It’s Not Okay: Normalized Emotional and Physical Abuse in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’

Your favorite Sherlock critic is back!


You can read my thoughts on last year’s Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” here. I had lot of strong feelings about Moffat’s usual misogyny, and since the disaster that was Series 3, I’d kind of just shut my mind off to Sherlock by the time Series 4 rolled around this month. For a little while, anyway.

As much as I’d like to, we aren’t going to cover the blatant mistreatment of Mary Watson’s character, the lazy case-writing, or the deus ex machina deductive characteristics Sherlock Holmes has miraculously developed, though it’s important to note that they all contribute to my main subject. (Those are posts for another time.)

We are going to talk about the principal reason I fell in love with the show––why and so many people have invested so much of their time and energy into it over the course of 6 years: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s relationship. Where it started, and the awful place the writers have taken it now.

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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.

Everyone’s Freaking Out about the New ‘Sherlock’ Teaser. Here’s Why I’m Not.

If you’ve been living under a rock, you might not know today rings in San Diego Comic Con 2015. With it comes a whole bunch of surprises for those of us sitting at home unable to attend the con, including trailers, extended clips, and interviews with stars and comics writers alike. Tonight, the BBC unveiled a preview clip for the Sherlock Christmas special. Take a look, if you haven’t already.

In short, the internet is exploding. I, however, am not. Not with excitement, anyway, but rather with some low-key rage. To be honest, I’ve been over Sherlock since the first few minutes of Series Three aired last year. To sum up my reasoning in a few words, here’s how I concluded my (very bitter) review of the whole season on my Tumblr:

I love Sherlock Holmes. I love Sherlock. But I’m very disappointed and I wanted to finally be able to say why. In this season, nothing is left to the imagination. The beauty of “The Reichenbach Fall” is negated by the fun-for-the-family, fluffy thrill ride that is “The Empty Hearse.” All in all, I think the creative power of the fandom–in art, in fic, in written theories, in fanvideos, all of it–managed to come up with work celebrating the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the resonating influence of Conan Doyle’s works in the last 2 years far better than this season ever did. I’m so disappointed.

Essentially, I think the Sherlock writers have gotten lazy. They’ve watched us wait years for each season; they know what we want and this season created tropes, stereotypes, and insulting caricatures of what we want as if to say, “Hey. We’re listening. But we think your ideas of, say, Sherlock and John having a meaningful, developed relationship are trite and stupid. You know what would be funny? If Sherlock and John laughed off the fact that Sherlock pretended to be dead, and then they went and got drunk at John’s bachelor party. SO FUNNY, RIGHT? SO OUT OF CHARACTER. SO FUNNY.” Frankly, I thought a lot of aspects of Series Three were out-of-character, misogynistic products of poor writing.

Now, here are my issues with the clip:

  • It appears the episode is set in Victorian times. As my friend Gabrielle pointed out, why are Freeman and Cumberbatch talking in “modern” English accents, in relatively modern, colloquial language? For reference, here’s how Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr tackle Victorian English pronunciation in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Much more old-fashioned, posh, etc. Those films aren’t perfect by a long shot, but they’re my favorite adaptation to date (I’m partial to steampunk anything, so).
  • Even the costumes seem overdone, and to be honest Cumberbatch and Freeman don’t even look like Holmes and Watson to me, but weird caricatures of them. This all leads me to believe this episode might be some character’s (perhaps John’s?) strange fever-dream in which he and his favorite detective boyfriend are transported back to Victorian England. If that’s the case, then fine. Make it as campy as you like.
  • But if this is supposed to be a campy little dream-ish sequence, why are there (yet again) undertones of sexism laughed off by the characters? Indeed, Mrs. Hudson is Watson’s “landlady, not [his] plot device”! But Watson seems to think within his narratives Mrs. Hudson functions as his housekeeper performing her womanly duties. If this episode is actually set in Victorian England, fine. Sexism through the roof isn’t ideal, but it’s within the context of the time period. But something tells me, like I said, that this is going on in the conscious (or unconscious) mind of one of our main characters. If so, what is the point of making Mrs. Hudson’s role as a woman a point of argument?!

I really think it’s that Moffat and Gatiss (mostly Moffat; see these various criticisms of his writing on Sherlock and Doctor Who for reference) don’t know when to leave sex alone–leave sexism and gender roles at the door and just write for characters. Of course these issues permeate our daily lives and should be talked about, but instead of finding constructive ways to do so, the Sherlock writers constantly write themselves into a corner in terms of how they treat women. It’s quite tiresome. Women have become the fallback joke for Sherlock which very much confuses me as a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories–unnecessary marginalization of women has absolutely nothing to do with anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was trying to accomplish with his work. I mean, I never met the guy, but I think I can make the assumption he just wanted to entertain people and make some money doing what he liked to do (and, through Watson’s narration, writing about medicine which he always wanted to pursue). And because Sherlock is a modern retelling, there’s no excuse for the blatant, archaic sexism constantly permeated throughout the show.

My point is–I’m truly hoping despite the clip I just watched that this Christmas special doesn’t set me, as a female viewer, apart from what I am watching. I’m tired of Sherlock doing that; I’m tired of mainstream media doing that. With a popular show like Sherlock there are many opportunities to make something brilliant. And, in the first two seasons, something brilliant was made. I’d love for Sherlock to return to the intelligent, quick-witted, consistent writing I fell for. There’s no way to tell what’s in store from a minute-long clip, but it’s clear the writers’ behavior patterns haven’t changed much so far. I walk into this special, and eventually into Series 4, very warily indeed.