“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.”