wanting to hate him,” there are tags on Tumblr like “kill Moffat” and “Moffat hate.” Some of them are legitimate critiques, either that Moffat is sexist [racist, etc.] or just general complaints that the writing just isn’t very good; others are actually expressing an ironic kind of love:
[by bamfinajumper @ Tumblr]
Out of fairness, though, he actually pretty well owns this modality. He seems to relish the fact that he’s scarring people, at least in a joking way. And so a lot of fans respond in kind, grumbling “Kill Moffat” to ourselves. A good deal of what he says drove him away from Tumblr? That’s actually people half-jokingly saying how well he does the grizzly work of putting characters we love through their paces.
But on his main point, that Sherlock fannish activity is great because it’s the nursery of future BBC scriptwriters. I’m sure some fanfic writers have aspirations of producing something they could sell in “respectable,” professional markets, perhaps even providing their big-budget (if that label can even be applied to the BBC – classic Who daleks, for instance). I’ve known several fanfic authors who made the jump from fanfic to official spin-off novels. More famously, the much Fifty Shades of Grey series was originally written as Twilight fanfic before the author recast it as original fiction. I don’t know what Steven Moffat’s own history with fanfic or other fan-productions is, but the way he’s talked about imagining stories for “Charlie’s Angels” in interviews, it seems like he does have some history here. At a minimum that story about “The Sign of Three” shows he has personally felt the pull of creating something fannish, whether it’s shown to millions on BBC1 or just fills notebooks in their childhood attics like with my DS9 stories about Garak and Bashir working through holodeck adaptations of Doyle stories. (See what I meant about being a fangirl?)
The thing is, though, for many of us, landing a job writing a Star Trek companion novel or a Doctor Who isn’t the main goal. I work very hard to become the best fanfic writer I can, but not because I want a paying job as a novelist or entertainment journalist or anything of the like. In fact, if you’ll forgive a little gender essentialism here, I’d say you’re thinking about fanfic and fan-reactions to your shows very much like a man. Gender essentialism is the idea that men have certain traits and women have others. Usually, it’s thought that men are driven to accomplish things (the competitive edge of testosterone) whereas women tend to be more nurturing and more driven by relational ties like friendships and families. And I’m really skeptical of the claim that all men and women fit neatly into these camps, or that the traits are innate rather than forced onto us by the way we’re raised. I do think, though, that people have different kinds of motives. Some fan-producers want to go professional. Others just want to produce the best fanfic they possibly can.
Looking over a list of Doctor Who writers, I’m seeing an awful lot of male names. I know this is one example and may not be representative, that women may be trying their hands at fan art (interesting side note: Peter Capaldi himself was a Who fan-artist as a teenager) and are working in SFX, design, or other capacities with the show. Maybe Doctor Who isn’t representative of the BBC, the field more generally, or Moffat’s work more generally. Still, I’ve always had the impression that Hollywood (or BBC, as the case may be) scriptwriting is mostly men whereas fanfic is mostly women. If this is accurate, and there’s any truth to the old gender stereotypes for any reason (innate, learned, whatever), it’s worth asking why.
I think that, for a whole host of reasons, many women are drawn to fanfic without wanting to make it in professional writer. Some do, and more power to them, but it seems that for a lot of women, myself included, fanfic writing for its own sake is a particularly attractive notion. Some do; more power to them. Others don’t. Maybe these women who want to post Sherlock fanfic online but don’t hope to ever write an episode script have family expectations that don’t mesh well with the long, unpredictable hours. Maybe women, on average, really are most interested in the relationships that fannish writing encourages and are more interested in actually discussing their work with people who’ve read it than in being recognized as a brilliant writer by people they’ll never meet. (This doesn’t mean women are innately more relational, or that every woman is driven more by relationships than money; this could be true of more women than men but not true across the board, and it could be learned rather than innate.) Maybe there’s some actual sexism (Moffat’s or otherwise) at play here. But for whatever reason, being a paid writer isn’t an achievable goal for a lot of women.
Come to it, it’s also out of reach for a lot of men. There are clearly a lot of people interested in thinking about, discussing, and writing about Sherlock who won’t ever land a paying job writing an episode. I’m not sure why we don’t see more male writers in fandom, and I wouldn’t mind increasing their participation. But my main point here isn’t even really that much about gender. It’s that there are some people that are driven to strive for some kind of professional career as a writer tied to these influential fandoms, either as a scriptwriter or writer of the spin-off novels – whereas other people just aren’t. Forty-year-olds still writing about Frodo or Watson or Jadzia Dax or any of the rest aren’t necessarily professional failures; quite often, they’re just striving after a different goal. And even if those forty-year-olds didn’t tend to be women, comments like those would still show privilege against a large community of writers who are motivated by something very different than the kind of success Moffat seems to value.
Sherlock is interesting on this note, by the way. US courts recently decided that most of Doyle’s works are public domain now, meaning I could write stories inspired by those stories and try to get them published. That seems to be legal, and there are clubs around the world where people write and share pastiches, mysteries in the style of Doyle. Many of those are published. But when I recently attended a club like that, 90% of the room was male. This isn’t a bad thing, but I did find it interesting, as a lot of these people were trying to develop publishable fiction.
That’s probably worth a post on its own. I do get the sense that men are more drawn to writing when it’s publishable while women are more drawn to amateur – but still often very well-done – fanfic. I’m not quite sure why, but whatever reason, I find Moffat’s presumption that a successful fanfic is one gunning for a professional career developing his or her own adaptations into the latest Doyle series to be very presumptive. It’s not true of me, or I’d guess of a lot of people drawn to the consulting detective and his blogger.