Features Published 15 January 2016

Sherlock and The Adventure of the Key Feminism Fails

"This is not, after all, Moffat’s first time at the feminist shit-storm rodeo": Rafaella Marcus argues that when it comes to telling womens' stories, points for trying just isn't enough.
Rafaella Marcus
The Abominable Bride. Photo: BBC

The Abominable Bride. Photo: BBC

I missed watching Sherlock live because I was seeing Hapgood, a very silly enjoyable show that was billed as being bafflingly incomprehensible but wasn’t, at the Hampstead Theatre. When I got home, I watched Sherlock, a very silly enjoyable show that was received as being bafflingly incomprehensible but wasn’t. In Hapgood, Tom Stoppard uses quantum physics as a metaphor for both espionage and the ultimate unknowable-ness of human behaviour. It is, in some ways, quite a shallow metaphor, but a poetic and striking one nonetheless, one that elevates the everyday to a level of planetary importance, that casts people as particles in a sub-atomic ballet.

In Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (henceforth ‘TAB’), Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (henceforth ‘Moff-Gat’) use feminism and the collective experiences of women as a metaphor for the psychological issues of one bloke. It made me sad.

Look, there were some cracking bits in there. “Literary criticism by way of satire” almost – almost – dulled the pain of the running joke that is Mrs Hudson’s entire character (Moff-Gat Writing Trick #37: If you acknowledge inequality, you don’t actually have to do anything about it). Andrew Scott makes everything crackle with sexy/terrifying energy wherever he shows up. I enjoyed Corpulent Mycroft as both a nod towards the original book series and an illustration of how Sherlock’s mind takes childish revenge against his older sibling. The glittery gothic melodrama of the thing (Pepper’s Ghost! Be still my geeky early theatre technology heart!) was giddily delightful and tonally up there with the best of the show’s affectionate self-aggrandising. In fact, the whole first hour of it – up to the reveal that we’re in Sherlock’s mind palace – was by and large turning out to be a winky Victorian romp, as smugly self-referential as you always do and don’t want the show to be, even if someone does need to gently suggest to the editor that wipe cuts have literally only ever worked in Star Wars.

But I’m more concerned with the last half hour, and how it got me thinking about the Choices available to Moff-Gat as they went about writing this. I’m sure a cursory scroll through Twitter will alert you to the key feminism fails: not passing the Bechdel Test despite being ostensibly about women’s oppression, the mansplaining of women’s silencing while surrounded by dozens of silent women, the portrayal of the women’s suffrage movement as a sort of murder-cult, given a magnanimous hand wave by the authority of two benign male characters.

The last one involves a particularly interesting series of Writer’s Choices. I never thought I would need to actually explain that feminism =/= murder but here we are. Moff-Gat, as they so often do, have gone casting about in the original Holmes canon for elements to rework and put a spin on – sometimes in name only, as per The Reichenbach Fall/s, The Empty Hearse/House, The Sign of Three/Four, sometimes more wholesale: The Blind Banker loosely adapted The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Hounds of Baskerville adapted…well. TAB made reference to the Holmes story The Five Orange Pips (not for the first time in the Beeb Sherlockiverse, cf also my personal favourite episode, The Great Game), the titular pips received by an ashen-faced Tim McInnerny in the post. In the original story, the villain and sender of the orange pips is the KKK. The actual KKK. The racist, cross-burning, lynch-mob-forming KKK. In TAB, exactly the same set-up is employed, only it’s the suffragettes. They even have purple versions of those pointy hat robes.

It would be prime clickbait to say that there’s some kind of terrible malice aforethought going on here, that Moff-Gat literally think women’s suffrage can be equated to a violent hate group but it’s probably actually something much subtler and sadder: they just don’t care. The suffragettes, with all they accomplished, are sacrificed to the storyline. Like Mrs Hudson, they are no more than a plot device and behave accordingly – when we see them at the end, they chant ominously in Latin for no other purpose than to mislead the viewer into thinking we have come across some kind of satanic death cult. Once they are revealed to be suffragettes, these trappings retroactively become ridiculous, as do all other actions attributed to them; why would a group of intelligent women fighting for their rights harness their not inconsiderable resourcefulness and courage to a convoluted personal murder-revenge plot rather than public protest? Because Moffat and Gatiss don’t care about suffragettes. Not really. As much as this episode purports to be sympathising with women’s experiences, ultimately they’re irrelevant – revealed to be a male character’s daydream, a framework for his personal growth. I never expected Sherlock (the show or the character) to care about suffragettes. Moff-Gat chose to include them. That’s why it’s possible to be sad and angry that an important proto-feminist movement is being portrayed using the recognisable imagery of a hate group, and aware that to Moff-Gat, the implications of that really don’t matter.

In the same scene, Watson is standing there, confronted by the group that have organised and carried out every single thing that’s baffling him and he still asks Holmes to explain it all: it is more important for the show’s two male characters to talk to each other, to showcase Sherlock’s intellectual capacity, than it is for the women – whom we are told by the male characters are brave and clever and justified – to be able to speak, to own their actions, to be addressed by Watson as though they have agency and are equals. It is a Choice made by Moff-Gat, and it speaks volumes.

Appropriating an important bit of women’s history for a single male character’s self-development is a textbook example of how the world and the stories we tell in it align themselves around male experiences. A lot of the time we don’t notice, it’s so standard, so insidiously built into the way we think – after all, Joseph Campbell, originator of The Hero’s Journey, told a female student that “Women don’t need to make the journey. All she has to do is realise that she’s the place people are trying to get to.” It’s a sticking point that Sherlock seems to regard its female characters this way. Despite everything, I still get hopelessly excited by the prospect of a new episode, I anticipate it with joy, and when I watch it, my brain ties itself in knots trying to love it. By now the circle of Sherlock-watching is routine: watch episode, love episode, think about episode, sigh.

I have come across a couple of folks now who have suggested that Moff et al had their heart in the right place. I am perfectly prepared to concede that the episode had good intentions. You know, the kind that the road to hell is paved with. But when you are the BBC’s flagship show, points for trying is not enough. This is not, after all, Moffat’s first time at the feminist shit-storm rodeo; it could even be taken as a half-hearted apology – or perhaps a gleeful fuck you, a bit of feminism-bating and then – boom – still no female characters with any kind of actual agency, sorry, had you going there. I was reminded of Doctor Who’s recent Zygon two-parter about immigration and extremism: although the metaphor wasn’t perfect, that was an episode with its heart in the right place, making a genuine plea for tolerance and empathy – the episode wasn’t using the refugee crisis to tell a story about red rubbery aliens, the episode was using red rubbery aliens to tell a story about the refugee crisis. It makes all the difference in the world. TAB used women’s experiences and women’s suffrage to tell a story about Sherlock Holmes and I found myself resenting the rest of the episode because of it.

The Abominable Bride was a classic example of how one can, and perhaps should, enjoy problematic things only up to a point. Like most people who are not straight white males, I have trained myself to empathise with and relate to characters who do not look or live like me. But it is exhausting sometimes. Every time I watch something like this, I feel the need to go and nourish myself with media and stories that care about me. For every one of these, I need to watch A League of Their Own. For every DVD of The Avengers I buy that doesn’t have Black Widow on the cover, I need to read The Wicked and the Divine. For every set of Star Wars action figures that replaces Rey with an unnamed X-Wing pilot, YouTubing only Princess Leia’s scenes in Empire.

There have been 900 minutes of Sherlock. In those 900 minutes, I can count the number of female characters who have had a measurable impact on the action on one hand. Over half of them have been in love with the title character. So it is ironic, really, that my problem boils down to this: I love Sherlock, and it does not love me back.

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Rafaella Marcus

Rafaella is a director, writer, and the artistic director of Mingled Yarn, making witty, inventive theatre with an interest in myth, intersectional feminism, and formal experimentation. She writes about theatre for Exeunt and The Stage, and occasionally blogs about pop culture with the caps lock button on.

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