I’ll say this up front: being a feminist and a fan of Sherlock Holmes at the same time has never been easy.
There was a Moffat shaped hole in my heart on Friday.
It should be noted before I go any further that this article will include spoilers from the BBC Sherlock Christmas Special, The Abominable Bride.
Holmes holds a special place in my heart. I read the books when I was young, and they influence my writing pretty significantly.
In order to understand why I didn’t like parts of The Abominable Bride you have to understand that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an anti-suffragist. Doyle didn’t believe that women should have the right to vote, and his dismissals of women run rampant throughout the books.
I just keep hoping that someday, someone will write something about women in Sherlock Holmes that doesn’t make me want to throw things against the wall and make them shatter like my hope does.
In this regard, I will likely always be disappointed by Steven Moffat.
Like every BBC Sherlock episode, the plot is cobbled together from a couple of different stories. The main influences that I saw here were The Five Orange Pips and I suspect a little of The Sussex Vampire, because it has the same almost goofy supernatural quality to it.
In The Five Orange Pips Holmes is dealing with the American KKK. They threaten to kill his client by sending him a letter containing five orange pips, signifying his imminent demise.
Throughout The Abominable Bride women in the Holmes universe complain to Watson that they have never been mentioned in the stories in the Strand. It is as though they are all asking for a voice to tell their stories, and it seemed like a weird thing to do, right up until the villain reveal.
In the scene where the villains are unveiled, I see a bunch of KKK hoods sneaking down a passageway. Purple ones. What on earth are a bunch of Imperial Wizards doing in London inside of a castle, I ask myself.
Well. They weren’t the KKK.
They were women’s suffragists.
At which point I have a reaction in my brain that misfires.
“Ooh! A secret society of women suffragists? THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN IS GETTING THINGS DONE.”
“WHAT THE FUCK. PUTTING FEMINISTS INTO HIGH RANKING KKK UNIFORMS AND HAVING THEM KILL PEOPLE. BECAUSE THAT SAYS ‘I CAN WRITE WOMEN NA NA NA NA NAAAAA’ LIKE A BRICK TO THE FACE SAYS I LOVE YOU.”
Say it with me now: God damn it, Steven Moffat.
There is no way to make the villain of The Orange Pips anything other than racist murdering members of the KKK. Especially not now. Especially not ever. Sherlock thrives on making old stories new again – which is great, but making old stories new again also means not engaging in doubling down on the racist and sexist behaviors of the 1890s.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an anti-suffragist, but that doesn’t mean that new stories should continue to reinforce the choices that he made. When Mycroft Holmes says “we have to lose this battle” to his brother, he’s not actually supporting women’s suffrage. He’s saying WE HAVE TO LET THE GIRLS WIN.
If Abominable Bride takes place in the 1890s, that means that women wouldn’t get the vote in England for another twenty years.
The implications of Mycroft’s reach with regard to the British government both in the series and in the books incidcate that if Mycroft believed that women’s suffrage was a necessary act for the security and safety of the nation, he could probably make that happen.
But here, he’s suggesting that they have to let the girls win. The girls still have to do the work. These are men who won’t stand up and fight for suffrage, but they’ll say how fucking necessary it is to a roomful of women who have committed crimes to make it happen. I use the word “girls” here because that’s what the men of Sherlock seem to see them as.
And if someone dares to tell me it would be “historically accurate” to depict the fight for suffrage as “women’s work” I have a can of white salmon to sell you. Guaranteed not to go pink in the can.
Sherlock is fiction, and this particular episode was magical fiction at that. A dream sequence can be bent to the whim of the writer, and lifting up marginalized voices is something that I could see Homes doing were it in the interest of the case – which it clearly was in this instance.
It’s the same reason making women’s suffragists look like the KKK isn’t acceptable – sure it’s magical realism, but magical realism doesn’t save you from the visual associations that we’re going to make when we see those robes – and what those robes say about the people wearing them is very important.
Elementary sure as hell doesn’t trade in the racist and sexist overtones of the Victorian era, so why should Sherlock?
My problem is this: I love Sherlock Holmes. I love the way that Moffat throws references to multiple stories, and sometimes even other media, based on the Great Detective
I love that, but I don’t love what he’s doing.
I want a Holmes retelling where I don’t feel like I’m swallowing a great big mysoginistic pill every time I consume the media. I want something better.