Sherlock’s Victorian values

With his Star Trek villainy keeping Benedict Cumberbatch occupied for the foreseeable future, Sherlock fans might have quite a wait ahead of them before the gangly super-sleuth returns for a third series. Meanwhile, here's Helen-Rose Owen to take stock of the show from a feminist perspective.

, 11 April 2012


The arrival of Irene Adler in Sherlock’s series two opener caused quite a stir, not least because she appeared to have misplaced her knickers. However, Jane Clare Jones’s claim that the BBC’s update of the character was “regressive” seems unreasonable. Yes, Adler was vamped up and sexualised for the modern audience, but hers was a powerful, autonomous sexuality.

Adler was here using her sex appeal as a source of strength, and manipulating the heterosexual male gaze to her advantage. Unlike Amy Pond, she was not ashamed or chastised for it, apart from one snarky comment from Sherlock about taking one’s clothes off to make an impression. Given that he’s snarky to everyone, it’s hard to take this particular example too seriously.

Sherlock is shamefully low on female characters, and the over-whelming majority of those it does have are only female because it is key to the plot that they be so

Jones writes that Adler’s sexy reboot was in contrast to the intellectual Adler of Conan Doyle’s original story, and it’s true that the BBC did play down Adler’s intelligence, but there is a lot to be said for the portrayal of a woman with an understanding and control of her sexual identity distinct from her relationship with a man. The BBC’s Adler was not a feminist icon, she did not meet the high expectations held for this adaptation, but the reactions surrounding her depiction speaks volumes about the socially unacceptable nature of powerful female sexuality.

Adler should not be considered without context, however, as her place within the series as a whole is significantly more illuminating than her place in the episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’. This is because Adler is a clear example of this adaptation’s distorted view of women in general.

Sherlock is shamefully low on female characters, and the over-whelming majority of those it does have are only female because it is key to the plot that they be so. In this way, Sherlock is an unfortunate vehicle for the deeply sexist notion that male is somehow ‘default’ and that women are an ‘exception to the rule’.

The most straightforward way to illustrate this point is to take note of how many – or how few – of the female characters throughout the series have their gender as a major or minor plot point. The programme’s six episodes are split two apiece between its writers, Steve Thompson, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. The variation between each writer and their treatment of women in their episodes is remarkable.

Thompson’s episode ‘The Blind Banker’ was widely criticised when it was broadcast for its regressive, racist themes (summed up here by Anna Chen), and it didn’t fare much better on the feminist front. By my reckoning, there were three and a half characters who were female in a non-narrative capacity, the half being a disembodied voice at the other end of an intercom. There was also an elderly shop keeper, a museum curator, and the central female character of the episode, Soo Lin Yao. Soo Lin was pathetically passive and apparently not even in possession of enough good sense to hide from her murderer until John Watson suggested it.

And then there was General Shan. The looks of surprise on John and Sherlock’s faces when they realised their adversary was a woman might have been amusing had it not been symptomatic of some poor, painfully male-centric writing that has no place in modern television. And how could a mere woman have masterminded such evil? Only with the help of the reassuringly male Moriarty, of course – much like Irene Adler, with the acceptability of this theme depending on your willingness to slacken your principles for the sake of decent plot arc.

Thompson also penned the series two finale, ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, which fared a little better, with a lawyer, reporter, school teacher and assassin; the lead juror at Moriarty’s trial was also female, but I would argue that this was in order to make Moriarty’s intimidation of her by threatening her children more believable. (After all, we know how inconceivable it is that such a petty, trivial issue as the murder of his children might influence a man.) Regardless of the fuzzy logic, she is here counted as a narrative female because her gender is intended to influence our understanding of her character within the story.

That the number of non-narrative females remains so low is all the more disconcerting given the sheer number of characters in this episode. Every person involved in Moriarty’s break-ins is male, from the Tower of London security guards to the tea-boy at the Bank of England. Even the newly-introduced superintendent is a hammy Northern lad. All this is sadly indicative of Thompson’s neglect of the fact that women make up half the world’s population and so should probably make up approximately that percentage of any TV programme purporting to be set in 2012, rather than Victorian London.

In stark contrast to Thompson, Mark Gatiss has generally avoided the male-by-default model, and his two episodes, ‘The Great Game’ and ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, have a variety of both major and minor female characters. While the core of ‘Hounds’ is undoubtedly male, with both a male victim and villain, the inclusion of a female therapist for Henry Knight and of Doctor Stapleton was encouraging. There were also the small roles of the old woman who found Henry on the moors after his father’s death, and the presenter of the documentary shown later. They are tiny characters, but the smaller parts are all the more indicative of the extent to which male is seen as the ‘norm’, as these characters are less likely to be made female without ‘good’ reason.

The same is true of ‘The Great Game’, another series finale and again chock full of one-off, minor characters. Unlike ‘Reichenbach’, however, Gatiss writes women into his episode unthinkingly and without self-consciousness. It’s almost as if he’s noticed that women are, in fact, a fairly significant section of society.

Finally, and with not a little embarrassment on his behalf, we come to Steven Moffat. There are eight women in total in ‘A Study in Pink’, which is a sad example of a writer starting as he means to go on. Among these eight we have the introduction of recurring characters Molly Hooper, Mrs Hudson and Sergeant Donovan.


Molly is defined throughout the series in terms of the negative space left by Sherlock and her feelings for him, only coming into her own in the last minutes of Reichenbach, and even then not entirely convincingly.

Mrs Hudson’s role is defined as a mother-figure to Sherlock and, to an extent, John, and as such her gender is clearly key to her characterisation. She is female only because the narrative requires her to be. Sergeant Donovan must be removed from the equation too, after her affair with Anderson is revealed through her wearing of men’s deodorant.

Mycroft’s assistant Anthea is also introduced in this episode, and is difficult to judge as she is really not much more than decoration. However, it’s not too difficult to imagine the same role played by a man – with the exception of John’s attempt to ask her out – so to be kind we’ll count her as non-necessary female.

In this radical rethinking of Conan Doyle’s world, where technology is at the fore and a thoroughly modern Holmes careens through London’s streets, is it really too much to ask that women are accurately represented?

The episode revolves around the murder of one of the remaining four women, and things seem to be going well until a major plot point is made of her miscarriage some years ago. Grossly unfair though it is, in TV-land miscarriages only tend to have lasting effects on the mother, so for this reason I rate the woman in pink as only female to make the plot’s narrative work. It’s admittedly uncertain as the plot could conceivably have had a man in the same role, but it seems so unlikely that a miscarriage would have been used were that the case that I believe her gender to be as much a device as Irene Adler’s.

Of the last three women, one is dead and the other – her concerned colleague – forgotten before Sherlock even makes it onto the screen. The other is John’s therapist in the episode’s cold open.

Moffat had the world at his feet when writing this episode; he had a blank canvas and the opportunity, creativity and, one would have thought, intelligence to do whatever he could imagine. But apparently all he could imagine was a world where women only exist as ornaments, conquests or doting mothers. In this radical rethinking of Conan Doyle’s world, where technology is at the fore and a thoroughly modern Holmes careens through London’s streets, is it really too much to ask that women are accurately represented? Apparently so. Three of the four women in this episode whose gender is of no consequence are dispensed with entirely in the first five minutes – a depressing start.

This episode sees a huge number of one-off characters introduced, from CIA agents and police officers to boomerang enthusiasts and Buckingham Palace’s in-house heavies. And every one of them is unflinchingly, unthinkingly male

Any hope that Moffat might raise his game for series two is quickly dashed. Instead, the grand total of women in ‘Scandal’ whose gender is superfluous to the plot is… one. She’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it client of Sherlock’s who thinks her husband is cheating. We also meet Adler’s PA, who only exists to illustrate Adler’s sexuality by being flirted with by her.

Like ‘The Great Game’ and ‘Reichenbach’, this episode sees a huge number of one-off characters introduced, from CIA agents and police officers to boomerang enthusiasts and Buckingham Palace’s in-house heavies. And every one of them is unflinchingly, unthinkingly male.

This may not be an overt, raucous form of sexism, but it is indicative of an inability on the part of the writers to accept and represent women as a part of the everyday fabric of society. Their insistence on assuming characters are male until proven otherwise is an ominous sign. Normalisation is vital to equality; while a community is still viewed as ‘them’ by society, it will never be treated with the same care and respect as that society’s ‘us’. That Sherlock can’t even normalise women, let alone racial and sexual minorities, is a powerful indicator of the gender-biases at work in the writing rooms.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the light of this article and the points it makes it will be interesting to compare the show’s inclusion of women with the recently announced US Sherlock reimagining where Lucy Liu has been cast as Watson.)

All images from BBC pictures

Helen-Rose Owen is a second-year theology student at Queen’s University Belfast. Feminism snuck up on her, rather, when she was looking the other way, but she’s very glad it did. She is also a brand new member of the blogosphere, with Spindrift Rose now totaling three whole readers.

Comments From You

Wei-Lin // Posted 15 April 2012 at 12:04 am

There are a lot of artificial ways to measure feminism in media, including the Bechdel test. However all these fail to take into account the context of the story being told. For example, Sherlock is basically about crime and detection. In the real world, the lowest-ranked police officers have a roughly 1:3 female-to-male ratio, and the highest about 1:9. This imbalance could be caused by a multitude of reasons, but when depicting a story, you can’t fault the writers for portraying the gender ratio as it actually is. (Similarly with “Buckingham Palace’s in-house heavies”.)

Just because Sergeant Donovan had an affair doesn’t make gender the reason for her presence. She’s the one who sets off the trail of doubt about Sherlock’s true abilities, and she didn’t need to be female to do it.

Statistically, it is also more likely for men to commit crimes because they are biologically more aggressive. It is also statistically more likely for a female to be a victim because, let’s face it, we don’t have the same physical prowess on average and are more easily overpowered. A female evil mastermind therefore IS surprising, if you think like Sherlock and often use statistics in your analyses.

That there are female characters playing every role in this show, from mortician to scientist to reporter to police sergeant to victim to criminal is more of a positive rather than negative thing. If we were to go by real-world gender ratios of these professions, the likelihood that they have major roles in the plot would be so much lower than what’s actually in the show, so celebrate it rather than denounce it.

I’m a female college student and believe myself a feminist. But I also believe that feminism is about creating equal OPPORTUNITY for women, and not equal PRESENCE of women in all facets of society. Already, female grad students form the majority of Biology departments and half of Chemistry departments in many universities, where Science used to be the sole domain of men. You cannot deny that women will always have different preferences than men for what jobs they’d like to do, on average. Our brains are biologically hardwired differently. So celebrate that there ARE women in these shows where you should expect an overwhelming, drowning majority of men.

Beware of the difference between equal opportunity and equal representation – feminism is about removing barriers for women to get where they want to, based on their abilities, and not about forcing women to equal the numbers of men in everything. Articles which perpetuate the “women make up 51% of our population therefore should be present in 51% of job X (insert politicians, scientists, oil tycoons…)” notion should be read with care.

Indie Ninja // Posted 17 April 2012 at 7:04 pm

@Wei-Lin – Hi, it’s Helen-Rose here. Thanks for the comment, you make a good point. I confess I hadn’t considered the real life statistics of women in the police force, for example, and I fully concede that analysing whether female characters are female purely for narrative purposes or not isn’t a perfect way to analyse the feminist content of a TV show or film.

However, I think the artificial nature of TV and film gives credence to artificial methods of analysis. Perhaps my appeal to the roles of women in society muddied things rather, sorry! TV shows like ‘Sherlock’ are fictional and so don’t have to be constrained by the same things as real life. In real life, heroes aren’t always easy to distinguish from villains, the good guys don’t always win, and the bad guys don’t always get their come-uppance. And in the real world, yes, men largely out-number women in certain parts of society. But if television can show us a world where the heroes save the day and get the girl, why not show a world where that girl happens to be the CEO of a major organisation or a chief superintendent? In the same way, celebrating the fact that there are women in these shows at all seems all too much like settling for second best. Writers like Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson can do better, and as such we should demand better.

I realise that this isn’t quite what I said in the article, but if I were to re-write it with your comment in mind then I’d phrase things differently. Then again, my point wasn’t quite that women in the media should be exactly as they are in real life, but that female characters should be included in the plot regardless of whether or not the plot demands it. My objection to ‘Sherlock’ is that women aren’t represented unless it’s necessary for the narrative, which to me suggests an assumption that male is default or ‘normal’.

You make the point that feminism is about creating equal opportunity and not presence, but I believe that fictional media like TV, books and film is one area where increased presence encourages increased opportunity in other areas of life. If as a society we spent our time watching TV shows with a large and diverse representation of women then perhaps assumptions of male superiority would be challenged; challenge these assumptions and I think the barriers women face will be challenged as well.

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