Moffat Syndrome (or, The Case of the Female Puzzles)

Some disclaimers before we begin:

  1. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of John Green’s work — on the page, on YouTube, and in the world. I trust him to think critically and empathetically, and I’ll eagerly read whatever he writes next.
  2. I stopped watching Doctor Who after the 50th Anniversary Special. For all I know, that might have been the point at which Steven Moffat started cranking out female characters who did not fit the description below. Please feel free to inform me thusly.
  3. Here be spoilers.

Okay! Let’s get started.


So I just finished John Green’s novel Paper Towns, and I have to say it was excellent. The opening prank series was so riveting it sustained me through the comparatively low-key middle, all the way to the profoundly hilarious road trip at the end. John Green will never cease to amaze me with the way he develops his characters deeply and with great sympathy. I can see why he’s so popular with young adults — he takes their problems seriously. He knows it’s no joke being a teenager. He remembers how frustrating it was to be in a place where everyone is telling you to take more responsibility, but they won’t take you seriously when you try.


Also, between Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska, I’m beginning to take him seriously as a prankster. You can’t be that inventive without having some major practical experience.

But there was something in Paper Towns that made me stop and say, “Huh … interesting.” It came to me when I started thinking about how Paper Towns would be adapted as a movie (which it is, due out on June 15, 2015, and starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne). I’m sure it’s going to be great. The road trip sequence alone will be worth the wait.

(Have I mentioned I’m a fan of the road trip sequence? It’s true.)

However, let’s stop and think: Throughout the book, Quentin’s focus is on Margo. She’s the reason he’s doing all this research. Is she an antagonist? an antihero? a catalyst? That’s up for debate, but she’s certainly central.

But how much does she actually show up? If the movie were filmed in strict chronological sequence, where would the parts with Margo be?

There’d be a big chunk at the beginning, with the eleven-part prank.

Then there’d be a little bit at the end, in the barn.

And that’s it. Margo is gone for most of the story. Her absence is what makes the story tick.

A map and a watch together? To discuss Paper Towns? Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Literal ticking + a map that might contain paper towns = thank you, Nebraska, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

This piqued my interest because it reminded me of another John Green book — his first, Looking for Alaska. It too has a central female character (Alaska). It too has a male narrator who is entranced by the central female and spends the book trying to figure out something about her. Perhaps most relevantly, it too revolves not around the female character’s presence, but around her absence.

Now, to an extent, we’re lucky: John Green’s female characters are still characters in their own right. They have personalities and preferences and quirks. We know them like we know our friends.

But even within this personhood, Margo and Alaska still function partly as puzzles to be figured out, questions to be answered, anomalies to be understood. In their respective stories, this function makes sense — the girls embody the protagonists’ doubts and misunderstandings. They’re the yogis sitting on the mountaintop, waiting for the protagonists to figure out how to reach them so they can reveal something crucial to the protagonists’ growth.

"Sunscreen. That was that last item."

“I just know I forgot something … oh right, sunscreen.”

I won’t say I love this use of any character, female or otherwise. (EDIT: I should add that at the end of Paper Towns, Margo confronts Quentin about using her as this character. He’s relied too much on his idea of what she is, rather than trying to understand her true nature. “People love the idea of a paper girl,” she says. “They always have. […] It’s kind of great, being an idea that everyone likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way.”)

At least Margo and Alaska only have secrets. They aren’t wholly required to be secrets.

To see what I mean, let’s look at some of Steven Moffat’s major female characters.

There’s Amy Pond. Who is she? Well, she was seven years old a minute ago, and now she’s all grown up. Why is that? Oh, now she appears to be made of plastic — why? Where did her human body go? Let’s spend a few episodes chasing down those answers. No, don’t worry about how she’s coping after waking up alone and in labor in an alien prison, only to be forcibly sterilized after her baby is stolen — lots to do, Hitler to kill, come on, get with the program.

There’s River Song. Who is she personally? Well, she appears to know the Doctor very well, even though he’s never met her. Why is that? Let’s develop that plot point for a season or two.

And how about Clara Oswald? What is she like as a person? Well, she keeps showing up in the Doctor’s travels. That’s an interesting attribute. We should find out why.

All of these characters are exhaustingly backstoried, while still managing to be personally bland. Even the most nuanced of Moffat’s female creations, Mary Watson, still comes with a heck of a lot of mysterious baggage. The takeaway point for these characters seems to be that women are never what they appear to be — they’re always the figurehead of some kind of plot, and they should be researched and sorted out accordingly.

And listen, I get that women can be enigmatic. I understand that we can be weirdly mercurial. I myself had this thought just the other day: “Ugh, humans can be so stupid sometimes. Ooh, he’s cute. Is that cake?”


Humans might have had some stupid ideas over the years. Cake was definitely not one of them.

But the real world is made up of us real women, who are so much more than puzzles. Yes, we should present legitimate questions and mysteries to be solved. Yes, we should serve as catalysts in some situations. Yes, we’re sometimes at the forefront of conspiracies.* But in all cases, we definitely still have personalities and needs of our own.

I’m all for the embodiment of problems and doubts in whatever characters the writer sees fit. I’m certainly not campaigning for every protagonist to be female. But if we’re expected to trust or like or invest our time in any of these major characters, they need — like Margo and Alaska — to be more than mysteries. Whatever their gender, whatever their role in the story, at the end of the day, they all need to be human beings.**


*For example, I’m currently re-engineering the world’s lawn sprinklers to shoot out rainbow sprinkles instead of water. Don’t tell anyone.

**Unless they’re Silurian, Sontaran, Solonian, Saturnynian, or otherwise non-human. Then they’re free to be that.


Sources: The “women-as-puzzle” term comes from this article. This article describes the biggest reason why I gave up on the Eleventh Doctor. And for the Moffat fans, here’s a defense that gave me some good things to munch on.


Photo credits: Puzzle from libni, flamingo prank from tpsdave, map and watch from schaeffler, yoga pose from cheifyc, and cake from la-fontaine on Pixabay.


Counter Action: Apple pie smoothie


After a long run, there’s nothing better than downing a smoothie.

(Although a good stretch and a shower come close.)

I started running the summer after my junior year of college. It was a beastly hot summer, as usual for the region, and my roommate and I spent most of our free time lying around the house like a couple of damp towels, getting up only to adjust the A/C or stick our heads in the freezer.

There was also a great deal of my roommate’s favourite TV show, which had this weird storyline involving a large blue box. When she was watching it on the big TV and I was studying at the dining room table, it was too bizarre not to surreptitiously watch with her. Eventually she caught me at it.

Seriously, look at this objectively and tell me you're not a little weirded out.

Seriously, look at this objectively and tell me you don’t have questions.

“Hey, you want to come and watch?” she said, clicking pause.

“What is it?”

“It’s called Doctor Who. You’ll love it. Come on.”

It took me a few episodes to get into it, but eventually I developed a voracious appetite for all things Whovian, and the rest, as they say, is history. Halfway through an episode (possibly S02x05, “Rise of the Cybermen”), I suddenly realized that the heroes all had one thing in common: They were very good at running.

This was such an epiphany, I might even have put down my bowl of cherry cobbler for a second to ponder it. If I were the companion, I realized, we’d never escape anything. “You go!” I’d gasp, stumbling to a halt beside the misbehaving reactor and clutching the stitch in my side. “Go on without me! I’ll catch up!”

And then the Doctor wouldn’t leave, of course, and the reactor would blow up, and that would be the end of the series. All because I was in terrible shape.

I shared this realization with my roommate, and she agreed: Weather be darned, we were going to start running. We found something on Pinterest called Couch to 5K that seemed promising, since Day 1 told us to run for only thirty seconds. “I can do that,” I scoffed. As it turns out, I couldn’t, but I learned soon enough, powered by cheesy Pinterest quotes like “Sweat is your fat crying.” We also drank a lot of spinach smoothies (recipe in the offing, also from Pinterest), and it was then that I discovered the joy of a well-earned smoothie.

This apple pie smoothie is an excellent transition between summer and fall — it’s got all the chilly delight of a summer smoothie, with the flavour palette of fall. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, you could even swap out the apple for a dollop of pumpkin purée, if that’s your jam.

But let’s not lose sight of the moral of the story: When common sense and years of health education fail, TV and the Internet can step in and save the day.


Apple pie smoothie


  • 1 large, cold apple, cored and diced (leave the peel on for more fiber, or remove it for a special occasion)
  • 1-1/2 c. cold milk (or part milk, part apple juice)
  • 2 T. quick-cook oatmeal
  • 2 tsp. maple syrup
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon


  1. Pour milk (or milk and apple juice) into blender. Add oatmeal. Let sit 2–3 minutes to soften oatmeal.
  2. Add apple chunks, maple syrup, and spices. Blend until smooth. Serve cold.


Photo credit: Doctor Who screenshot originally from, via Pinterest.