Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

It’s 1892, and Abigail Rook, the runaway daughter of an English explorer, has just arrived in the American port city of New Fiddleham, dressed as a boy and in search of a job. After a chance encounter with the eccentric R. F. Jackaby, a self-professed paranormal detective and seer, Abigail soon finds herself employed as his assistant. But a serial killer is on the loose, and with Jackaby convinced the villain is supernatural rather than human, Abigail finds herself thrust into danger. With the help of Charlie Cane, a young policeman, and Jenny Cavanagh, a resident ghost, can Abigail and Jackaby solve the case? Or will they end up on the wrong end of the killer’s knife?

Given the current multiplicity of Sherlock Holmes adaptations on screen and in print, it was only a matter of time before a paranormal interpretation emerged. Aimed squarely at a young adult audience and published by Algonquin Young Readers, Jackaby is a playful, affectionate take on the Holmes mythos wherein the titular character has the unique ability to see the supernatural. The homage to Conan Doyle is openly acknowledged in Chapter One, when Abigail surmises Jackaby to be a detective ‘like whatsisname, aren’t you? The one who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories, right?’ (pg 7-8). However, in deference to the fact that Jackaby’s oddness and deductive powers are much more rooted in the magical than the scientific – he can literally see what others can’t – it soon proves to be Abigail who’s more possessed of the traditional Holmsian flair for noticing details.

Every so often in my reviewing career, I come across a book whose plot is so transparent that I can’t decide whether it’s a feature or a bug. On the one hand, the fact that some books can be incredibly complex doesn’t preclude others from being intentionally simple, not because the author is underestimating their audience (or at least, not necessarily for that reason), but because the emotional impact of the story lies elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the whodunnit in Jackaby was intended to be a puzzle for the reader to solve, instead of – as I found it to be – blindingly obvious from minute one. But even in the latter case, this doesn’t necessarily make it a flaw in the narrative so much as, potentially, a reflection on me as a reader: I’ve always had something of a knack for narrative prescience, and particularly in shorter books, it takes a lot to really surprise me with a Big Reveal.

All of which is a way of saying that, while the internal logic of Jackaby’s central mystery was consistently plotted, there was never a point at which I was left wondering whodunnit. The facts of the whydunnit, however, were much more compelling – and, indeed, original. There was, however, a bothersome reliance on Characters Not Telling Each Other Things in order to maintain suspense around this point: as Abigail, not Jackaby, is our narrator, the fact that he solves this aspect of the mystery much earlier on is hidden from the reader by his refusal/inability to explain his theory to Abigail. This is always a dicey gambit to try, even when the characters have good reasons for hiding the truth from each other, but in Jackaby, it ends up being played as a consequence of interrupted conversations and Jackaby’s abstract nature, which is a fairly poor excuse.

That being said, the mystery itself – while not actually mysterious, per se – nonetheless serves as a solid introduction to the world itself; and, more specifically, to Abigail’s place within it. A clever, insightful heroine who more than earns her place in Jackaby’s employ, Abigail makes for an excellent narrator. She has a sense of humour, a realistic approach to the strangeness she encounters, and a spirit of inquiry and determination that make her thoroughly likeable. What really makes Jackaby work, however – and what serves to give Abigail such a strong voice – is author William Ritter’s skill as a writer. The book itself is lovingly written, managing to give a period feel without coming off as either dense or pompous, and whatever other complaints I had about the book, the literary style was not among them.

All things considered, Jackaby makes for a quick, enjoyable read – a solid introduction to what I hope will be an ongoing series, and an affectionate take on the Holmes ideal as told from the perspective of a competent, quick-witted heroine.

That being so, and in the spirit of Christmas cheer, I’m giving away another Algonquin Young Readers title, Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy. The giveaway is open internationally, and will close on Christmas day. To enter, leave a comment telling me about your favourite new YA title of 2014, and a winner will be chosen randomly by December 22nd.

ARCs of both Jackaby and The Witch’s Boy were provided to the writer by Algonquin Young Readers.

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Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two  seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to  emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s exorbitant standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House – and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of  female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite. But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

So because I am a crazy lady who cares about her stories and her feminism, I have basically spent the whole week having imaginary internal arguments with Steven Moffat about the sexism in Sherlock and Doctor Who. And because I am also a crazy lady with a blog, I have decided to get all of this angsting off my chest in a cathartic, therapeutic way by having an imaginary interview with Imaginary Steven Moffat right here on the internet, in honour of the forthcoming Sherlock episode.

Thus, I give you: My Imaginary Interview With Imaginary Steven Moffat!

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Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog.

ISM: Thank you. Though I feel I should start by apologising.

Me: Oh? Why?

ISM: I’ll be honest. I have no idea who you are. My Imaginary Agent booked this gig at the last minute, so… you have the advantage of me. (Laughs)

Me: (Laughs) Fair enough! Well, in brief: my name is Foz Meadows, I’m a fantasy author, a geek, a blogger and a feminist – and as you’ve been honest enough to start with an apology, I probably should, too.

ISM: And why’s that?

Me: Because – straight to the point – I’ve basically got you here to talk about the concerns of many that there’s a theme of sexism in your work, specifically Sherlock and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Who.

ISM: Look. I’m very tired of these accusations. Neither I nor anyone on the team is either sexist, or a misogynist, and frankly I find the suggestion offensive. As I’ve said before in response to Jane Clare Jones’s piece in the Guardian:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings. I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong. 

Me: Right, OK. I understand that. And like I said, I apologise, because you’ve come in here not knowing that this is the topic under discussion, when clearly it’s something you feel very strongly about.

ISM: There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a sexist. I respect women.

Me: All right. I hear what you’re saying. But as you say, there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between what a writer believes in real life and the things they write about, and on those grounds, I and a lot of other fans would contend there’s a case to answer.

ISM: This interview is over. I’m leaving.

Me: I’m sorry, Imaginary Steven Moffat, but it’s not, and you’re not, because this is all happening in my head. You’re Imaginary Steven Moffat, not Real Steven Moffat, and while I’m sure he might like to leave at this point, this whole thing is, as they say, my party. One way or another, we’re going to thrash this out.

ISM: Rats.

Me: Right. So, before we get to the meat of things, I’d like to make one thing clear from the outset.

ISM: Go on, then. Clearly I can’t stop you.

Me: Thank you. What I want to begin by saying is – and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me – that contrary to how it might seem, I am actually a fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock.

ISM: (Snorts) You’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Me: I can see how it might appear that way, and I’ve definitely used some strong language to get my point across. But I’m sick of this idea that offering up real criticism of the things I love somehow makes me a bad fan. If I didn’t like your shows, I wouldn’t bother critiquing them, because I wouldn’t bother watching; but that doesn’t mean that all their good points are enough to make me excuse the sexism. A lot of what’s on TV is far worse than anything you’ve put out, but that’s why I avoid it. Certainly, I’ll complain about the damage they do, but not in personal terms, because I have no attachment to the material. But I do care about the Doctor; I do care about Sherlock Holmes. These are both characters who’ve existed long before you ever started to write them, who have dedicated fandoms and histories that precede your work by decades. You were two years old when Doctor Who first aired, and Conan Doyle was writing in the 1800s. That’s a long time for people to become attached to these stories.

ISM: So what you’re saying is that by taking over two existing narratives, I’ve come along and ruined a good thing – that all the previous interpretations are better, and that because my work doesn’t meet your standards, it’s crap.

Me: Not at all. You’re a fantastic writer. You have great ideas, you put together great production teams. A lot of your work I really love. But what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between picking up an existing story and creating something new, because existing stories come with existing audiences.

ISM: So I should just avoid doing anything original with old material?

Me: No, no! It’s not that you shouldn’t try new things – I love that Sherlock is set in the modern day. It’s just – remember what I said earlier, about not critiquing shows I don’t care about?

ISM: Yes.

Me: Well, I’d say that’s true of the majority of people. So when a new, original show rubs us the wrong way, it’s a very easy matter to disengage: we don’t have any investment in the story beyond what we’re willing to put in at the outset. And if you, as a writer – as all writers do – start to build up a portfolio based on your individual kind of storytelling, then as you move from project to project, you’ll start to collect fans whose primary investment in each of your new stories is the fact of your involvement: that you, Imaginary Steven Moffat, are the one in charge. By the same token, though, some people might not like your storytelling style; maybe they’re just ambivalent, or they’ve never heard of you, or they like it, but not enthusiastically enough to consider themselves a fan. Maybe they even hate it. But if you start writing about characters that are dear to them – like Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes – then those people will end up watching your shows, too. And unlike your usual fanbase, their primary motive isn’t your involvement, but the presence of existing characters. And this is important, because it means that a significant proportion of the people responding critically to your output will end up critiquing, not just the show itself, but the way you’re telling it. And because the characters aren’t yours, their opinions can’t just be written off by saying the show isn’t for them; because clearly, those characters are for them, or they wouldn’t have bothered watching.

ISM: I don’t think I’ve ever said these shows aren’t for fans of the originals. Quite the opposite.

Me: No, I’m not saying you did. But what I’m ultimately getting at here is that perhaps one reason why the accusation of sexism has upset you so much is that it’s no something you’ve had to deal with from your usual fanbase, and you’re confused as to why people like me, who are being heavily critical, are watching to begin with.

ISM: You do think badly of me, then.

Me: A little bit, yes.

ISM: Hah!

Me: Look, I’m trying to be honest. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and I certainly don’t expect you to be. But part of fighting sexism is acknowledging that, precisely because we’re not perfect, our ideals and our actions don’t always match up.

ISM: You’re making it sound like I have lapses; like I suddenly forget that women are equal to men and behave like a Neanderthal. It’s ridiculous. I’m not a sexist; I repudiate sexism; therefore, there is no sexism in my writing.

Me: But that doesn’t logically follow, does it?

ISM: Excuse me?

Me: Well, look at it this way. It it possible to offend someone unintentionally, even when you’re trying to be polite?

ISM: What, you mean like a back-handed compliment?

Me: No, I mean genuinely by accident. Like, say I meet someone at a party whose outfit I think is stunning, and I compliment them on their style by comparing them to a particular celebrity who, unbeknownst to me, they completely loathe.

ISM: Obviously that’s possible, yes.

Me: OK, right, good. So, sticking with that example, what if I know beforehand that the person hates the celebrity, and I still make the comparison?

ISM: That would be deliberately offensive, yes.

Me: Yes, it would – but what if, even knowing what I know, it’s my firm belief that the person’s dislike for the celebrity is unreasonable? That because I’d consider the comparison to be complimentary, they should, too, and that by making the comparison, I’m partially trying to bring them around to my way of thinking?

ISM: Still offensive, but in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, though.

Me: Of course. It’s a more contextual point. But can we agree that, even though I’ve paid the compliment knowing it will be badly received, to my way of thinking, I’ve not actually said anything offensive? That because I wouldn’t be offended if someone said that to me, I haven’t set out to be insulting, and that if the person is insulted, then that’s down to their beliefs more than it is my actions?

ISM: Technically, yes, I agree. Though you shouldn’t be surprised if they still react badly to it.

Me: Of course not. But compare all this to what you’ve just said about sexism. Intentions only carry us so far. Believing that you’re not sexist doesn’t prevent you from perpetuating sexism any more than intending to be complimentary prevents me from being insulting. And when you react to the knowledge that some people find your work sexist, not by considering the possibility that it is, but by continuing to assert that we’re wrong to see it that way – by saying something you know we’ll find it offensive – then, as you say, you shouldn’t be surprised that we react badly.

ISM: Yes, all right, very clever. But this is all metaphorical; you haven’t actually addressed the content of what I’ve written.

Me: OK, then. Consider Irene Adler. In the original Conan Doyle story, A Scandal in Bohemia, she beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game, marries her fiancé and leaves England victorious, while he is left – according to Watson – with a new-found respect for the intellectual capabilities of women. There’s also an inference that he’s attracted to her, because the only payment he takes for the case is her photo: at the very least, he certainly admires her.

ISM: And Sherlock admires her in my version, too. He definitely respects her.

Me: Yes, but he also beats her; she “beats” him with a riding crop – which is a nice play on words, I grant you – but he’s the one who actually wins. And then at the end, you’ve literally made her a damsel in distress, rescued from execution by terrorists in Karachi.

ISM: Look, I’m sorry, but it seems like a pretty poor definition of sexism to say that men can never beat women. Following that logic, any story where women don’t come out on top is sexist.

Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you were writing an original story where your male protagonist triumphed over and subsequently rescued a female antagonist whom he nonetheless respected, that would be one thing. But when you take an existing, much-beloved story where the female antagonist not only wins, but is vaunted by the male protagonist for doing so – where this is, in fact, the primary basis for his admiring her – and change it so that things end up the other way around, then yes, I’m going to call that sexist.

ISM: (Angry) So you’re saying I wrote Adler the way I did because I’m a sexist? That wanting to write a fresh interpretation had nothing to do with it, and all I really wanted to do was put her down as a character?

Me: (Frustrated) No! What I’m saying is that you elected to make Sherlock look really badass by having him first defeat and then rescue an intelligent Irene Adler, but without appreciating the fact that making male characters stronger at the expense of their female counterparts is one of the oldest, most sexist tropes in the book. Using the trope unconsciously doesn’t make you a sexist: but it doesn’t strop the trope from being sexist, and if you refuse to acknowledge that some narrative conventions are founded on sexism, then you will invariably include sexism in your work.

ISM: So men being cooler than women is sexist?

Me: No, not just being cooler than. Being cooler at the expense of. Can you see that there’s a distinction?

ISM: (Pauses) Hypothetically, yes, but I don’t see how that applies in the case of Adler.

Me: Sherlock is made to look cool and competent because Adler’s feelings for him prove her undoing. That’s coolness for him at her expense: she loses her professionalism – the phone being “Sherlocked” – while he gains credibility for spotting the error. Then she has to beg him for protection: she loses her dignity so that he, in refusing her, can gain mastery. Finally, she loses her competence – the ability to get herself out of trouble – while he gains power for rescuing her.

ISM: But now we’re just back again to this tired idea of sexism meaning any story where women lose to men.

Me: No, we’re not. Because as an existing character being reinterpreted, Adler is quite literally loosing her essence. In Conan Doyle’s original, she has professionalism, dignity and power, and the story ends with her in possession of all three. But in your version, Sherlock strips these qualities from her to enhance himself, and for no other reason than that you wrote him that way.

ISM: (Uncomfortable) All right. I can see how people might be… I can see why some people might not like that ending, though I know a lot of them have. But the story is about Sherlock, after all – it’s his show, it’s his party. Why shouldn’t he be the best character?

Me: Imaginary Mr Moffat, if you think that losing once to an exceptional woman is enough to stop Sherlock Holmes from being the best character in his own show, then we really do have a problem.

ISM: (Silence)

Me: The fact is, you have a habit of depowering your female characters to make your male protagonists look stronger. That doesn’t mean your women are badly written, or that your male characters are sexist, or that you are. It means that, somewhere along the line, you’ve unconsciously absorbed two very old and very powerful narrative ideas: that a protagonist who routinely proves himself better than the other characters is a strong protagonist; and that an exceptional man can be made even cooler by his rescue of an exceptional woman. And because we live in a society that’s still overrun with sexism, you’ve also taken on board the idea that it’s acceptable to make jokes about women’s bodies.

ISM: I think you’re going too far, now. I’ve conceded the point about Irene Adler, but now you’re grasping at straws. Where did all this appearance stuff come into it?

Me: Molly Hooper. Sherlock is constantly criticising her make-up, her clothes, her appearance, her sexuality. Twice, he makes her cry. He even criticizes her weight, making it a negative thing that being with her new boyfriend has caused her to get heavier, when in Conan Doyle’s books, that same exchange was a friendly one between Holmes and Watson, with the weight-gain being part of a cheerful, positive assessment of how marriage agreed with John. In Doctor Who, too, when Mels regenerates into River, the first thing she does is start talking about her body, what clothes will fit and how she needs to weigh herself. For an entire season, Amy is reduced to being a womb in a box – the Doctor even destroys the ‘ganger that took her place, because she’s not “real”, even though he’d just spent the whole episode telling people that ‘gangers deserved human rights – and then later, you let Old Amy die in favour of saving her younger counterpart, even though Old Amy has been suffering for forty years. In both cases, a copy of Amy dies because her body is wrong – she’s not the real, young Amy, and so she can cease to exist with impunity.

ISM: This is a separate point, though, to the one you were making before.

Me: Separate, but related to why critics think there are sexist themes running through both interpretations.

ISM: I don’t see it. You’re taking all these scenes out of context. This isn’t about plot, and it’s not about changing an existing character. Molly, Amy and River are my creations. You’ve gone completely off-message.

Me: OK, I’ll admit to having jumped around a bit. My apologies for that. But I’d like to run with another hypothetical.

ISM: Do I have a choice?

Me: Not really.

ISM: (Muttering) My Imaginary Agent is so fired, I can’t even.

Me: Right. So imagine I’m the writer and creator of a TV show called The Last Amazon – it’s about Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen from Greek legend, being an immortal, kickass warrior who’s lived through to the present day and has now teamed up with a team of geeky sidekicks to fight the forces of mythological darkness.

ISM: If you say so.

Me: Now, this is mostly an SFF show, but with mystery elements. Sure, there’ll be flashes of romance and sexual tension from time to time, but mainly it’s about magic mixing with technology, solving crimes and having crazy adventures.

ISM: Right.

Me: Apart from Hippolyte, most of the geeky sidekicks are women. There’s one or two men involved, but in almost every encounter with the female characters, they either suffer hilarious put downs or are told to shut up. One of them has a massive crush on Hippolyte, but she’s a kickass Amazon warrior – she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and makes hurtful jokes at his expense, which is played for laughs. The female camaraderie is the real emotional heart of the show: ladies looking out for each other, being awesome, and only really dealing with men on the sidelines. In fact, men are mostly encountered as victims: handsome surfer youths who’ve been drowned by Sirens, loving fathers who’ve been ripped apart by Harpies, little boys who’ve been kidnapped by Neriads, wise old men who are callously killed by the descendants of Circe. Sometimes women die, too, but those deaths are always more perfunctory, less brutal and less emotionally intense than those of men. Most killers are, by contrast, women: goddesses and girl-monsters all, and there’s a general sense that, by taking them on, the female protagonists are fighting the worst aspects of their own gender: protecting the less powerful men from the predations of cruel, murderous women.

ISM: Very subtle.

Me: And yet, the reverse dynamic is the sacred foundation of almost every crime procedural, ever. Except for the put-downs part. That’s just for your benefit.

ISM: Touché.

Me: Anyway. You’re watching this show because hey, Greek mythology is awesome! And you really start to get into it. But then you notice the fact that the women are always putting down the men. You notice that, while the female costumes are cut concealingly, to make them look well-dressed and competent, the pretty young men are always shown shirtless or wearing revealing clothes – and that’s offputting, because it’s ultimately unnecessary. You notice that the men, though clearly doing important work in the background, are never given due appreciation by the other characters. You notice that time and again, they’re the ones imperilled and threatened; they’re the weak link the villains always seek to exploit. You notice that the men are always ruled by their emotions, falling in love with the women at first sight, their romantic epiphanies made grandiose while the women are allowed to remain aloof. You notice that the women often make jokes about how the men look – about their weight, and their hair, and their attractiveness, their probable penis size and how good they are in bed; sometimes they’re even shown to call their male partners the wrong name, which is played for laughs. You notice that, given a bunch of new characters to protect in a perilous situation, it’s always the men who end up dying for dramatic effect. You notice that, while the female characters are given room to develop in lots of different ways, the men are primarily defined by their sexuality: as lovers, adulterers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers, but rarely anything else. And when Hercules, Hippolyte’s historical love interest, shows up on the scene, you’re dismayed to find that, far from being the competent warrior who won her love and then left her, as per the old story, he instead shows up as a high-class escort – one who claims to be gay, but then falls for Hippolyte anyway – while she then humiliates and rescues him in short order.

ISM: Like I said. Subtle. And long-winded.

Me: I’ll get to the point, then. Having watched The Last Amazon, you, as a male viewer, start to feel that I, the female creator, might be a bit of a misandrist. Certainly, there are elements of misandry in my characterisation, or of sexism at the very least. You cannot find any male characters who come out on top, and while you still appreciate that this is meant to be Hippolyte’s show, you don’t see why there can’t be more of a balance where the portrayal of men is concerned. You’re not the only one to have noticed the problems, either. You write about them, detailing your complaints in blogs and newspaper articles. And then I respond, because I’m angry at your criticism. I say that I’m not a sexist; that I find it offensive that anyone would use the word misandry to describe what I do, because obviously I believe women and men are equal – and after all, I’m married! I say your claim is ridiculous, and don’t address your specific concerns beyond saying that you’re out of line. I am not a sexist, I protest; therefore, my show isn’t sexist. End of discussion. So how would that leave you feeling?

ISM: I’d be angry. Frustrated. At the very least, I’d start to think that, if you really disliked sexism, then you’d want to make very sure that you weren’t perpetuating it by accident, rather than just assuming it was impossible. That you were reacting defensively, automatically, without any sort of self-assessment at all. The unfairness of it would nag at me until one day, having had various arguments with you in my head about what you were doing wrong, I realised that we’d never be able to have a proper conversation, and so decided to write down an interview with Imaginary Foz Meadows about all the misandry and sexism in The Last Amazon. Because even an imaginary dialogue would be better than your angry, non-response to the legitimate complaints of fans who are sick of seeing their gender slighted and demonised in the media.

Me: And?

ISM: Oh.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, thanks for joining me.

ISM: It’s been a pleasure.

Warning: All The Spoilers.

I didn’t like it.

Here is the short explanation as to why I didn’t like it:

Here is the long explanation as to why I didn’t like it:

Strauss was present at the first seminar, run by Mystery, at which students actually left the classroom to go “in field.” Mystery began by explaining the basic structure of seduction—FMAC, for find, meet, attract, and close. He explained the power of the mysterious “neg,” one of the great innovations of the seduction community. Strauss describes it thus: Neither compliment nor insult, a neg is something in between—an accidental insult or backhanded compliment. The purpose of the neg is to lower a woman’s self-esteem while actively displaying a lack of interest in her—by telling her she has lipstick on her teeth, for example, or offering her a piece of gum after she speaks. “I don’t alienate ugly girls,” Mystery explains. “I don’t alienate guys. I only alienate the girls I want to fuck.”

– Wesley Yang, Game Theory

The above quote comes from an article describing a tactic used by pick-up artists – or PUAs, as they call themselves – to attract women. There’s a reason why I’ve included here. Keep it in mind. We’ll get to it eventually.

First things first: A Scandal in Belgravia is a structurally awkward episode. It starts with Moriarty, but doesn’t end with him. The plot jackrabbits from one point to the next, so that someone is killed with a boomerang, and we’re never told why it matters. The continuity of Adler’s love for Holmes is shoddy to say the least, because if the end result is to be believed, she must have fallen for him before they ever actually met. Half the story falls by the wayside somewhere around the midpoint and is never actually recovered. The whole thing is set over a period of months, but with no real reason for why this needs to be so except that it brings the narrative timeline in keeping with that of the real world, and with the added consequence of making events seem alternately rushed or drawn out.

Next, as this has been my particular point of complaint with the show, let’s have a rundown of how the ladies are treated.

We’ll start with Mrs Hudson, who has three major appearances. During one, Mycroft actually yells at her to shut up, in response to which both Sherlock and Watson yell ‘Mycroft!’ back at him, horrified. This could count as a positive thing, except that, once Mycroft has mumbled an apology, Sherlock turns and says, ‘But really, Mrs Hudson. Do shut up.’ Later in the episode, American thugs break into Baker Street and, having hauled her viciously upstairs, tie her to a chair, put a gun to her head, and duct-tape her mouth. Sherlock comes to the rescue, and in a moment of genuine, angry revenge, having already tied the leader up, calls an ambulance to report the injuries he then goes on to inflict on the man – by throwing him out the window. Shortly afterwards, Sherlock comforts the shaken landlady, and when Watson suggests she go to stay with her sister, Holmes gives her a hug and says, ‘Mrs Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall.’ Which is actually quite sweet.

The Christmas scene, however, where Mrs Hudson reports that she enjoys the holiday ‘because it’s the one day the boys have to be nice to me,’ is much more characteristic. For the second time in four episodes, Sherlock’s callousness towards Molly results in her being reduced to tears – a painful enough scene that both my husband and I had to look away, and which shocks even Sherlock enough that he asks her forgiveness and gives her a kiss on the cheek. Which isn’t sweet, because it shouldn’t have been necessary; it only looks that way because it’s better than the alternative, and given what happens overall, I’m disinclined to bestow a Not As Big A Jerk As He Could Have Been award on either Sherlock or Moffat.

There’s a token appearance from Watson’s new girlfriend, whose name Sherlock has forgotten, and who, later on the episode, dumps Watson when he, too, mistakes her for a predecessor. This does not make me think well of either of them, and nor does the passing reference Sherlock makes that ‘if I want to look at naked women, I use John’s laptop’ – a line which I found disproportionately offensive, if only because it makes Sherlock’s sexuality look crude and porny at a point when the rest of the episode is trying to show the opposite.

And then, most importantly of all, we have the Woman herself: Irene Adler, who in this incarnation is a professional dominatrix. As has been skillfully pointed out elsewhere, the disparity between who Adler is and why Holmes respects her in the original story and where she’s ended up now is breathtaking. Adler is meant to be the only woman who ever beats Sherlock: she has no sexual interest in him whatsoever – in fact, the story ends with her getting married to someone else – but her intelligence and skills impress him so profoundly that he keeps her photo and, as a direct result, stops devaluing the abilities of women. Instead, we get an Adler who acts as Morairty’s pawn; whose love for Sherlock undoes her so profoundly that she loses everything; and who, after unsuccessfully begging Sherlock for mercy and being cast out, is nonetheless overcome with gratitude as he rescues her from beheading at the hands of terrorists in Karachi.

Yes. You read that right.

I just… OK. Look. I’ll start with the positives: Adler and Sherlock have chemistry. Their banter mostly works, and there’s a few genuinely nice moments between them chock-full of well-acted tension.

But.

Adler – this Adler – is a dominatrix. Whatever you make of that choice (and we shall have words on the topic shortly), she nonetheless is one in both a professional and personal capacity. Now, bearing in mind that I know comparatively little about BDSM sexuality and culture, it still seems to me as though being a dom is an intrinsic enough part of her personality that, even had she really fallen for Sherlock in such a short space of time, the idea that she would beg him for mercy goes utterly against the grain; added to which fact, and no matter how sexually naive this series paints him to be, Sherlock does not strike me – nor, to judge by their banter, does he strike Adler – as a sub. Which would seem, you know. Important. Or at least, it should be, except for the fact that Adler is a prime time dominatrix: a dominatrix for the vanilla set, established as such only by her riding crop and aggressive demeanor. Crucially, it’s the latter that’s played as the primary evidence of her sexual proclivities; as though all doms only ever have one mode – conquer – and are never shown at their ease; or, more disturbingly, as though Moffat’s only means of envisaging a sexually and intellectually competent woman is to make her a dominatrix. As such, the climax of the episode is not, as Mycroft suggests, that Adler is ‘the dominatrix who brought the nation to its knees’ – instead, we take away that even a professional dom will submit on all fronts to Sherlock Holmes, because that’s how awesome he is.

Only it’s not awesome. It’s insulting.

As, for that matter, is the fact that he both guesses Adler’s measurements and then uses them as the pin to her vault, because she’s apparently so shallow as to have made them the keycode; as is the fact that he makes remarks about her age; as is the fact that she greets him naked; as is the fact that, given Sherlock’s best and only female adversary, Steven Moffat can find nothing better to do with her than make her a victim of her own ladyfeelings while Sherlock rides to her rescue.

All of these things irritate me – not just by themselves, but because they stand as testament to the fact that, once again, Steven Moffat has taken an existing concept with an established female fanbase and injected a dash of sexism and misogyny into the proceedings. Because of him, I have stopped watching Doctor Who. His are the only seasons I refuse to buy on DVD. I literally cannot bring myself to tackle the Christmas episode. And yet a significant part of the fan community for both series seems, if not exactly unaware of the problems, then unwilling to tackle them, or to let them spoil the moment, because having awesome shows that aren’t sexist is apparently less important than shipping Holmes and Watson. It doesn’t matter that, under Moffat, the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes have both become the same snide, angry, rude, sociopathic, lying genius who mistreats his friends and stays emotionally distant from the people who care for him, or that River Song and Irene Adler are essentially the same person. No: what matters are the quips, the nudity, and the hot young actors. And that bothers me.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable, or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. Either way, I cannot shake the feeling that the fan community is, aided and abetted by tumblr, rewriting the series in realtime, erasing the sexism in favour of focusing on how pretty Benedict Cumberbatch looks when wearing only a sheet; and while I am certainly sympathetic to the attractions of the later, I am fearful that the earnestness and immediacy with which fans are undertaking the former project is obscuring useful dialogue about why the sexism was ever there at all. By releasing sexually loaded clips of naked-Adler and naked-Holmes prior to the episode’s airing, Moffat made the fans invest in their relationship in a context-free environment. But the story he’s written is vastly less equal than the one most fans assumed must, naturally, exist; and because they are committed to its existence, it is the story they will continue to believe – not because it was told to them, but because they have told it to themselves.

Which begs the question: how do I square Moffat’s supposed sexism with the fact that he cheerfully panders to the female fanbase? For whom was the naked Sherlock meant, if not us? And it is at this point, ladies, that I refer you back to the quote above and invite you to consider an unwelcome possibility: that we are all of us being negged. Baiting his hook with ‘shiptease, Moffat has drawn us in, engaged us in conversation, and then insulted us to our faces. If, then, as a fandom, our main response is to continue talking about how hot the actors are as though nothing untoward had happened – instead of calling this bullshit – our reward shall be a shallow, meaningless fuck, the only long-term consequences of which are to leave us feeling dirty and Moffat with a freshly reaffirmed belief that what women viewers really want are men who act like bastards. Specifically, that we want fiercely intelligent (but handsome!) sociopaths whose rudeness is excused by genius, whose inability to display normal human courtesy and kindness is considered further proof of their worthiness, and whose star quality as partners is their ability to rescue their female offsiders from the consequences of having dangerous lady-obsessions.

Or, put another way: the scene in the episode where Sherlock acts like an obnoxious dick to Molly, and then buys her off with a kiss on the cheek when she cries? That is what Steven Moffat is doing to us. It does not compensate for the rudeness that came before. It does not compensate for the sexism. It does not compensate for stripping Irene Adler of everything that mattered. It will not excuse the inclusion of further awfulness in any future episodes.

And I am sick of people acting as though it should.

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.

Charming.

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.

But then, the show is the brainchild of Steven Moffat, who hasn’t got aspectacular track record when it comes to writing women, and to whom the following quote from 2004 is lamentably attributable:

“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.”

Which, um.

ABOUT THAT.

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.