Deadlock on “Sherlock”

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock


PBS finally imported the BBC’s much hyped revamp of the murder mystery Sherlock, originally aired across the pond last spring. This new series, created by Stephen Moffat and directed largely by Euros Lyn, except for episode two, is the brainchild of the same crew who revived Dr. Who for a new generation. Masterpiece Mystery just completed a full run of all three episodes, including A Study in Pink, The Blind Banker, and The Great Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the young techno savvy 21st century detective.

He is armed with an iPhone and bent with a keen hunger to solve grisly murders. His Watson, played by Martin Freeman, has just returned from a tour of duty, suffers from PTSD, and is addicted to blogging. These upgrades make for clever twists to modernize the stuffy Victorian we’re more familiar with, and, still, our Sherlock is as arrogant and eccentric as ever. We can almost excuse his over-blown ego, except, here at the salon, we’ve found ourselves in a contretemps concerning this supposedly new and improved mastermind sleuth. We invite you to join the debate:

Your Salonniere: I’ve seen all the episodes trying my damndest to like this series because I love a good mystery and am intrigued by Sherlock as a character, but every time I watch the show, I’m disturbed by it. My problem is that after shows like Spooks, Wallander, and Prime Suspect, and most of the Masterpiece Classic’s adaptations, Sherlock is unabashedly retrograde in its depiction of female characters, which lean dangerously close to misogyny. Our hero is still very much anachronistic in his Euro male elitism, which is leaps backward from what I know the BBC is capable of producing. So, to have this misogyny  glorified on the telly is entirely problematic. Haven’t the boys got to play their machismo game since, oh, maybe the beginning of time? I guess its not as fun to watch when you end up being the odd woman out after each episode. Perhaps I’m taking it a bit too personally, but I know the BBC is far better than this. As one salon member reminds me though, it’s good to see how one of the most liberally advanced nations in the world still wrestles with gender issues. Sherlock’s good, but the lack of strong female characters really frustrates me, especially because most English stories, from books, to screen, and to the telly, are leagues more advanced in portraying bodacious women.

Roz Foster: There’s very little good storytelling on television and so I enjoyed Sherlock–but it’s unapologetically misogynistic. In fact, its misogyny is an afterthought, making it as irrelevant for the viewer as women are for Sherlock.  I enjoy shows that are well-written, but I also enjoy shows  with a rich meta-level that reveal hidden aspects of our own social reality. In Sherlock misogyny is, well, beside the point. In a patriarchy, it’s an atmospheric, accepted fact.

Just watch the way they treat the landlady and look at how she’s portrayed. To this show, the landlady is recognizable womanhood. She’s a servile marm, slow to the point of being retarded, a creature whose purpose is to obtain biscuits and tea for them, and to annoy them otherwise—except when her remarks offer light to their investigations unintentionally. Her early protests, “I’m not your housekeeper,” aren’t legitimate. They only serve to say the opposite to the audience: “I am Holmes & Watson’s housekeeper.”

Openly, it’s a white gay fantasy without the sex. It’s a world in which two white men are the absolute and undeniable elite. They are the supermen, the ubermench, for whom others are like ants or onions. Women are irrelevant, but so is everyone else. Gay men should have their mainstreamed fantasies, too. But the truth is that Sherlock isn’t just a gay fantasy, it’s a white male fantasy, an exaggeration of white male buddies being THE elite–and its reveling in it is discomfiting.

On the other hand, adapting the character of Sherlock Holmes to please 21st century identity politics would probably be a disaster.

Dear Readers, you’re invited to have the last word. Come share your thoughts on Sherlock redux.



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