I have a problem with Sherlock. There are many, many things I love about this show, not least Benedict Cumberbatch, an Alan Rickman for the new generation, and the many facial expressions of Martin Freeman. This is Conan Doyle updated, Sherlock for the twenty-first century.
Adventurous and different, except where it isn’t.
First episode: a woman is on the phone to a man, a man she’s having an affair with.
(Spoilers. Serious spoilers.)
We next see a police conference with his wife declaiming what a wonderful man he is. The next woman is decrying another’s dancing. Dancing woman is murdered, too. The next woman is the token black woman. She’s bitchy and calls Sherlock freak, as though they were still at school. Next woman; a serial adulterer, murdered. Oh, and we get to learn that the bitchy black woman is having an affair with another bitchy but male police officer. Then there’s the forensic doctor in the lab, who has a huge crush on Sherlock, in fact to such a degree that it overwhelms her intellect entirely.
There is a woman in this story who Sherlock thinks is smart—the murdered serial adulterer. Witness that she had multiple lovers, and none of them knew she was married! That’s what it takes to demonstrate your intellectual chops, girls. Remember that in future. It’s not your job, or your achievements, it’s running multiple men for sex, rather like that woman with all the dogs in Trumpton. And Anthea. What is she? A woman who texts with her thumbs from one end of the day to the other, and completely and vapidly fails to recognize Watson, who she’d picked up and delivered to her boss earlier that evening.
The second episode started hopefully, with a young Chinese woman in what looked to be a major role. But it turns out that she’s running away, from her life as a drug mule and from her brother. When he arrives she makes no attempt to save herself, just lets him kill her, in a tribute to that well-known cliché, All Chinese women are passive, even unto death. And bitchy black policewoman is still bitchy. [Please note the use of bitch is heavy on the irony.]
At least the bad guy in this episode turns out to be a woman. Except once again, she’s not really doing anything; just setting into motion a rather nasty crossbow contraption, and ordering her henchmen to do stuff. Oh, and Doctor Watson’s doctor girlfriend gets to simper at him, then be tied to a chair and scream behind a gag while Watson and Holmes try to rescue her. (Just tip the damn chair over, woman!) And finally, the murdered banker’s been sexing with his PA; Sherlock spotted that because he gave her hand cream, which she keeps on her desk in a bank, like all professional women do. And when he tells her the value of the hair pin she doesn’t say ‘You’re joking’, like most women would; she screams, leaps up from her chair and staggers about in some weird version of what women do when they get a shock.
Third episode: Woman kidnapped and wrapped up in Semtex, gets to cry down the phone. Wife of bankruptcy-avoidant husband, pretending she thinks he’s dead (badly). Dead woman, spent her time selling cosmetics on television (after all, she is a woman). Old woman, also crying down phone. Fiancée of murdered man, crying, and telling Watson that she just knew he wasn’t a traitor. For a moment there I had hopes for Mrs Wenceslas, but even she was just a pawn in Moriarty’s game. Black policewoman is still bitchy, forensic scientist is still ditzy and unable to get a man.
Oh, and Mrs Hudson, who could have been a strong foil to the infuriating antics of Holmes and Watson, thinks a drugs bust is because she takes herbal soothers for her hip, and is cool with homosexuality because her friend next door has ‘got married ones’ lodging there.
All of which left me thinking, if this is the Sherlock for the 21st century, then why not have a Lestrade as a woman? Or even Watson? We have a token nod to gay acceptance with Watson’s sister as a lesbian, a relationship that’s so far kept firmly off screen. I won’t deny that many of the characters described here added their share of comic moments to the story. But I waited in vain for one single meaningful female role, one single developed female character, something to leaven the hypermasculine script. One ethnic minority character that’s more than a cardboard cut-out. One LBGT character (or mention of one) for more than comedy laughs.
But this seems to be Moffat, and the people he surrounds himself with. People so soaked in white, masculine, straight culture that they can make an entire series set in London in the 21st century and give no meaningful role to someone who is female, non-white or non-cis-gendered.
After seeing the dog’s bollocks he’s made of female roles in Dr Who I shouldn’t be surprised. But I will continue to watch Sherlock because I think Cumberbatch is brilliant – his uncertainty when he makes the remark about the 14-year stillbirth:
‘No. Not good.’
– or in meeting the banker who’d once been a bullying student contemporary, were superb. He doesn’t care about the subjects he gets wrong, but he cares about his failures being public, probably because it echoes past cruelties. He’s not just driven by his own genius, but by a need not to give anyone any leverage for mockery. His realization that Watson won’t take advantage of those moments, at the end of the first episode, is the first moment of genuine warmth between them. Watson is safe because Holmes will always figure out the answer. Holmes is safe because Watson will never laugh at him.
All auties will likely recognize those awful moments when you make a crashing faux-pas that no ‘normal’ person would ever make. And most of us probably long for a friend who recognizes our talents, keeps us pointed in the right direction, and never, ever laughs at our failures.
May we all, one day, find our John Watson.
Shout out to nominatissima, who put me on to Sherlock.