Sherlock and the Abominable Straw Feminists.
Disclaimer: Yes I’m a man writing about feminism, I don’t claim to be an expert or have the solution, I just like to hear myself talk.
Spoilers, so many many spoilers.
I like the BBC’s modern version of Sherlock. It’s an excellent update on a classic that was fun for me to read as both a child and an adult. Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job of creating a cold calculating super sleuth and Martin Freeman excels at humanising him. I did feel that some of the wry on the nose humour might be missing in the new series. Naturally the announcement that there would be a Victorian new years day special was one that ignited a very impatient anticipation in me. Then last night I finished watching it and began scratching my head. What had I watched? Was it a stunning piece of metafiction that cleverly linked and paid homage to the characters long and colourful history; Was it a love letter from super fans to the stories that had inspired them; Or was it a convoluted mess that only succeeded in jumping the shark?
For all it’s inception-esque cleverness the special never really managed to pull itself together. Originally thought that the Victorian setting was just a very clever ruse under which they would launch a new season of Sherlock in surprise; it was not. Then it seemed to be a strange form of fan service utilising the homo-erotic theories that Tumblr seems obsessed with. All of this taking place at the Reichenbach Falls with some very strong bromantic themes triumphing over the obsessive stalker ones. I’m still not sure if my mind is capable of coming up with any concrete answers for these many and varied possibilities but one question has planted itself firmly in my mind; Is that what Stephen Moffat really thinks of feminists?
For those of you unaware of how feminism was presented in the show it looked a little like this:
So as you can see this is the answer to the Victorian portion of the specials narrative arc. Though it would be slightly unfair to deem them feminists in the vernacular of the time they would be suffragettes, and in Moffat’s world they’re a pseudo-occultist revenge society. A group of clandestine women that have orchestrated the abominable bride of the title so as to strike fear into the hearts of the pillars of the patriarchy as they deem them.
I have a few issues with this. Apart from it being a wholesale rip off of theBatman: Mask of the Phantasm Plot (emerging from and disappearing into the mist included.)
it also shows the suffragette movement as ruthless, scheming and little more than vindictive, Sherlock insinuates as much when he brands them The League of Furies. Why do I say vindictive? The subjects of the Brides wrath are not really key figures against the advocation of women’s right but rather men who have wronged members of the group at one point or another. This is not to say that the two men we see punished, Ricoletti and Sir Eustace Carmichael respectively, are not deserving of some form of justice but they do not seem to be obstacles in the road to equality. To have them targeted is to reduce the Abominable Bride from a weapon of change to a scorned housewife’s tool.
Moffat has done a wonderful job of creating a perfectly victorian straw feminist brigade. Straw feminists are essentially an intellectual boogey man designed to allow those made uncomfortable by equality to dismiss them as aggressive and militant radicals. The Bride is exactly that, she engages in violence and terror tactics to affect change. In doing so, she grants Sherlock and Watson the right to stop her, whilst simultaneously allowing the audience to feel okay for viewing them as the enemy.
Why would Moffat do this? Why would he intentionally draw attention to the plight of women only to reduce it to a petty annoyance. A simple solution can be found. He is almost directly referencing the original tales of Arthur Conan Doyle as well as reflecting the actual views of men at the time.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle firstly uses the women in his stories to further the impression that Sherlock Holmes is a man of unmatchable deductive skills. Doyle contrasts the wit and knowledge that Sherlock Holmes possesses with female characters who are typically silent and reserved. The mere fact that the women come to Holmes with an issue that needs solving renders them immediate victims to circumstances, while also ensuring that they are subservient to Holmes both for his talent and for his protection of them (which additionally perpetuates the structural stereotype that a woman cannot care for herself).
This is a quote from Meghan R. Gordon’s essay on women in Sherlock Holmes. She goes on to list the many and varied times that women are represented as meek and docile within the cases of Holmes, each one serving to show the stronger, and by Victorian definition, more masculine traits exhibited by the detective. This meek treatment of women was often coupled with words like hysteria should a woman ever exhibit any form of passion. By today’s standard’s such thoughts are ridiculous, the special can be seen to be taking advantage of them for comedic purposes. Over the top patriarchal dialogue is a feature of the episode. Each exchange is meant to be blatant and on the nose so as to engage in that safeguard against criticism that is Irony. One of the best examples is when Mary asks if she is simply to wait in the apartment while Holmes and Watson tackle the case. Watson looks at his wife, full of understanding and says: ‘’Not at all my dear, we’ll be hungry later.’’
Oh the hilarity of sending your wife to the kitchen. Moffat provides himself another escape from condemnation in the form of Moriarty, who is little more than a late 19th century Tyler Durden. He directly references the over the top, shark jumping nature of the special:
Oh c’mon be serious, the costumes, the gong. Speaking as a criminal mastermind, we don’t really have gongs, special outfits. Is this silly enough for you yet?
So all can be excused, the show is self-knowing, fully aware of it’s actions and simply parodying it’s source. It’s simple. but in the words of Sherlock Holmes,‘’There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Just because the show establishes a tongue in cheek tone in its Victorian narrative does not excuse the rest of the episode. One of the major criticisms of the special was that it engaged heavily in ‘’mansplaining’’. ‘’Mansplaining’’ is difficult to define correctly but the primary ingredients are condescension and an unearned sense of authority on a subject (which I may be doing right now but apologies, I have included a disclaimer, so we’re good right?). One particular quote that is provoking considerable ire is:
The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, this is a war we must lose.
Spoken by Sherlock, the main problem with the statement is its permissive nature. It is almost like the terms of surrender being given to men, which will enable them to gracefully step aside and allow women to join them. There it is though, allow, they would not have earned equality it would be granted to them by men. The point is they don’t need help.
Now that last sentence is more mansplaining, me talking to you like you’re not intelligent like you can’t figure it out for yourself. Something that Moffat does throughout the episode. He creates a ridiculous but accurate depiction of an era’s values, one that anyone can see takes the exact form of a victorian man’s worst nightmare. An avenging woman, strong and deadly that is not bound by any of their rules, THE BRIDE.
Then he ruins it by creating a completely opposite counterpart for her, it comes in the form of Mary Watson. The term straw feminist is derived from the term straw man fallacy, which is a technique used when arguing a point. In order to back your own argument or refute another’s, you create an exaggerated example that will scare people into believing your viewpoint or abandon your opponents. A straw man is used to prop up an argument and Mary is Moffat’s.
Surely I’m wrong? Mary is a strong, independent, intelligent woman. Throughout the special alone she is seen to frequently best the male characters, both in victiorian and modern England. She technically beats Sherlock to the solution, is trusted by the more intelligent Holmes, then in modern London is shown to be more capable than even Mycroft, besting him for clearence in MI5. Her status as an equal is recognised and remarked upon by the men of the tale. Sherlock refers to her as remarkable choice of wife. She is infallible. That’s exactly the problem, one that is being seen more and more in popular culture, in order for a female character to be the equal of men she must be strong and perfect. Mary doesn’t actually say much in the episode, anything that isn’t a strong female statement or a correction, each time she does it is usually to ensure victory or correct an assumption and Moffat seems to think that’s enough. To be accomplished a woman must be strong and fearless. That is the message of this special. The message itself is not a poor one, empowering viewers is fine, but it is a very narrow range. More and more strength is the new standard that women are held to, but that strips them of being a full person.To be a woman, or an equal for that matter, is to be a complete person. Happy, angry, sad, mean, kind, etc. this is something that the likes of Jacqueline Rose and Naomi Wolf all agree on.
So what has Stephen Moffat done in presenting the opposite? He has excused his show from major equality debate by giving his viewers a perfectly strong character, only it’s lazy writing hiding as progressive. It seems fitting then that the first time we see Mary in the special, it is as a mirror image of the actual Bride:
She is the true Abominable Bride, the Abominable Straw Feminist, a whole new breed, used to feign equality.
Side Note: I’ve just realised my title looks like a Doctor Who Christmas special.