Reflecting its 19th century origins, Sherlock is a story primarily about men: a strong, central male character teams up with a strong, faithful (male) best friend to defeat a series of villains, most of whom happen to be male. It’s also, incidentally, an extremely white show and there’ll definitely be occasion later in this blog to discuss how the experience of being gifted and talented (or, indeed, the likelihood of being identified as gifted or talented in particular spheres) intersects with issues of both race and class). But the emphasis of this post and others in this section is firmly on gender.
For the first two seasons, the androcentricity of the show didn’t bother me at all. My relationship with the world and my experience of my Self is influenced by any number of different factors, a dominant one of which happens to be the fact that I am female. But in watching Sherlock, my female-ness took a back seat. I identified more strongly with Sherlock in my capacity as someone (who could have been any gender) whose brain works differently to other people’s and comes out with things I can’t always explain or understand why other people don’t understand. I tend to predict election results and political movements more accurately than pollsters of political analysts. I have an unfortunate habit of knowing when a person is going to be ill and what they are going to be ill with anything from months to years before a doctor diagnoses the illness. I recently unnerved a friend by (correctly) identifying a PhD student she had been complaining about, in a university department I had never visited before. It was, therefore, fascinating and empowering for me to watch Sherlock struggling to manage, make sense of and make use of a brain even more idiosyncratic and aberrant than mine. Was I aware that there were multiple avenues and opportunities open to him as a man which were closed to me as a woman – yes. But only in the same way that I was aware that Sherlock appears to have independent wealth – and that he lives in central London, not the (rather less well-connected) North of England. None of this interfered with my enjoyment of the show. I also appreciated the strong, likeable female characters. No scene would pass the Bechtel test – the women who populate the show talk about nothing but Sherlock (except, perhaps, occasionally Moriarty) but then the men don’t really talk about anything but Sherlock either, so all’s fair in love and crime detection.
Somewhere between series 2 and series 3, somebody on the team must have got a gender parity bee in their bonnet because suddenly the storyline got jam-packed with scarily-intelligent women. Emphasis being on the word “scarily”. And as a female viewer (alright, I’ll admit it: a female viewer who has multiple issues with my own intelligence) I was jolted out of my nice, secure world where intelligent women, like Mrs Hudson and Molly, overlay their intelligence with a lovely dollop of caring femininity – and thrust back into the misogynist world in which intelligent women are essentially (even existentially) threatening.
It all starts in the first episode of series 3. For no apparent reason, we are introduced to two excruciatingly normal, intellectually uninteresting individuals who have nothing whatsoever to do with either the flimsy plot line (something about blowing up the Houses of Parliament) or the thematic development of the show, which at this point centres on how Sherlock can navigate his already-fraught relationships, which have become even more fraught since his fake death – including the fact that both his best friend (John Watson) and the woman who is not-so-secretly in love with him (Molly Hooper) have gotten engaged during his absence.
Enough to be getting on with, you might have thought, but we’re suddenly dumped on with this pair of annoying, would-be-clients who sit there discussing nothing in particular. Why on earth hasn’t Sherlock thrown them out of his client chairs? For that matter, how on earth did he ever come to let them in? Whoops – no – they’re not would-be clients; they’re his parents.
Sherlock as an individual aberration is a phenomenon I can contemplate. Lightning strikes, the child of two quite unexceptional parents suddenly finds he or she has an inexplicable gift. But – to use a cliché – lightning really doesn’t strike twice in the same place. These people might, conceivably have produced a Sherlock. But a Sherlock and a Mycroft?! From nothing? Neither nature nor nurture?
Clearly, other people also greeted this revelation with incredulity because in the next episode, the writers give us what they evidently thought was an explanation: Sherlock’s father is, as he seems, entirely normal – sane, even. But Sherlock’s mother just happens to have been a genius mathematician who “gave it all up for children”.
No! Please – just, no! I’m significantly younger than Mrs Holmes, but even in my mother’s generation a woman didn’t have to just “give it all up” for children. Women of my mother’s age kept immaculate homes and watched beadily over their children as they completed their homework. (My mother even burnt my Magna Carta for me so it would look suitably aged). They also ran their own tutoring business, wrote Mills and Boon romances, or devised and researched questions for quiz shows.
Twenty years younger than her (and probably around the same age as Sherlock and John Watson) I belong to a whole demographic of highly educated women who firmly resolved to put motherhood first and let our careers come trailing far behind. But we have also – in quiet moments whilst a baby has been breastfeeding or older children have been playing with friends in the park – completed PhDs, written journalism and marked GCSE papers. “Giving it all up” for children hasn’t been an option since perhaps the 1950s.
What’s more, whilst our children have experienced a range of educational and emotional challenges, which we have dealt with more or less adequately, none of the “mothers-by-choice” of my acquaintance has managed to raise three children who show quite as many signs of emotional deprivation and parental cruelty as Mycroft, Sherlock and Euros. We have, by choice, stayed home with our children. Mycroft and Sherlock, by contrast, behave in every way – with each other and as individuals – like children who at the very least were sent to some horrendous public boarding school. In fact, my guess would have been that their parents were either killed or abandoned them when they were small and they were left with some maiden aunt who was by turns neglectful and cruel. It is Mycroft who, in every important way, raised Sherlock – that much is made absolutely clear in the script: it is Mycroft who re-configured his memories in order to help him deal with the trauma of losing ‘Redbeard’; it is Mycroft who educated Sherlock, teaching him skills of deduction; it is Mycroft who repeatedly attempts to protect the adult Sherlock; and it is Mycroft who appears in Sherlock’s mind at times of stress. If the parents are mentioned at all, it is as punitive figures, not loving caregivers. What or who on earth did Mrs Holmes (that apparently intelligent woman) give up her mathematical career for, if none of her children know how to give or receive love? (Sherlock is taught to do so by John Watson, Molly, Greg Lestrade and Mrs Hudson.)
The message the screenwriters clearly want us to imbibe is that intelligent women make terrible mothers. Keep writing the Maths books, eh? Well, er… no thanks.
In the same episode where we get the reveal about Mrs Holmes’ genius, we also unveil – guess what! – another female who’s brilliantly clever and a crack shot into the bargain: John Watson’s apparently normal, caring wife turns out to have a past as an assassin.
Well yes, it does make some kind of psychological sense that John is drawn to dangerous, highly complex situations and people. But really? Once again, it seems this woman’s only stab at happiness has been to take on a mundane job (as a doctor’s receptionist) find a man (her boss) and get pregnant – and disguising her true abilities has been a necessary prerequisite for that. A fine life choice: many women get their career “fix” first, then take time out to settle down and raise a family, having found “Mr Right”. But in Mary’s case – guess what: she doesn’t get to settle down; she’s too much of a liability. Her attempt to assassinate Magnussen results in her having to shoot Sherlock; then her inability to deal with Magnussen’s threat results in Sherlock’s having to kill him in full view of the British secret service, forcing his brother to exile him. And even that’s not enough: the story of her past still comes back to haunt her and endanger John and their infant child Rosie. Having tried to escape (abandoning both John and Rosie – finally, John and Sherlock go off to save her, so that both parents have abandoned their daughter); Mary comes back to London only to step in front of a bullet to save Sherlock’s life (the bullet, incidentally, having been shot by another woman who wanted to prove that she was more intelligent than others took her to be.)
In the next episode, it transpires that Mary has left very explicit instructions for Sherlock detailing how to “save John Watson” (instructions which are surely entirely superfluous for Sherlock, given his ability to predict the behaviour of others, if not to intuit their emotions). She leaves absolutely no instructions, however, for how to “save” her infant child. In fact, the child doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind at all.
Message: intelligent women make staggeringly neglectful mothers.
All this brings us, of course, to the woman whose intelligence as a child was described as “incandescent”: Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister, who the viewer was duped into expecting would be a brother. She’s apparently a “generation-defining genius” whatever that’s supposed to mean. She’s also incarcerated in a high-security prison-cum-insane asylum that even Mycroft, not normally given to hyperbole, describes as “hell”. So that’s good news for girls everywhere: we can be (surprise, surprise) even more intelligent than our male counterparts – including those genetically related to us. As if we didn’t know that already.
The bad news is, of course (as we probably also already know): men still think women’s intelligence is volatile, manipulative and dangerous – and so threatening it has to be restrained, either behind a veneer of domesticity or behind bullet-proof glass. An extraordinarily gifted male child may grow up to be the head of the secret service (if that’s what Mycroft is) so that despite his emotional limitations he manages to play a useful role, keeping us safe from terrorists and international criminals or other bogeymen. A thrill-seeking, emotionally-volatile, stunningly-intelligent male who self-defines as a high-functioning sociopath can grow to be a true and generous friend whilst still using his skills-set to rid the world of monsters like Moriarty and Magnusson. A tremendously intelligent woman can… look forward to living out the rest of her life behind glass bars.
Because intelligent women – unlike intelligent men – clearly cannot be trusted with the choice between building Sherlock’s mind palace or Magnussen’s. There is apparently no way that a woman’s intellect can be tamed, controlled or used for the communal good.
Having seen series 3 and 4, I had to revisit my evaluation of the series’ earlier female characters, the ones I’d thought unpoblematic. There’s Molly – a woman in a professional job, with a string of unfortunate romantic liaisons – not much different in that regard from John Watson. Then, there’s “The Woman” – Irene Adler – dangerous because she can exploit her beauty as well as her intelligence. In her favour: she’s the only “villain” whom Sherlock saves rather than destroying, and the only woman for whom he evinces a genuine sexual interest. So I guess she wins my respect. And then there’s Mrs Hudson – the most grounded and apparently the most satisfied (aside from her love affair with the cheating snack bar owner downstairs) of the female characters.
So there we go, girls: here are the best options available to you if you show marked intelligence (and hopefully some good looks, too): high level sex working (if you don’t mind men reeling off your vital statistics). Or marrying a man who is going to run a drugs cartel (you can do some exotic dancing on the side) then banking the money, buying up property in London and making cups of tea for your tenants.
Only drawback: you have to keep reminding them you’re not their housekeeper.