As a woman, I want to explain why I do not think BBC Sherlock is “sexist” and why the writers are not “woman hating misogynists”.
This re-evaluation is a more logical, comprehensive and coherent analysis of the reasons why BBC Sherlock is not sexist. I investigate the claims that:
- There is a lack of female characters
- Female characters are defined by their relationships with men
- The portrayal of women in the show is sexist
On the way I also delve into feminist movements, the strange myth of the “feminist ideal” and why we should be happy to see women like Mrs Hudson and Molly portrayed on screen.
Reblog if you like it!
Comments Welcome. Dedicated to p0rcupinegirl who pointed out the holes in my previous analysis.
Several comments to this meta have been completely unacceptable! It has resulted in one person having to delete their journal in response. This is my LJ, you are free to have your opinions but I ask you to post them in a way that is not offensive, aggressive or personally insulting to over commenters.
If I continue to find people using aggression and intimidation I will ban you from commenting. This is my opinion, I may not be an expert on feminism or sexism but this does not invalidate my opinion. If you choose to get angry do not vent your spleen on my LJ. Do not intimidate other commenters, it debases this topic, my journal and most of all you.
A Definition and a Disclaimer
The crux to a good essay is to actually define the topic you are you talking about. I didn’t exactly make it clear in the last post which yard stick I’m going to measure with.
Sexism is defined as “discrimination based on gender or sex” and/or “propagating attitudes that foster traditional stereotyped social roles based on sex.”
I fully accept that there are other definitions of sexism For example sociologist define sexism as privilege and discrimination base on sex. Therefore women cannot be sexist to men because men have the privilege in society. I don't personally agree but if you want to learn more about this please read the discussions of this article at the bottom. There are some very good links provided by various commenters, particularly this article.
I encourage you to read all the comments after this meta and reach your own conclusions about whether BBC Sherlock is sexist.
In this meta I am going to use the legally/linguistically recognised definition. I am using it because it is the "official" definition for this term. It is widely accepted by lay people and institutions such as the BBC, it is the current dictionary definition whether one agrees with it or not. Sexism has many different definitions and these vary according to culture and individuals. What one group may deem to be sexists does not correspond to another group. Therefore the most widely accepted definition is used in this meta.
If you do not agree this is valid then feel free to completely ignore my conclusion.
I am by no means an expert on feminism, sexism, discrimination or sociology. If you're reading this meta and thinking:
I completely understand, but this essay is about why I don't think BBC Sherlock is measures up to the legal definition of sexism. Perhaps you'd like to hear me out and discuss with me (like many people on LJ have done - my loves to them by the way), if not you can just stop reading.
I ask that you do not send hate mail or flame me because of my views. We are all entitled to hold our own opinions. This is my blog and I have the right to state my views without being subject to abuse.
This discussion is relevant to my blog - because it is my blog. If I choose to write a long discourse on the various causes of deep vein thrombosis in the geriatric population, that too is relevant to my blog.
This isn't an academic paper nor a formal dissertation - (anyone who thinks that it should be needs to understand I spend my life writing these and I need to have fun at some point). This is written for fun and light reading. I do not ask you to take my conclusions too seriously or to change your own opinions.
Taking Sherlock to the Employment Tribunal
(Sherlock: Sexism? - Not your best line of inquiry)
BBC Sherlock has been accused of being “sexist” and “anti-feminist” by many fans. I think it deserves a fair hearing at least, so bear with me. Many of the ideas I challenge in this article are direct responses I have had from other fans and common perceptions I have gleaned from reading other blogs. This is not a comprehensive list of all the reasons why Sherlock might be sexist. If you have other issues not mentioned, that you would like to raise please message me.
Discrimination based on gender or sex
Charge 1 – Lack of Female Representation
We must remember the central characters are two men. BBC Sherlock decided not to change the gender of Holmes/Watson because it wanted to remain at least partially true to ACD canon, not because they dislike women. The fact is when you have two protagonists, the vast majority of the screen time has to be devoted to these characters regardless of their gender. Holmes/Watson must be deep, developed characters and this requires a lot of screen time.
If they had made the heroes into heroines, I highly doubt anyone would be calling the show “sexist”, despite the fact that the screen time is now dominated by women.
BBC Sherlock does have more male characters than female characters. This is not an intentional/conscious decision on the part of the writers. This is a by-product left over from ACD’s original works. ACD was writing about two male bachelors in London at the height of the Victorian era. Holmes/Watson had very few opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex, particularly when they were running around solving crimes. The Met Police force was entirely male, so was the medical profession and like today, most criminal were also male. Social clubs were strictly segregated along gender lines. Ladies and gentlemen tended not to socialise in public unless they already have a strong relationship with each other e.g. official courtship, family ties etc.
The original Sherlock Holmes stories had very few female characters. The only recurring female character is Mrs Hudson who, most fans tend to forget, is the landlady. This is her primary function as a character and ACD never found it necessary to develop her character; she is merely a convenient plot device. I think the writers of modern Sherlock deserve some credit in actually giving Mrs Hudson a distinct personality and a personal life outside of catering to Sherlock and John.
The writers of BBC Sherlockhave tried to rectify the gender imbalance in the original stories by introducing reoccurring female characters where none existed before e.g. Molly, Sally and Sarah. I personally don’t think the writers did this to mitigate accusations of sexism. They introduced more female characters to reflect our modern society, which has legitimately moved on from the Victorian Era. Women now occupy roles which were strictly reserved for men during the Victorian era. For example Sally is a police officer, Molly is a pathologist and Sarah is a GP.
In conclusion – although male characters dominate screen time, there does not appear to be an intentional lack of female representation in this TV show.
Charge 2 – Female Characters are only defined by their relationships with men
All the minor characters (regardless of gender) are defined by their relationship with Sherlock/John who happen to be men.
Recurring minor characters can only be introduced if they have an important connection with Sherlock or John. It would be highly illogical to include a character that has no relationship with the main protagonists.
BBC Sherlock is only about Sherlock and John’s adventures. Therefore they will only encounter characters that aid the plot because superfluous characters are not even useful as expensive set dressing. However we should give the writers some credit at least for attempting to flesh out their minor female characters a bit more than ACD ever bothered to do with Mrs Hudson.
For example: Sarah is defined as John’s girlfriend but she is also defined as John’s superior at the GP surgery. Both these things revolve around her relationship with John but it is only through her relationship with John that she can logically appear on screen. If she was not John’s girlfriend how does she end up at the circus with Sherlock in order to save his life? Would the audience prefer if they were just having a night out as friends? Would that not still be defining Sarah as John’s something?
Does being a girlfriend somehow devalue Sarah as a character? No it does not, but it adds an extra dimension to John’s character that contrasts with Sherlock.
Male minor characters are also defined by their relationships to Sherlock/John. Lestrade and Mycroft’s characters only appear because of their relationship to Sherlock.
Lestrade is more of a plot device than Sally, Molly and Sarah combined. His sole function is to give Sherlock access to interesting cases and aid his crime solving. When the interesting crime Sherlock stumbles upon is under the jurisdiction of DI Dimmock, Lestrade does not even feature in the episode. It is very nice that the writers have hinted at his personal life, it provides a less two dimensional view. However this does not change the fact that Lestrade’s existence depends upon his relationship with Sherlock’s crime scenes.
Mycroft only turns up because he is Sherlock’s creepily protective older brother. Like Molly, his actual job is never made clear but we actually know more about Molly than we do about Mycroft. However he provides a lovely atmosphere of sinister mystery and serves as a convenient plot device to get Sherlock into and out of sticky situations.
It has been pointed out that we constantly see Lestrade at work, demonstrating that he is a professional man with status in society. However we do not see Molly or Sarah who are both professional women at work. This is because Lestrade needs to be working in order to allow Sherlock access to the crime scene. Showing clips of Molly dissecting a corpse is firstly, going to raise complaints against the BBC, secondly, going to distract attention from Sherlock.
Side Note: However as earlgreytea68 has pointed out we do see Sally doing her job, and doing it very well. Sarah Sawyer, the GP is also shown interviewing John and making sure her surgery ran well.
Molly is shown presiding over the morgue and unveiling dead bodies. I would like to point out that this is not actually her job. Molly is a pathologist and she would have spent most of her time either doing post-mortems or looking at slides under the microscrope.
BBC Sherlock is all about Sherlock – all the other characters, including John, exist to give the viewer a window onto Sherlock’s magnificence.
Propagating attitudes that foster traditional stereotyped social roles based on sex
A Messy Introduction to Feminist Movements
The feminist movements which officially started in the 19th century have contributed a great deal to our modern society’s attitudes towards on sexism, gender roles and discrimination. These movements often differed from each other in turns of philosophies but they all held a central ideology that women were at the bottom of an “involuntary hierarchy” and must “assert” their equality.
For the Socialist Movement, they “asserted” women’s equality by focusing on improving education and career prospects for women. At a time when most professions were closed to women, the Socialist Movement campaigned for equality of opportunities.
The Radical Movement considered 20th century style capitalism as the reason for gender inequality. Capitalism rewards aggression, competitiveness and risk-taking. They “asserted” equality by working to change the values and regulation of the capitalist system to reverse male-domination and control.
The Liberal movement is perhaps the one that people are most familiar with. According to liberal feminists, all women are capable of asserting their ability to achieve equality. They assist this individual assertion by campaigning for legislation the guarantees women equality at home and in the workplace, e.g “equal pay for equal work”, criminalisation of sexual harassment, affordable childcare, affordable health care, voting rights etc.
The “Feminist Ideal”
One view which the feminist movements never subscribed to or advocated is the “feminist ideal” which exists in the popular imagination.
The myth of the “feminist ideal” has developed due to a misunderstanding of the work and aims of the original feminist movements. The idea of “assertion” has been taken completely out of context.
The features of this “feminist ideal” are difficult to accurately put into words but I am sure you can all recognise it when it appears in the media. Some buzz words we can use to describe this idea include: “strong”, “assertive”, “professional”, “ambitious”, “successful”, “emotionally controlled”, “tough”.
Sadly, if we look at these words, they appear to correlate very well with the traditional “masculine attributes” or the “male stereotype”. The “feminist ideal” in the popular imagination has taken traditional “masculine attributes” and tried to apply them to women.
This is not what feminism is about! Feminism is about bringing gender equality not making women behave more like men. To force women into the “feminist ideal” is to suggest that traditional “female attributes” are inferior to their male counterparts.
The Cultural feminist movement advocates recognition of undervalued “female attributes”. The words I would use to describe this include: “emotional”, “caring”, “soft”.
These are things that our modern society labels “stereotypically female” in a tone that suggests they are bad.
“Female attributes” are not inherently bad, sexist or derogatory; they are just inherently different from “stereotypically male” qualities. It is society that has decided these attributes are somehow inferior and thus equality for women can only be achieved if these attributes disappear.
I ask you, where is the equality in this line of thought?
Society needs to understand that men and women are different and fundamentally equal.
Charge 1 – The Women in Sherlock propagate stereotyped gender roles.
Have we actually seen any women who fulfil the traditional stereotypical social roles based on sex?
Molly, Sally and Sarah are single, professional women with high status jobs who are thoroughly independent, both financially and in their choices of relationships with men. They do not fit the traditional female social roles including: wife, mother, housewife, carer etc.
Mrs Hudson is a different case – she is not an invention by BBC Sherlock.
Her character is already constrained by the parameters laid out in the ACD stories. She has to be married/widowed because she is Mrs Hudson. She also has to be their caring, somewhat fussy landlady because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said so! If BBC Sherlock were to change Mrs Hudson then she would not be recognisably Mrs Hudson.
Does Mrs Hudson’s portrayal propagate sexist attitudes? No, she does not. Mrs Hudson may not fit the “feminist ideal” but she does not actively encourage women to perform stereotyped gender roles. She is never heard saying how wonderful being married/a mother/a housewife is. The show does not exhibit her as the “model female” that everyone should aspire to be.
On a personal note she is personality wise, the spitting image of my lovely next door neighbour. There are hundreds if not thousands of people up and down Britain who have the joy of knowing someone like Mrs Hudson who goes above and beyond what she is required to do in order to care for people. She is an accurate reflection of many real women in Britain. To say that they are inherently propagating sexist attitudes towards women is doing them a great disservice.
Her care and support for John and Sherlock are not negative qualities – they are things we should all admire. If women in the media who are portrayed as caring, supportive and emotionally attached are deemed to be sexist then our society has more problems than we think.
From my comments many people have stated that Molly is constantly portrayed as a silly girl with a crush and Sally is remembered only for Sherlock's offensive comments about her knees
Molly’s crush on Sherlock is not a sexist portrayal of women. Why? Because it is fundamentally a portrayal of passionate unrequited love.We see another equally valid example in TBB where Soo Lin’s co-worker at the museum makes a right idiot out of himself trying to get her to notice him. It is interesting to see that no one has highlighted this as a sexist portrayal of men.
Molly does sometimes allow Sherlock to boss her around – but then so does everyone else in the show especially John who is really put upon sometimes. Lestrade and Mycroft have both developed ways to force Sherlock into behaving but then they have known him for a long time.
Just because Molly does not consistently display the qualities of the “feminist ideal” does not mean her portrayal is sexist. Just because we do not see her standing up to Sherlock does not mean she is incapable of making tough decisions, dealing with stress etc. I know how hard it is to be a doctor (Molly is a doctor).
Her occupation as pathologist is not a traditional stereotypical gender role; she is certainly not propagating attitudes that foster stereotypical gender roles. Molly is a clever, independent woman who chooses to engage with Sherlock. She is a woman who knows what she wants but sadly life has conspired to make sure she doesn’t get it.
Sherlock is not a colleague or a patient. He is her love interest and entirely outside the realm of her professional life.
Just because I act incredibly "girly" outside of my professional life does not mean I am propagating sexist attitudes.
Gender equality is not conditional on how women behave publicly, privately or professionally! Women are fundamentally equal because we are people.
Just because Sally doesn't like Sherlock does not make her portrayal sexist. On the one hand fans complain that Molly likes Sherlock too much and on the other they complain that Sally doesn't like Sherlock enough.
Sally is a balanced to Molly, she is represented as a woman who can't stand Sherlock. This is to show that he's not irresistible, his personality is abrasive, he is rude and has not respect for authority.
Sally is shown being a very competent police officer who is not afraid to do what she believes is right.
She is understandably convinced that Sherlock might be involved in the crime and she has no qualms about confronting her superior about this. Yes, I think that her dislike for Sherlock will have played a role but she tolerated his presence for many years.
Lestrade bringing an untrained civilian onto crime scenes, giving him access to all manner of sensitive data and not informing his superior (Gregson was incredibly surprised to learn of Sherlock) is highly unorthodox and potentially criminal. Police are there to catch criminals but they are also there to ensure that the evidence gathered can stand up in court and gain a conviction. This means following protocol. Sherlock does not follow protocol, Lestrade is taking a big risk letting him onto crime scenes.
If we assume Sherlock-verse works like real life, Sally can make complaints to any of the regulatory bodies in the police force and legitimately get Sherlock banned from the crime scenes. She hasn't because he's still there. I assume that Sally does respect Lestrade's decisions and understands that catching the criminal is sometimes more important than protocol.
However as soon as she sees evidence that Sherlock could actually be the criminal responsible for the child abduction, she understandably wants him to be fully investigated as any good police officer should.
When Lestrade doesn't response she goes over his head to report to the Chief Inspector. This contravenes all the establish rules of the police hierarchy. People who circumvent their superiors to report their mistakes are actively persecuted in the police force. Once word gets out she wouldn't be wanted in any CID division.
However she is willing to sacrifice her career for the public interest, she is willing to sacrifice perhaps her most important achievement in order to bring justice.
Yes, she's an assertive woman who doesn't let Sherlock push her around! She definitely fits the "feminist ideal". Isn't that want people wanted? Isn't this what most people think a non-sexist portrayal should look like?
Yes, I would like to see Molly being a professional woman, but I would also like to see Anderson portrayed as more than a one dimensional bitter lemon, Lestrade to be less of a convenient plot device for Sherlock and Chief Inspector Gregson to be shown as more than just a homophobic bigot in an ill fitting suit. There are so much more to the minor male characters as well which haven't been explored.
The point is BBC Sherlock doesn't do the minor characters justice regardless of gender, the show doesn't have the capacity. Therefore it is not intentionally discrimination based on sex/gender, it is discriminating against any character that isn't central to the plot.
Charge 2 – Everything about Irene Adler
I have actually spent five hours and 5000 words analysing why Irene Adler is not a loser. The article is still not finished! If you want to read it please follow me and keep an eye out.
I think Irene's adaptation could have been done better but I don't think that because she doesn't get away with what she wants - the entire show is sexist.
The original triumphant ending to Scandal in Bohemia is Irene marrying a man of her own choosing. In the Victorian Era, Irene Adler was seen as a morally ambiguous character, an actress who was having an extramarital affair with a monarch. Being an actress was likened to being a prostitute except the latter was illegal. Having extra-martial sex was also against the law, although seldom prosecuted unless the woman was already married. Having information to threaten the repute of a monarch in the UK was considered High Treason for which the death penalty still applied until 1998.
Irene would have been viewed by the righteous middle classes as a "bad woman". Thus for Irene to leave behind this life and her morally ambiguous status to become a "respectable" woman through marrying a man she wanted is a triumph for her.
However in the 21st century, being an actress and sleeping with a monarch does not have the same scandalous connotations it used to, nor does leaving this life behind seem as triumphant it was meant to be portrayed in the original story.
If the BBC actually portrayed Irene exactly as she was in the original books in the modern adaptation, then it would expect to be inundated with complaints that the corporation was still living in the 19th century.
Therefore the ending had to be different in BBC Sherlock. This does not mean the writers or the BBC want to belittle the improvements for the gender equality in the last century. They wanted to produce an ending that would awe the modern audience as much as the original stories awed the Victorian audience.
I think the writers did not have Irene “winning” because of an entirely different moral issue: crime. What Irene has done is criminal. She is in effect blackmailing the British Government out of billions of pounds, and endangering national security.
The writers must have thought this was equivalent to high treason which Irene might have been charged with had she wanted to blackmail the King. I personally don't think so, Irene is after all consorting with terrorists, and I would have chosen a different way to write her as morally ambiguous.
Had she been a real person, the people of Britain would legitimately despise her. The billions she would get away could have been used to fund the NHS and save the lives of thousands of people. The terrorists she indirectly informed are now plotting new attacks with a vengeance. Not to mention the amount of manpower and money wasted on the Bond Air scheme. To have Irene skip off into the sunset with the proceeds of her crimes is propagating the idea that crime pays and is glamorous, the idea that justice will not be served for people who betray and exploit their own country.
Irene’s defeat and rescue is part of Sherlock’s emotional development cycle as the moral protagonist.
The rescue of Irene Adler (the criminal) is important in showing the attributes of forgiveness and self-sacrifice in Sherlock, at least in my view. Irene has wronged Sherlock, she used him as a pawn to blackmail his brother. However he has made the decision that he does not want to be responsible no matter how indirectly for someone’s death. He risks his life to save a person who is a criminal and has personally wronged him.
One can argue that leaving Irene to face the consequences of her actions is just. However Sherlock decided it was morally wrong to sit aside and idly allow terrorists to murder someone even if the person might deserve it.
I believe that gender is given too much weight in the ending where Sherlock “defeats” Irene. It is more accurate to say one person has consistently manipulated the other throughout the show and the victim only manages to turn the tables at the last moment. The situation is not of a man outsmarting a woman; it is of Sherlock outsmarting his opponent. Sherlock is the genius of the show, he constantly outsmarts everyone (including Moriarty at the end) regardless of gender. John, the everyman, has no idea how to deal with Irene. Mycroft, the British Government was almost going to hand over a queen’s random to Irene.
Irene wasn’t trying to outsmart Sherlock, he was just the pawn in her game against the British Government. At the end of ASiB she had Mycroft in Checkmate – Irene outplayed the British Government.
Irene does fit some aspects of the “feminist ideal” and thus people have labelled her a “strong” female character because she had the intellect to cross swords with Sherlock and Mycroft. Having her “losing” to Sherlock is therefore deemed sexist.
Sexism isn’t one women losing to one man, it is a pervasive discrimination against the whole gender. I don't think BBC Sherlock does consistently discriminate against all female characters, nor does it use Sherlock’s triumph as a metaphor for defeating feminism.
I strongly feel that all the female characters need developing more but so do:
- Anderson, because he is so much more than just a "Sherlock-hater"
- Greg Lestrade, because he has so much more screen time than Molly or Sally and yet we know very little about his life outside work besides his cheating wife who took up all of 5 seconds.
- Mycroft, he's Sherlock's brother and closer to him than any other minor character. We still don't know exactly what his job description is, whether he has any other family, his childhood etc.
- Gregson, because there is more to him than a homophobic obese man in an ill-fitting suit.
If Irene is the only female character who is discriminated against-discrimination against just Irene is Irene-ism. Is Moffat Irene-ist? Probably, he certainly doesn't like her original character when he was reading the books as a child.
I like Irene's character very much and I don't like the fact that writers had her consorting with Moriarty and indirectly assisting terrorists. I think she could have been re-adapted better but I don't think that because she doesn't get what she wants - the entire show is sexist.
The “feminist ideal” that Irene fits is not actually feminism; it is a construction of the popular imagination that does nothing for the advancement of gender equality. Just because she is clever and independent does make her “defeat” sexist.
If you want to attach a moral principle to Irene’s “defeat” by Sherlock, see it as a detective bringing justice to a criminal who nearly destroyed an entire country.
I have laid out my reasons why the portrayal of women BBC Sherlock does not fit the definition of sexism. It does every much to remind us all that “the feminist ideal” of the popular imagination is not what feminism is really about. Equality for women does not depend on our behaviour, IQ, occupation or education. All women regardless of their attributes should be accorded the same respect as men.
When the media portrays women who do not fit the “feminist ideal”, I applaud them for it. It reminds us that real women are on a spectrum, we are individuals who cannot be squashed into different boxes. It also provides feminist with the opportunity to point out that the “stereotypical female attributes” are not wrong, inferior, degrading or sexist. They are qualities that should be admired and celebrated as much as “stereotypical male attributes” are.
I personally felt much happier with myself after learning about what the actual feminist movements stood for. I do not have to be take on masculine attributes in order to be deemed a feminist. I believe in equality for women and that makes me a feminist regardless of my job, education or behaviour.
Other Metas in the Series
2. The Mistress of Intrigue - Irene is not a Loser!