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There was much excitement here at Lady Business headquarters about the airing of the first episode of the second season of the BBC series "Sherlock" on the first day of the year. The first season had ended with a painful cliffhanger, and we couldn't wait to find out how Sherlock and Watson would find their way out of the huge mess they were in. However, we were presented with an episode that left us with many complicated feelings to sort through. In the following conversation, Jodie and Ana attempt to do just that. If you haven't watched the series yet, we should warn you that this discussion contains spoilers for the first episode of season two.

Ana: The Conan Doyle story that inspired “A Scandal in Belgravia, "A Scandal in Bohemia", is famous for featuring Irene Adler, the only person to have ever outwitted Sherlock Holmes. The fact that this person is a woman is of course very exciting and ripe for feminist readings - whether or not this is what Conan Doyle intended isn't really relevant, as texts, after all, belong to their readers.

The first season of the BBC series "Sherlock" didn't have the best track record when it came to female characters, but I still had hopes that the inclusion of Irene Adler in the second season would signal a change. Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I liked Irene as a character - although a lot of the dominatrix elements were unnecessarily played for titillation, I liked that for once we had a character who was supposed to defy the intellect versus looks/sexuality dichotomy. She was a beautiful woman who knew she was beautiful, who was sexually aggressive, but who was also Sherlock Holmes' intellectual equal. The big problem, of course, is that in the end she wasn't allowed to be that, and all we were left with was yet another story where a smart, independent woman who is confident about her sexuality is put in her place.

Jodie: Let me just elbow my way in here to say that I love your reading of this particular incarnation of Irene Adler as a character 'who was supposed to defy the intellect versus looks/sexuality dichotomy.' I did not even think of that reading, but that's such an exciting interpretation!

I also loved Irene Adler’s confident, sexy, smart characterisation. There do seem to be so many female leads around right now who lack confidence. As a person who often lacks confidence I understand that there are plenty of reasons why this character type persists and remains useful to readers. Still, without valuing Irene Adler’s approach to life above the way that other female characters live, it is always nice to see a character introduce some diversity into the way women are represented.

Ana: Yes. Although I'm really not a fan of people hating on female characters who lack confidence (because, after all, we insecure women do exist, and I'm really suspicious of "you're bringing us all down!" lines of reasoning), it's definitely nice to see more diversity of representation.

Anyway, I would guess that most "Sherlock" fans are people who are comfortable with changes to canon - updating the Victorian setting to a contemporary one, after all, is a pretty major change. I'm no exception, of course, but I have to pause and ask why the writers felt that it was necessary to change the one thing that made Irene such a memorable character in the first place - the fact that she outwitted Sherlock Holmes. In a series that was already problematic when it came to women's roles, what does a change like this signal?

Jodie: Yes, the particular changes made to this story and to Irene Adler’s character are what trouble me the most. I love this character on her own: her confidence, her smarts, her sexy appearance and wit, but that story just fucks her over.

When a TV adaptation makes changes to canon these can be made for a variety of reasons. Original source material can be altered because of the time constraints a TV slot imposes on a piece, because certain elements disrupt the plot flow, to increase dramatic impact, or to increase the relevance of the adaptation for a modern audience. Changes can also be made for socio-political reasons.

As viewers, we don’t have access to the brains of the creative team involved in making ‘Sherlock’ and so it is impossible for us to conclusively understand why certain changes were made (and even if the creators were to tell us why these changes were made, that wouldn’t provide conclusive reasons). It is also kind of inevitable that when a story that is based on a familiar, beloved story is switched up in obvious ways, that the people who consume media will try to interpret what those changes signify, by examining these changes through various critical lens which relate to our society. For example the team behind ‘Merlin’ cast a black actress as Guinevere, which is a departure from Arthurian canon. Viewers don’t know why the production team did this, but they can interpret the change, suggest reasons for it and come up with their own ideas about whether this alteration has positive, or negative connotations (so positive, in the case of ‘Merlin’).

And that’s pretty much what critical commentators have been doing with Gatiss/Moffat's conception of Adler, as much as the creators might like to frame this criticism as unfounded personal attacks. Like you said above I have no problem with Irene Adler being transformed into a dominatrix. It’s way too simplistic to immediately equate the role of sex worker with anti-feminism, but I do question if being turned into a dominatrix by male creators makes Irene Adler’s dominatrix role a product and an object of fascination for the male gaze, which is currently so prominent in visual productions. Why couldn't she have been a super hot political aide who stole secrets, or a member of our government, or a million other plausible things which put intellect first and sexuality second? Is she a dominatrix because her character requires her to be, or because the creators find the idea of a dominatrix arousing and think their male fans will too? I look at how (intentionally, or unintentionally) the stupidity of the password she sets feeds back into existing ideas about women, emotions and lack of intelligence. And I become...suspicious as all these elements combine. Patterns form.

Ana: Also incredibly problematic was the revelation towards the end that Moriarty was the mastermind behind Irene's actions all along. What this achieves is completely take away her agency and undermine her as a character. Similarly, the damsel-in-distress ending was incredibly frustrating to me. I want to make it clear that I have nothing whatsoever against a female character being helped out of a difficult situation, and that I don't believe that this makes a woman weak. However, I don't want this to be the only story we ever tell about women. And everything about that rescue scene was contrived and problematic, from the hugely stereotypical sword-branding evil Muslim terrorists to Sherlock's superior smirk.

Jodie: Yes! Considering the world we live in and the fact that so much media includes women who are saved by men, I find it incredible that ‘the woman who wins’ is transformed into another female character who needs to be rescued. Why exactly does this piece of canon need to be disregarded? And how do we square the idea that the creative team are quite happy to fall back on such over used, unoriginal drama conventions, in an episode that otherwise seems to be designed as an edgy, challenging piece (at least that’s what I got from the inclusion of S&M references, artfully ‘not quite nude’ scenes and other elements)? If the team behind ‘Sherlock’ were committed to producing TV of the highest original artistic and dramatic quality, then why do they throw in so much old, tired, socio-political stuff? Why do they keep putting creepy, random stereotypes about race, like the evil Muslim executors at the end of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, in this program, when it would not affect the plot one bit to make the people holding Irene white gun runners?

Ana: All this left me feeling that although Irene was a good character, she was incredibly mishandled by her narrative. She was put in a story that in the end completely undermined everything it initially wanted us to believe about her. *sigh* I'll be in the corner hugging Carole Nelson Douglas' Irene Adler novels.

Jodie: And if you’ve a suspicious conspiracy brain like me, then you end up asking questions about just why Irene Adler finds herself in such a story. I think we’ve made it clear that, for us, Gatiss and Moffat’s ‘Sherlock’ contains some rather unfortunate ideas about women. As much as I love Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes film ‘Game of Shadows’, it would be kind of hilarious to suggest that it doesn’t have its own special set of problems when it comes to female characters. So, that’s two Sherlock Holmes reboot projects, released around the same time, that find it difficult to present female characters well. What are the common factors in these projects? And is it possible that recreation after recreation of a source, which contains a male character, who has serious issues with women, by male creators, will often produce reworkings that ham string the ladies?

Well, the original source all these reworkings are bouncing off is a set of stories about a nineteenth century detective who does not think women are worth his time. Some people would say that when this kind of story provides the base for a reboot, it’s inevitable that some anti-feminist sentiments will have to be carried over to keep the heart of the story alive, even if the re-imagining of the story takes place in the modern day. I mean, I’m sure you can imagine how much credence I give to ideas like that, but let’s theorise that at the very least that when a reboot has a misogynistic base there’s a good chance that sexism will pop up in its reworked story set, for whatever reason *significant look*.

However, the BBC production includes changes that actually make ‘Sherlock’s’ gender politics worse than Arthur Conan Doyle’s ever were in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. And while the changes Guy Ritchie’s film makes to Adler’s story, don’t degrade her intellect, or set her up as a piece of male fantasy, it does still manage to kill her off in about the first fifteen minutes of the film. So, to place all the blame on Arthur Conan Doyle’s cultural makeup seems rather off balance, when modern creators have made significant changes to the character and fortune of the one really important female character he did manage to write.

I'm also really suspicious about the politics of reboots. Most of the stories that endure and are endlessly rewritten are from the straight, white, male classics list. Although I lurve many of these stories (endless reboots will always hold some thrill for me, even though I could probably stand to be more cynical) I do think it’s important to examine the socio-political reasons why stories like the Sherlock Holmes, or the Arthurian myths are the ones continually selected for remakes. What cultural similarities are there that follow through a set of reworkings? Can we infer that if these elements endure, or re-occur, that these narrative features are a large part of what makes the stories so popular? If the lack of female characters/the dismissal of Irene Adler is a consistent feature of those reboots, can we suggest a pattern between this part of the stories and some of the enthusiasm for recreating these stories over and over again?! And is there a link between the recurrence of sexist attitudes, or use of drama conventions that sideline women and the gender of the people who create these new versions of old tales?

Ana: Yep: this post at "Another Angry Woman" says that you know you've messed up when an original written over a century ago has better gender politics than your updated version, which indeed just about sums it up.

The questions you ask about the politics of retellings are extremely interesting (and I think we can acknowledge this while passionately loving many of these retellings, of course). It's difficult to be sure of why they resonate the way they do, especially as they surely resonate with different people for different reasons, but we can't easily separate their cultural salience from the fact that in many ways these are stories that reinscribe the status quo. I think this is especially the case with film and TV retellings, since the production investment involved tends to heavily bias things towards what people believe will sell. I'm not denying that publishing also has these biases, of course, but I suspect it's much easier for a woman to write a series about Irene Adler, or invent Mary Russell, than it is for a blockbuster film or series that retells these stories in such a female-centric way to ever be made.

But returning to "Sherlock", the reasons for my frustration with this episode are complicated for me to express - "A Scandal in Belgravia" leaves a lot of room for "falling in love made Irene Adler stupid" or "they turned a strong female character into a weak one" type comments, which to me are more part of the problem than part of the solution. The issue is not weakness; the issue is not that she falls in love. What I have a problem with is the fact that the narrative so clearly constructs emotions as Irene Adler's downfall.

Jodie: Yep, and that her ability to feel emotions is the distinguishing factor between her and Holmes. In this version Holmes is able to beat Irene Adler, which as we’ve discussed above is a huge, problem filled knife hack to the canon. What’s...not worse, but a really depressing addition to the separate Holmes character canon of ‘Sherlock’, is that it is Sherlock’s lack of emotion that allows him to beat Irene Adler. We’ve all seen Sherlock characterised as one callous bastard; he’s always really one step away from sociopathy, in Gatiss’ version. This is by the way a huge change to canon in itself, but one that has been fascinating to watch (though it’s rather troubling to see yet another asexual character, who seems to be incapable of other emotional feelings). We’ve watched as Sherlock’s detached brilliance allows him to see every element of a case, but we’ve also seen Sherlock’s inability to empathise with other people roundly criticised by the reaction of John Watson, when his friend's detachment strays into outright cruelty.

However, in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ I’d suggest that Holmes’ inability to feel is what saves the day - she’s gazing at him, he’s checking her pulse and that’s how he defeats her, securing (we assume) many other future government operations and personnel from harm. Suddenly Holmes’ inability to feel anything (surely any regular human being who was not stirred by sexual attraction in a situation like the one where Holmes and Adler touch, would still feel other ‘distracting’ emotions) isn’t so neatly balanced between positive and negative - it’s all out positive and emotions are just nonsense that get in people’s way. And in this episode, whether the people behind the scenes intend it or not, emotions appears specifically women’s nonsense. Irene Adler, ‘the woman’, who falls in love, is the one defeated and Sherlock, who we may as well title ‘the man’ based on the way he sees himself, rises triumphant.

Ana: I hadn't thought of what you said about the troubling links between asexuality and being emotionally stunted, but that's an excellent point. Returning to Irene, I have a very hard time believing that an incredibly intelligent woman would pick such a silly password to protect high security data, no matter how in love she was. Having this Irene do that just panders to tired old stereotypes about female irrationality, women's emotions getting in the way of making decisions, and so on and so forth.

Jodie: AGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH THE PASSWORD WAS SOOOO STUPID. NO ONE THAT SMART WOULD DO THAT! And even if maybe, maybe, someone would use a personal reference for such an important password in real life, putting that particular mark of stupidity in this story and making Irene’s personal reference S H E R contains ramifications about women and emotions that CAN BE SEEN FROM SPACE.

Ana: I keep trying to think of possible alternate readings for the whole emotions = weakness thing, because there is a lot of ambiguity in the series about how positive a trait Sherlock's detachment actually is, which is something I really appreciate. But like you were saying, the episode didn't really explore any of this in enough detail to support a more positive "Irene losing and being human is far better than Sherlock's cold victory" readings, as much as I'd like one to be possible. Not to mention yet again that this was the one character who was NOT supposed to lose. The fact that Sherlock's rationality and Irene's emotions reinscribe gender stereotypes that need to DIE ALREADY doesn't help either.

The post at Slash Report Renay shared with us suggests that Sherlock mistakes physiological indicators of sexual arousal for love when he feels Irene's pulse, and that this could have been a deliberate choice on the writers' part. This makes sense in light of what we know of his character, and I find it a more exciting reading. But even if that was the case, the narrative didn't do much with it - or not enough to satisfy me, anyway. As exciting as it is to think that Sherlock's inability to tell love and arousal apart means the joke's on him, in the end this is what saves the day, as you so well pointed out.

There's also the issue of Irene's sexuality - she outright says that she's gay at one point, but then OF COURSE she falls head over heels in love with Sherlock anyway. And yes, she could be bisexual, or the episode could be trying to explore the fact that sexual orientation is a continuum and not set in stone. In my dreams this would be followed up by another episode addressing the fact that straight John Watson is also in love with, or at least clearly attracted to, Sherlock. But we all know this will never happen, don't we? And things being as they are, I have a really hard time finding elements that support this positive reading. It's far easier to read Irene's sexual orientation as yet another cliche - a male fantasy where a queer woman meets a man so irresistible she risks (and loses) everything for him. And do we really need more of this particular type of story? Irene's sexuality becomes another element that supports what you were saying above about the male gaze.

Jodie: It's kind of like we're sharing a brain on this issue Ana, especially on the ' ”I'm not gay.” “Well I am, but here we both are.” ' scene. It could have been a really interesting look at the fluidity of human sexuality, but instead it turned out to be a moment of good old male gaze, lesbian fantasy.

And of course this moment also provided space for John to clarify yet again that he’s not gay. In case you missed it, he’s not gay y’know. I mean it, really. And once more for the tape... OMG we get it, ok? It does seem that the number of ‘We’re not gay’ assertions, that were written into the show, grew this series. And this series comes after Moffat, Cumberbatch and Freeman were quoted strongly scotching the romantic reading of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship. I’m loath to go outside the media too often in this analysis, because using real life comments, made by anyone involved with Sherlock, to support an argument, seems to be taboo, but is there maybe a connection there? Well, we’ll never know for sure, or maybe we will if someone runs a mathematical count to see if they really did play the ‘We’re not gay’ moment more in Series Two, but for now I feel that the creators wanted any ambiguity to be concentrated solely on whether or not Sherlock is asexual this series. No more questions needed about whether Sherlock and John are gay, fans. We’ve settled that, so please don’t ask.

Ana: Part of me still can't get over the fact that the actors and the creative team insist on commenting on readings of the series in the first place. The beliefs about authorial intent behind this are just so bizarre to me. Who are they to say whether or not the characters "really" are gay? If their creation supports these readings, then the fans are more than free to run with them. But as much as I believe that texts stand on their own, the fact is that they do comment, and their comments have clear implications about the cultural climate surrounding the series. Therefore I think it's fair to take them into account, since this is part of what we're interested in here.

Jodie: That’s one of the things that really annoys me as well, that need to constantly affirm the straightness of Sherlock and John in interviews. When it comes to other media where fans are being deliberately encouraged to invest in undercover male slash pairings you’ll often find interviews where the actors also encourage that reading. ‘Sherlock’ is the only recent show I can think of where the actors and writers have been so openly and publicly against fans reading certain character relationships as gay. And that skeeves me out.

To me, it feels like the creators want to have their cake and eat it, without actually y'know having to admit they had cake. The desire to encourage loyalty from a gay/slash fanbase feels pretty prevalent when it comes to lots of British media (especially comedy) at the moment. Originally I thought this trend of fan catering that had exploded in British media was an encouraging sign, like maybe creators wanted to include implicit male crushes because they were genuinely ok with men being close, or even in love, but now I'm not so sure. In the case of ‘Sherlock’ I think the inclusion of elements that encourage gay slash fannishness, without explicitly pairing John and Sherlock as lovers, is just a way for them to rake in the fan money. It allows the creative team to still say 'Oh but they're not' and they can play casual fear of gay men for laughs. Everybody wins?

Bonus: they can get the characters to confirm just how straight the characters are, by writing ‘we’re not gay gags’ into the script and get the actors to back up that particular character interpretation in interviews. Now everybody really wins right? Or, wait...I am confused. Am I winning here?

I love male slash pairings. I love gay subtext. Unfortunately more and more I agree with ‘I Know Your Care for Him as Much as I Do’ by Aja, that in some cases we’re not seeing genuine, if under the radar, attempts at putting gay subject matter in mainstream media. Instead fans are being handled and given bullshit titillation by creators, who freak out when fans take the hints of gay subtext that they've put in their drama and develop it further.

Ana: Yeah, more and more I can see what you and Aja mean about subtext vs actual inclusion. I'm sure my reading of this episode was heavily influenced by the creators' constant skeevy comments, but that's pretty inevitable. Things don't exist in a vacuum, after all.

Jodie: Don't get me wrong, I like subtext, but I'd happily swap it for more actual GLBTQ characters (well of course I would, there's more kissing that way). Of course, that isn't the choice right now. Right now, it seems to be subtext or nothing. Bearing that in mind, I don't want subtext to go away. A complete black hole would be worse than what we have now, but I think gay subtext needs more careful handling than it gets on 'Sherlock'. I don't know, feelings, complicated, especially since I feel like the BBC worked on putting more GLB content into their programs last year.

By the way, did you find the jibes aimed at Mycroft, while in keeping with S's character and his relationship with his brother, very pointedly homophobic? Hurray another opportunity to separate John and Sherlock from gay people - I swear it felt like that whole episode was an exercise in 'and once again, just to clarify'.

Ana:Good point about the Mycroft jibes. And on a related note, virginity (and implicitly, asexuality) as a slur, ugh, do not want.

Jodie: I totally think the vision of beauty that Gatiss and Moffat subscribe to as creators is central to the art they create. From having watched a lot of their earlier work and read Gatiss’ first novel, it seems they’re often drawn to a certain kind of dark, creepy, sexy, edgy kind of Gothic offspring aesthetic, which is especially noticeable in this episode of Sherlock. I love that kind of stuff too. However, I think the replication of that aesthetic often means that your media will be full of certain elements, unless you're really exerting an original creative force, or creating a new canon of imagery.

Example: the artistic feel would not have come off the same if Irene Adler had been a sexy politician. She is almost required to be a professional dominatrix (or in some kind of similar role) because that's a role that floods her character with a very specific kind of dark, scary/attractive appeal, because of tangled cultural associations between dark sex and edgy art. Maybe if she had been in some other kind of role and into domination, it would have created the same effect...but I think it just fits cultural ideas about what triggers the desired response (attraction of various kinds and a little fear at that attraction) to this kind of aesthetic, more easily if she is in her current role. What bothers me is that often when this particular kind of stylish aesthetic includes a sexualised woman...there’s almost always an element of traditional objectification that creeps in/is reinforced and associated with that beauty.

So, my theory is that, by embracing that kind of aesthetic, without attempting to rebuild it in some way and still keep the dark sexiness, the creators require their female characters to play very particular roles by default, if they’re to be women that sexy/edgy Holmes approves of. And isn't it a happy coincidence, that these roles also allow male viewers to objectify these characters and reinforce some default ideas about femininity?

In my opinion the creative team on this program put art and aesthetics before people. No denying that the focus on the appearance of the program and the way a set of artistic ideas are passed down through all the layers of the production has resulted in some really stylish results. It’s just a shame that this approach has made their program less...not exactly less relevant, but less complete and in some ways less artistically accomplished, than if a balance were struck between creating characters who are free to inhabit less strict roles and artistic presentation. There are also unfortunate consequences for representation that stem from the way they link artistic feel to stereotypical societal roles, which is y'know important if you think art is really important, but people are after all, alive.

Ana: Yes - excellent points all. As much as I want to read Irene positively as a character, I completely agree that her being a dominatrix was the easiest, laziest way to signal that kind of dark, edgy appeal and to infuse the story with that kind of aesthetics. And of course there's a lot of objectification and pandering to fantasies involved by default. I don't think this is necessarily an inevitable consequence of this kind of aesthetic choice, but in this case it became inevitable because they did nothing to address or rectify it. The saddest thing of all is that while in the original stories Irene is memorable for outwitting Sherlock, here she's memorable for what? Being the sexy lady who managed to turn him on, even though he's usually presented as asexual? Aside from the many issues with queer representation involved in this, there's the fact that a memorable female character is dragged from an intellectual role to a mainly sexual one.

As you might have guessed by now, I have many feelings about this episode. There was a lot about it that I appreciated, and I then went on to enjoy the rest of the series quite a bit. But there's just so much I have to temporarily let go of to be able to feel excited about "Sherlock". And I hate that this is what being a woman, a feminist and a consumer of media feels like so much of the time.

Jodie: Absolutely. I watched that whole episode with a serious feeling of detachment towards all the characters and Iaughed maybe twice. Compared with the giggleathon that happened when I watched the first episode, my reaction to ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ was really odd. The attitude of the whole piece just got so in the way for me that I couldn't react like a fan, even if I'd wanted to. Oh sure I could appreciate things from a stand off, but fan love was totally beyond me here.

Ana: Another thing that seriously worries me is that I find myself wishing female characters to go away to be able to enjoy this series. It scares me that my enjoyment of the following two episodes of series two of "Sherlock" was so closely linked to their lack of female characters in any major roles. You mentioned in a previous conversation we had that there might be another Irene Adler appearance in the future, and to be completely honest my first thought was "I hope not", because I was afraid that her getting more screen time would mean even more fail. Our blog is called Lady Business - the last thing I want is to find myself in a position where I wish female characters away because if they're present at all the writers will butcher them. Erasing women from media is never the solution, and my brain clearly knows this. But it's like, any sort of emotional investment in this series requires me to feel this way, or else I'll get heartbroken again. And feeling this way seriously creeps me out.

Jodie: Horrifying revelation time Ana! I actually prefer Ritchie’s treatment of Irene Adler in his most recent Sherlock film to Gatiss’ Irene and Ritchie kills Irene off super fast. What does that say, that I prefer dead Irene Adler (who is allowed to use her full intellectual range to try to avoid death at Moriarty’s hand, but sadly fails because his plan to kill her is beyond even her great powers of anticipation) to a live Irene Adler? It does not feel good to think things like that, but I also find myself hoping that Sherlock just stops involving female characters, because nothing good ever comes of it. And that freaks me out.

Generally, ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ just made me really sad. As I’ve said many times before, I watch/read/listen to and outright enjoy (sometimes even going so far as to identify with) plenty of media that I think also contains problematic social commentary/converges with damaging stereotypes. Generally I operate in kind of dual state, dazzled by the wonderfulness and (when I can see it) trying to aim straight at the negative stuff with my critical throwing knives. Problems in media often make me angry. They make me shout way too loud around people who were just asking how I liked that new TV series (I must get a grip and stop going off on one like that). They make me wail, flail around and write long, ranty posts. Like you say, it’s depressing how often we find ourselves having to sift through so much stuff that wants to sideline our whole gender, in order to just enjoy some damn tv, but usually I can manage it as long as I also spend a little shouty time with friends afterwards.

Now, for the first time in a long time, spotting problems in a piece of media has made me so deep down sad, that I want to curl up somewhere dark and quiet, while all the chatter about this Sherlock recreation passes by.

TV is not something to get so upset about. Angry, sure, but actually sad? There are way worse things happening in the world, that should get dibs on that emotion before a TV show. So, the sadness makes me angry that a piece of entertainment can fill me so full of melancholy emotion and I go off down a little track of examining my feelings as first world problems and looking into the warped nature of my feelings... And all of that is important, but at the end of this self-examination I still feel that original sadness, alongside all the genuine understanding of how privileged I am that this sadness caused by a TV program is my biggest problem in life.

Suddenly, after ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ I’m forcefully reminded that British TV production is dominated by a creative team who are happy to create drama that is built largely out of depressing social stereotypes. Unexamined narrative defaults that reinforces a simmering obsession with observing ‘the other’ through a sexualised focus are fine apparently, as long as it satisfies their unexamined aesthetic ideas about beauty, drama, humour and art. And as long as they can churn out slick, stylish stuff they’re praised and lauded by major critics. Even if I choose not to turn on my TV when their programs air, knowing that this team are the big British creators I’m supposed to be so proud of is...well it’s kind of a drag. It’s kind of a pain to have sexism thrown in your face when you just wanted to sit down and watch the story of one of your favourite detectives.

Ana: And in addition to being heartbroken by what this episode did to a female character who could have been great (which, yes, first world problem, but pop culture both reflects and shapes popular attitudes and thus I'll always believe that this stuff matters), we have to deal with extremely icky reactions to criticism by the creative team behind "Sherlock". I honestly don't know what to make of the fact that someone with a long career in screen writing has yet to learn to tell apart personal attacks and critiques of his work. Newsflash: you don't have to "hate women" for your writing to reflect problematic gender assumptions that are a huge part of the cultural climate in which you move. In fact, it takes a deliberate effort to counter those assumptions - if you don't stop to think about gender roles at all, it's only natural that your creation will replicate dominant ideas.

Jodie: I think it is interesting that we’ve yet to see any comments like that from Gatiss, especially considering that he is the lead writer on this project, while Moffat it credited as co-creator. Maybe he gets media strategy a bit more? Who knows?

Moffat obviously has history with people calling him out on sexism in his projects and if journalists did falsely attribute the words of his characters to him you can see why he’d be miffed. So, like the blogger at willinglycrazy, I can understand getting tetchy about that subject, even if blowing up at a fan is a really bad idea forever and ever, no exceptions. But the idea that a man who has seen his media go through so much criticism, specifically for it portrayal of women and whose fans often describe as ‘trying to do better’ doesn’t understand what misogyny is and thinks he knows the definition of misogyny better than a female blogger. Well...that’s BINGO baby.

And he’s not the only one who thinks they know sexism better than any regular fan ever could. At the end of her Times column Caitlin Moran (noted feminist journalist) couldn’t resist taking a shot at bloggers who thought they saw sexism in ‘Sherlock’. Here’s what she had to say:

'The day after broadcast, an ill-tempered, Bank Holiday-blue kerfuffle kicked off across a couple of blogs, accusing Moffat’s script of misogyny. Irene Adler had ended up being rescued by Holmes, the argument went. She fell in love with him and then had to be rescued by him, like some courtesan Snow White. Obviously, as a strident feminist, my “Misogyny Alarm” is always on red-alert. But, I have to say, it didn’t ding once during Sherlock; save for a momentary sigh over just how many high-class call-girls I’ve seen on television over the years (about six million) compared with the amount I’ve actually met (none).

For Sherlock is a detective story, not Panorama. It doesn’t care about statistics, and nor should it. All I could see were two damaged people making a mess of each other’s lives while Martin Freeman did his patented “Martin Freeman eyebrows” from the sidelines. And, obviously, some of the best television this country has ever produced.'

Let me be clear, I could care less if Moran doesn’t agree with my perception of sexism. I read her column all the time and while I usually think she’s really funny sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t agree with her feminist assessment of TV programs - big deal, feminists disagree and life goes on without comment.

What annoys me is the language she uses. She dismisses other people’s opinions by calling them ‘ill-tempered’ and a ‘kerfuffle’, when lots of the commentary online has been perfectly well thought through and engaged feminist critique. She’s quick to minimise how wide spread (and authority backed) this conversation was, by making it clear that only a couple of blogs were involved when I’ve seen this kind of criticism all over the Internet and at The Guardian. It’s a really off hand and familiar way of taking down fans who actually have an informed opinion - use words that make them seem small and petty, then follow up by reminding readers that these people have no authority. And...maybe I’m seeing things, but she appears to be playing the ‘I’m a feminist and I don’t see this so-called sexism’ line as the ultimate trump card. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that. What do you think?

Just be glad the Freeman/Cumberbatch interview where Freeman slams fan-fiction and (yet again) says the characters aren’t gay isn’t available online.

Ana: I can't help but wonder how much of this boils down to ill-will and condescension towards bloggers by traditional journalists. I could understand Moran having issues with a simplistic reading where needing to be saved equals weakness equals anti-feminist. But I've read much of the commentary she's referring to, and none of it does that. Her comments make me wonder if she did more than glance at it, roll her eyes, and immediately dismiss it. And the tone honestly reminds me of the countless "book bloggers are bringing down the tone of intellectual discourse oh noes" articles we've seen over the years.

I agree that she seems to be implying that if someone like her, "a strident feminist" whose "Misogyny Alarm is always on red-alert" had no issues at all with how Irene Adler was handled by the episode, then there's no logical or legitimate reasons to critique it on those grounds. It's all "ill-temper" on the part of petty, small-minded people who lack any authority whatsoever and should be dismissed.

But it's really her loss, and the creators', that they're all so quick to write off fans who engage with the series articulately and intelligently. They'd have a lot to gain by truly listening to what they have to say.

Further commentary:

Date: 2012-01-23 03:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
I'm intrigued by the fact that you two, like me, want to read Irene well. I want to read "SHERLOCKED" as a pun she just couldn't resist and, more particularly, I want to read her as two steps ahead of Sherlock. He understands control as an "either/or"; she understands it as a continuum, so the moment he asks her to beg and she doesn't miss a beat in saying 'please' is a moment where he loses. But the intent of the very vocal creators and the patterns she fits can be overwhelming. A conundrum indeed.

Date: 2012-01-23 05:59 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
That's such an excellent point about how she has no problem whatsoever saying "please", and this is something Sherlock's rigid thinking can't account for. I think there are elements in the episode that lend themselves to exciting readings, but the main reason why I have such a problem with it is that even is we see Irene as ahead of Sherlock, as having competencies he completely lacks, the story still undermines how important these really are. It's like, yes, she has a sense of humour and makes puns and has a far more nuanced understanding of power and control than Sherlock, but out there in the real world all of this still meant that her masterplan failed, that Sherlock was able to defeat her and save the day. To me this really smacks of the Victorian ideology of the separate spheres (Sherlock's coldness is in the end more appropriate to triumphing in the "public" world of international crime), which I found incredibly frustrating. Sigh. So much I love about the series, so much that drives me nuts.

Date: 2012-01-23 08:27 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I think I mostly ended up only really full on liking the middle episode in the end this series. I feel like it's probably the weakest ep of the series artistically and drammatically, but it didn't require quite so much wading through as a female viewer (because, ha, irony, like you said in the post the female parts were quite small and that appears to make me happier, which is soooo messed up).

The final episode was both beautiful and frustratingly angsty, but as soon as Sherlock told Katherine Parkinson's character that she repelled him I got pretty mad, which is obscuring when you're trying to enjoy tv. I know, I know, she repelled him because she was a journalist with low morals, but HOW CONVENIENT that the journalist who repells him happened to be a female character. Just, give me a break dudes.

Date: 2012-01-23 09:07 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
His whole interaction with the journalist in the bathroom made me uncomfortable :\ WHYYY do you keep making us wish for the ladies to go away, Sherlock?

Date: 2012-01-23 11:02 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I am trble at cutting off actors from the characters they have played before when they show up in different series, so I kept getting annoyed that he was disrespecting Jen from the IT Crowd :D

Date: 2012-01-23 03:45 pm (UTC)
copracat: Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes (2009) (mary morstan)
From: [personal profile] copracat
What a splendid thoughtful review. All the way through I was thinking of how different the Granada Holmes series was to these two recent versions. Women get respect as characters and from Holmes in Granada Holmes. It makes me wonder what factor of modernisation made Mofftiss decide that 21st century Holmes should be a complete arsehole when Granada Holmes managed to be socially capable and courteous quite often while not losing that particular Sherlockian flavour of brusque condescension and disregard for people's feelings.

Irene Adler the dominatrix reminded me of that particular male fantasy, the hooker studying for a PhD. She can OMG READ LIKE BOOKS AND EVERYTHING! AND THEY HAD A CONVERSATION! Bonus points if she reads science fiction or manga. I know, I can imagine the look on your faces right now.

Date: 2012-01-23 06:01 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I haven't watched the Granada Holmes series, but needless to say you made me very curious!

Date: 2012-01-23 08:19 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I've seen the odd bits of episodes, but never the full thing - something to consider watching together in the future maybe? I will pretty much watch, or read anything Sherlock related.

Date: 2012-01-23 09:06 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Oh, yes :D It would be awesome to watch it together.

Date: 2012-01-23 05:30 pm (UTC)
moetushie: Beaton cartoon - a sexy revolution. (30 rock → liz)
From: [personal profile] moetushie
Ah. This review articulates all my vague Irene feelings. (And why I can't, for the life of me, truly warm up to Sherlock.)

Date: 2012-01-23 06:03 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
When all is said and done I think I'd still call myself a fan, but yeah, it's like I have to split myself in two to be able to do so, which sucks :\

Date: 2012-01-23 08:10 pm (UTC)
moetushie: Beaton cartoon - a sexy revolution. (30 rock → liz)
From: [personal profile] moetushie
Yeah, there are throwaway bits I do really enjoy (the speckled blonde! which I bet made more sense than "The Speckled Band", lbr), but Moffat's comments just ruin things for me.

Date: 2012-01-24 06:09 am (UTC)
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)
From: [personal profile] krait
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh, I cannot read this post yet because I have not seen season two yet! However, thank you SO SO MUCH for the roundup, because I have been wanting a post like this ever since I heard that Scandal was out! Now, with a nice tidy file of meta links for afterward, I am prepared to go and watch. :D

Date: 2012-01-24 09:24 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Glad we could help :) Hope you have a good time watching Series Two and then you can go off and read all the discussions.

Date: 2012-02-08 10:24 pm (UTC)
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)
From: [personal profile] krait
Being the sexy lady who managed to turn him on, even though he's usually presented as asexual? Aside from the many issues with queer representation involved in this, there's the fact that a memorable female character is dragged from an intellectual role to a mainly sexual one.

One thing no one seems to have brought up, yet, but which follows very much along the lines of various Sherlock authorities' "they're not gay" statements:

[Moffat:] "There's no indication in the original stories that he was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn't want the distraction. What does that tell you about him? Straightforward deduction. He wouldn't be living with a man if he thought men were interesting."


So Sherlock's apparently a straight celibate, and on some level attracted to Irene, at least in Moffat's opinion. And people don't want to live with interesting people (hilarious, given M&G's Sherlock's trademarked catchphrase is "Boring!") for some reason. I dunno, don't ask me how Moffat's mind works; anyone who can get 'he's definitely straight' out of ACD canon is beyond my ability to figure.

That seems to be confirmed in some of his criticism of the critics:

"Everyone else gets it that Irene wins. When Sherlock turns up to save her at the end it's like Eliza Dolittle coming back to Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: 'OK, I like you, now let me hack up these terrorists with a big sword.'"

Winning, apparently, means that the guy you like are aroused by returns your affection. Not, say, that you actually pull off your fabulous criminal lifestyle and retire somewhere wealthy with half a dozen lovely female companions. Oh, and Sherlock is definitely straight, because he runs off to rescue her. *grimace*

The other thing I found most problematic was, of course, Irene's open declaration of homosexuality followed by her revelation that she had fallen for (in some sense -- like you, I'm holding out for "arousal is not the same as love") Sherlock. *facepalming* FAIL. So much fail. Especially when combined with her 'dominatrix to powerful men' work: because women who confidently own their sexuality will always use it to humiliate and undermine men, naturally. I'm so tired of this trope.

Let's see, other things...

I think I'm going to consider John's insistent "I'm not gay" to be a form of him missing the point -- because when he says "We're not actually a couple" and Irene replies (quite confidently) "Yes you are", that's what he falls back on. A pretty weak rebuttal to a charge of couplehood, really. So I regard this as John failing to grasp (or be comfortable with, anyway) the fact that he is, in fact, half of a couple composed of two men; or even mistaking sex for partnership: because if you're not having sex, you can't be a couple -- by this reasoning, "I'm not gay" is a rebuttal of "you're a couple", so maybe that's where John is lacking a clue. Whether he's missing the point deliberately (internalised homophobia, reluctance to give up pursuing sex?) or is just genuinely clueless, I haven't decided.

I note his response to "is yours a snorer" in Baskerville is "I'd like a packet of crisps"; has he figured it out finally?

Date: 2012-02-11 03:32 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
When I wrote a post about Moffat and Cumberbatch's 'they're not gay' comments made to journalists after the first series, I had someone comment that the program's canonical presentation of Sherlock as an asexual character was much more valuable. I've pretty much been waiting for Moffat to tell everyone that he didn't intend to create Sherlock as asexual either since that comment because...well, if he was deliberately drawn as asexual Moffat would have mentioned it. He comments on everything, because I guess he believes in the sole defining power of the creator, so I was pretty sure after those comments that the program was presenting him as totally straight, just too busy for any kind of attraction.

But like you, I totally don't get how anyone can say 'definitely straight' from a reading of the original stories. His sexuality is almost never commented on, so it could be anything, surely. Unless the creators of Sherlock adaptations define his sexuality in their adaptation, they are also leaving the door open for all kinds of interpretations. To go and squash those interpretations outside of the media you've created just seems so wrong to me for a number of reasons, but most importantly why does a creator need to do that unless a.) they're a total control freak who can't handle anyone else seeing their vision of things differently, or b.) there's some internalised prejudice going on there. Why does anyone need to make sure viewers know their character isn't gay?


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