Yesterday, my husband and I rewatched Season 1 of Sherlock. It’s an awesome show, and one that was made even better by repeat viewing in all respects save one: the treatment of the women. I’ve blogged before, pointedly and with bitterness, about the terrible things Steven Moffat routinely does to his female characters in Doctor Who, and though his motives seem to stem more from ignorance than malice, the results are nonetheless unpleasant.
Early on, we’re introduced to Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s contact at the morgue. His obliviousness to her interest in him is played for laughs, which is fine and as it should be; what’s less fine is the way he consistently and cruelly criticises her appearance, which is also played for laughs. In A Study In Pink, he remarks on the fact that without her lipstick, she doesn’t look as nice; it makes her mouth ‘too small’. In The Blind Banker, he defuses her legitimate anger at his behaviour by complimenting her hair, which Molly accepts with a giggle. Finally, in The Great Game, Molly brings in a fake boyfriend, Jim, to try and attract Sherlock’s attention. As the boyfriend turns out to be Moriarty, the implication is that he’s duped her into friendship, though we don’t find this out until later. In the meantime, however, ‘Jim’ has pretended to be gay, which Sherlock points out (there’s a lot of guff about personal grooming and choice in underpants, which feels hideously superficial until it’s revealed that Jim has, in fact, slipped Sherlock his number) – and that might be fine, too, except that he also takes the time to tell Molly ‘You’ve put on three pounds since you’ve been with him.’
‘Two and a half,’ says Molly, desperately.
‘Three,’ Sherlock says again.
The encounter ends, not unsurprisingly, with Molly fleeing the room in tears, and even though Watson points out that Sherlock has been unkind, this is on the basis of so callously revealing her boyfriend to be gay, and not for the remark about her weight.
Next, we have Mrs Hudson. Given the character’s origins, it’s less surprising that she’s given short shrift, but her treatment by the other male characters nonetheless rankles. At two points in The Great Game, she’s shown nattering pleasantly (or trying to natter pleasantly) with Holmes, Lestrade and Watson: in both instances, she is rudely ignored, while in one they actually walk away and leave her talking mid-sentence. Again, this is played for laughs, the implication being that Mrs Hudson, above and beyond being a genial, clueless landlady, is so utterly irrelevant that nobody needs to even acknowledge her presence or attempts at conversation.
Sargent Sally Donovan gets a slightly better deal, in that she’s the one woman shown to interact aggressively with Sherlock, calling him Freak and telling Watson that he’s a psychopath; but we’re also meant to dislike her for this very same reason. She’s also a WOC – the only non-white cast member, in fact – and given the unfortunate tendency of the TV industry to continuously cast black women in angry roles, this facts strikes me as being doubly unfortunate. And then, of course, Sherlock makes the obligatory remark about her sexuality, pointing out to Watson that she’s been sleeping with her (equally unlikeable) white colleague, Anderson, saying she clearly spent the night at his house and must have ‘scrubbed your floors, going by the state of her knees’. Which – as ever – is played for laughs.
Then we have Mycroft’s female assistant, Anthea, who’s shown as being aloof and disinterested in Watson to the point of outright rudeness. Texting almost constantly, she only looks up to rebuff him and, on their second meeting, professes not to know him at all. We’re meant to find her vapid and distant, despite the fact that, as Mycroft’s assistant, she must be exceptionally intelligent and capable. Her characterisation might be brief, but she nonetheless fits the pattern of how women on the show are treated.
Finally for the recurring characters, there’s Sarah, Watson’s love interest. As is par for the course, we know almost nothing about her except that she’s a doctor and a love interest; she obligingly takes on Watson’s locum duties when he falls asleep at work and then gets thoroughly damselled at the end of The Blind Banker, with the intervening time spent being sneered at by Sherlock. Not exactly an offensive piece of characterisation, but hardly stand-out, either. Besides her attraction to Watson, her passivity is her only defining feature.
And the one-off female characters are hardly treated any better. The primary victim in A Study In Pink is female (and one cannot help but notice how her love of pink has been tied to her femininity for the purpose of the plot); in The Blind Banker, Mei Lin Yao is killed while trying to escape a female villain who is herself killed at the end of the episode; and in The Great Game, the gallery owner, Ms Wenceslas, is shown up by Sherlock after trying to exhibit a forged painting. In the same episode, two women, a man and a child have explosives strapped to them: the middle-aged woman is called a ‘stupid bitch’ by Moriarty, while her blind, elderly counterpart is called ‘defective’ and then blown up for trying to describe his voice. Add to this another female victim – Connie Prince, a celebrity makeover artist – and a wife who colluded in her husband’s disappearance in order to collect insurance money, and the scoresheet for female characterisation remains steadfastly at zero.
But wait! I hear you cry. What’s wrong with having female victims and villains? They can’t all be men, and it’s not like there weren’t male victims and villains on offer, too!
Which, yes, of course; and under ordinary circumstances, unless there was an established pattern of preference for pretty female victims, I’d be happy to leave well enough alone. But in Sherlock’s case, these otherwise ordinary oneshot characters all stand as testament to the fact in nearly five hours of television, every single female character is either a villain, a victim, a dupe or a damsel: someone to be arrested, avenged, ridiculed or rescued. And under those circumstances, no, I do not care that a few male characters also suffer the same fate, because as the entire narrative premise is centred on Two Exceptionally Awesome Men Being Awesome And Exceptional, there is no imbalance between clever/likeable and stupid/unlikeable blokes to merit the comparison.
I am not asking for a female character to be smarter or better than Sherlock Holmes: it is, after all, his story. I’m not even arguing that it ought to pass the Bechdel test (which it doesn’t), even though I’d love it if it did. I am, however, deeply disappointed that not even one female character is anywhere near the equal of Watson, Lestrade or Mycroft, or who at the very least could engage in some sort of banter with one or any of them. There is a great, yawning gap between “as smart as Sherlock Holmes” and “gormless passivity”, and while we have male characters aplenty who fit that bill, not a single woman does. The only woman described as clever, in fact, is the victim in A Study In Pink - but seeing as how she’s already dead, that doesn’t add much to the overall quality of female repartee.
“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
And it angers me. It angers me because I tend like, if not love, the stuff Moffat works with - Doctor Who and Sherlock and Tintin - but am forced to do so in spite of what he believes and says and writes about my gender. And I am SICK of it.
- This piece is also posted here.