wellingtongoose (wellingtongoose) wrote,

The Hidden Heroines of Sherlock

There has been a great deal of noise made about the blatant sexism of BBC Sherlock and I often wonder have I been watching the same show?

Moffat and Gatiss have (intentionally or otherwise) given us great examples of strong, independent professional women. We just have to look at beyond the obvious.

This isn't a discussion about sexism in Sherlock. It's a short piece about my inferences and interpretations of Molly and Sally as professional women.  

I am putting Sally and Molly into their realistic professional contexts this also allows us to extrapolate outside of the short space of time we see these characters on screen. It gives us a more complex view of the reasons behind their actions. We can get an idea of how hard it is to become a Detective Sergeant, how competent and decisive Molly has to be  in order to be a doctor. 
It is written for fun - not for academia so I would like to ask everyone to not take my conclusions too seriously!

Comments are always welcome I love discussion!

Bending over Backwards for Good Reason

Many people have pointed out that the women in Sherlock are defined by their relationships to men. I would like to correct this because the women in Sherlock are defined by their relationships to Sherlock and John who happen to be men.

If we look closely at BBC Sherlock we will see some good examples of where Moffat/Gatiss have bent over backwards to create female characters were none existed before in ACD canon. They didn’t need to any of this, but they chose to do so.

Yes, the female characters do not get a lot of screen time but the show isn’t entitled Sally or Molly or Mrs Hudson, its called Sherlock. We expect to have the majority of screen time devoted to Sherlock, John and crime solving. The producers have a strict time frame in which to tell very complex stories. The complexity and sheer genius of the plotlines are what the audience loves but it takes a great deal of screen time to fully explain everything. Therefore none essential scenes that don’t involve crime solve often get cut. However Moffat/Gatiss have persevered and attempted to include their female characters where appropriate.

The male characters are also defined by their relationship to Sherlock. DI Lestrade is only in the picture because he utilises Sherlock in his cases. Mycroft is primarily defined in the show as Sherlock’s brother. Yes, he has an exciting life off screen but so do Irene, Molly, Sally and Sarah!

Molly Hooper

For everyone who takes one look at Molly Hooper and classes her as bumbling blonde idiot, I recommend you reconsider just what Molly had to go through be in the position she has now.

Although it is never specifically stated in the program, we can deduce that Molly Hooper is a pathologist. She does post-mortems (quote Christmas party in ASiB) and only qualified pathologists are allowed to do these in the UK. Morgue technicians are not even allowed to assist. She spends much of her time in a lab (hence her lab coat) and also has unrestricted access to a highly controlled area, the morgue.

For anyone who wants to read an in depth meta I wrote about Molly’s career -  please click here.

  • All pathologists in the UK are qualified doctors. Molly would have had to go through 5/6 years of medical school and then work gruelling hours as junior doctor on the wards for another 4 years before getting a highly competitive training post as a pathologist.

  • To become a trainee, the Royal College of Pathologists looks for people with a great deal of research experience as pathologists are expected to work in the forefront of medical research. They also look for people with great analytical skills and who are also meticulous in their methods.

  • Pathologists work unsociable hours on call like any other medical specialty. Molly is in the morgue at all times of the day and night. Pathologists need to bear quite intense pressure at work particularly when they are drafted into doing forensic autopsies, which are highly rigorous and one mistake can render any evidence unusable in court. 

  • If you are sticking with Mycroft’s assertion of Miss Hooper then it is more likely she is a surgeon doing a pathology project than a morgue technician (they are definitely not allowed to do post mortems).

If Molly Hooper has managed to climb the career ladder to her current station as a trainee pathologist, she must have demonstrated a great deal of intelligence and diligence. I am a medical student, and I can honestly say making it through the world of medicine is hard, particularly for women. It takes strength of character and a certain resilience to just make it through the first two years as a junior doctor.

If we look beyond what she says to Sherlock, we can see just by her career that she is a professional woman with a very demanding job.

We know she is a more than able doctor because she has a speciality training post at one of the most famous hospitals in the UK. Barts and the London Foundation trust (of which St. Bartholomew’s hospital is a part) has a prestigious history and excellent modern facilities for healthcare and research. Getting a training post in a central London Hospital is very hard; I have met many brilliant doctors who have been turned down.

We don't see Molly making tough decisions on call or leading a team. I have no proof that the writers have thought about this. However Molly is a doctor and these abilities are inherent to the job - you either learn them very quickly or you quit. Given that Molly is still here, I'm happy to assume she has the qualities of an able doctor. 

Love is Liberating

I think fans are very upset by the way she is portrayed in her conversations with Sherlock. They see her uncertainty and lovestruck awe and believe she is not capable of anything else. 

Sherlock is not a colleague or a patient. He is Molly’s love interest. Just because she behaves somewhat whimsically around Sherlock does not mean she is not capable of holding down a very stressful, high-octane professional job. Her reactions towards Sherlock are not a reflection of how she would treat patients or colleagues. Just because she defers to Sherlock does not mean she is unable to lead a medical team and make unimaginably tough decisions.

Being a doctor is incredibly stressful, not just because your job involves life and death but also because you have to keep up a professional face. Patients expect us to be calm, capable and decisive at all times but we are human beings.  We don’t want to be like that in our personal lives, sometimes it’s nice to just let our guard down and display our insecurities.

The Molly we see interacting with Sherlock is not the capable professional woman, she is deliberately letting go of her façade because she wants to be that love struck teenage girl again. She is stunned, flabbergasted and thrown off balance by him but in a way she likes that. When you have to be in complete control of your emotions all the time during your professional work, it is nice to meet someone you simply can’t fathom and having a giant crush on them is great way to actually get in contact with your emotions. In her interactions with Sherlock, Molly allows herself to feel the joy, sorrow, surprise and heart-ache of someone who is in love and that isn’t a luxury doctors can indulge in most of the time.

Considering these facts does Molly Hooper sound like a weak woman to you? If you still think so perhaps you would like to tell the next female doctor you meet just how weak you think she is.

Sally Donovan

Sally Donovan is an even more remarkable woman than Molly Hooper. She is holding her own in a profession that is dominated by men (more so than medicine). However, not only is she holding her own, she is also highly successful.

The CID (criminal investigations department) is often the most competitive division of any police force. The CID of the Metropolitan Police is severely oversubscribed each year. CID officers are required to have had at least two years as a uniformed officer before applying to transfer to the branch and receive further training when they do so. The initial training program lasts for another two years and hopefuls must pass a written exam before they gain the title of Detective Constable.

Just to be a considered as an applicant you need to show “exceptional” skills and a “truly committed” work record.

Detective Sergeant is a whole new level above this. I have been told by Constables in the police force that making Sergeant is extremely hard right now. Firstly there is the hurdle of the written exam which is no trifling matter. Most constables take over a year to revise for this exam and there is always a high failure rate. However passing the exam is not enough, DS positions in most police forces are oversubscribed, with 10 applicants to 1 place in the Met.

Making it to the rank of DS is no mean feat. For many policemen this is the pinnacle of their career but Sally has achieved this position at a relatively young age. We only see her as a subordinate officer because he boss is constantly on the scene. On other cases DS Sally would be in charge of a group of DCs and work as the team leader.

The Heroine

Many fans are blinded by Sally’s dislike of Sherlock but Moffat/Gatiss have written her as a very courageous character with strong moral convictions.

It took a great deal of bravery to take her suspicions about Sherlock to the Chief Inspector. Many fans have seen this as a deliberate attempt to undermine Greg Lestrade but where in the series have we seen any personal animosity between Lestrade and Donovan? They have a good working relationship. Yes, they fundamentally disagree about Sherlock’s involvement but Sally still supports her boss when Lestrade has made his decision. No one on Lestrade’s team has refused to work with Sherlock despite the occasional petty insult flying around. 

I work in hospital and despite what you might think, there is a strict hierarchy. You never go over the head of your direct boss – ever. Whistle-blowers are rendered almost unemployable by the culture of “loyalty” that exists in medicine.

Whistle-blowers (which is exactly what Sally has become) are actively persecuted in the police as well as the NHS. Doctors who report their superior's mistakes (in order to improve patient care) are often sacked by the trust, and usually cannot find employment elsewhere. This is not a way to advance your career in medicine or the police, it is good way to end it, permanently

I imagine the a much strong feeling of "loyalty" permeates the police force where there is actually a chain of command. Taking her suspicions (without any real evidence) to the Chief Inspector is tantamount to career suicide. Remember at this point, Sally couldn’t know that Sherlock would be utterly disgraced in public. Not only her actions poison her relationship with Lestrade but when word gets out she won’t be wanted on any CID team. She is also taking a big risk going to the Chief Inspector because he might despise her for going against her boss. He certainly would not hold a favourable view of her even after she exposed the “Sherlock disaster”.

She had plenty of opportunities to object to Sherlock's presence officially by going to the standards boards, but she has chosen to tolerate his presence out of respect for Lestrade's decisions. Bringing an untrained civilian onto crimes scenes is high unorthodox and potentially criminal. This is why Lestrade never informed his superior Gregson. When the inevitable investigation/enquiry gets under way Sally is as liable to face disciplinary action as Lestrade. Sally can't be so ignorant as to not know this. 

Sally isn't stupid, anybody would be duped by Moriarty's plans. She discovered that there might be a possibility that Sherlock is behind this heinous crime and she did complain directly to her superior, which is right thing to do. However he wouldn't listen, so she has to go over his head, which I will say is an incredibly brave thing to do. I have seen doctors in similar situations who have kept silent and stood by whilst the problems continued to preserve their own careers. 

I think Sally really believed that Sherlock needed to be investigated, not that he was completely guilty. She wasn't calling for his immediate incarceration, she wanted to have him formally questioned and she was right in doing so. It is basic police procedure to question all potential suspects. 

We have to understand that what Sally exposed is a disaster for the entire Met Police Force, her division and her own career. Many people have suggested that Sally would be promoted to the Lestrade’s position but this is simply not how it is done in the UK.

A scandal of this magnitude would result in a huge number of high profile cases being retried. The entire division will be tarred by the fallout from this and Sally is not going to escape the damage. She actively participated in the cases that Sherlock worked on and “just taking orders” is not a defence. If she is sacked for misconduct, Sally would find it hard to get another DS position somewhere else with her reputation.

Sally knew that she was potentially destroying her career but she wanted to do the right thing even if it meant sacrificing everything that she holds dear.


I greatly admire Molly and Sally. These are two professional women who have successfully carved careers for themselves in very male dominated worlds. They don’t always fulfil what many people believe to be the feminist idea of a “strong woman” in popular imagination: tough, emotionally suppressed and male but that is not the point of “gender equality”. Women should be treated with the same dignity and respect accord to men but it doesn’t mean we have to be like men. How does taking on traditionally “male” attributes contribute to gaining respect for women?

I personally subscribe to cultural feminism ideology. The recognition of "undervalued female attributes" and that women are different to men and fundamentally equal. For my long rant about "feminist ideals" and feminist movements see this post

Other Parts in this Series

1. Why Sherlock is not Sexist - a Re-evaluation

Tags: character: irene adler, character: john watson, character: molly hooper, character: mycroft holmes, character: sherlock holmes, meta: irene adler, meta: john watson, meta: molly hooper, meta: mycroft holmes, meta: sherlock holmes

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