Is it sexist? The Abominable Bride

Well, let’s start this year with a new kind of article. Don’t worry, I still want this blog to be a positive look on well-written female characters and I certainly won’t start a long rant now. But once a while I encounter the discussion of a character or a topic which is controversial, and I would like to add my two cents to it. The criticism of the last Sherlock Special is one of those instances.

I wish I could say that this discussion is new. But for some reason Sherlock is one of those shows which are often getting accused of sexism – or, to be precise, it is more often than not one of the show-runners, Steven Moffat, who gets accused of it. I guess it is related to something he did as a show runner for Doctor Who? I have no idea. I think, Sherlock is the only show of his I ever watched.

The odd thing in all this is that a lot of reviewers act as if Moffat is operating in some sort of vacuum. For one, he is not the only writer in the show, he and  Mark Gatiss are the head writers, and their contribution is so difficult to tell apart sometimes, that the fandom tends to use the term Moftiss for them. And two, the producers of the show are his wife, Sue Vertue, and his mother in law, Beryl Vertue.

It is important to keep this constellation in mind because whenever someone accuses Moffat of sexism and/or gay baiting, the claim that his wrongdoings are obvious can’t hold water. Because if they were obvious, you wouldn’t get them past this team. It is as simple as this.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the critics don’t have a point. Just because it isn’t as obvious and clear cut as they tend to claim it to be, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. I don’t think, though, that the right way is to make a general statement of “this is a sexist show”.  It is a little bit more complicated than that.

Let’s examine the particular scene from the special which recently raised the ire of certain reviewers. This is the situation (spoiler warning):

Sherlock is solving a century old mystery in his mind-palace. As part of the climax he discovers that it was all a ploy by a group of woman who decided to bring “unpunished brutes” to justice by creating the spectre of a ghost bride who would hunt them. He confronts them at their meeting place in an old church where they meet chanting in purple KKK-robes. Sherlock then proceeds to make a big speech about the females being right, that they fight a fight the males have to loose.

This is actually a pro-feminist statement. It was criticised because people felt that:

  1. Sherlock was mansplaining
  2. It misrepresented the Suffragette movement by portraying them as a dangerous cult
  3. Feminism is not about murdering males

I admit, I don’t like the term mansplaining (or whitesplaining or rightsplaining for that matter). It is one of those words which once carried an important meaning but then got misused again and again until it became a tool of oppression rather than enlightenment. Nowadays it is mostly used in order to shut someone up. It carries the implication that men don’t have a right to talk about feminism because they are not females themselves and can therefore never truly understand the issue.

Well, they certainly can’t understand how it is to be female. But does this mean that they are not allowed to have an opinion in this matter? Gender-issues are not a female problem. It’s not just females who are forced to act in a certain manner, this happens to males, too. Usually it’s the females who end up with the shorter stick in all this, but a male can feel just as uncomfortable with the demands which are put upon him based on his gender than a woman can.

In addition, gender equality can’t be reached by one gender talking and the other listening. We need communication between the genders. It is way too easy to misread the intention of others to think otherwise. And when a man voices his opinion about feminism, his words shouldn’t be dismissed as mansplaining. Weather one agrees or not, he at least should be listened to.

In addition, mansplaining describes the process of a man lording his opinion over a woman. Quick, how many woman are in this scene? Don’t bother counting them, the answer is none. Since we are still in Sherlock’s mind palace, every single woman we see is not a real woman, but a part of his own mind. He can’t lord his opinion over anyone, because there is no one but himself. Granted, in the real world he most likely would do it, too – regardless of gender. Sherlock always believes to be the smartest guy in the room when Mycroft isn’t present.

One should also not forget that the case Sherlock is solving in his mind is centuries old. He never encountered any of the woman involved. The ones in his mind palace aren’t the women who were alive back then, they are representations of the women in his own life, most notable Molly and Janine.

Sherlock is perfectly capable of figuring out how the bride was created just based on files. But what he won’t find in those files are motives. When Molly and Janine are stepping forward and accuse Sir Eustace, their words are interlaced with scenes of them from Sherlock’s memories. It’s not Sir Eustace who wronged them. It is Sherlock. He says as much later. “The women I – we have lied to, betrayed, the women we have ignored and disparaged.” Basically, Sherlock is berating himself. The way he dismisses Molly initially in his mind-palace, overlooking that she is actually a woman, mirrors the way he dismissed Molly in the show, until he started to see her as a person rather than a handy tool in season 2 – and even then he often acts thoughtless and takes advantage of her kindness, though not more than he would of everyone else. And his actions towards Janine are even more questionable.

As much as the word “mansplaining” angers me in this context, as much I do understand why so many have a problem with the robes. It is a questionable imaginary and it is entirely possible that its existence is a thoughtless move of two writers, who simply wanted another canon reference in the episode (which is largely based on “The Five Orange Pips”, a story so notoriously difficult to adapt that not even the Granada series dared to touch it). There are two things one should consider though: At no point it is claimed that those women are suffragettes. In the beginning of the episode Mind-Watson mentions the suffragettes as possible dangerous organisation and Mind-Mycroft dismisses the idea by calling him paranoid. Which could be read as Mind-Mycroft distracting him because he is getting close to the truth – or rather, Sherlock is – but can also be seen as a straight up denial.

There is exactly one women in the episode which is identified as a suffragette, and that is Mary, who is not part of this “cult”, but the one who discovers their meeting place. And the cult elements, like the meeting place, the robes, the chanting and the gong, are all the result of Sherlock’s mind and not related to the actual case. As the episode itself points out through Moriarty, the whole get-up is overdramatic and ridiculous. So if you take away the (male) embellishment, what is left? A dying woman who ensured to make her last act count by not only taking revenge, but creating the idea of an avenging ghost. She certainly had help doing it, but that her friends then would meet at scary places, that is all made up by Sherlock himself.

This is mind, it is possible to reach another conclusion concerning the meaning of the scene: What if the show is actually criticising the tendency to demonize feminism?  We are, after all, in Sherlock’s mind. All the embellishments are the result of his point of view which is, to all intent and purposes, a male one. And, once the hoods are removed and the audience actually sees the very normal looking faces beyond them,  they turn from scary shadows to woman, who have acted on a serious grievance. This is Sherlock’s view on the matter:

“Every great cause has martyrs. Every war has suicide missions and make no mistake, this is war. One half of the human race at war with the other. An invisible army  hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless. Ready to rise up in the best of causes. To put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must loose.”

This is a clear endorsement. For once, the show doesn’t work with subtext, but with plain text. And this text boils down to “sexism is an injustice which has to be corrected”. And in my book, every male (or females, for that matter) who acknowledges this fact, is a win. This is not about getting male approval, this is about getting male support. Because, like I said, this is a fight we can only win together.

Problematic is the context in which those words are said, though. Feminism as a movement is not exactly known for radical attacks. Oh, every cause has its extremists, but in general the idea of feminism is to find some sort of even keel between the genders. Women didn’t get the right to vote by blowing themselves up, they got it by speaking up, by protesting, by going into hunger strikes and enduring a lot of police brutality, by drawing attention to their cause. The idea that murder is a solution to anything is not one most feminists would like to promote, nor are the necessarily pleased with the notion that they would go that far.

But in the context of this show, it makes perfect sense. Both of the main characters have shot someone they considered a threat to society. John did it in defence of Sherlock in the very first episode. Sherlock outright murdered Magnussen in order to protect Mary and John from blackmail. However we think about it in real life, in the reality of the show, murder is an acceptable last resort solution. And what resort would an abused woman in the Victorian era have? Nearly none. A woman who believes the promises of a man and sleeps with him before marriage would be considered a whore. A woman who accuses her husband of mental cruelty would be called hysterical.

For some people, it is abhorred that murder is justified in the show. Those might be the same people, who complained about Sherlock turning to murder in series three. And I understand those. For them, the show has moved in a direction they don’t like. But I think that those, who could readily overlook what Sherlock did because it made sense in the context of the show should maybe reconsider before they complain about murdering woman in a similar context.

It is also questionable to criticise the so-called “bad feminism” in the episode without acknowledging the good aspects.  I admit, I really enjoyed how much the show ridiculed the gender rules of the past. Especially when Watson warns the maid that he will have a word with his wife to have a word with her. It is hilariously over-the-top, but also a very poignant commentary on how ridiculous the notion is that one gender should take care of a certain group of tasks.

Don’t get me wrong, Sherlock is a lot of things, but a feminist show, it is usually not. I don’t think, that it has to be, though. It is based on a very specific property, which was written during a very specific time period. Which was, to a large part, one of the themes of the Special. It expertly pointed out that as good as those stories are, they are a product of its time, and the woman in them are usually trapped in a certain kind of role. It showed how much characters like Mrs Hudson are marginalized and especially how badly Mary Morstan is treated by the narrative once she is married to Watson, as someone, who can easily be disregarded while Watson goes on adventures with Sherlock (and then kind of died off-screen, only for Watson being suddenly married again in later stories).

The stories about Sherlock Holmes have always been about the friendship of two men and for this reason alone it will always be a male-dominated story. Sure, you could gender-bend the characters. But honestly, what for? There are a number of female detectives already, some of them, like Miss Marble, Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars quite famous in their own right. We could use more, but as a general rule, I prefer to get new female characters over changing the gender of long-established characters like Sherlock Holmes. In the end, there is nothing sexist about sticking with the source material concerning the gender of the characters.

Well, those are my two cents to the discussion. To summon it up: Personally I wasn’t offended by the scene at all, even though it was a little bit “in your face”. I do appreciate that this love letter to Sherlock Holmes canon was able to be simultaneously critical about it. And I think it is time to put the gender portrayal in Sherlock into perspective.

I will therefore do the following:  I will write an article series about the female characters in Sherlock Holmes by taking a good look what the source text is writing about them, and then I will discuss what I consider the best adaptation of them. We will see how the take in Sherlock compares to other adaptation. This will naturally be a little bit more critical than usual. But hopefully it will also show how far we have come since the Victorian era.

2 thoughts on “Is it sexist? The Abominable Bride

  1. Thank you. In particular, I loved your “mansplaining” point. Men can talk about women’s issues as much as women can talk about men’s issues, especially when the issue involves both genders.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s