Sexist. Queerbaiting. Fan service. Poorly written.
All words I’ve heard used in countless conversations and articles about the BBC series Sherlock, mostly directed at the showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. I once believed the same thing, and in fact, used a few of those words myself. We expect to be queerbaited, we expect sexism, and we expect the heteronormative male to always be the focus of every story. That’s what we’re used to, it’s what we’ve been force-fed.
Not this time.
I came into the show in 2013 as a casual viewer, and I loved the story on a surface level. It was modern, fresh, and brilliantly written with solid performances from the cast. The focus of the show is the complex dynamic between crime solving partners Sherlock Holmes, a genius detective who is hilariously naive about the obvious, and John Watson, a former Army doctor who makes up for everything Sherlock lacks. However, I became confused about the strange shift of tone in series 3 (especially that strange wedding!), and by what I believed was growing romantic chemistry between Sherlock and Watson. Thinking I was seeing things, I passed off the idea as ludicrous, but these things nagged at me constantly. So, I decided to do a little research into the show.
That’s when I found the Johnlock fandom.
This very large subset of the general Sherlock fandom, comprising mostly women and LGBT viewers, believe that from day one, Sherlock’s showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have been using the long standing tradition of gay subtext and the “game within a game/story within a story” prevalent in mystery fiction to slowly introduce Sherlock and John as a romantic couple. These fans back up their theories with an astounding amount of evidence and clear, concise reasoning. After rereading their theories and rewatching the series, I began to see the evidence for myself.
Part of this evidence was the interview Mark Gatiss, who is openly gay, gave in 2012 to Gay Times, where he explained how a showrunner might introduce a gay couple in a film or a television show:
One of my favourite stories is [the episode] Gridlock: there’s an elderly couple of ladies who are together, and it just sort of passes by, and that’s the way–softly, softly. That’s how the revolution happens, as it were: you just become aware that people are incidentally gay. I think when the day comes that you have a big detective show where the first half hour was this man at work, and he’s a maverick, and all the usual things… and then we went home and his boyfriend says, ‘Are you alright?’, [and] it was just a thing… then something would have genuinely changed.”
After reading that extremely curious quote in combination with all the rest of the evidence, I realized that the Johnlock fandom was absolutely, unequivocally correct. Suddenly, everything that had never made sense to me in the series was now clear to me, and I saw that Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat weren’t sexist or queerbaiting at all—they were doing something that we’ve never seen before in mainstream film or television.
These two men, both admitted fanboys of Sherlock, one of whom has already worked with subtext in a previous project, had hidden a game of their own within the series, and the Johnlock fandom had figured it out.
So naturally, when the time came for the long awaited airing of "The Abominable Bride," I sat in front of my TV, eager to see how they would continue subverting sexism and queerbaiting.
The game was on.
The special takes place, at first, in 1895 England, and the characters espouse traditional Victorian values, one of the most obvious being the expected subservience and accepted inferiority of women. No male in this version of Sherlock listens to the women in their life. However, the fact that these contemporary views on women are not to be taken too seriously is shown in the exchange between Lestrade and Sherlock, when Sherlock comments on the reason Mrs. Hudson has stopped speaking to any of them: “I fear that she has branched into literary criticism by means of satire.” This means that the context of these sexist views is correct for the year 1895, but the showrunners are also poking fun at these now outdated views on women.
At the morgue, we meet Molly Hooper, who has taken to dressing like a man in order to advance in the medical field. Sherlock does not notice that Dr. Hooper is a woman, but John does, and he tells her: “Amazing, what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.” These words are not spoken insultingly—John, a doctor himself, is telling Molly that he knows she is a woman, and acknowledges the personal sacrifices she’s made for her career.
When Sherlock and John go to The Diogenes Club to see Mycroft, they encounter a man at the front desk with the last name of Wilder. This is a direct reference to Billy Wilder, the director of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which Sherlock is canonically gay and in love with John Watson. The film was used as a template for the BBC series, and was immensely influential on Mark Gatiss who, incidentally, plays Mycroft Holmes in this series.
Mycroft, during his meeting with Sherlock and John at the club, tells them: “Our way of life is under threat from an invisible enemy. One that hovers at our elbow on a daily basis. These enemies are everywhere, undetected, and unstoppable.” Watson inquires as to how an invisible enemy can be beaten, and Mycroft tells him: “We don’t defeat them. We must certainly lose to them... because they are right, and we are wrong.” We find out later that he is referring to the women who are fighting for their rights.
Interestingly, the special ends with a happy domestic scene of Sherlock and John in their Victorian flat, sitting across from one another in their respective chairs. John is inquiring about this “future world” Sherlock has concocted in his mind palace, and Sherlock tells him: “It was simply my conjecture of what a future world might look like and how you and I might fit inside it.”
Every single one of these scenes is speaking directly to the Johnlock fandom, who are consistently attacked and silenced by casual viewers for being "silly" and "delusional." The suffragists that appear during the special in the guise of a secret society are shown that way because that’s exactly how the fandom is seen from the outside: as a clandestine group of “stupid women” believing in a ridiculous conspiracy when, in fact, they are the women who are instrumental in fighting for what is right—just as the Johnlock fandom has been with doing with Sherlock and John since 2010. In this moving and poignant scene, Sherlock himself acknowledges that fact, stating: “So, you see Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must lose.”
This is a significant tone shift in the series towards the Johnlock fandom. "The Abominable Bride" was the turning point from the surface story of the show as a crime drama into the actual story which is the blossoming romance between Sherlock and John. Gay rights and women’s rights are completely intertwined—always have been—and the special is setting up a parallel between them that, according to the fandom, will be explored in series 4 and series 5. The special itself once again calls attention to the “story within a story” since it mostly takes place in the many layers of Sherlock’s mind palace, which is symbolic of all the layers built into the entire series.
Without the aid of the Johnlock fandom, I would’ve never known any of this. I would’ve continued thinking the series was sexist towards women, or queerbaiting Sherlock and John without any intention on following through.
The fans who author these analyses are trying to tell us to do what Sherlock does: observe, deduce, find the answer to the mystery. Many of them are authors themselves, or professionals in their respective fields. Find and read what they’ve researched and written, even if you don’t end up believing their claims. Just hear them out. Thanks to their priceless insights, I stumbled into an entire world of storytelling that I never knew existed, and consequently fell head over heels in love with the brilliance of Sherlock and the hidden language of subtext.