Review: “Abonimable” and “Monstrous:” Moffat and Gatiss Strike Again with a Sexist Sherlock

A follow-up on this post I wish I didn’t have to write, here are my thoughts on the holiday Sherlock special. (I should first mention this: In line with my feelings about social media’s influence, I myself tweeted throughout the show but did not go through the tag or others’ tweets on my timeline, lest I be swayed to form opinions that aren’t quite my own. What you’re about to see are my immediate, if calmly collected after a bit of not-so-delicately expressed rage, thoughts.) Spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said before, it’s no secret I was extremely disappointed with Series 3 of Sherlock in its devaluing of emotional depth, mocking of the fans, queerbaiting, and general lazy writing. There were little moments I liked, but overall, suffice it to say I have not watched any Series 3 episode more than once. I have a feeling I’ll be saying the same about this special episode, “The Abominable Bride,” a year down the road. Nonetheless, I hunkered down under a blanket and tried, very ardently, for an hour and thirty-five minutes to remember what I used to love so much about Sherlock. It was smart; it was sexy, it was visually stunning and featured the kind of writing I could only dream of producing.

Let me be clear: some of the episode had those things. I will admit when I first saw John Watson onscreen again, my heart swelled a bit. I’ll always be attached to the essences of the characters and how they are portrayed–or used to be portrayed–in this adaptation. It was also wonderful to see Holmes and Watson truly at home in 1895. The game was afoot. Little references to lines from the stories appeared here and there. And a huge driver of the storyline touched upon Sherlock’s drug addiction, which I am glad the writers chose the opportunity to explore in-depth. Also, a lot of this episode adhered to the original canon and paid homage to some classic moments. In Series 2, we saw Sherlock and Moriarty battle it out on the rooftop. In this episode (in Sherlock’s drug-addled mind, anyway), they are at the edge of the iconic waterfall which sends them both to their (not-so) death. Visually, of course, the episode was great, too. I especially liked Inspector Lestrade’s explanation of his run-in with the Abominable Bride, full of transitions and camera tricks wherein the viewer is simultaneously immersed in snow-flurried London and the Baker Street flat. In essence: not all bad. There were even a few moments which pandered to the John/Sherlock “fandom” (which is, in essence, the entirety of the BBC Sherlock fandom): Sherlock’s made-up Moriarty rolls his eyes at the Reichenbach Falls after Watson sweeps in to save his friend: “Why don’t you two just elope, for God’s sake?” That’s a question I’ve been asking since 2012, Moriarty. Who knows.

But where Sherlock is flawed–where it has always been flawed–cancels out all that for me. I think “The Abominable Bride” is one of the most overt displays of institutionalized sexism I have seen on the show to date, and while I’m not surprised, I’m disappointed as ever.

The most problematic parts of the episode lie in the case itself. A young bride, after shooting herself in the head, is said to be wandering around London terrorizing the city and, well. Killing men. Wherever she goes, a trail of the word “You,” “You,” “You!” is left behind in blood on the walls. Intriguing. I immediately began making connections to Wilkie Collins’ classic Victorian mystery The Woman in White. But the episode went in entirely different direction, to say the least.

After some witticisms and flashes back and forward and back again, Holmes, as usual, solves the case. Actually, it’s Mary, Watson’s wife, who solves it, leading Holmes to exactly what he needs to see: an underground society of mysterious figures clad in purple.  It turns out the Bride’s “death” was staged, helped by her friends in purple robes. Mary would know–because she is part of this society. So, we find out, are Molly (the coroner in disguise) and Watson’s maid. It is they who organize the fake autopsy and the means for the “Abominable Bride” to wreak havoc on those who have wronged her and all like her in her society.

You might be thinking, what does that have to do with anything? Just who or what is behind this woman’s anger? Who is the enemy here? Who is terrorizing London?

Answer: Women. All women.

The robed figures take off their hoods. And each and every one of them are women. Holmes calls this case a pitting of fifty percent of the population against the other. These women have come together to essentially “punish” men for oppressing them (the “You! You! You!” in question). Which sounds all well and good, until you throw murder into the mix. Women, then, are portrayed as irrational, violent, and resorting to any means necessary to express their rage. Furthermore, the women’s garb is another issue altogether. As was pointed out by many on Twitter and Tumblr, the pointed hoods, cult-like nature of the group point to another group we know too well:

Need I say which?

The Bride’s story, clearly, is meant to parallel with Moriarty’s, or a version of Moriarty’s Sherlock is so afraid of–wherein Moriarty cheats death. This is what wracks Sherlock’s brain; this is what nearly leads to his demise in the episode. Moriarty is insane; he is Sherlock’s greatest adversary. He will always be thrumming in the back of Sherlock’s mind. He might be dead physically (or not, who knows), but he’s always alive in Sherlock. Sherlock himself, then, is so shaken by the similarities between the Bride’s fake suicide and Moriarty’s death on the rooftop that he is determined to solve the case–to quell his own fears. This potentially very interesting component is entirely overshadowed by the Bride’s apparent motivations. Her and her “society’s” idea of writing wrongs is to kill other humans, to kill men instead of working towards equality. Murder, to these women, is just a statement, a campaign tactic. A means to an end. What kind of example does that set? What does that say about how Moffat or Gatiss value women as a gender? As people? That they are the adversary. They are the insane, the irrational, willing to fake death for their end.

The Moriarty of the human race.

“Abominable.” “Monstrous.” Just a couple of words Holmes and Watson use to describe the case. Women are the enemy. If there was any attempt on the part of Steven Moffat or Mark Gatiss to right their sexist wrongs of previous seasons, it completely backfired here. Perhaps most disturbingly, this episode just goes to show that feminism has become a dirty word. Feminism does not mean “hatred of men.” Feminism does not advocate the murder of men. Feminism promotes equality among genders. That’s all. And I am appalled that Moffat still views gender merely as opportunity for a few quippy jokes and an easy storyline.

“I’m your landlady,” Mrs. Hudson says early in the episode, “Not a plot device.”

If only that were true.

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10 thoughts on “Review: “Abonimable” and “Monstrous:” Moffat and Gatiss Strike Again with a Sexist Sherlock

  1. Although I’m really disappointed that this has been the case in such a highly anticipated beloved series i have to say that I’m relieved I’m not the only one who noticed this! I mentioned this on my post about Sherlock probably around the same sort of time as yours! This is quite typical of Moffat though don’t you think? To touch on the controversial point of an issue, try and mask it as a positive step when, in fact doing the complete opposite!

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    1. This is quite typical when it comes to criticism of Sherlock…it has long stopped to be about the show and is instead always about the vendetta against Moffat. And by looking for the smaller points to be offended about, the larger point is usually overlooked. The whole episode was a meta discussion about the problematic aspects of the source text as well as Sherlock’s character. It is hard to be offended about murdering women when they are only there in Sherlock’s mind palace.

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      1. I would not call the demonizing of suffragette women in the 1800s a “small point.” If the writers of this episode wanted to put forth a critique of the source text, they should not have done so in this manner. Regardless of whether or not the case took place in Sherlock’s mind palace, this was the plot that drove the episode.

        I agree that Sherlock’s character constructs the story. But is it truly necessary to exhaust the trite sexism constantly sprinkled in both his and Watson’s characters? What does it accomplish? What makes it okay that these attitudes only take place in Sherlock’s mind? To me, that doesn’t justify them. His character could have been explored in other ways. If they had taken the comparisons between the Bride and Moriarty further, rather than wasting so much time on pinning women against men, we might have had a better story.

        This IS about the show. I’m not critiquing Moffat as a person; I’m critiquing his writing on which the show is built.

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      2. The episode was written by two writers…yet one gets mentioned again and again.
        And Again, it is not demonizing because Sherlock in his own mind considers the quest of the women as just and THEN calls himself out for conjuring up gongs and robes for the dramatic flair.

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      3. I did mention both writers in my title and throughout the piece. I think also people tend to pin Moffat with the blame since he’s known for equally sexist writing on Doctor Who, which Gatiss has considerably less to do with.

        I see your point and how this might be interpreted as a positive thing, a critique on sexism through Sherlock’s eyes. However, I think it falls flat. The time period and Sherlock’s affinity for dramatics, while valid aspects of the story, are not an excuse for women being treated as an elaborate joke in the episode. I just wish it had been done in a less overtly offensive manner–a cleverer way. A lot of shows today speak to women’s issues–Marvel’s Jessica Jones, even the kids cartoon Steven Universe–and do so in an understated but effective way–without resorting to trite stereotypes which Sherlock so often does. The writers are capable of brilliant, clever writing. I wish they would use the talent more constructively.

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      4. I don’t see a joke there. For once the writers put what they think in text and I honestly don’t see why it would make sense to look for subtext. And if you look for subtext, look at Mary. Who readily figures out the meeting point of the women while Sherlock is still struggling with his drug addiction. The show even calls out itself for the occasional slip.

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    2. “…try and mask it as a positive step when, in fact doing the complete opposite!”

      Exactly. I could not have put it better myself. It’s very typical of Moffat but never have I seen him present his sexism in such an overt way. It’s disturbing. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  2. I think it’s….better-intentioned than that? But still so eye-poppingly tone-deaf that I thought I was being punked. I mean, who looks at what is essentially Mafia vigilantes on a revenge mission, and say ‘THIS IS LIKE FEMINISM!’ What the actual frack? I mean, the Purple KKK weren’t even some sort of underground railroad smuggling women out of abusive relationships, or anything like that. It is sadly typical of Moffat to look at the principle of ‘hey, gang, have you considered that women are people also?’, and say ‘yep, some men are brutes and all women are vengeful harpies’. FFS.

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