Sunday, 22 December 2013

Bullying and Fandom: Why Caitlin Moran must publicly apologise for her treatment of Mildred Bobbin, and why anyone who cares about fandom must hold her to account.

I've seen something none too pleasant in the attitude of those in power towards fandom over the past seven days. To recap, at the BFI premiere of the new series of BBC One's Sherlock on December 15, Caitlin Moran humiliated a Sherlock  fanfic writer - who writes under the name Mildred Bobbin -  by plucking her "slashfic" story off the internet (without permission) and forcing stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read it out while writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, producer Sue Vertue and director Jeremy Lovering  looked on (a video of part of it is here, an account is here, and Mildred Bobbin's admirable response is here)    Now, I wouldn't watch Sherlock in a million years (I think I'd prefer Basil The Great Mouse Detective or that version of Hound of the Baskervilles Cook and Moore did everyone hates), and fanfic isn't something I'm interested in. But you know what's really harmful about people writing fanfic? What's contemptible about people writing fanfic? Because I don't. It seems as pointless a reason to ridicule someone as if they enjoyed knitting, collecting toy soldiers, breakdancing or Origami. It's a harmless activity people do for fun. Why should people who practice it be humiliated, and how is singling them out for such public humiliation kicking upwards?

Let's also not forget an important point here: Mildred Bobbin's blogpost makes it quite clear that piece was written for her own amusement and that of her friends: this is not a debate about the literary merits of fanfiction (I'd be the first to admit it's only recreational). She's horrified the cast were made to read it and, touchingly, begins her piece by focusing on the embarrassment that she thinks it caused Freeman and Cumberbatch.
   Caitlin Moran's books come adorned with blurbs from Lauren Laverne, Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson telling us how "cool" she is. Now she's taken her role as the kid at school surrounded by adoring sycophants telling you you could hang out with them if you didn't wear your hair like that, and what are you reading that for, that's saaaaad. Look at this piece by her sneering at Red Dwarf in 2006. It's not just the flatness of its prose, the blank witlessness of the insults directed at the show's writers, cast and fans  and the lack of any argument, but the way the piece acts as a rallying cry to all those who are anxious to declare they're not sad, not obsessive and not virgins.

Paul Cornell once rightly pointed out that part of the magic of the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who was that it was a bullied era: to this day the mention of it is interrupted by the endless jeers of people who've never seen an episode from that period (which includes some of the finest Doctor Who stories to date), who are terrified of any interests that aren't shared by a majority,  and instead find great sustenance in buzz-words (low-budget, embarrassing, sad,  Kandyman, Vision-on, umbrella, hat). To them, the world is a circle with the words "received opinions" inside, and terrifyingly nerdy wastelands outside (do you really think it's a coincidence they've been so keen to pretend science fiction is a cult? As this excellent SOTCAA piece  puts it, people sneering at "anoraks" "virgins" "trainspotters" "nerds" and "obsessives" are simultaneously finding safety-in-numbers by declaring themselves part of a fun-loving majority, not too interested in anything, not taking anything too seriously, not unusual in any way, only annoyed or passionate about things if they know the majority is too, never watching or reading anything unfashionable. When Richard Bacon tweeted, following the broadcast of a Matt Smith Doctor Who story, "what must Sylvester McCoy think when he's watching that?", when Jonathan Ross roared with derision on his chatshow when Billie Piper spiritedly defended Doctor Who Magazine,  and the Radio Times editorial launching the 2010 series promised us that we need not worry because Matt Smith was "no Sylvester McCoy", both were doing nothing other than reasserting their "coolness", their conformity, their lack of anything suspicious. They shelter behind the bigger kids in the class, and let the majority choose their preferences for them, rather than have to think about things. 

At the same time as he was studiously avoiding any allusions to the Moran incident, Cornell himself tweeted: "Oh, so it's bad when Shia LaBeouf steals someone else's work, internet, but not when you illegally download something. Fine", and argued yet again with fans about piracy and how it hurts SF writers. He's talked in the past about his dislike for the tendency of bigger fandoms to look down on others, such as when they sneer at Twilight fans. He's also defended fanfic here. He's a keen viewer of Sherlock and follower of debates within fandom so he knows about  the BFI incident. Until he comments on what Moran did, Cornell can no longer claim to be interested in fandom and bullying.

I blundered into a disagreement over Moran with a published Doctor Who author, Mags L Halliday, after she tweeted this:

She insisted to me that fanfic writers had to accept that:
 Where's the empathy? Is it really that hard to understand that there may be a difference between having your book reviewed and having something written for the amusement of yourself and an online circle mocked onstage at the BFI? Does Halliday really deny the existence of context? How jaded do you have to be to not find Mildred Bobbin's account of her humiliation, and the attack on the simple pleasure writing fanfic brought her, sincere?

 Then James Cooray Smith,  another author of  Doctor Who books and another familiar part of the Who online community,  crashed into this conversation with this revolting series of misogynistic tweets:
Someone puts their work out there, they accept the responses it generates. That's the deal. That includes ridicule. It's interesting from a pathological POV that those who scream loudest about their own rights as fanficcers being above reproach are often the first to SCREAM at someone else's work. Fantitled children.
She put it on the Internet. Everyone is her audience. She must accept that.
After I challenged him on the ghastly terms he was using he responded:

  (He also thinks I'm being hubristic, so either I'm in for a tragic fall at some point in the future due to my own pride, or he doesn't know what hubris means. We won't really know until the Ides of March). Smith finds real comfort in reducing Mildred Bobbin and anyone else who dares to write fanfiction to those nasty little terms of his (don't you just love his pride in them in that last quote?). After all, what would bullying be without the names and buzz-words it relies on? Whether it's wankficcer, fantitlement, spaz, mong, trainspotter, virgin, live-with-your-parents, anorak or Comic-Book-Guy-from-The-Simpsons, they provide such delicious reaffirmation: who the saaad people are and who they are not. Smith kicks down. He spends his days tweeting sycophancy to those higher up in the Doctor Who echelon than him, and sneers at fanfic writers because they're a level below him. Halliday quietly distanced herself (much as so many have done with Moran), asking me not to conflate their views, although offering no more of her own to date.

Moran has spent the past seven days  on her Twitter timeline neither apologising nor giving any acknowledgement of Mildred Bobbin's blogpost about her experience (away from Twitter, all we know is that she has contacted her privately.) However, she has spent it thanking people for telling her how much they're enjoying her book . She's also spent it tweeting about Chicken Tikka Pies and singing My Sharona. She's ignored tweets calling for her to apologise like this one sent by me. Any possibility this might be due to embarrassment is shot down by her speedy tweeting (just 20 minutes after it hit the web) of her annoyance at Brooke Magnanti after she wrote this reasonable, inoffensive piece suggesting that there was no need for Moran to mock fanfiction and no shame in writing it.  She's also promoting her latest product: her Times column and a sitcom pilot based on her childhood. Why apologise - or even mention the problem -  when you've got a deadline (as she was keen to remind us) and a show about to start (it's broadcast today.)

Now, we know it isn't Owen Jones's style to suggest a friend of his did something wrong, and Helen Lewis went for her usual "mumble mumble can understand why some were offended mumble mumble don't think it was really homophobic though mumble mumble" fence-sitting.  Lauren Laverne's response combined name-avoiding, non-committal gutlessness with a suggestion that fanfic writers were the problem   I'm dreading Zoe Williams's and Ben Goldacre's defence, and Graham Linehan's inevitable anti-fanfic-writer rampage. They all know fully well Moran fucked up, and that arguing that Mildred Bobbin deserved such humiliation or that her account of its effect upon her is not a dignified and upsetting one would be difficult, but even if they can't quite defend her as much as they normally prefer to, they're sure as hell not going to criticise her. But if middle-class media honchos with thousands of sycophants eager to help them fight their own battles can look out for their own, why can't the world of SF? We mustn't allow the lazy, barely literate, poisonous, misogynistic sneers of James Cooray Smith to speak for a whole subculture. As they point out themselves, Paul Cornell and Mags L Halliday started off their careers writing fanfiction, and so did many who have a stake in the Doctor Who universe. If they are really and truly going to let a Murdoch-sponsored bully ignore the distress she's caused to an individual with a fraction of her supporters and influence , and say nothing while she surfs her way out of it over wave after wave of  "awww, thank-yous",  quotes from Norm from Cheers, and all the other things you see if you stare directly into Caitlin Moran's timeline, then it appears that Doctor Who's representatives don't share the values of its hero. And if Caitlin Moran has any decency, she must publicly apologise for her treatment of Mildred Bobbin and acknowledge that she's read her blogpost. Some things are more important than deadlines.

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Saturday, 28 September 2013

Speaking for those who already have a voice: why the Twitter Elite cannot speak for minorities.

I didn't intend to write a follow-up to this piece but #twittersilence strikes me as the biggest comedy to have emerged around this little subculture of journalists and media personalities, even though the tedium of wading through all of it delayed this piece by months. Rather than kick off another Linehan debate, I'd like to address a more interesting question the "silence", its backfiring and the way those responsible have reacted to the backfiring have raised: can these people ever really speak up for those of a different race, gender or sexuality as sincerely as they speak up for themselves?

To recap, Caitlin Moran tweeted this. During the "silence", many brought up this, this and this, and ridiculed the boycott. Linehan - who didn't himself observe it -  tweeted this and things escalated from there, resulting in this.

We could talk about the absurdity of the idea that not tweeting for 24 hours - commonly caused by headaches, sickness, power cuts, work demands, family visits, social engagements and not being on Twitter in the first place - could honestly count as a boycott, could honestly be seen as a stand against anything. We could talk about the hilarious idea that tweeting the word "#twittersilence" doesn't count as tweeting, making the whole affair a farce of a kind unseen since Alan Partridge's minute of silence for Lord Morgan of Glossop ("I'll have to speak periodically to show we're still broadcasting...This is Radio 4").
We could talk about how the boycott drew attention to the columnists and TV personalities leading it rather than the victims of rape threats in general, (many of whom pointed out that silence is the last thing they want to use against those who want to silence women) culminating in the ludicrous spectacle of what happened when Caitlin Moran came back, thanking TV's Robert Webb and TV's Dara O'Briain after they congratulated her, receiving a tweet from TV's Sue Perkins consisting of "xx" and replying with "darling, thank you xxx" a gracious martyr because she hadn't used a smartphone function for a single day.

We could talk about how feminist, disabled or transgender voices were blocked, insulted and shouted down because they were mean about a Times Columnist. One of the most striking instances here was a mysterious  Storify account set up by New Statesman Deputy Editor Helen Lewis, another boycotter. The Storify account consisted of an argument between Lewis and a tweeter about how the Statesman could allow the latter's side of the story to be told. Both Lewis, in the Storify, and Linehan, in his reactions to it, were bemused that someone asked on Twitter to pitch a New Statesman article about her dissatisfaction would say no and say Lewis should commission it rather than have her pitch it: "I''m not your field-nigger, Helen", she had said. Boycotter Owen Jones (see below this piece for a note on how I underestimated Jones) entered the debate at this point, unhappy with her use of the phrase "field-nigger" which he said he felt was still a legitimate criticism from a white man about a black woman because he was agreeing with a black friend who thought so too. This Storify was quickly deleted, apparently because Helen Lewis relented when people pointed out that this invited bullying of the tweeter (or because she was "sick of the grief" and victim rather than bully, as others put it.) The former point-of-view was not shared by Linehan, who had fallen upon it hungrily -  and was so irritated when it was deleted that he ended up tweeting a link to a duplicate by "Elevatorgate", a distinctly dodgy Tweeter who stalks women's Twitter accounts and sets up Storify accounts in order to provoke them. Even Linehan had to admit this was a mistake. I have a horrible suspicion that in response to this piece I'm going to get tweets from other white people arguing that it was indeed rather rude of the black lady not to pitch to the New Statesman deputy editor.

We could talk about Linehan (1), once a funny, smart and likeable man, now beside himself with rage that anyone could criticise Caitlin Moran, braying like an ape defending its leader, comforting himself by chortling at how angry he can make those with less power.  Once before Glinner's fetishisation of the block button and loathing of those he uses it on led to a bizarre fantasy about a school shooting.This violent impulse came up again this time. When belligerence  reduces someone to straight-faced versions of Lee and Herring's old "you can prove anything with facts" routine, is there much point left in arguing with them? (and presumably it would be similarly pedantic to bring up another boycotter, TV's Sarah Millican, making jokes about the hairiness of Susan Boyle on Mock the Week: the important thing is she's taking a stand against the bullying of women, by not using Twitter for one day.)

We could talk about that sort-of apology of Moran's, with its cowardly shunting between claiming to speak up for the abused and the excuse of just being a TV critic who's off to review Frank Skinner's new quiz show, and its Gervasian technique of apologising if anyone misunderstood: ("Well, look, this is just boring for most people, so - soz. Seriously. If you possible can, run away and feed the ducks in the park.") It didn't help that the same day Moran tweeted this to Zoe Williams and Deborah Orr (Yes, I know it's a joke. The Gervasian smirk shines through).

We could talk about how the pack-animal mentality means they just can't dissent from one another - when one of them clearly drops the ball, they never have the guts to admit it. The "silence" was unfortunately immediately preceded by these two tweets from boycotter India Knight. Moran, of course, had nothing to say about either of these absurdities. Similarly, Moran's 'apology' was severely undermined by Ben Goldacre linking to it with this. (2) Linehan (who earlier had described himself as "under siege from the Worst since I defended C.Moran") replied "Good man. Good woman". Moran replied to both of them with "thank you, both. so much xxxx" and then dropped out of this conversation, to leave others to debate (She also later defended her friend with this blatant lie, similar to India Knight's ludicrous claim about her own sneer at blogs.

We could talk about Murdoch, and his role in elevating the bilge Moran and Knight write, the only thing that distinguishes them from blogs, or indeed dust. After all, Knight was keen to remind us of this in those two tweets.

We could talk about the awesome stupidity, not to mention slur, of saying that disliking the work or tweets of a columnist makes you no better than those who send rape or death threats (according to Linehan it makes you a member of the "Twaliban") and that if you dislike a columnist who says rape and murder are bad, than you are on the side of rapists and murderers (not "on the side of the angels", as TV's Dara O'Briain put it to Moran). "Yay, good for you,"' tweeted Linehan. "Keep the focus on celebrities rather than the men threatening to rape them. You guys rule!" One tweeter pointed out that she found "rape *and* writers who say "spaz" and "tranny" a lot worrying." Linehan's reply was "Wow, so the two are equivalent? WOW." Hitler and Murdoch are not equivalent, and neither are Saddam Hussein and Louise Mensch. This hardly stops one despising the latter in each case.
This "either-you-are-with-Caitlin-or-you-are-with-those-who-threaten-her" stance is dangerous nonsense. Fox News presenters receive death threats, as does Tony Blair. In no way does this diminish one's contempt for those people, and this contempt does not indicate a lack of abhorrence of the threats. If you have the appalling experience of receiving death or rape threats the fact that you deserve sympathy does not mean you deserve immunity from criticism. You can find hideous racism, misogyny, homophobia and violent threats on any almost any lengthy YouTube comment thread. It proves nothing about the person they refer to. After boycotter Amanda Palmer's horrifically bad poem about the Boston bombings, her response on Twitter was:

Her husband Neil Gaiman's response was:

Another boycotter, The Guardian's Suzanne Moore, admitting that she should have apologised for her "Brazilian transsexuals" remark (which we'll come to later), said in her own defence "No one has apologised to me for saying that I should be decapitated", and in between tweeting guarded apologies, suggested "If anyone cares to Storify the abuse against me please do." Linehan has a similar technique: after any heated discussion, he picks a ludicrous trolling tweet, sent in by another tweeter, and retweets it with "this is the kind of thing I have to deal with" at the start, resulting in TV's Dara O'Briain, TV's Emma Kennedy and journalists like Deborah Orr offering sympathy and excoriating everyone who disagreed with him. A tweeter (3) put an excellent point to Orr:

Orr dismissed it with:

Many have pointed out the similarity with wanting to police Twitter on the grounds that there are rape and death threats on it to David Cameron's desire to impose "opt-in" filters on the Internet on the grounds that there's child pornography on it. Certainly, responding to any criticism of a person by pointing out that the same person has received threats and abuse is no more an argument than trying to put critics of Reagan's administration on a footing with John Hinkley.

We could talk about how insulting is the idea of Caitlin Moran and India Knight, after writing insular, apolitical dross for years, announcing that maybe rape threats are really bad, and how the aim of things like the #twittersilence campaign is to elevate these column-fillers into writers with minor political status. Moran, in her tweetlonger post, seemed bemused that so many should dislike her when there are rapists out there:

People who are approaching women, anonymously, on Twitter, and threatening them with rape and death are breaking the law. They are committing prosecutable acts. I find it a bit weird that a debate about this is being repeatedly derailed into conversations about what the Times TV critic said to a friend on Twitter in 2010.

Did we really need Caitlin Moran to tell us this? And did so many need to be rebuked by white cis-gendered journalists and TV personalities with thousands of followers eager to put the boot in to them, regardless of what minority the dissenters belonged to, and how much experience they might have had of death and rape threats?

The most preposterous defences of Moran came from Orr and Zoe Williams:

Think part of the Hate Caitlin mentality is: "We can't get near the people who really fuck up the world, so let's piss on her. She's handy."

my overriding impression [i]s of a hatred of female success, from exactly the ppl who claim to object the most that women aren't allowed to be successful. They hate her bc she disproves their point

 Sometimes conspiracy theories are more palatable than the idea that people might actually not like your friend's stuff.  It is remarkably insular - and clear from the "exactly the people" line that angry feminists are Williams's target: we're only a step away from Linehan's unashamed outburst about the "sanctimonious Left".

The very idea of disliking what Moran writes is being denied: the only thing that exists is people frightened of successful women (note also how the idea of Moran's "success" is taken by Williams as a given - she has a column and sells a lot of books, and that's that: very materialistic, very India Knight) an argument that never seemed impressive when used to defend Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin and doesn't seem so now.

A potentially valuable exchange with Helen Lewis was closed off and shifted back to the Status Quo. Another tweet - gratefully retweeted by Glinner - expressed lament for Grace Dent, Suzanne Moore and Helen Lewis protecting their tweets or leaving Twitter: "what a victory for feminism that is" (incidentally they were back on unlocked accounts within days). Is this what feminism is? Making sure these three white privileged middle-class journalists feel happy using a particular piece of technology?

Always prominent in the memory during these moments is Caitlin Moran's response when challenged during an argument about the lack of black women in the TV drama Girls when she was about to interview the show's writer Lena Dunham: "Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit aboutit [sic]", her language as dead as her empathy.  This equally irritable reaction came from Linehan, striking for its sense of territory. "Let Lena write hers" is heartfelt: the plaintive cry of a generation of white writers who want to enjoy their DVD boxsets in peace, and think it's up to the minorities to represent themselves rather than expecting them to pause Game of Thrones and do it for them. As she says, once they've done that, Moran will be only too happy to write a feature on them.

So far, we see what media personalities are good at doing on Twitter (standing up for each other) and what they're not so good at doing (standing up for minorities). What's been truly horrible about the #twittersilence farce, though, has been when the two things meet: when questions of racism, misogyny, transphobia and threats have been raised and are swept aside in order to defend white cis-gendered newspaper columnists.

During the debate about whether Twitter celebs could really take a stand against abuse, a tweeter who had just been called a "vile paki cis cunt" asked "So what you gonna do, Twitter?" and sent the same question to Linehan. He replied: "I know! Somehow blame Caitlin Moran!" and defended this with the astonishingly feeble "she spat the fact out at me in an accusing way," and "she "@" 'ed me in an accusatory and rude fashion because I defended Caitlin Moran". Well, she certainly did (again, I have a horrible suspicion white people will be telling me the black lady should have been more polite in telling the famous white media personality about the racist abuse she'd received) but if that's his idea of the point where a dialogue becomes impossible maybe Linehan would be better off sticking to thanking people for praising his sitcom.

For Graham Linehan and others, Moran seems to be what the #twittersilence was all about.  This has form. India Knight published this appalling column (available free only here) about depression within a week of the 20th World Mental Health Day. Caitlin Moran later complained that the mental health charity MindCharity was "trolling a broadsheet journalist".  Knight, Caitlin Moran, Lauren Laverne  TV's Clare Balding and Deborah Orr had all been more annoyed at the treatment a Times columnist had been getting over her article  than the effect the article might have had upon those with the condition, (this was the nadir) leading to  Knight thanking others for their sympathy tweets, and guardedly accepting an apology from a charity after threatening them. (4) The Coren business involved overlooking a tweet of vile misogynistic abuse ("go fuck yourself you barren old hag") because the person on the receiving end had been mean about the latest piece by a Times columnist (a Murdoch restaurant critic).  Here, there was a sense of  outrage that minorities were picking on Caitlin Moran.

Anyone offended by Moran's references on twitter to "benders" "trannies" "retards" and AIDS got short shrift. Excuses offered include the idea that Moran jokes about AIDS in order to confront her fear of death and disease (as Deborah Orr put it through the medium of sarcasm - something these professional writers relied on rather desperately throughout the row, but then who'd expect wit? - in a tweet to Moran and TV's Dara O' Briain) but the tweets themselves read like someone not so much making a conscious dark joke as not thinking about what she's saying. Another defence offered in her twitlonger post was:

I spent ten years on a message board that was pretty much 50/50 straight/gay, and included a gay man in a drag act, and we always used the word "Tranny" to mean "transvestite." I had never thought it meant anything else.

This tweeter put it best. As with the Owen Jones comment quoted earlier, the "this isn't just my opinion: I ran it past a member of that minority" defence has been invoked. It brings to mind Linehan's inadvertently hilarious reason why Giles Coren couldn't be a misogynist: "I'm sure his sister and wife will be surprised to hear that he HATES WOMEN."

Suzanne Moore, as mentioned, wrote a piece in The New Statesman back in January (a reprint of an older piece) arguing that the shape women are expected to have today is "that of a Brazilian transsexual."' She never really understood why so many on Twitter told her they found this offensive. When called out on it, she replied:


The attacks on the very physicality of a minority would have ended Moore's career if they had been racist or homophobic, but it seems this kind of visceral hatred is allowable if only transgender people are the targets. Moore's subsequent apologies were even less sincere than Moran's, repeating the bigotry from her tweets without the swearing:

She took the same line in her Guardian piece, which was not so much an apology as a lament that so many had misunderstood her: "I don't really care what people do with their bodies." ("I loved the piece X" tweeted Grace Dent) It's no more convincing than Jon Gaunt's denial that he had any problem with gay police officers - "I don't care what they do with their truncheons in their spare time" - and Garry Bushell's response to the suggestion he was homophobic "if you're gay, good, means more birds for the rest of us." Racist or homophobic remarks have long been coded in the form of  revealing snarls of denial - what you do in your private life is no business of mine; They're welcome to their mosques; I don't go to their country and intrude on their culture, so why should they intrude on mine? Here we see transphobia relies on the the same unconcealed contempt and physical revulsion. Only the jaded could think it a counter to allegations of bigotry, rather than a confirmation.

At the time, Linehan responded to criticisms of Moore with the clumsy piece of sarcasm "Do you think she might be *whispers* Hitler?"
and suggested a new logo for twitter: an image of Millie Tant, the spoof feminist from Viz. Ben Goldacre dismissed those objecting to Moore's remarks as "disproportionate single-issue screamers". Moran tweeted this. Stella Duffy defended Moore with this blogpost. After recommending Duffy's post, Owen Jones insisted Moore hadn't been talking about transexuals at all. Jon Ronson's contributions were telling: "[to Moore] I'm on your side. What did you do?" and "I haven't a transphobic bone in my body! Didn't even know the word existed until 30 secs ago"

This exchange took place between Moore and the virulently transphobic Julie Bindel. Can anyone honestly imagine Bindel's phrase "trans cabal" being tolerated by supposedly left-wing journalists if the word "trans" had been replaced by any other minority? "A cabal of blacks"? "A cabal of Jews"? Would that last tweet of Moore's have been forgotten if the word race or sexuality had been said instead of gender?

Things got worse when Julie Burchill leapt to her friend Moore's defence with a full-on anti-transgender article so atrocious - referring to "screaming mimis", "bed-wetters in bad wigs" and "dicks in chicks' clothing" - the Observer editor rightly apologised for having published the thing. Moore responded in The Guardian:

"That piece is barking" was Caitlin Moran's own single brief response to the matter (note how carefully it avoids any words that might suggest anger, disgust or censure: anything that might offend Julie) before discussing how "good" she was on Desert Island Discs a week later, and how amused she was that Burchill had blurbed herself on her own book (even tweeting a merry little picture of herself holding up the cover of Burchill's book to show us). Linehan's response was similarly cautious, offering agreement with those that said the Burchill piece was awful, but careful to stay away from the questions it raised about Suzanne Moore's attitude to transgender people. Deborah Orr published a piece lamenting that feminism should be used as a veil for transphobia, but carefully avoiding mentioning Moore by name.

There's a clear hierarchy here: those with hideous prejudices like Bindel and Burchill, those with a spiteful right-wing streak that takes over under pressure like Linehan and Moore, those who don't think about what they're saying like Moran and Knight, and those who should know better but can't tolerate criticism of their friends like Goldacre, Williams, Jones, Lewis and Orr. Some people have defended this cliquish tendency to me, pointing out that this is a case of people sticking up for their friends, but this seems to me the most middle-class, self-centred and trivial excuse imaginable: (5)social inconvenience taking precedence over principles.

This, I venture, is why so many have been contemptuous of the idea of #twittersilence. How can these pundits speak for them? If their attitude towards black characters in TV shows is: go and write and leave us to enjoy our all-white shows, if they respond to challenges with rage and profanity, if they fall back on sarcasm when asked thoughtful questions, if they reply with references to "the fucking lopping off of bits of your body" and "calm down dears", and if they roar "someone just sent me gold" when they think they've found ammunition in arguments about race,  how receptive does that make them towards problems of prejudice and bigotry, and how aware of their own privilege are they? What kind of attitude does it express when their response upon being called out on it - aside from calling you a troll - is to invite you to pitch an article and then storify with bemusement if you don't want to? And then go ooh, that's racist if a black person gets outspoken enough to say "I'm not your field-nigger" (I'm still struggling to make sense of that part of the proceedings, but I still don't see exactly why we should automatically assume anyone must want to pitch to the New Statesman: is it unheard of not to want to do so, like not using Twitter for 24 hours? Apparently it's "a-mazing".) It raises the question of whether people like Suzanne Moore, Helen Lewis, Owen Jones, Graham Linehan and Caitlin Moran can speak for you if you are not white, not cis-gendered and not one of their friends. Even the commitment to drawing attention to rape threats was compromised when TV's Robert Webb tweeted this to Moran and Lewis. Moran replied, Lewis said nothing. A tweeter raising the point that this hardly sat well with Moran's "apology" found herself talking only to Webb - who pointed out that Moran was probably "busy" before dropping out himself - just as Moore had been happy to answer tweets on her own controversy from TV's Frankie Boyle, but left the conversation rather than answer this dignified, pertinent and respectful point from someone who wasn't famous.

Yes, we could talk about all these things. And God, it's hard not to talk about this at the moment. I got a tiny taste of what it must feel like to be told not to make such a song-and-dance about things you find offensive because of your race, disability, gender or sexuality, after the quack from Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies/Illnesses barged his way into a conversation - (no-one had "@"-d him) - after searching his name (or being told about it by a friend, if you believe his story). He subsequently became another of the curious sources that Linehan fell upon, so desperate for ammunition against the uppity, that he could no longer choose the company he kept. After I'd said that I had Asperger's Syndrome and didn't appreciate the condition appearing on a programme as an "embarrassing illness", I instantly received these tweets from supporters of the good Doctor:

Do you not understand the purpose/concept of the show?
if you can't understand that I question your Intelligence
you're very dramatic
Oh please don't play that card. You just want to be outraged. I've got bipolar. (6) I don't jump down throats.
The way you are going on is dramatic. Get over yourself.
Wow, talk about dramatic, If you were that offended you could have changed channels."

But this is just the tiniest sliver of what people who are transgender, black or disabled - especially women -  had to face following the #twittersilence fallout, (compare the tone to these tweets by Goldacre on ableist language) and I'm sure have to face on a regular basis: people telling them not to be such drama queens, to get over themselves, not to play the racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/transphobic "card", not to make such a big deal of it all, that of course tweets will seem offensive if you go trawling through them and start quoting them accurately.

All I can say is that if your response when asked about someone being called a "paki cunt" is to complain about the criticism a white newspaper columnist is getting, maybe you'd be better off sticking to conversations with that columnist, and if your response when a transwoman is murdered (7) is to legally threaten the news source for mentioning you within the same piece,  and then call them "cuntards" for not realising the threat was a "joke", maybe sticking up for threatened minorities should be higher on your priorities.

For the record, I don't personally think Moran aims to upset black people, transgender people or people with AIDS, and I don't think those "retard/tranny" tweets are evidence of bigotry. I think as her writing is essentially mindless, she doesn't think about its implications, or its nature as the work of a privileged white middle-class cis-gendered journalist, and isn't capable of thinking about it enough to offer a well-argued or thoughtful apology, just as she doesn't have enough grasp of language to see that "self-proclaimed pleasant people" is a phrase so problematic it borders on oxymoronic: no-one who proclaims themselves pleasant should be trusted.

She also clearly lacks the guts to speak out against those who do have unpleasant views about a minority, like Suzanne Moore. In her "apology" Moran offers her comments on Germaine Greer's transphobia (Greer's vile treatment of  Dr Rachael Padman has been disgracefully overlooked by the British media (8)) in her book How To be A Woman as an example of how she does abhor that prejudice (Helen Lewis also used it a few months back as a defence against the idea Moran has any trans prejudice, describing it as a "repudiation"). Moran doesn't offer much in the way of quotes, but this is what she actually said in the book (The bit I've underlined continues from where Lewis's quote trailed off):

In later years I would grow Greer-ish enough to disagree with Greer on things that she said: she went off sex in the eighties, opposed the election of a female lecturer at Newnham Ladies' College, got a bee in her bonnet about transgender male-to-females, and, most importantly, had a go at Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore's backcombed hair ("birds-nest hair and fuck-me-shoes") which saddened me: I love a bouff

Now, she couldn't have known what Moore would subsequently write about transsexuals. What is striking, though, is the way the issue of bigotry is swept aside to talk about haircuts, and people criticising her fellow columnists - there's nothing to suggest that that chilling use of "most importantly" is ironic. She would genuinely rather talk about hairstyles than Germaine Greer's victimisation of Rachael Padman, the transgender lecturer Moran doesn't bother to name, just as she genuinely thinks sorting out what clothes to wear and how one's pubic hair should be trimmed is a genuine manifesto for feminism.

As for the idea that saying someone has "a bee in her bonnet" about a minority when they campaign to prevent a member of that minority getting a job, that she's "nuts in her views" on that minority (9) and that someone who writes a hatepiece on a minority is "barking", it's an interesting new phenomenon: casual calling-out: disassociate yourself without offending the person or getting yourself dragged into the row. Remember Larry David's line from Curb Your Enthusiasm: "Hitler didn't care for Jews: he thought they were a bit much." Indeed, she doesn't mention in that twitlonger reference that Greer's praise is quoted on the book's blurb. Greer would probably resent being called a vicious bigot, but the suggestion she has a "bee in her bonnet" probably didn't spoil her lunch, especially as Moran fondly noted that it was "Greerish" of her to notice the bee in the first place.

Linehan's main objection is he wants to be left alone: he doesn't want to criticise his successful friend, he doesn't want her criticised by anyone else, he doesn't want to debate issues of gender, race, bigotry or the way the language of those who are white and privileged can impact on those who aren't, and the things that the perspective of the White middle-class cis-gendered person with a job in the media can miss - he just wants to be left alone to promote his West End shows and TV programmes, receive praise from those who liked them, and exchange pleasantries with those of similar media stature and press the RT button on important causes. "Let Lena write hers."

So let's cut to the solution...

Let them praise each other. Let them see their own timelines as crystal balls ("My timeline suggests this is now a thing"). Let Moran grow more incoherent ("Writing the fuck out of shit since 1992" says her twitter bio, "it fucks me off so much" was Zoe Williams's defence of her friend from criticism. Does India Knight really think I'm envious of these people?). Let Suzanne Moore sound more and more like Jan Moir (the previous master of the "I'm sorry you foolishly misunderstood me" apology. Let the world see how ludicrous the idea that these people could ever speak up for the disadvantaged is. Let their claims to be left-wing be reduced to pressing the retweet button on more important tweets and arguing with climate-change deniers (put on this earth to make them look good) every now and then. Let them degenerate.

Now, we know the Chieftains have no problem with praise. So anyone who isn't interested in saying anything else can join TwitterElite with them. And a moderated guestbook can be set up for anyone on LowTwitter (or "Cunt Fest", to use Deborah Orr's phrase) who wants to pass on a fan message. Otherwise, LowTwitter's relation to TwitterElite will be read-only, for those useful things the latter retweets and links to. We don't need to talk to them.

Moran wants Twitter to be "like Cheers." It would actually be more like the icy blackness of Evelyn Waugh's early novels, with their giggling, dancing, drunken callous fools, who don't care who they hurt. It would also resemble the world evoked in Chris Morris and Robert Katz's series of monologues for Morris's Blue Jam radio series, where journalists are encouraged to commit suicide because it would make great copy, playwrights hit people under the adoring gaze of sycophants, TV executives trepann themselves to get the cocaine straight into their brain and conceptual artists exhibit one another in cages.

And to return to the tweet we opened with, what do we mean by nice? Quiet? Gentle? Apolitical? Vacant? Materialistic? People who watch the TV programme or read the column or book you've produced? A bunch of people so vapid most of them are too nervous to say they don't like Julie Burchill? Is that nice? One of the most disgraceful cultural attempts in Britain to silence a dissenting female voice in recent years was the treatment by the media - and then the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition - of Hilary Mantel over her brilliant essay on the Royal Family and its treatment of women. Lauren Laverne's response - snapped up by the Daily Mail - was "I mean, I know she won that Booker and everything but if you can't say anything nice....". That's what #bepolite means: anti-intellectual, apolitical, barely literate ("that Booker and everything" - from a Culture Show presenter...) and gutless, a bromide to keep us all tweeting DIY comedy, promoting their products (this new piece by Grace Dent is good) and maintaining their image (this new thing is typical Stephen Fry, honestly that is such a Julie Burchill thing to do), abandoned whenever someone speaks out of turn, and the standard Linehan use of "Cunt" "Prick" "Twat" "fuck off" and "blocked for stupidity" kicks in. It's a beautiful little model of capitalism: some are selling a product, some are buying a product, no-one's questioning it.

Over on LowTwitter, we'll handle such problems as racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, which can be a pointless nusiance for TwitterElite. We won't devise anything as cackhanded as #twittersilence, because we know that not using a smartphone for a day is not a boycott.  TwitterElite can be left to matters like whether someone "spat the fact out at me in an accusing way."' On TwitterElite, Linehan won't have to worry about people using words like mansplaining to silence the voice of the white male: on Twitter Elite the white, the male, the famous and the wealthy won't be shouted down by uppity minorities. People with columns will be able to tweet things which even they themselves consider "a bit rancid" without the plebs calling them out on it. Any of the latter will quickly be told "how to talk to people", in Linehan's phrase. India Knight won't have to talk to people with 4 followers, bloggers or those without columns. Helen Lewis's rule on her blogpost that "too many subtweets make a subtwat. FACT" (again, note that the language is as barren as the view it expresses) will be obeyed, and she won't have to remind any more people to "take being blocked with dignity". Owen Jones won't have to worry about "macho people who dress up hatred and misanthropy as politics." Linehan won't have to keep repeating his "If you got half of what he/she got" argument. Responses like this will be seen as the norm, not embarrassing displays of temper-loss, but they'll hopefully have to be deployed less frequently. after all, it must be tiring having to call so many people thick, cunts,"cuntards" twats and pricks, telling them to fuck off, telling them how stupid they are, threatening Pink News and MindCharity, and then reminding people who criticise things their friends have said that the friends are not Hitler, bombers or rapists, or even on the top 10 .

On TwitterElite the voice of the unsilent majority will be heard. Zoe Williams and Owen Jones won't have to worry about this. Williams won't have to keep reminding people Moran "isn't middle class, surely you've got this?" On TwitterElite, they can speak up for those who already have an influential voice to their heart's content.  As Helen Lewis pointed out to Linehan (through irony), they've earned it. Until TwitterElite is set up - and it needn't be long, TV's Emma Kennedy is already setting up the barricades - what should be done about the... well, what do we call them? Blue ticks? People who literally couldn't give a shit? People with class? The enemies of the Twaliban, the Millie Tants, the ThinknotBots  and CuntFest? The Reason Patriarchal Plutocracy SHOULD fear the Left? The "B" Ark? Moran names many of them in the acknowledgement at the end of her book as the "women and honorary women of Twitter" but with all these uppity women answering back about racism and transphobia and sexism, perhaps that really won't do. If We're THE WORST, does that make them THE BEST? The important thing is, they're not Hitler.

Until then, we've got the unfollow button. Let's use it.

(feedback:   or the comments page on the earlier piece:

Update March 2015: Owen Jones spoke out against the New Statesman's disgraceful transphobia in this fine piece, and on twitter continued to defend trans women while receiving a barrage of bigotry from transphobes. I wish more people writing for mainstream publications would display this kind of integrity.

1): This, in particular, on feminists that irritate him, in reference to an episode of Father Ted, is too painful to discuss. If you have to destroy your legacy, Graham, do it, but please don't drag the immortal brilliance of Father Ted into it.
2): He later posted a follow-up in the comments sections of this blogpost which can hardly be called an apology, graciously acknowledging the blogger was not the "Worst" but otherwise reiterating his defence of Moran. The twitter Elite have made the  apology-that-isn't-an-apology an artform.
3): The same tweeter put these points - again intelligently and politely - to Glinner and his defenders, but again these fell on deaf ears. See also this entirely polite and reasonable attempt to raise an issue with Knight and Laverne, and the frosty (and only) response it got. 
4): It seems they'd tweeted "Today we ask #whatisstigma in response to @indiaknight and her distasteful article on depression being money spinning 'misery lit' Join us!" in a moment of unguardedness. Here's more repentence. Personally, I think they got it right first time.
5): Like a certain Doctor Who writer who took part in #twittersilence who decreed that people not in favour of a female Doctor Who - a view he pronounced "horrible" and opposed out of his commitment to "help [ing] other people" - were comparable to people who opposed gay marriage, but then instantly blocked me when I asked if that meant he would be criticising Steven Moffat if he actually chose a male Doctor, because Moffat is a friend of his. He took part in "a Sexism in Doctor Who" panel recently, but hasn't commented on Moffat's choice of a 12th male Doctor or Moffat's odd "time for the Queen to be played by a man" joke. As I said, social niceties over principles: something the same man took to near-parodic extremes here. ("I go on about 'Tories', but I really shouldn't, not in general, when I have friends on the right as well as on the left")
6:) This is the desperate, contemptuous "nice try pretending to be offended but I'm part of your club too" technique. It's employed by India Knight here and here, (countered by these excellent responses) to say nothing of the attempts by Zoe Williams to remind us  Caitlin Moran "doesn't come from a priviledged background."
7): One might have expected some humility from Moore about her "Brazilian transsexual" reference at that moment at least because the victim was shot dead in Brazil, and this tweet had been sent to her days earlier .
8) A piece in the Guardian on 25 June 1997 by Clare Longrigg called "A Sister with No Fellow Feeling" investigating the matter mysteriously vanished from its website. This unrepentant piece by Greer (which is paywalled,  so only freely available on this blog posted by someone who takes Greer's side and disgracefully calls Rachael Padman "he" throughout) -  reveals why: "I had no option but to resign my fellowship and train as a lawyer, so that I could afford to bring a suit against the Guardian, which took a year to cave in and pay up". Again, it appears this kind of thuggery and revisionism is allowed when transgender people are the  minority concerned (imagine if Martin Amis had done this to a Muslim teacher at the University of Manchester. would the Guardian have "caved in" so easily?)
9) A quote from How to be A Woman which Moran urges us to remind ourselves of in the Twitlonger piece.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Steven and the Women: the Dubious Gender Politics of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who (or, How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who 2: The Smell of Fear)

(my previous piece)
In the debate about whether Steven Moffat's writing is misogynistic, mistakes have been made on both sides. Moffat himself responded to a piece in The Guardian by Jane Clare Jones thus:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings,[...] I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong.

The misconception he's working on here is similar to that sometimes made by those that attack him: the idea that a writer whose use of female characters is problematic and a man who hates women are the same thing. Moffat pointing out he's a nice guy with a wife simply doesn't counter any criticism of sexism in his work, however much he thinks it does. Conversely, the temptation when talking about sexism in Moffat's scripts seems to be toward saying things like "God, he must really hate women." but whether he does or not doesn't make a difference: nice people are as likely to write scripts which endorse rather than challenge stereotypes as nasty people. Older Who fans (or at least those with extensive DVD collections) might recall the surviving episode of the much-loved Troughton story The Web of Fear opens with an anti-Semitic stereotype, a "covetous Jew" who foolishly refuses to relinquish his valuable Yeti ("I see: you vant to rob me! Nobody makes a fool of Julius Silverstein! Take him avay!"). He is then punished for this covetousness when the Yeti comes to life and kills him. The crucial point here is that writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln and script editor Derrick Sherwin may well have been - or still are in the case of the surviving latter two - delightful people with no anti-Semitic tendencies at all. We have no right to accuse them of anything as people based on this script, what we do have a right to point out is that they have inherited a socially and culturally constructed prejudice (as we all do) and failed to challenge, interrogate or subvert it (as we all should). If they had been asked about it after the broadcast and responded by pointing out that they weren't anti-Semitic, it wouldn't in any way work as a defence against the criticism that that scene enforces an anti-Semitic stereotype. It's also entirely possible to pass on unpleasant or bigoted tropes by mistake: The Unquiet Dead's plot, in which a bunch of war refugees trick the Doctor by taking advantage of his pity and then turn nasty once they've been granted asylum, was clearly intended by Mark Gatiss as "vintage-style" Doctor Who rather than an Enoch Powell-style warning, and it's obviously unlikely that the fact that the first Doctor Who story with an all black guest cast (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) portrays them as an unscrupulous bunch of thieves was out of a desire by Steve Thompson to insult black viewers. Both episodes are the result of writers failing to consider the implications of how things can turn out on screen. The idea that the author insisting that they don't have those prejudices can be used as a defence of the work is an aspect of the Intentional Fallacy: the belief that what the author says he meant is the final judgement on a text. The successes and failures of a text stand by themselves, they're not the author's any more, and Steven Moffat cannot shrug off criticism of his work by pointing out he's a nice guy.

The problem with Amy Pond isn't that she's constructed as a "sexy" character. The problem is that this supposed "sexiness" intrudes in the way reality is constructed around her. The only job she can get is as a kissogram girl, then, when things are going better, as a famous model (right down to a gruesome shot of her face on a perfume advert that could have come straight out of one of the Mary-Jane scenes in the Spider-Man movies). In her penultimate episode we find she now "writes travel articles for magazines." Remember Moffat's idea of "one of the most accomplished woman who ever lived" is an aristocrat (and therefore a parasite) like Madame de Pompadour. In the extraordinary two-part Comic Relief special Space/Time - surely the most masturbatory piece of Doctor Who ever broadcast - we hear that she only passed her driving test because she wore a short skirt, and then the combination of that same skirt and a glass floor causes Rory, working at the controls below, to crash the TARDIS. As a result, we end up with multiple Amy Ponds. Instantly, we have a gag about Rory hoping for a threesome, the revelation that Amy finds herself attractive, and its accompanying punchline that Rory finds this exciting. In the runup to its broadcast Moffat promised viewers in Doctor Who Magazine "there’s a moment with two Amy Ponds in it. If you’re a red-blooded male surely that’s enough! You’ve got Amy Pond flirting with herself." His tweet immediately after the special promised the viewers three Amy Ponds next time, but he evidently decided that was one piece of drooling fanfiction that could be left to the net.

John Nathan-Turner's "you're there for the dads" policy towards his actresses was certainly the least tolerable thing about his tenure, but in his case it extended only to the characters' wardrobes, and the tendency for monsters to desire Peri in one season. The characters still served as proxies for the younger viewers. It's difficult to see how Amy can do this in moments where she's asking the Doctor to "sort her out" in the bedroom scene at the end of Flesh and Stone, let alone how Jenny can do the same in the scene in The Crimson Horror where she strips off her coat to begin kung-fu and as the camera learingly pans along her leather catsuit in slow motion, Matt Smith does an erection gag with his sonic screwdriver, or how children could identify with Clara after the Doctor's extraordinarily misjudged line about her "tight skirt" at the end of Nightmare in Silver (which we'll come to later).

There is no aspect of Amy's character that is not defined by that male construction we call femininity. The five threats she faces are pregnancy, the abduction of her baby, the loss of either of the men she loves, infertility, and the idea that it's presumable that the man she loves will reject her for that infertility. Controlling these subplots are the same prejudices that lie behind soap operas - Am I still a woman if I can't have children anymore? Will the man I love reject me for it? Is it my fault? My Baby - don't let them take my baby! Even as children, Moffat's heroines are there to be entranced by the Doctor. The setup from The Girl in the Fireplace, recycled like so much else in The Eleventh Hour, is disturbing in the way it allows the Doctor to gain access to Young Amy/Young Reinette's imaginations - giving him considerable power over them - and then moves forward in time in one moment so that we can bring in the older sexy actress. By the time we reach the Doctor stalking Clara as a child from afar while he reads The Beano, things are getting distinctly creepy (the very first shot of Karen Gillan, coming soon after the Doctor's scenes with the younger Amy Pond sees the camera panning up her thighs to reveal her policewoman kissogram costume. There's a horrible sense here that we're about to hear Maurice Chevalier singing "thank heavens for little girls - they grow up in the most delightful way"  on the soundtrack).

Moffat's sense of what goes on in the head of a young woman and any ability with logical characterisation he may have had left take a nosedive in Let's Kill Hitler. Amy and Rory's baby has been kidnapped, but it's revealed that they've already known her all their life in the guise of their best friend Mels, who now regenerates into an adult, which Moffat genuinely seems to think resolves that particular "missing baby" cliffhanger. There's no point shouting "where's the baby - isn't someone going to try and rescue the baby?" at your TV screen as I did - Amy and Rory have let that go now, as have actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (as I've said before, the fact that the version of Amy left alone for 36 years in The Girl Who Waited never mentions it makes a mockery of anyone still claiming this is a show with any sense of emotional consequences or human resonance. Did Gillan ever ask Moffat or his writers "what's my motivation here?")

Chillingly, Moffat sees no problem in describing the pre-Doctor Who work of Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, who contributed a predictable dud of an episode to series 5, as "beautifully observed" on Doctor Who Confidential. Nye's clearly a huge influence on him and not just through the family connection (Moffat's mother-in-law was the producer on Nye's Men Behaving Badly). His sitcom Coupling often featured similar storylines to Men Behaving Badly, such as a "girlfriend finds out about boyfriend's porn collection" plot which climaxed in a horrific monologue from the central character on how all men are obsessed with naked women - "halfway out of the birth canal we're already enjoying the view", and an interminable monologue about how men need locks on the bathroom door and women don't because "we are men! Throughout history, we have always needed, in times of difficulty, to retreat to our caves. [...] The toilet for us is the last bastion, the final refuge, the last few last square feet of man space left to us [OK, you get the idea]". Both scenes are presented in the binary "she thinks/he thinks" style, starting with Sarah Alexander ridiculing this male nonsense, then moving to Jack Davenport's angry defence of what men need, then Alexander takes this on board and she and Davenport are reconciled, now that the inescapable difference between the genders has been affirmed. Friends is the other obvious influence here. What all three shows - along with the current manifestation of this kind of television, The Big Bang Theory - share is an assumption that men are from Mars (the planet where they leave the toilet seat up) and women are from Venus (the planet where they eat Ben and Jerry) and a conviction that this is all there is: this is what men and women are like and it's futile to pretend otherwise. The choice between Seinfeld and Friends is not just a choice between good and evil ("I love Friends, but I never got into Seinfeld" -  David Cameron) but a choice between comedy with a sense of its own ridiculousness and comedy that assumes This Is The Way The World is; between comedy that sees a whole universe of lunacy out there and comedy that sees nothing but two demographic groups to place on separate sofas for alternate scenes.

Elaborating on gender differences, Moffat once remarked on Twitter:

 I AM sexist: women are cleverer, nicer, kinder and better at stuff. Don't let on or they'll keep us in fields. FIELDS!!!

This is the "how is that racist - isn't it good to have rhythm?"' fallacy: the idea that gender-essentialism and stereotyping is less of a problem if it is benevolent. It's disastrous for a writer, as it leaves him incapable of writing human beings. Moffat-written or Moffat-commissioned scripts don't so much fail the Bechdel test (which proposes that at least two female characters should talk about something other than a man) as fail to show up at the exam room. Hide was a lowpoint here: Clara is left alone to suss out Emma the female guest character (it's the Doctor's job to suss out the male one) and after both women have grimaced over the "disgusting" whiskey and agreed to move to tea, she gets the conversation going with "so you and Professor Palmer - have you ever - y'know?" and after Clara asks why not - "you do know how he feels about you, don't you?" - Emma changes the subject to how Clara feels about the Doctor. A universe with Weeping Angels and Daleks may be easy enough to conjure up, but a universe in which women drink whiskey is beyond imagining for Moffat and his team.

Virginia Woolf foolishly called Conan Doyle's Watson "a sack filled with straw" (and she didn't have the excuse of having seen Martin Freeman). It's merciful she was never introduced to River Song, the most misjudged and cynically constructed fictional character in history (well, at least until Clara came along). The only aspects of her not defined by a male scriptwriter's standbys of femininity are the signs round her neck that read "Spoilers!" and "watch the finale because something more exciting will happen there", usually replaced in the finale with "next series, all will be revealed." She's got poisonous lipstick, her all-time fantasy is a threesome with two Doctors, her last words before regenerating are "I'm concentrating on a dress size" , she promises that she's "a screamer - now there is a spoiler for you!" and her reaction to meeting the Doctor for the first time (from her point of view) is "you never said he was hot!" The "bickering" between the Doctor and River is excruciating because it's little more than the stage directions "they bicker" and "they flirt". One yearns for some genuine tension: what if River had a an unpleasant manner about her, or a manner that riled the Doctor in a way that unnerved the viewer, changing the status quo from "Doctor and his friends" and adding tension by making the dynamic less cozy? Sexual tension is rendered impossible by the Doctor's celibacy. Instead, their conversations are indistinguishable from Moffat, Smith and Kingston delivering their oral press releases for it on Doctor Who Confidential. River delivers cute domestic soundbites - "Hello sweetie", "I'm going shopping", "it's called marriage, honey." "You wouldn't answer your phone" - while the Doctor performs anaemic comedy "grrr! That woman will be the death of me" responses (Curiously, The Name of the Doctor spared us the gruesome River line promised in Doctor Who Magazine's preview - "Oh, I do like to watch a man think: it’s like watching a whale knit" - a line recycled from Coupling). Her revelation that the TARDIS only makes that noise because "YOU leave the brakes on"' is really just an upscale equivalent of the moment in Batman and Robin when Batman produces a credit card with a Batman logo on it, or Batman Forever's line "it's the car, right? Chicks love the car", all three showing the same contempt for the narrative, and provoking a jaded laugh that doesn't survive a second viewing. It's sadly not the only resemblance between Steven Moffat's Doctor Who and Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, the only question being whether the former is headed for the same notoriety. "Well, she is a woman," says the Doctor when Amy and Rory puzzle over her murderous behaviour. River's other two ways of speaking are to spout trailerspeak - "this will be the Doctor's darkest hour -  he'll raise higher than ever before and fall so much further" "you're going to find out very soon, now, Doctor, and I'm sorry, but that's when everything changes" - and hymns to the Doctor's near-Godliness: "You've decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn't agree", "To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means mighty warrior. How far you've come. [...] And all this, my love, in fear of you".

 This isn't a character, but a soulless collection of gender and TV reference points, and the increasing lack of conviction in Kingston's performance - every smiling expression over-played to the point of simpering, every line over-enunciated in such a fey tone it becomes hard to hear her, and the strangely weak pitch in her delivery whenever she has to be frightened, tough or upset, as if she can't make the shift to proper acting (Eve Myles syndrome, as it's known), makes River as unsuccessful an attempt by a male writer to evoke someone from the opposite sex as anything by Benny Hill.

The Day of the Moon saw River Song betray the show's very ethos. Gareth Roberts, back in the days before he wrote for this version of the series, quite rightly said that the problem with the New Adventures version of Ace is that he instinctively felt the Doctor wouldn't invite anyone with a gun on board the TARDIS. How much more apposite this is when applied to River Song. Another Who writer who offered interesting opinions on this show in the 1990s, Paul Cornell, rightly observed that mid-80s Doctor Who, with Eric Saward as script editor, relied far too much on characters with guns, but even the truly wretched Saward never suggested that Lytton was cool and rather fun, or that Orcini would be fit to travel in the TARDIS. Compare the scenes of Lytton's bogus policemen shooting fleeing prisoners dead in Resurrection of the Daleks with River shooting the Silents in Day of the Moon. One portrays a shooting as cruel, frightening and psychotic, while the latter presents it as cool and sexy, right down to the moment when River does a Western/Robocop style twirl with her gun as she holsters it. The days of risking your life to stop the Brigadier from blowing up the Silurians and agonising other whether one has the right to blow up the Dalek incubation room have never seemed so far away.

Consider the soul crushing dialogue from that scene, a curious mixture of the witless and the pernicious:

Doctor: This is my friend River. Nice hair, clever, has own gun, and unlike me she really doesn't mind shooting people. I shouldn't like that, kinda do a bit.
River: Thank you sweetie
Doctor: I know you're team players and everything but she'll definitely kill the first three of you
River: (pressing her back against the doctor's while pointing her gun) oh, the first seven, easily.
Doctor: Seven, really?
River: Oh, eight for you, honey.
Doctor: (grinning) Stop it...
River: (grinning, attempting a "breathily sexy" tone) Make me...
Doctor: (giggling, sounding aroused) maybe I will...
Amy: Is this important flirting? [...]
Doctor Sorry. As I was saying, my naughty friend is going to kill the first three of you to attack...
(the Doctor and River are back to back, as River opens fire
River: what are you doing?
The Doctor: Helping!
River: You've got a screwdriver, go and build a cabinet!
The Doctor: That's really rude!
River: Shut up and drive!
(Doctor dashes into the TARDIS. River kills all the Silents, twirling and shooting in slow motion to heroic music)

It ends with a return to domestic sitcom talk, after River performs the gun-twirl: "my old fella didn't see that, did he? He gets ever so cross." Unlike with Ace, we're not being encouraged to think there's something wrong with this person: it's the show itself that comes across as jaded and withdrawn from empathy and decency to a psychopathic extent (and what a charming ethical copout to have the Doctor leave before he can witness the rest of the killing). Again, we have the depressingly widespread idea that a woman acting violently is empowering and a corrective to sexism and misogyny. When questioned about his ability with female characters during a Guardian interview Moffat replied:

River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It's the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.

It would indeed. Unfortunately, a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people is no substitute for an interest in human beings.

For an example of how to write a sexy female character, look at Anne Hathaway's wonderful new version of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. The narrative surrounding her - her hopes for the "clean slate" McGuffin, her fear of Bane, her redeeming compassion towards others in her territory - have nothing to do with her sexuality or her gender. That's why she's credible rather than camp when fighting bad guys, and why her love interest with Bruce has some emotional punch.

Clara, amazingly, is a new low. In my previous piece, I argued that Moffat was a cynic rather than an incompetent, and feared that we may be stuck with his version of Doctor Who for a very long time. Instead, there has been a slight nudge from cynicism towards incompetence. The individual scripts seem more in need of rewrites than the previous two seasons (which couldn't have been helped by any rewrites). The contrast between Neil Gaiman's episode for the last season, The Doctor's Wife, which irksomely but accurately deduced the kind of story that makes fans go "awwww" and "now THAT's what Doctor Who should be doing", and Nightmare in Silver, which began by making audiences go "WHAT ARE THOSE ANNOYING KIDS DOING THERE?" and ended by leaving them saying "WHAT did he just say about Clara's tight skirt? That's a bit off..." (and in-between, making them wonder what had happened to one of the episode's two guest stars, as the director has no idea how to convey the sense that someone has just been shot dead) being a case in point. The season's arc, similarly, is just as idiotic as the River Song/Melody Pond rubbish, but more likely to rub mass audiences and fanbases up the wrong way (a problem when this show is certainly no longer made for any one else). While River Song accurately capitalised on the kind of "what will happen at the end of Lost / will Bella and Edward end up together?" casual SF viewer (a new demographic, incidentally, strikingly different from the narrower "cult TV/SF fan" niche audience that shows from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 right up to Smallville aimed at: out of the frying pan into the other frying pan, it seems), this season's River Mark 2 is a much odder construction more likely to alienate its audience. Moffat assumes that revealing three versions of the same character in separate timezones is enough to get an arc going, but as he forgets to have the arc affect the Doctor by causing jeopardy (as even the inept "crack-in-time" and "who-is-River?" arcs of the previous two series did), and overlooks the fact that by Doctor Who standards three people who look and sound the same and use the same phrase at one point is not that exciting (compare with the Doctor casually noticing the resemblance between the two Gwens in Journey's End), the Doctor comes across as a stalker. "She's not POSSIBLE!" is a perfect example of telling rather than showing. Having the two earlier versions of Clara killed off means the character is reset twice, and then when the Doctor finally tells her about the other Claras, a literal reset button is pressed in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Things reach their nadir in the Doctor's inexplicable line "A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a little bit too tight"' at the end of Nightmare in Silver, a line which Gaiman himself seemed keen to reveal he probably hadn't written shortly after broadcast. Clara is now stalked in all senses: by a production team keen to exploit the attractiveness of the actress that plays her, by a writing team more interested in using her as a lure to get the ratings going for the next episode - why create a character for her when you can keep a "who is she?" arc going - and by a Doctor who's never been more poorly defined, tracking her for no reason other than morbid curiosity and who doesn't respect her enough to tell her the truth: like her creator and consequently the audience, he doesn't see her as a person but as an arc in flesh, and even he of all people seems keen to point out how shapely that flesh is.

With his third series Moffat has delivered something just as soulless, but with enough creaks to suggest a more limited shelf-life. Who'd have thought we'd ever get a Doctor who carries out executions (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), commits genocide without considering "giving them a chance" as the Tennant Doctor would (Nightmare in Silver) or trapping three salvage-men inside his ship and threatening to blow them up if they don't risk their lives helping him find his friend (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS), or that the 50th Anniversary would be celebrated by a special featuring only one of the past Doctors ("you don't want to turn it into too much of a fanfest," says Moffat, the man who's just given us a season with a Dalek story, a Cybermen story, an Ice Warrior story, a Weeping Angels story and three Great Intelligence stories). As we reach the point where the Doctor leers at a non-existent character, reducing her to an arc in a tight skirt, there seems to be a sense that Doctor Who is now not merely stupid but quite unpleasant (how long before those like Paul Cornell have the guts to speak about this, rather than posting "whew - wasn't that great?" tweets. I'm sure he could make some kind of argument that Moffat isn't misogynistic or sexist other than "he's my mate and you're not", but let's hear it. Cue sound of blogger throwing down a gauntlet). So as we await the point at which the writers of Doctor Who have so little understanding of female characters that we end up with an episode in which a lonely Amy and Clara order a pizza and the Doctor delivers it, and they ask him if he can can fix something for them with that big sonic screwdriver of his....Happy 50th anniversary, everyone.

(for feedback  @richardhcooper )