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.
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.