Posted by Sebastienne
OK, so, I am a massive Doctor Who fan. Old and new. As I sit typing this, I can look up and see 50 DVDs spanning the show's history, chronologically arranged.
And I'm a massive Sherlock Holmes fan. I first read the books aged 12 (I was going on my first overseas school trip, and what was I going to do, talk to my peers for a week?); then at 19 a girlfriend introduced me to Jeremy Brett's impeccable performance from the 1980s, and I was in love.
So I should be happy, right? Both of these things I adore have enjoyed a massive surge in popularity over the last five years.
But, you know, I'm not. In fact, I'm not just unhappy; I am fucking INCANDESCENT. And why? Because suddenly, these things that I could enjoy - where I could circumlegate the faily parts by reminding myself that they were "products of their time" - are being created Right Now. Are huge shows and blockbuster films and are actively engaged in creating culture. And the culture that they are creating is hateful.
[Click here to skip in-depth & spoilery analysis of the BBC's Sherlock, and go straight to discussion of archetypes. This section also contains potentially triggering discussion of body measurements.]
Right now, both of these characters are in the control of Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffatt. And oh, I wish I knew how to quit him. Every time he hands me an awesome female character - and he can do this, does it frequently, in fact - he seems honour-bound to take away her agency by the end of the episode. The crowning example of this, for me, was in the Sherlock retelling of "A Scandal in Bohemia" - he actually manages to take a 120-year-old story and make it more misogynistic. Just when Irene Adler seems to be out-thinking Sherlock (which she actually does in the original story), he manages to figure her out. First, that her safe code is her 'measurements' (34-24-34, apparently. Lifted straight from the Wikipedia page description of a catwalk model. Classy). Then, that she has changed her phone password to his name, like a teenager with a crush. And then - oh then - the episode just has to end with the image of Irene on her knees - the utterly together pro-domme (which is played as just another "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" stereotype really, but at least she appears to have agency) finally reduced to glossy-eyed and parted-lipped non-consensual submission - about to be beheaded by an offensively-drawn "terrorist", and - ah-ha! - Sherlock is there to rescue her. Well whoop-dee-fucking-doo.
Unsurprisingly, Moffatt's gender politics have been given a hell of a going-over after that. Here are some of my favourites:
Am I a real person? Steven Moffat says... No.
Irene Adler: how to butcher a brilliant woman character.
But actually - and I'm going to be controversial here - I don't think that Steven Moffat is the whole problem.
He's an archetype, Sherlock, the Doctor. (And yes, it's always a "he".) Here are just a few examples of instantiations of this archetype from the last five years:
Doctor Who (British TV show)Some characteristics of this archetype:
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie movie series)
House (US TV show)
Sherlock (British TV show)
- He is significantly more intelligent than everyone around him - or at least, the plot repeatedly proves him right when making the most absurd generalisations from minimal evidence. He treats people as broad-brush groups - "humans are great!" - "everybody lies" - and somehow gets away with it.
- He is financially self-sufficient - I have never seen one of these characters worrying about how to pay the rent. If money matters ever do appear, he shows himself to be above such "trifling material concerns".
- He is emotionally detached. Quite often shown to be asexual and/or aromantic - score one for visibility! - but this can slide into misogyny, as with all the hi-LAR-ious jokes about the women who are attracted to Sherlock, and can't have him.
- He does not follow social norms. This is often presented as a corollary of his hyper-intelligence and emotional detachment. He certainly understands social conventions, but only follows them when it is to his direct benefit; otherwise, it suits him to be perceived as an outsider, an unpredictable loose cannon. Basically, if you met him, you'd think he was an arsehole.
- Nonetheless, he is presented as incredibly attractive. Characters go to great lengths to attain and sustain his companionship / "affection". Which is of course never reliable, because..
- He is incredibly manipulative and controlling, willing to do or say anything to create the scenario he has in mind. He gets angry and vindictive if his expectations are not met. Luckily, though, they usually are, because..
- He takes charge of situations even though he is outside of conventional hierarchies of power - perhaps by looking and sounding plausible (AKA privilege), or just by sheer force of arrogance and self-belief (AKA the consequences of a life of privilege). Perhaps this is part of what makes him so attractive - and that he offers access to strange and forbidden places.
And gods, do I lap it up. I love him, Doctor Sherlock House. I want to run away in his TARDIS and I want to watch him solve the same mystery again and again and again and I want him to understand me completely and I don't even mind that he'll dump me back on Earth as soon as he gets bored. Oh yes, I'm complicit in this, steeped in it up to the frontal lobes. He is charming. He is a fantasy. I have been primed to love him my whole life.
It's so compelling - in this vast, complex, and confusing universe - to find a character who understands. Who can reduce everything to rational deduction. Who is, ultimately (a few occasional mis-steps notwithstanding), always right. It's almost religious in its strength and power.
The key thing about this archetype is that, were he real, he actually would deserve the fawning adoration bestowed upon him - because of his superhuman intellect. But "superhuman" really is the word, and not just because the Doctor comes from Gallifrey - these characters repeatedly make successful generalisations that simply would not work in the real world. It's so tempting, so plausible, to want to reduce the world in this way - and it just can't happen. And so, while super-intelligence might be a better quality to idolise than super-strength or vast private wealth, it's also more damaging - because it's not as easy to recognise it for the fiction it is.
Doctor Sherlock House does not understand you. He never could; he's already drawn a conclusion about you based on your species, your haircut, a dusting of red powder on the inside of your left boot. And in the fantasy world he inhabits, that's ok - he's always, miraculously, proven right.
But that's not how the real world works.
I just wish that someone would tell that to the army of internet trolls who seem to have reasoned backwards, in a cargo cultish way, from the fact of their self-belief to inference of their "massive intellect". Or to the right-wingers who seem to believe that they can make anything true by stating it convincingly enough. Both of these attitudes are supported by the existence of Doctor Sherlock House - we let him get away with being an arsehole, because we value his intellect; we see his heartfelt convictions turning out true again and again. He has a lack of self-doubt which is close to pathological (indeed, it's even pathologised in canon with Sherlock's (problematic) self-diagnosis of sociopathy and House's drug addiction).
And it's especially notable, as we experience a huge resurgence of this archetype, that we still never see this character as a woman, or a person of colour. And it's not that people are afraid of playing with the source material! In the 2010 "Mockbuster" version, we see Sherlock meet a T-Rex and a giant evil mechanoid. They even CHANGE HOLMES' NAME - no seriously, they call him Robert, I have no idea why - but he was still a white man. The Doctor has regenerated at least ten times - and always into an able-bodied white man! Because - fandom is always quick to tell me, when I demand Paterson Joseph or Dawn French in the role - otherwise, he just wouldn't be who he is. The essential nature of the character would be violated in some way. By what - the lack of privilege?
Just who is he, then, this Doctor Sherlock House? What is this "essential nature" which can never be instantiated by a woman, or a person of colour?
I'd suggest that the essential nature of this archetype is not the superhuman intellect - nor even the self-belief - but the lack of self-doubt. And lack of self-doubt, of course, is an artefact of privilege. It's going to come more easily to someone who's not spent their life held back by systemic prejudice, who has not constantly been taught that they are "less-than" in some way or another. So when producers report that "you either are the Doctor or you are not", and feel oddly uncomfortable about casting a woman or a person of colour, what they're really saying is - "you are not the right person to make the generalisations. You are the generalised-about".
I cannot stress enough the value of self-doubt. I'd also like to point out that it needn't be the opposite of self-belief; I consider myself to have masses of both. But when it is reasonable for Doctor Sherlock House to doubt himself, he does not do so (except in discrete episodes where the plot hangs on a Special Moment Of Doubt) - and the fictional universe arranges itself so that he didn't need to.
But self-doubt is so important. Without it, we can't even do the scientific method properly - and we certainly haven't got a hope in hell of fighting oppression. Real oppression is not alien overlords and shadowy back-room Napoleons of crime; it is in our culture, and it is in our heads. It is insidious, and if we do not doubt ourselves we will never root it out.
What should I do about this? I don't think that it's as easy as saying that I should stop engaging with my favourite fandoms.. I know how to be a fan of problematic things, but this archetype seems to demand more than that, somehow. Maybe you can help me?
- Do you know any stories with Doctor-like or Holmes-like characters who are women, or people of colour? (Or members of other under-represented groups.) The Marquis de Carabas in Neverwhere comes close (and is fabulous fun to watch) but is the only one I can think of..
- Do you know of any characters who are strong in both self-belief and self-doubt? Because I think I want to start idolising them.