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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