Was That Meant To Be Feminist? About The ‘Sherlock’ Special

Clarissa writer Lucía Carrillo talks about THAT Sherlock special episode, which was trying to be all feminist and shit. Spoilers ahead!

I love Sherlock, so I try to avoid any spoilers before an episode. I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen in the first episode of Season 4. In fact, I didn’t expect anything at all. I was hoping for the best but expecting the worst. As one of my favourite shows, I want to avoid disappointment wherever possible. What can I say? I’m a romantic regarding TV.

Every ritual was adhered to. I made myself popcorn, and I was wearing my finest sheep patterned pyjamas. I was ready to watch the first episode, lying on my bed, and waiting for close-ups of Benedict Cumberbatch (spank bank, anyone?).

The episode was set in the 19th century, a departure from the modern-day Sherlock we’ve come to expect. There was also no resolution of Season 3’s major cliffhanger. Still, I gave the writers the benefit of the doubt, and the plot was actually pretty cool. But suddenly, something strange happened. Just a few minutes into the episode, Watson started behaving like a complete asshole. He was extremely misogynistic, not only with his attitude, but with his expressions.

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This made me feel weird because it didn’t fit with Watson’s attitude. Sure, he wasn’t particularly feminist in the previous seasons, but he wasn’t a jackass either. Let’s face it, Sherlock is not a feminist TV show. I love Sherlock, but Sherlock is not feminist. Just because the show has one or two strong female characters like Mary or Irene Adler doesn’t make it feminist. After all, Sherlock Holmes is an arrogant man in a traditional male role. And female characters usually known in relation to one of the male characters: Mary is Watson’s wife, Mrs Hudson is their landlord, and Molly Hooper is in love with Sherlock. However, in the Sherlock special, the sexism was elevated. Watson wasn’t just being casually sexist; he evolved into a major misogynist, as if to prove some sort of ham-fisted point.

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Well, my dear, here’s the thing with sexism: you don’t have to make it explicit, because sexism is already there. Look at Mrs Hudson. She has never had a crucial role; she’s just the adorable lady who takes care of Sherlock and Watson from the first episode. We barely notice the sexism here because we have internalised it. In other words, it’s unconscious. Many sexist actions are unconscious, so pointing out the fact that female characters in Sherlock play a minor role isn’t enough to make the show feminist. While I appreciate the effort, it’s not enough. I’m probably meant to think something along the lines of, “I mean, at least they are trying? At least they know there’s a problem here?”

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The episode continued with its feminist cause in a major way. After a while, Mary announced that she was a suffragist. Call me crazy, but Mary having said this, I expected to see the suffragette movement, at least for like one scene, but it didn’t happen. All it got was a mention, Mary’s line, then we don’t see anything else. We don’t get to see Mary fighting for women’s rights in the streets. And, hey! Mary Poppins (1965) does much more for the suffragist movement than this, or any, episode of Sherlock ever did.

Basically, Watson’s overacting, trying to be an overtly sexist man in this episode, was all to prove a point. Look! Sherlock is a feminist show!

My first thought was… WHY? They had three seasons to infuse with feminism, all of which were set in the present day, but instead they choose to place their attempt at feminism in the 19th century. Why oh why, sweet lord? This seems like a terrible cliched idea.

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What Sherlock‘s writers really need to know is this: sexism isn’t a thing of the past. It’s not a history lesson they get to resurrect for episodic enjoyment. Even worse, sexism isn’t always obvious. It can be really subtle and people experience sexism every single day. Do you want to know what would be really revolutionary for an episode of Sherlock? Try to pass the Bechdel Test, dudes! Which by the way, this so-called feminist episode doesn’t do. It’d be great if the writers could at least try to imagine a female character who was fulfilled without having a boyfriend. Not everyone is in love with Benedict Cumberbatch, OK?!

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The writers of Sherlock seem to view women, and feminists in particular, as a cult dressed like brides seeking revenge over their husbands and the opposite sex. They totally negate the fact that feminists just want the same fundamental rights as everyone else.

I can imagine that the Sherlock writers were pretty proud of themselves, and the ending in particular, thinking that Sherlock’s speech was going to go viral and be feminist as fuck! Cue dramatic music as Sherlock explains how unfair society is for women: they can’t vote, they have to take care of the children, they’re second class citizens. The Cumberbatch relays this speech to a crowd of girls, all standing listening to him carefully. He tells them that they are an army fighting for fundamental rights. Thank god we have a white man like Sherlock who is capable of explaining the oppression of women to… well… women. The writers clearly don’t realise there is a word to describe this very thing. Mansplaining, ladies and gents. Live it, learn it.

Making Sherlock a more feminist show would be easy, really. Just create some authentic strong female characters and give them a voice. Simple. And next time, Sherlock, you can do seriously better!

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Lucía Carrillo is a writer and blogger, originally from Granada in Spain, who has written for sites and magazines like MOGUL and Cultura Colectiva. Lucía writes in English and Spanish about TV, feminism, and philosophy, and is also interested in space, time, and Artificial Intelligence. You can find her blog, Thinking About Causation, here. Lucía’s a feminist ukulele player who truly loves pizza, sweet potatoes, and chestnuts. Follow her on Instagram.

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