Film and television are almost universally acknowledged, among progressive circles, as having a serious sexism problem. Women are severely underrepresented among the top producers, executives, and other decisionmakers at most studios, and their opportunities for roles are starkly limited in comparison with their male counterparts, no matter how talented they are. While actors can age gracefully into a range of roles, women on stage, screen, and television have fewer options as they transition from being youthful and ‘desirable’ into middle age and eventually into old age.
The standards for female performers are much higher: they need to be conventionally attractive, which includes being slim, having large breasts, and undergoing surgical procedures to maintain smooth, flawless faces and bodies. The lines and folds that come with life, the stretchmarks from weight changes and the wrinkles from smiling, must be eradicated from the faces and bodies of women who want to succeed in film and television.
Most roles are open to white cis women only, leaving few available to women of colour and cis women; disabled women, too, aren’t often found in pop culture, and so are women living along the axes of other marginalisations. For actresses who don’t fit the ‘norm,’ it’s a struggle to find work and to establish a career, and even those with all of fame, power, and the industry behind them get criticised for not performing to taste; Lena Dunham, for all her many flaws, doesn’t deserve to be savaged for exposing her nude body on television simply because it doesn’t look like an nude woman’s body is ‘supposed’ to look.
Writing about sexism in film and television almost seems redundant at this point: we all know it’s an issue, we all see it, we’ve all discussed different ways of dealing with it, we all monitor the media to see what kinds of productions are being made. We all look for positive signs, indicators that sexism is losing ground in at least some small corner of the industry, and we all leap upon the negative signs, the reminders that no, the bulk of the industry is still extremely sexist and that is not going away. This goes ’round endlessly in a flood of commentary on sexism and the industry and many people discuss it in-depth on a regular basis and with sharp, necessary commentary.
What I’ve been struck by of late is the way in which sexist men remain at the helm even after extensive criticism, and how they are so confident that sexism is welcome and an accepted part of the industry that they have no problem letting it fly. I am thinking right now of Steven Moffat, although of course there are many other examples; Moffat is simply such an easy and elegant test case that he’s a great person to discuss when looking at the kind of sexism found in the industry, who enables it, and how it endures against the voices of audiences who are tired of it.
Moffat’s stint on Doctor Who has been marked by an endless tide of sexism and constant reminders that he seems to have some issues he needs to work out. Instead of doing that on his own time and approaching the studio without his baggage, though, he’s taking it into the workplace and creating female character after female character who allows him to express his misogyny and attitudes about women. Women are nothing more than vessels for babies, women are mysterious ciphers, women are cutesy and quirky and will naturally fall in love with any gent in a bowtie, women are the sidekicks, the supporters, the unstinting lovers.
In numerous Doctor Who episodes, Moffat has underscored the fact that he personally thinks poorly of women. This goes beyond trends within a franchise or the structure of a narrative that sometimes ‘forces’ (the favourite word of creators defending themselves from accusations of sexism) creators to make creative decisions that involve exploiting women (for some reason it’s always women and never men, how odd). This is not about working with the best of a bad lot and trying to update it for the 21st century, but deliberately and casually reinforcing sexist attitudes within the show and for fans of the franchise, which, in a curious twist, has become immensely popular in the feminist community despite the fact that women are so abused within the framework of the Who universe.
This is a case of a creator expressing hatred for women, but, some people might argue, he shouldn’t be judged by his work. This is an argument which should always provoke suspicion, as it’s often used to take creators off the hook, to suggest they don’t need to be responsible for owning what they produce and put out there. In Moffat’s case as in so many others, the sexism and misogyny of the work isn’t unconnected with his own sexism and misogyny, which he’s displayed outside the context of Who scripts, as for example when he suggested the queen should be ‘played by a man’ during the August live special in which the BBC introduced the next Doctor.
It wasn’t the first or last time Moffat had made an appalling and obviously sexist, nasty comment that managed to be extraordinarily derogatory about women. In this case, it was on live television, but he’s also been known to make comments of this nature in a variety of interview settings; this isn’t a ‘slip of the tongue’ phenomenon, in other words, but an expression of the way he thinks about women and feels comfortable behaving around the media and other members of the industry.
And why is this? It’s because Moffat knows he works in a sexist industry and he’s not going to lose his job over such expressions of sexism. If anything, he’s going to get points for being ‘daring’ and ‘not politically correct’ by being nakedly sexist. And his sexism is reinforced by the easy acceptance of it by the media, by interviewers who never seem to comment on it, by the fact that his bosses are men who don’t have a problem with it either.
In the face of that, confronting and dismantling sexism is difficult indeed; it involves tearing down an empire that is, as empires tend to be, quite comfortable where it is.