Ok, yes. You’re absolutely right. When secondary characters—of any gender—are badly written, it’s never good for the story. But having a secondary character whose backstory and motivation is less thoroughly developed and detailed, and is given less time than that of the protagonist isn’t bad writing or misogyny on it’s own; it’s a necessary economy in the narrative, since it only has a limited time in which to be told.
For example, I think the women in Sherlock are, for the most part, well-written and have clear purpose as characters in the narrative. Seeing them in broad strokes as badly written women is not the most relevant way to think about them, since they are supporting characters in a story that is about the central partnership of two men. Molly is as well written as Anderson is! Mrs. Hudson is as least as fully developed as Lestrade is. Irene is as much a fully present character as Mycroft is. I don’t think calling it sexist is always the most productive lens with which to see these things. Mary is still a mystery to us on a lot of levels, but that’s not desultory writing, that’s MYSTERY.
Another show that got this complaint a lot was True Detective, in which I think the one-dimensional portrayal of the women was driven by the fact that the story is told from the perspective of two men who can’t see women as anything but a parade of archetypal virgins, whores and manipulators. If the story had been told from Maggie’s point of view, it would have been a different story. We see her as Marty and Rust see her. The characterisation wasn’t one-dimensional because of bad writing, it was an intentional perspectival choice that revealed the limits of the male protagonists’ understanding.
What I don’t really understand is why people get so angry about women being supporting characters, with all that that entails, in stories that are centred around male protagonists.
What’s misogynist is the fact that there are so few genuine female protagonists! Rage on about that, by all means! And, even more upsetting is that all too often, when there is one, when they are genuinely badly written. Case in point: Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood. At this point, she has been sidelined to divert focus to the boys in a show that’s supposed to be about HER for the last two freaking years. Another case in point: Dana Scully during the pregnancy storyline on the X-Files. JESUS.
I’m not going to go into all the details and prove it to ya’ll, but in both cases, that shit is egregious, and I hope everyone rages on about it.
I’m not saying it’s ok to write female characters badly in stories about men, I’m saying my sense of what constitutes badly written women in those stories doesn’t include the economies and choices that are necessary when a character is not the protagonist.
Also, thank you for asking. This is a topic I would love to discuss further, and would love to hear any arguments anyone may have.