“The Woman”: Gender and Inheritance in “Sherlock”

Again, a hearty hmm.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes may not be the best place in all of literature to search for vital, powerful female characters. Mrs Hudson is a classic nurturer, Mary Morstan shows not a care in the world that her husband is constantly on lad’s breaks with his dangerous old smoking buddy, and if Irene Adler is a curious and confused splicing of the Madonna and the Whore, she is also a woman led entirely by her age’s expectations of marriage. I’ve always been fond of Violet Smith from ‘The Solitary Cyclist‘, and Miss Hunter of ‘The Copper Beeches‘ seems similarly capable; but more typical are the women of ‘Thor Bridge‘ and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax‘.

All of which means that perhaps it is no surprise when, as I noted in my last post, a modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes attracts criticism for its depiction of gender. It’s not even as if this problem is new to Sherlock: I noted in my review of the last episode of its first series that all its women can be categorised either as “bitter, soppy or useless”. Nevertheless, in its depiction of Irene Adler, it seems to me, the show was attempting something rather more complex than it was given credit for; it may have failed in achieving its goal, but that’s not the same as failing to set out to try at all. The writers of Sherlock are working from a source text in which almost every character of any agency at all is male. Gary Reed and Guy Davis did a rather brilliant thing in the 1980s with the comic book series Baker Street, but Sherlock it was not.

The difficulty with this reasoning, however, is that Sherlock is not a faithful adaptation. After reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, I noted why Sherlock Holmes could never become so compromised as that novel’s principle investigator, Escherich:

Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.

Sherlock, on the other hand, is far from “separate but connected”. Abigail Nussbaum, in her post about Sherlock, has some intelligent things to say about the ways in which the show has recast, at times accidentally, its hero as a sociopath: its “emphasis on Sherlock’s need to be the smartest guy in the room–in the pursuit of which, not justice or the greater good, he humiliates Irene and leaves her to a gruesome fate–makes him seem a great deal crueler and less heroic” than even Steven Moffat might have intended, much less Arthur Conan Doyle himself. I write as someone who rather enjoys Robert Downey Jr’s turn as the great detective, and therefore not one who necessarily believes in the purity of adaptation – Sherlock Holmes can and should be refigured. The question must be, however, with what depth and consistency that is done.

In the very first episode of Sherlock, Rupert Graves’s likeable Inspector Lestrade intones that Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a great man, but not yet a good one. Vinette Robinson’s Detective Sergeant Sally Robinson (one of the show’s ‘bitter’ women) goes further, telling John that it will only take so long for Sherlock to start committing crimes of his own; in the final episode of the most recent run, she becomes convinced that he has begun to do so. This Sherlock is not our original Holmes, but nor is his sociopathy – or autism, as it is occassionally and rather randomly implied to be – particularly consistent. Much has been made of the toe-curling humiliation meted out to Molly (one of the show’s ‘soppy’ women) in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, and Sherlock’s subsequent climb-down, ending with his asking for her help in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’; but between these two presumed ‘arc’ points, Sherlock’s interactions with her resemble those from the first season. Likewise, John’s subtle little “ready?” as the two prepare to brave the photographers waiting outside 221B in that final episode also suggests something averse to strangers and crowds in his friend – the most we ever get from him, however, is an uncomfortable smile and a silly hat.

Admittedly, the deerstalker riffs are lovely – it was, of course, not Holmes’s hat, either, but likewise an imposition by an over-eager illustrator. But this sort of clever-clever reference comes to dominate Sherlock‘s style in the second season, with fear gases being transposed from one story to another, coming to stand for the inherited and inchoate fear of the Baskervilles from the original Hound, and curling back towards Sherlock’s own knowingness when he dangles the possibility of – gasp! – sending John to Dartmoor alone. There is something about the intensity of this reference – all the Rathbone stuff in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, for instance – which is a little over-arch, a little (dare I say it – for Maureen Kincaid Speller certainly has) boyish.

Of course, it is also and primarily self-aware – that is, deliberately altering the source material when convenient for the writers. There, indeed, is the rub: after forty-five minutes of boldly updating ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and doing so with flair and not a little exciting aplomb, Moffat and company tack on a further forty-five minutes of structurally weaker material which serves to deconstruct, or from one perspective undermine, what has gone before: Lara Pulver’s Adler veers from victorious dominatrix to grateful damsel, undone by the first of the series’ two over-simplistic passwords (which may or may not provide, in their absurd unsoundness, an excuse for Sherlock’s IT illiteracy in the face of Moriarty’s ‘key code’). This is new material quite beyond anything in the source texts – it is a choice on the part of the writers, and they have shown elsewhere how consciously they write. I remain in large part in agreement with Jon Blum that Moffat’s Adler does not represent the deconstruction of female power her critics argue her to be; rather, she is part of a deconstruction of how Sherlock imagines relationships. That she is put to the service of Sherlock’s story has nothing to do with gender – so even is the show’s greatest asset, Freeman’s John. But the fact remains that the choice the writers made was insufficiently developed, or inexpertly executed. Moffat shouldn’t need to explain his writing.

Abigail discusses Sherlock‘s crush on Sherlock, and it is this which is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.”


12 thoughts on ““The Woman”: Gender and Inheritance in “Sherlock”

  1. My reaction to season 2’s handling of female characters is roughly the same as my reaction to Moffat’s unfortunate words in that Wales Online piece. Both give the very definite sense of a show/writer who is aware of the accusations of sexism leveled against him and who is deeply aggravated – offended, even – by them, but whose attempts to address them only serve to further illuminate how poorly those complaints are understood. Season 2 does actually make great strides in terms of how it treats women, but it does so without addressing the show’s core problem with them.

    As others have noted, season 2 is a great one for Molly, who gets to stand up to Sherlock in “Belgravia” and to offer him counsel in “Reichenbach.” She’s also the only character in the cast who is definitely aware that he’s faked his death. Mrs. Hudson also gets to shine in “Belgravia,” in which she’s shown to be tough and quick-witted. Which is fine as far as it goes, but what this development still boils down is two female characters who have gone from being useless to being useful – useful to Sherlock, that is. Both Molly and Mrs. Hudson’s growth is entirely in Sherlock’s service, and they remain exclusively focused on him. For all that Sherlock underserves anyone who is not the title character, it’s done well enough by the male cast that I have no trouble believing that John, Mycroft, and even Lestrade are people in their own right who have lives that don’t involve Sherlock. I simply don’t believe that of Molly or Mrs. Hudson, nor of any of the season’s “bad” girls – Sally, Kitty Reilly, and not even Irene Adler. The only woman in season 2 who feels like an actual person, distinct from Sherlock, is “Baskerville”‘s Dr. Stapleton, who may be my favorite female character on the show.

    By the way, I read the first few paragraphs of the Blum article last week, then closed the tab. Having now read the whole thing, it turns out to be just as condescending and mansplainy as that brief taste had led me to expect. Or maybe I just don’t appreciate being told that I “don’t do ambiguity.”

  2. I have no trouble believing that John, Mycroft, and even Lestrade are people in their own right who have lives that don’t involve Sherlock.

    You know me well enough to know I’m not being blinkered when I say I think this is a tiny bit of special pleading: seriously, John has a life beyond Sherlock? Really? Lestrade and Mycroft I can see to lesser extents (although, again, each of them only appears in the narrative when it is convenient for Sherlock’s story); but John is demonstrably the sine qua non of servicing-Sherlock (he says, baiting slashers).

    On the other hand, I tend to your view that Sherlock‘s second season is an attempt by Moffat to refute the allegations made against him, but that in so doing he only emphasises the core structual problem with his show. (I steer clear of presuming to propound upon his personal beliefs or prejudices.) In fact, I’m less charitable than you: for me, Mrs Hudson’s brief moment of heroism is not enough to ‘rescue’ her from her stock portrayal, and Molly, despite her obvious intelligence (in many ways, she’s the most decent character in the show), is for some reason not given the confidence to follow through on what are her clearly perspicacious observations. This returns us to no one being allowed to one-up Benedict Cumberbatch’s coat.

    On Blum – yes, I agree that I find his tone a little wild. (I could have written a critique of the manner in which he deals with groups – women, fandom, critics – as at-arm’s-length homogeneities with which he is somehow not related, but chose to write about telly instead.) That problem aside, though, I continue to think there’s something about his clear-eyed comparison with the actuality of ‘Bohemia’ that gets to the heart of what ‘Belgravia’ is doing better than misty-eyed received notions of who Adler should be …

  3. John: obviously the fact that his life revolves around servicing Sherlock (teehee!) is a major component of the show and the character, but paradoxically I think that this actually establishes him as the person who is most distinct from Sherlock. Because Sherlock shows us John forming a relationship with Sherlock, and even more importantly, because it shows him being exasperated with the way that relationship has taken over his life, and being confronted with (and rejecting) the concerns of others that he is being subsumed, there’s a clearer sense of John the person who is making the choice – even if he doesn’t fully understand it, and even if he’s ambivalent about it – to dedicate his life to Sherlock. So while you’re right that it can’t be said that John has a life outside of Sherlock, in some ways that’s the point of the show – “I was so alone” he says to Sherlock’s grave, and so the story becomes one about a lonely man who found a friend, and Sherlock becomes, for a moment, a character whose purpose is to service John.

    Or, to put it another way, I know why John doesn’t have a life outside of Sherlock. I don’t know why Molly and Mrs. Hudson don’t.

    Irene: I don’t object to the observation that fannish Irene is not “Bohemia”‘s Irene (I said something similar in my post about the show) but I’m not sure that justifies “Belgravia”‘s choices. I see no way around reading the episode’s final scenes as a humiliation, and one that is specifically coded in terms of gender, followed by a rescue that strikes me as less a reflection of Sherlock’s feelings and more a display of noblesse oblige. That fact that fandom has an exaggerated notion of what Irene should be doesn’t excuse those choices.

  4. Or, to put it another way, I know why John doesn’t have a life outside of Sherlock. I don’t know why Molly and Mrs. Hudson don’t.

    OK, I see your point more now – though I still think that, if you were so minded, you could equally frame it as John being saved from a meaningless and lonely life by Sherlock, because he’s so awesome (aka Amelia Pond Syndrome). There’s also, to segue into the Irene discussion, a sense in which you are allowing yourself to see the totality of John in a way that an emphasis on Adler’s final scenes refuses to do for her: that is, we have hours of footage in which John (who gets more screen time for nuance anyway, and has been seen in some ways to in some way stand for all of Sherlock’s groupies) is slightly puppyishly following Sherlock around and being verbally and otherwise slapped about by him, and a few minutes in which he speaks to a grave or gives Sherlock a talking-to; likewise, we have an hour or material in which Adler toys with Sherlock and gets the best of him (though I would have preferred her to do this intellectually rather than with the power of her nudity), and then a few minutes where she’s about to be beheaded and using his name as her password. I’m onboard with the idea that the use of Adler is clumsy and ultimately misguided; but I think it’s more of a piece with the show as a whole than the gender argument always makes room for.

    Nobless oblige, meanwhile, is ACD’s Holmes all over – perhaps Sherlock is more like him than we thought, then? 😛

  5. I suppose the difference I see between John and Irene’s relationships with Sherlock is that the former is quite clearly a seesaw, and the latter is a progression. That is to say, every moment in which John is exasperated, bullied, and belittled by Sherlock contains the potential for a moment in which the two of them are totally in sync, and vice versa. Whereas with Irene, it feels as if the relationship is going through its stages: first she defeats him, then he utterly defeats her, and then he condescends to rescue her. The message I take from this is: now that you’ve been put in your rightful place and no longer have any delusions about being my equal, I can be magnanimous in victory and save your life.

    You’re right, of course, that we have more material about John than Irene, and if she turns up again next season to restart the dance I may reevaluate my reaction to “Belgravia.” But all I have to judge from right now is the canon as it exists, and that doesn’t fill me with confidence.

  6. The message I take from this is: now that you’ve been put in your rightful place and no longer have any delusions about being my equal, I can be magnanimous in victory and save your life.

    Here we agree, and this calamitous execution absolutely undercuts the whole episode. I think the difference we’re having is how woven in this message is to the structure of the rest of ‘Belgravia’, and indeed the series – and, where it is or is not, what that means.

    Which is to say, on one level, we are concerned with angels and heads of pins.

  7. This is one of the most even-handed and intelligent analyses of SIB I’ve come across. I followed Sherlock from the perspective of Doctor Who, a show I’m unashamedly fannish about, and came to love it (though not uncritically) in its own right.

    Moffatt and gender has – rightly – been done to death. I feel that the problem goes beyond feminist theory into a depressing view of intimate relationships in general. His position often seems to be that they are all about infatuation followed by emotional exploitation. The comments about John’s unhealthy “servicing” of Sherlock’s vanity put me in mind of the way Jack Harkness developed into “the Doctor’s bitch,” to use a somewhat crude expression. Little wonder that Moffatt sees the commitment-averse Doctor as a romantic character; his charisma and extraordinarlily adventurous lifestyle leads people into making very significant sacrifices on his behalf, while he continues to present the persona of the emotionally opaque and mysterious loner.

    In the marriage of the Doctor and River Song, Moffatt presents the ideal relationship of male fantasy, one where the women is literally imprisoned and he can drop in on her whenever it suits him, yet she is utterly devoted to him, an emotional reality that contrasts uneasily with the trappings of female emancipation. In his reading of Irene Adler Moffatt is able to take the same fantasy into more overtly sexual territory, which would not be permitted on a family show. I think Belgravia shows Sherlock treating everybody badly, yet they continue to orbit him like satellites of a glowing star. What do they get in return? Glamour by association.

    The example of Mrs H is in some ways the most disturbing. She’s known Sherlock for just over a year and yet she seems absolutely sanguine about being held at gunpoint on his account. Moriarty’s threats later show that this is unlikely to be a one-off incident. The implication seems to be that intimacy will place unreasonable demands on all of us, and that thrills-by-proxy is the most important of its dubious rewards.

  8. Thanks for your kind words, and glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree with you that what is under interrogation in Sherlock are relationships – that this wobbles into issues of gender is, as I argue here, a matter of execution more than intent (as problematic as that term is). On the other hand, your examples from Who make painfully clear how much better Sherlock is on the latter front …

    Couldn’t agree with you more on Mrs Hudson – found that whole sequenced profoundly difficult, which is why I was surprised to see Abigail argue for its positivity above!

  9. I think the show does establish that Mrs. Hudson’s relationship with Sherlock is of longer standing than his and John’s, and in “A Study in Pink” we’re told that he did her a favor by ensuring that her husband went down for murder in Florida. Which doesn’t completely justify her devotion to him, of course, but at least makes it more believable that she would tolerate Sherlock’s behavior, and the danger it puts her in, than, say, John’s love interest Sarah in “The Blind Banker,” who agrees to a second date after being kidnapped and nearly killed on the first.

    My argument about Mrs. Hudson above is more an argument for her portrayal being an improvement on season 1. In that season her role was to be bumbling and silly. In this season it’s to be bumbling, silly, and when necessary, brave, which is a step forward even if, as I said, it’s still centered around the notion that Mrs. Hudson’s purpose in life is to useful to Sherlock.

    That said, what bothers me about Mrs. Hudson’s treatment in “Belgravia” is less the question of why she tolerates Sherlock and more the way the show uses her abuse as a way of humanizing Sherlock, for example in the scene in which he and John shout at Mycroft for being just as rude to Mrs. Hudson as Sherlock often is, or of course his incensed reaction to her beating (which ties into Moffat’s apparent belief that one is a feminist if one opposes the physical abuse of women).

  10. at least makes it more believable that she would tolerate Sherlock’s behavior, and the danger it puts her in, than, say, John’s love interest Sarah

    This is my new definition of damning with faint praise! It just pips ‘better portrayal than season one’, you’ll be excited to know. 😛

    As I’ve said, I have less trouble with the treatment of Mrs Hudson, who has always served to humanise and domesticise Holmes, than I do with the show’s original female characters (though Brett’s Mrs Hudson is, to be honest, a more rounded character, pinny and all!); on the other hand, it’s hard not to think that the changes that have been made to her – that she’s explicitly not Sherlock’s housekeeper, for instance – problematise her devotion to the boys rather than make her somehow more modern.

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