BBC “Sherlock” is a great show, probably one of the best (just a personal opinion, obviously, but I am hardly alone in this). It’s a brilliant retelling of the original stories in the modern days, and they somehow manage to make it contemporary AND to keep the spirit of the original stories. Not to mention there’s plenty of clever reinterpretations and deconstructing to suit your fancy. Plus, the show is visually stunning, has interesting plots and superb acting, especially from the leads (the unlikely sex symbol Benedict Cumberbatch and the likely Hobbit symbol Martin Freeman).
And yet, the show is surprisingly weak at some very important fronts.
Today’s Problem: Sexism
I don’t refuse to watch shows without prominent female characters, nor do I insist that all of them have to pass the Bechdel test before I give them a chance. In fact, I
really like adore “Sherlock” and can’t wait for the next season.
That being said, their approach to gender is problematic, to say the least. It’s not that they don’t have any prominent female characters, or that they don’t offer strong female characters (though this can be argued as well). I am one of those people who think that a strong female character doesn’t equal “kicking ass”, yelling and hating men. To me, a strong female character is a well rounded, well developed character that’s more than a cliche. In this sense, "Sherlock" does have a few good female characters (Molly and Mrs Hudson), who might not be completely deep and developed, but are more complex than meets the eye. Also, the show (surprisingly) passes the Bechdel test, though barely.
So, what’s the problem with gender in Sherlock? It’s the fact they only show a narrow idea of femininity; only a few types of women and they all (surprise, surprise) are there to either take care of the main character or to be rescued by him. Molly: has a crush on Sherlock and will turn herself into a doormat to accommodate him. Check. Mrs Hudson: A mothering figure who’d do anything for the boys. Check. And that’s about it, since they are the only prominent females on the show.
Well, there’s also Sally Donovan. She’s an interesting case. She doesn’t fit the above description. In fact, she is the ONLY female character who isn’t there to serve Sherlock and who is not impressed by him. And guess what - she’s presented as an unsympathetic character (the fact she’s basically the only POC character in the series is also problematic, but more about it in the next installment).
What About Irene Adler?
Oh yes, Irene. Irene is interesting, because ACD, with all his Victorian brains (read: sexism) has created an interesting female character. She is one of the few people who ever managed to outsmart Holmes (mainly because he didn’t expect a woman to be able to do such a thing, but ok). The point of Adler’s character is that she wins in their duel, and she is a strong opponent.
Now, BBC Sherlock is known for deconstructing the canon and changing the villains and outcome of the stories, so I am not really angry for making Adler lose at the end. But did they really have to make her into a damsels in distress? A woman whose only weapon is not her intelligence, but her body (she is presented as someone who uses sex to get what she wants; right, because that is the only way a woman can manipulate and get what she wants - her wits and strength are between her legs). Also, they turned her into a woman who lost the game because had fallen in love. (Not to mention she’s, you know, lesbian, but obviously Sherlock is so sexy to turn lesbians straight). ALL of it is problematic, to say the least. It’s so bad, because they’ve had a great chance with this character and they’ve ruined it.
So while I’m ok with having nurturing females like Mrs Hudson or brainy girls ready to be a doormat like Molly (nothing against her, I’m like her in real life), that is hardly representable of all females.
Ways to Improve
There are ways to improve, but I am not sure if they would want to. One way is to make a significant character development for Molly. Another one is to include more prominent females. Watson’s future wife (Mary) might be a good candidate (especially if they make her less than impressed by Sherlock’s antics), but I can hardly see this character as important, especially since she will probably be another damsels in distress, or she would die. Plus, if done in a bad way, she could end up as an evil %^#@$# who is ruining Sherlock/John dynamics.
But there’s another possibility - and personally, I’d love if they use it. A meaningful female villain. Not the crap we’ve had in The Blind Banker. I’m talking about Sebastian Moran. If they make Moran a female, and if they don’t ruin her, I am willing to forgive them Irene and some of the other sexist crap we’ve seen so far.
Steven Moffat, Sherlock, and Neo-Victorian Sexism (dispositio)
Sexism In Sherlock (shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows)
Irene Adler: how to butcher a brilliant woman character (Another angry woman)
Aaaand- Moffat’s reaction:
Next Installment: Racism