Sherlock (Still) Has a Woman Problem

by | January 4, 2016
filed under Pop Culture

Sherlock promo image

Spoilers: This post discusses “The Abominable Bride,” which aired on BBC 1 on January 1, 2016

On January 1st, I sat down with my BBC iPlayer to watch Steven Moffat’s most recent addition to the Sherlock dynasty, and immediately wondered if “The Abominable Bride” was going to right the repeated wrongs of this often-criticized writer. Was this 90-minute episode about to go some distance to correct Moffat’s erasure, stereotyping and problematic writing of women? I couldn’t have been the only one of the 8.4 million viewers to register some shock when Mrs. Hudson calls out John Watson for failing to write about her as more than just a muzzled landlady.

She states, (and I am sure that I heard the echo of every single one of The Doctor’s companions in the voice of Una Stubbs) that she is “[a] landlady, not a plot device.”

But things quickly fall apart with Holmes dismissing the much aggrieved Hudson, mumbling to Watson, “just give her a line,” a nod from Moffat, that the ladies can surely have a line or two but, please, let’s just leave the serious crime fighting to the big boys. My heart was practically in my throat with the episode’s decision to have Hudson shouting most of her lines from off-screen.

Ugh. Moffat. I see what you’re doing. You’re too smart to be just accidentally misogynist.

The patronizing of women litters “An Abominable Bride.” It distracts the viewer from the layered narrative that visits a contemporary Holmes, who is self-administering an overdose of hallucinogenic drugs to facilitate a visit to the snigger-inducing “mind palace” (he might as well call it his man cave), that whisks us back to the Victorian period and the setting of Conan Doyle’s original compendium of tales.

I would have liked to enjoy Moffat’s obvious nod to Victorian England and Jeremy Brett’s rendition of Holmes, but I was too busy being slightly appalled by the consistently sloppy attempt to deal with troublesome women.

Certainly, Moffat is trying. Trying something. I just can’t, in the face of this iceberg-sized list of failures, consider this floppy and flawed attempt at writing strong women as a check mark for the writer.

Sure. He casts Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan, next to Mycroft, in a second Holmes and Watson duo, but first drapes her in the stomach-churning stereotype of a nagging, lonely, infantilized foot-stamping wife, who is desperate to pull her husband away from his very important work.

Are we supposed to feel elated when Moffat slaps a moustache and britches on Molly Hooper in her Victorian rendition? It feels more like Moffat is suggesting that women can’t be feminine and successful. Instead we have to shed all of our femme qualities if we want to feel the benefits of “leaning in.”

Sure. Mycroft, when hinting at suffragettes and the birth of feminism, cryptically admits that men must “lose the war because they are wrong.” But, the story’s focus on feminism’s inception, which ends up being the underpinning to the gruesome Victorian crime, is problematic – not only from a historical perspective (like, dude is just plain wrong), but also from any contemporary reality.

Moffat depicts a feminism that is framed by violent and aggressive acts. For Moffat, feminism, and by extension, any empowered woman, is a weird, creepy, KKK-like, cape-wearing society that operates with the intention of seeking revenge on men who broke up with them. The feminists in Moffat’s Victorian England smear lipstick across their faces, dress in drag and blow off the heads of their husbands with shotguns.

Jesus Christ, Moffat. This isn’t Feminism. And I know he’s smart enough to know otherwise.

I would have almost preferred Moffat leaving women out of his stories, sticking to the already dude-centric model spun out in the originals. At least we had Irene Adler.

It was easy to fall in love with the BBC’s most recent spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, first airing in 2010. Shot in a hyper-stylized manner that smacks of some of our favourite dramas, the series has parlayed into some of tv’s most corkscrewing and breath-baiting narratives where social media and smart-phones play bigger roles than Mrs. Hudson.

With shelves full of BAFTAs, Emmys and Golden Globes, the series continues to receive a glut of critical praise. It delivers exactly what Conan Doyle’s original stories intended: tightly written plot lines with complex characters that sprinkle humanizing and loveable qualities throughout the stories. For a lot of people, Moffat’s Sherlock is everything they could want in a crime drama.

But, the show’s creator, who is also the driving energy behind another wildly famous BBC series, Doctor Who, is belligerently confident with his abhorrent views on things like women, women and women. Did I mention that he has a problem with women? And these aren’t only moments when feminism has taken this writer to task for refusing to cast strong female characters, instead these are instances where Moffat has confidently spewed his misogyny into a microphone or bent the ear of an interviewer with statements like, “Women are needy…Men can go for longer, more happily, without women…Meanwhile, women are out there hunting for husbands.”

I guess when you are fuelled by the ferocious success of two top-grossing television shows airing on the UK’s biggest media platform, it’s easy to wear your problem with women on your sleeve.

I am not saying that you have to toss the baby out with the bathwater. There is value in Moffat’s fanfiction (because, sorry Moffat, that’s what you’re creating), but Moffat is a huge figure in entertainment, and he needs to be held accountable for the dangerous content he turns out.

But when you’re someone who thinks women are only in it for the cheekbones of Cumberbatch, I guess you don’t see changing things as much of a priority.

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  • Michael Fairney

    shelves full of BAFTAs, Emmys and Golden Globes, the series continues
    to receive a glut of critical praise. It delivers exactly what Conan
    Doyle’s original stories intended: tightly written plot lines with
    complex characters that sprinkle humanizing and loveable qualities
    throughout the stories. For a lot of people, Moffat’s Sherlock is
    everything they could want in a crime drama. –

    but despite all that, the women folk still aren’t happy…
    hmmm, you know, this is why guys generally think that when it comes to women, you just can’t win, and so most men give up trying.
    Do you really think that the portrayal of a couple of women in one episode of one TV show is supposed to sum up everything we should think of women for all time?

    Seriously. the whole point of the episode was to come up with an interesting plot twist, not to make some general statement about women.

    just relax.

    • “Do you really think that the portrayal of a couple of women in one episode of one TV show is supposed to sum up everything we should think of women for all time?”

      No. And if you had actually read the article, you would know that.

      • Michael Fairney

        Well, to begin with , I did read the article and frankly it was number one million in a series of articles simply complaining that the particular women in some show, or lack of women in some show, was somehow demeaning or unflattering to women.
        Do you think that as a man, I get upset when I see a bad man on TV? It is understood that some men can behave badly, and I do not concern myself that this reflects poorly on men in general.
        What articles like these complain about is anything negative. Does moffat have a woman problem? of course not, other than having to deal with women from the propaganda department who are never happy with how any woman in portrayed.
        We do not need strong women on tv any more than we need weak women. women are people with strengths and weaknesses. A mature person with no axe to grind will understand that and not be concerned with how women in general are portrayed. Complaints like these show a lack of faith in the viewers, assuming that they cannot reserve judgment on anyone until they get to know them a little.
        I know tons of great women and some not so great women. I do not pre judge anyone, certainly not because of some silly Detective show.
        You know what does make women look bad though? Articles like these that make women seem very weak indeed.
        Be strong.
        8 of the bbc’s new shows are written by men- and women complain about this as if the BBC is actively excluding women – how about this ladies: start writing! if you are so upset about it, or just relax and stop worrying about it.
        there is no conspiracy against women. men really just don’t care.
        and I guess this will all go down as “mansplaining”
        fine, but what is the word for when women constantly misunderstand things and throw a hissy fit? cos it’s not a “good look” kind of makes you look a little pathetic.

        • I see from your commenting history that you have an extensive history of telling women how they *should* feel. And while we really appreciate men auditing our feelings and opinions… no, wait. We really don’t. I’d suggest actually listening to women – “listening” not being the same thing as “grab a few points and formulate a rebuttal”.

          • Michael Fairney

            clearly you don’t mean listen, you mean, never argue. ok, as you wish.

    • Only Some Stardust

      ‘most men give up trying’

      Y’know, giving up usually isn’t considered a compliment about a person.

      And it’s not like it’s only women who are miserable about this.

      When every single women in your episode is treated the same way, it does kind of make a general statement about women, whether you mean it or not, don’t you think? Just flip it for a moment and imagine that it was a dude complaining about getting no lines and just being a househusband and a woman responded by ‘Ah, give him just 1 line, make him happy’, a dude forced to cross dress to make a living, and a bunch of dudes committing murders for men’s rights. Wouldn’t that disturb you a bit if the majority of men in the episode were murderers, and the ones who weren’t were portrayed as househusbands or cross-dressers?

      • Michael Fairney

        that happens every time I watch a program directed at women. But It doesn’t bother me, cos I don’t watch shows directed at women. sherlock has always been a show about two guys solving crimes, mostly committed by other guys. So it’s a guy’s show. the lack of women is not a sign of disrespect, in fact its a pretty fair depiction of crime and detective work. In the american show elementary, watson is made to be a woman. Does that not solve the problem? the point is , if you are going to be reasonable, is that this is a show about a guy. So what , no need to extrapolate insults where none are intended. Why not just enjoy his detective work? Why the constant whining and misunderstanding ( which forces us to “mansplain” ) Trust me, no one is insulting you or women in general. Men don’t hate women, they just have different interests. Hey let’s all be friends, ok?

        • Momo

          Sherlock is not a guy’s show. It is a show. You dont need a penis to watch and enjoy it. Nd women dont force men to mansplain, men do it naturally. You try to insist here that men and women have such different interests yet refuse to accept that women are people as much as men are and are interested in many of the same things. Pardon me for enjoying Reservoir Dogs or Red Dwarf or Sherlock because I dont have that all important skin tag and droopy, wrinkled and weak pouch you feel is so crucial to being human.

          • Michael Fairney

            sherlock may appeal to men and women equally, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t shows that mainly appeal to women. don’t be obtuse, you know what I mean

  • DrPea

    For the Goddess’s sake, when is the BBC going to serialize the wonderful Sherlock Holmes-Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King? These are MADE for the movies–lots of swashbuckling adventure pairing the older Holmes with his younger, intellectually equal apprentice (and eventual lover, but King mercifully spares us reading sex scenes.) “Russell” is a jazz-age feminist Indiana Jones, traveling around the world, solving problems of world political import, setting Mycroft in his place, teaching Holmes a thing or two about human warmth, AND practicing a deadly-accurate knife-throw and surprise martial arts in self-defense.