Psst, "Sherlock," Your Sexism Is Showing

"The Abominable Bride" might just be the most sexist "Sherlock" yet -- and that's saying something.
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Publish date:
January 14, 2016
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sexism, TV, homophobia, Sherlock

New Year's Day 2016 promised great things: hangovers, resolutions, the Rose Bowl, and the new episode of BBC's Sherlock. It'd been two years—almost exactly—since its last episode aired, and in that time period the show had received a lot of legitimate criticism for its sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism (due in no small part to star Martin Freeman's offensive comments about things like: date rape, hip-hop, and multiculturalism, which apparently "hasn't and doesn't help").

It appeared, at first, that "The Abominable Bride," with its interest in women and women's rights, was an attempt on the part of the show runners to address some of these criticisms and to create a progressive, less offensive show. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most sexist episodes ever.

By now, most of you with interest in the show have probably had a chance to watch it. So let me explain.

This special's sexism in fact starts very early, in the "previously on" segment, which recaps the first four seasons of Sherlock in a matter of minutes. In the tradition of such "previously on" segments we're shown short clips relevant in some way to the episode at hand: Moriarty's apparent suicide, John's revisionist attempts at making Sherlock into a hero, Sherlock's affair with Irene Adler, and the early scene of Sherlock beating a corpse in order to determine how long it bruises, in addition, of course, to his faking his own death and being arrested for murder.

Curiously missing in all this: any real mention of Mary, John's wife, whose dark past led her to be blackmailed by Magnussen, the man Sherlock shot and killed in the season four finale. Mary's character and, in fact, all of the female characters on the show play a major role in this episode, but that isn't clear until later.

Instead of picking up right where it left off in 2014, Sherlock travels backward in time to 1895—a year of great importance in the Sherlock universe, because that's when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the original mysteries, tried to kill the character off ("tried" because the outcry from fans led Doyle to resurrect Sherlock after a ten-year hiatus).

In this so-called alternative timeline, John's a veteran of the Second Afghan War and was injured in the line of duty, like in the present day, and John and Sherlock's original encounter in the morgue is quickly repackaged, courtesy of John's voiceover. Naturally, when you're in 1895 the story is going to be structured like it's 1895, and this narration is appropriately antiquated, with John delivering lines like, "London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are drained." It's fun because it's old and mannered and John and Sherlock get to play off each other in a new but familiar way.

Except… it's still 1895, and that means John and Sherlock have 1895's values about women, race, and politics. Sexism rears its head again when John tells Mrs. Hudson that her role is to serve tea (he says this in the context of explaining his role as narrator and Mrs. Hudson's role in the stories he's written for The Strand Magazine, meaning, he's making a metafictional comment about how Sherlock's characters play off each other and how they're all beholden to the narrative of "Sherlock Holmes" that already exists in the public's imagination, but still).

Unsurprisingly, that doesn't go over well, and Mrs. Hudson starts acting out by refusing to announce Sherlock's visitors—because a female character's only recourse to sexism in this universe is to start acting petty, apparently.

Mrs. Hudson's strike forces the guys into an awkward encounter with a veiled woman dressed all in black who's actually Mary posing as a potential client in order to see her husband. That's right: their marriage is going so terribly that she's resorted to deception to spend a little time with John. It's not a very good plan and doesn't result in her getting any closer to her husband (because lying to your significant other like that is never a good idea, and also, wtf, this plan was just very dumb and silly), but this does reveal quite a bit about the male characters in the show. Mainly: that they take women for granted and underestimate them time and time again.

Mary, if you recall, is in fact a highly-trained assassin, as John and Sherlock learned the hard way last season, and could easily kill both of the main characters, but the episode more or less decides not to dwell on that because it's caught up in this whole "it's 1895" thing. We do get back to Mary later in this episode, but for now it's all like, "Who cares about suffrage? Haha."

Mary's "woman in black" stunt winds up being a fake-out to amuse the audience before we get to the real "abominable bride," Emelia Ricoletti, who's the main suspect in a case Lestrade brings to Sherlock in his off hours. Ricoletti reportedly shot herself in the head on a balcony after shooting wildly into a street for a few minutes, shouting, "You! You!" Then—and here's the mind-bending bit—Ricoletti appeared to rise from the dead and shoot her husband outside an opium den. It's an intriguing and upsetting case, and in typical Sherlock fashion the men run straight to the morgue, leaving Mary behind at 221B Baker Street, where Mrs. Hudson delivers a letter signed only "M." Moriarty? Unlikely. It's actually Mycroft (perhaps the only male character who fully understands Mary's potential in this show).

Meanwhile, Molly Hooper is cross-dressing as a man to run 1895's idea of a morgue (actually a cave) and nobody realizes it but John because that makes total sense and conveniently allows this show to take what they think is a trans-positive stance, but is actually just another example of how trans people are made into the butt of a joke in the media. Excellent job, Sherlock, there's nothing problematic about that throwaway at all.

Later, sans any leads on the abominable bride, John and Sherlock are summoned to the Diogenes Club by Mycroft, who hasn't fared well in the alternative timeline and has put on several hundred pounds (this entire plotline is nonsensical and should indicate to the viewer that this timeline isn't in fact real or viable but is, instead, some sort of narrative device). Mycroft humiliates Sherlock a bit before getting to the point: he has a lead on their "abominable bride" case. In fact, he's already figured the case out, but wants Sherlock to run around doing the legwork.

Thanks, Mycroft, that's really kind of you. Now, about the "invisible enemy" of which you speak—is it women? Because I think that an episode called "The Abominable Bride" is probably going to be about women; but wait—"invisible"? "Enemy"? I don't like the sound of this.

I also didn't like John's assumption that the enemies were Socialists, anarchists, suffragists, and/or the French, Scots, and Serbs. In this the show runners are possibly responding to Martin Freeman's history of racist and homophobic comments, but aren't doing it in a way that redresses the wrong. In fact, it feels less like they're taking legitimate criticism and more like they're paying lip service to progressive values that they don't really espouse—as when Moriarty tells John and Sherlock to get a room and Sherlock responds by calling this homophobic suggestion "offensive."

Is it possible that all the criticism of Sherlock has reached the show's writers and led them to change the dynamic between the main characters? Unlikely. If Sherlock really wanted to put an end to the queerbaiting they've been banking on these last four seasons, then they wouldn't make the suggestion in the first place and would just write the show without capitalizing on subtext that doesn't need to exist at all.

But back to this idea of women as an "invisible enemy." It's pretty sexist, is it not? Mycroft in his next breath does say that this invisible enemy is "right" and Sherlock has to let them win, but this is small consolation when you consider the fact that: A) most viewers don't know he's talking about women yet, B) these enemies are in fact suffragists fighting for their human rights, and C) there's no reason to equate suffragists with a murderous vigilante punishing abusive men for treating the female characters in this episode terribly—just like there's no justifying the decision to create that equivalence in the first place.

Newsflash: suffragists weren't criminals; they were activists whose work was instrumental in securing the right to vote for half the population, and unless my history is off (it isn't), they didn't hide in creepy stone churches or wear hooded robes like the Illuminati. Sherlock, why would you even suggest such a thing? It's so sexist that it almost seems progressive and that's what makes it insidious. Sure, there are some viewers who've criticized the episode and its structure, but overall, Sherlock's female fans seem pleased to have finally gotten a day in the spotlight, and that's exactly what "The Abominable Bride" was supposed to do—throw us a bone. It's not about respect. It's arrogance.

Arrogance is what led Sherlock to think that he could overdose without consequences. Arrogance is what led Sherlock's writers to set this entire alternative timeline inside Sherlock "mind palace," where he attempts to deduce how Moriarty could survive shooting himself in the head via the cold case featuring Emelia Ricoletti, the titular "abominable bride," who's a member of the aforementioned stone-church-dwelling hooded-cloak cult of "suffragists" that Mary—not Sherlock—finds in the end.

If all of this doesn't quite make sense to you that's because it doesn't make sense, period. In making the alternative timeline a mere cipher in Sherlock's vain attempt to solve another problem (Moriarty's supposed return), the show's writers have relegated this entire women's rights plot to an aside and thereby compounded the show's sexism. In other words, they've made things worse, and I'm more than a little worried about what the next season of Sherlock has in store for us.