Friday 6 January 2012

Paging Doctor Sherlock House..


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)
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie movie series)
House (US TV show)
Sherlock (British TV show)
Some characteristics of this archetype:
  • 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.


  1. Fantastic post.

    I think... Miles Vorkosigan comes close to a character who is strong in self belief and self doubt, actually. Bujold is aware that she's talking about self belief which comes from priviledge, too.

    The other thing that's interesting is that these characters... pretty much can't be told from a first person or unreliable perspective. You need an omnisicient narrator to make them always right. And that attempts to put the creator of the work in the position of ultimate power in the narative; like trying to fight the fact that the author is dead. Television told from close first person perspective is always interesting to watch - Dexter is the example that springs to mind; where again, his self-belief is understood to be problematic. (I've only seen season one of this, and understand it gets more problematic later). Criminal Minds also springs to mind as something that plays with self-belief/self-doubt and whether the camera is an omniscient narrator.

    Interesting stuff.

  2. I can't be certain as I've never read the books and it's been a while since I watched the TV series (also I'm not fully equipped to fully analyse characterisation) but Dr Temperance Brennan springs to mind as a Doctor Sherlock House type character that is a woman. Perhaps tellingly they add a trauma in her past to explain her 'emotional detachment' which they often don't bother doing for the male characters (men are supposed to be emotionally detached, so Doctor Sherlock House is just a more advanced male, for a woman to be she *must* have been damaged to make her like that). But from memory she matches a lot of those stereotypes. And I suspect in the books is more take charge than as portrayed in the TV series (basing this assumption purely on what the TV execs would do to a female character that they've cast opposite David Boreanaz, so I could be wrong).

    Will have to think about the 'self belief self doubt' characters more. It's a nebulous one to dredge from memory. If any occur I'll through them your way.

  3. Brilliant post!

    I can think of one female character who seems to have a lot of the qualities you list, and that is Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax.

    It's interesting that she isn't represented (at least within canon!) as being attractive. It's difficult to separate the various reasons for that. You could say that's more to do with the intersection of age and gender, and the way that older women are almost never represented as attractive in our culture, rather than the intersection of gender and intelligence - ie, perhaps a younger version of her character would be presented as attractive. On the other hand, it seems to me that her Doctor Sherlock House qualities stem from her years of experience, so that a younger version just wouldn't be the same character.

  4. re young Granny Weatherwax (who I agree is a good example), in Lords and Ladies we get a flashback in which she is shown to be "handsome" (if I remember correctly; possibly it's "striking") rather than beautiful, but certainly attractive enough to have a boy interested in her.

  5. @orpheusuncut - excellent point about Miles Vorkosigan! I knew there was a reason I liked those books so much...

    And you're right about the narrative voice; I'm not sure I've ever read convincing first-person fic for these characters. I could just about imagine it existing for House, as a) he's a bit more transparent in some ways and b) the medical jargon would pass me by either way.. but not for Sherlock or the Doctor.

    @Ayaron - I didn't realise that Bones was based on books. I might have to seek some of them out, thank you. Your point about justification for emotional detachment is spot on, I think.

    @Annalytica - Granny's age is the source of her "acceptability" as a character of authority - but that a lot of her understanding and authority comes from that age as well. (The Doctor's age is often cited as the source of his understanding as well, but he does not appear old.) I wonder if some of Granny's 'headologies' are a little subject to the "author-supported generalisation" idea? I'd have to re-read to be sure.. but her character certainly displays self-doubt, as we see her wrestling with her potential dark side in Witches Abroad.

  6. I'll have to re-read Lords and Ladies as I don't remember that much about the flashback. What I'd be interested to know is, not so much whether she was considered physically attractive when younger, but to what extent she had the qualities that make her powerful, and whether those qualities were considered attractive in a young woman.

    I think a male equivalent to Granny Weatherwax would probably be considered sexy because older men are not desexualised to nearly the same extent as older women. But I'm not sure about a young equivalent?

  7. I seem to recall a couple of times in Esme Weatherwax's adventures when gents were rather taken with her - the 'silk petticoats' exchange when UU's Archchancellor offers her a Chair implies there's still a spark between the characters, and Maskerade has a bit of a flirty moment I believe (though notably, Esme is so self controlled in that book that she is almost impervious to the magical aphrodisiacs in Gytha Ogg's cooking)...

  8. Asimov's Susan Calvin is the closest I can think of; not entirely unproblematic, but pretty good for a character created in the 40s.

  9. I suppose it's because we (or at least some group referring to itself as we) still needs its culture heroes - someone human yet above human just like Quetzalcoatl, Gilgamesh or whoever. No idea why they always tend to be male, but I guess it goes right back to Ur. It's partially why I've lost patience with this sort of narrative. I'm 46. I don't need Flash Gordon any more.

  10. Here is the relevant part of the flashback scene re: young Esme's appearance:

    But what we have here is not a nice girl, as generally understood. For one thing, she's not beautiful. There's a certain set to the jaw and arch to the nose that might, with a following wind and in the right light, be called handsome by a good-natured liar. Also, there's a certain glint in her eye generally possessed by those people who have found that they are more intelligent than most people around them but who haven't yet learned that one of the most intelligent things they can do is prevent said people ever finding this out. Along with the nose, this gives her a piercing expression which is extremely disconcerting. It's not a face you can talk to. Open your mouth and you're suddenly the focus of a penetrating stare which declares: what you're about to say had better be interesting.

    - Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

    It is interesting that when I've spoken to people who recall this scene, they do tend to remember the 'could be called handsome' part and mentally edit out the 'by a good-natured liar'. Not sure what that says, aside from the fact that we're strongly conditioned to perceive protagonists (especially female ones?) as attractive, even when they're canonically not. What's also of interest here is the implication that the truly intelligent thing to do would be to prevent others from discovering the fact of one's intelligence -- which nicely sets up the tension between Granny and Nanny Ogg, who (we are encouraged to believe) is Granny's equal or near-equal, but puts a lot of time and effort into encouraging people to underestimate her.

    This relationship, incidentally, is one of things that makes me argue that Granny in fact isn't a Doctor Sherlock House figure -- her relationship with Nanny is so much more interdependent, and has so much more room for conflict and challenge, than that between Sherlock and Watson or between a Doctor and a Companion. Nanny certainly doesn't always think that Granny's right, and even though she's the only person who can get away with saying so, sometimes we (the audience) are encouraged to agree with her.

    There's also the important fact that Granny knows -- and often even articulates -- that she can't simply solve everyone's problems for them. There are the occasions on which she forgets this and tries anyway, but for me (YMMV) this is part of the charm.

    This quotation is one of my favourites from all Pratchett:

    ".... And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
    "It's a lot more complicated than that--"
    "No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
    "Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes--"
    "But they starts with thinking about people as things."
    - Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

    When the Doctor tries to solve people's problems, I can't help getting the impression that although he likes them and wants the best for them, on some level he's still thinking of them as inferior beings -- as 'things'.

    [TW for reference to racism, colonialism]

    FWIW, I also have way too much colonial baggage to ever believe that an upper-class white British man from a 'superior culture' (he's even called a 'Lord', FFS) who travels around the universe sticking his nose in other people's business can be trusted to have my best interests even remotely at heart.

  11. Thanks, Galatea!

    It seems like Granny has a lot of the qualities that make Doctor Sherlock House so appealing - and make people want to engage in those fandoms in spite of the problems - while avoiding a lot of the things that make those characters problematic.

    Yay for kickass older women characters!

    The quotation about treating people as things reminds me of the time I spent as a philosophy undergraduate attempting to make sense of Kant's writing on ethics. I felt like there was something really deep and important there if only I could get to grips with it. I never did get my head around most of his ideas because I found the text too impenetrable. However, the one thing that did stick with me was the idea that you should never treat a person merely as a means to an end, but always as an end in themselves. I think that may be one of the most meaningful things I learnt from my entire degree - and it's much the same as what Granny is saying in that quote.

    Reading back what I've just written, it's interesting, in the light of your point about hiding your intelligence, that I only feel able to reference Kant while pointing out that I didn't understand most of it.

    Anyway, I digress.

    The "people as things" view does seem to me to be what is fundamentally wrong with Doctor Sherlock House. A basic part of respecting people as people is the idea that you can't know anything about someone else unless they have told you themselves. The idea that you can infer all kinds of intimate information from tiny details basically rests on the idea that people are things - deterministic and predictable and *knowable from the outside*, rather than individuals with their own free will, experiences, values, motivations and perspective. It's profoundly objectifying and disrespectful to think you can know how the world looks to somebody else and what they will do and why, without their choosing to confide in you.

  12. @Galatea - in some ways, then, I think I could describe the Doctor as being closer to Nanny - when he's NOT barging in as the colonial Knower of What's Right, he's often hiding his power by playing the fool.

    Whereas most of the 'Sherlock' versions have no time for false modesty, and are very much in the "Granny" tradition.

    Haha, perhaps the complexity of Pratchett's powerful women characters is causing me to compexify my own perception of this archetype? It would be apt, somehow. And I definitely need to think more about what it means to have Nanny and Granny working together - perhaps it reduces the need for "super-special superhuman" status for these types of characters, maybe even suggests that such women can be found throughout the Disc?

    @Annalytica - I think you're spot on with your last paragraph: it is profoundly objectifying and disrespectful.

    But part of my experience of being in thrall to this character is wanting it anyway. When I am feeling things and I don't know why; when I am having a bad mental health day; when I don't know what to do in a given situation - at all of these times, I find it *incredibly attractive* to imagine that there might be someone who can say "well you've got reduced potassium levels; here just eat this banana and you'll feel better; and obviously the right answer is x".

    Wow, when looked at like that, it's patently obvious what happened to my teenaged belief in the Christian God...

  13. There's a Vimes thought-quote from Pratchett, I think Feet of Clay, about how he is dismissive of the sort of person who thinks they can glance at someone and confidently state the person is an ex merchant navy man down on his luck how is now employed as a plasterer. As it tries to reduce the rich complexity of human behaviour down to a level that is degrading. Because it could equally be a wealthy business who's wearing his old clothes as he's been doing some DIY who once got drunk and woke up with an anchor tatoo. But I can't find the exact quote.

    I've always interpreted Esme Weatherwax as being attractive. And I don't think it's because I am programmed to expect all female protagonists to be attractive (although I'll admit I probably am). I think it's because all the words used to describe her in that sequence I do genuinely find attractive in a women. The intelligence, the confidence, the determination. I find those things very attractive, especially if such a person shows interest in me. And anyone who knows me knows I have a penchants (is that the right use for that word? I use it a lot so am starting to wonder) for a strong jaw and nose. But I admit that is probably not the interpretation most people would give and so agree she is canonically described as being 'conventionally' attractive.

    Possibly as a result of this blog-post I found my calling the Doctor out on his actions during a recent recording of the latest Adventure Game for my channel. He was being his usual arrogant manipulative self and I wasn't letting him get away with it commentated.


  14. canonically described as *not* being 'conventionally' attractive