(Warning: Spoilers for The Abominable Bride. Also, mentions of domestic abuse.)
BBC’s Sherlock has been criticized from a feminist perspective many times for various reasons, from the lack of significant female characters and their stereotypical roles to the changes made to the story of Irene Adler. It seems Moffat and Gatiss decided they’ve had it with these kinds of criticism, and wrote a piece about the feminist message of which there can be no doubt.
Or can there?
I won’t hold you in suspense, given that I’m hardly the first to point out that yes, there really, really can. So let me try to analyze the story and its implications in detail.
I’ll start with looking at the Very Feminist NarrativeTM that we’ve been regaled with this New Year.
After a hamfisted feminist intro of “John leaves his wife at home when he goes on adventure and that’s Bad,” Sherlock gets a client. It’s Lestrade, terrified by a case seemingly involving the supernatural. Turns out Emilia Ricoletti, an apparently crazy woman in a wedding dress, was seen shooting at a street at random before committing suicide and being taken to the morgue…and then she went and met up with her husband, who positively identified her, before she killed him. Sherlock and John head to the mortuary as well, and there they find a) Molly dressed as a man in order to be allowed to be a pathologist (John, who just gave his own wife a pat on the head when she complained and told her she was only good for cooking, is surprisingly OK with that) and b) a very dead consumptive body with its brains blown out, very clearly belonging to Mrs. Ricoletti, but with signs that she moved after she was first brought in. A mystery. Sherlock is reminded of a different case. Act 1 ends.
Act 2 starts with Lestrade telling us that five more men have been killed by The Bride, a seeming spectre of Emilia Ricoletti. Then Sherlock and John go visit a morbidly obese Mycroft, who warns them that “our way of life is threatened by an invisible army” and that “we most certainly lose to them, because they’re right and we’re wrong” and then recommends Sherlock a client, Lady Carmichael. Her husband, the sexist jerk Sir Eustace, is being threatened with orange pips, KKK style, and stalked by the undead Mrs. Ricoletti. Lady Carmichael hires Sherlock for the case, and he’s unable to prevent the murder of her husband. He sees a spectre of Mrs. Ricoletti shortly before the crime is committed, and John sees it once again when alone shortly afterwards. Sherlock declares there’s only one real suspect when you eliminate the impossible, but isn’t really interested. Instead, a “miss me?” note that appears on the dead man’s body catches his attention. Sherlock shortly consults Mycroft, then meets Moriarty in his flat. Act 2 ends, and a short interlude follows.
Act 3 comes knocking with Mary the agent of Mycroft discovering the secret base…of a KKK feminist organization. I mean, they wear purple robes with purple hats, otherwise they look exactly like The Klan. Turns out basically every woman from the story apart from Mary and Mrs. Hudson belongs to this organization: Emilia, Lady Carmichael, Molly, John’s maid, they’re all part of it. Even Janine, who wasn’t actually in the story. And the women in the organization dress as The Bride and…kill men.
Not all men, to be fair. Only those who treat women badly. We never really find out exactly what qualifies a man to be killed: Emilia’s husband apparently treated her terribly, but what precisely that entailed, we don’t know. Years before, Sir Eustace abandoned her after promising her marriage and sleeping with her. It wasn’t a case of “she was ruined forever and forced to struggle in poverty”, because she clearly found a different husband later, which, while making no difference as far as the morality of Sir Eustace’s behaviour goes, would make the killing that much less justifiable. But there was anoter reason for it. We also learn Sir Eustace was mentally cruel – thus Lady Carmichael’s personal reasons for killing him.
For those five other killings that already took place, we get no particular motives. And to top it all, almost all of this thing is mansplained by Sherlock. Molly speaks about Emilia being abandoned by Sir Eustace, and Janine speaks about the same lady being mistreated by her husband, but all the rest of it is told by the hero, including the description of how Mrs. Ricoletti took her own life to make the idea of her spectre possible. Sherlock speaks very nobly about one half of the human race being at war with the other, and about women being ignored, patronized and disregarded, and about an injustice as old as humanity itself. As Mycroft had said and Sherlock now repeats, “we” have to lose, because “they” are right and “we” are wrong.
Well, that’s very nice, Mycroft. Maybe, given that you’re The British Government, you could have worked to ensure women got the vote instead of condoning a vigilante organization.
Because, let’s just think about the message for a while. There is someone murdering people and it turns out it was all these “regular, ordinary women” all along, “the invisible army at our elbows” as Mycroft says. So not only are feminists KKK-hats-wearing, homicide-happy crazies, but they’re all around you, in a far-reaching conspiracy…
Now of course I get that they’re supposed to be a vigilante justice group. The thing is, with most vigilantes, as long as they’re supposed to be sympathetic, you get to see the terrible stuff the villains do. The Dark Knight works because you see Joker do his dreadful, senseless violence and so you root for Batman to defeat him. We saw a LOT of Magnussen in action before the end of His Last Vow, to be at least somewhat sympathetic to Sherlock when it got to the showdown. In The Abominable Bride, the one instance we actually see is…a husband being condescending to his wife. Which, sure, that’s bad. He deserves some sharp words. She’d be perfectly justified in leaving him.
There is no way she’d be justified in killing him based on what we’ve been shown, especially not in cold blood like she does. Not everyone can be as enlightened as the Holmes brothers, and we see John being condescending to his own wife right at the beginning, after all.
See, this is where the problem with Sherlock’s mansplaining truly hurts the particular narrative, besides the general discourse. The only proper space for a female point of view in the episode was during the pre-resolution part of the story, where Lady Carmichael obviously uses it to misrepresent the case to Sherlock so that he doesn’t solve it. Had the women in the case been allowed a proper voice during the final showdown we could have perhaps heard about all the violence the dead men did against them. We could have seen the bruises, seen some flashback of beatings and psychological violence and tyranny. You know, show, don’t tell. Writing 101. In a society where there is no true justice for victims of domestic abuse, and no such thing as putting a restraining order on your (ex)husband, killing the abuser could very realistically be the only way out, and could basically be self-defence. But that’s hardly the case with what we’ve been presented with.
The story, instead, seems to give the message that feminism is about a war between the sexes, that feminists are dangerous extremists…and then, rather confusingly, gives them a stamp of approval. It’s basically MRA’s worst nightmare (which, come to think of it, might just be the best thing about this story. Still, hardly helpful for dialogue.).
And look, I understand this is chiefly Sherlock’s story – the show is called Sherlock, after all – and that’s fine. But then either don’t make its main theme feminism and the situation of women, if you’re unwilling to widen the focus, or add an actual fleshed-out female character with an arc and some proper space, not just foil for the hero.
It’s an honoured tradition in detective stories that the villains have a complicated backstory and motivation, and uncovering that in detail is one of the main points of the narrative. Sure, yes, the detective explaining everything at the end is an honoured tradition as well, but besides the clear goal of showing how clever they are, this is also because the villains cannot be expected to spill the beans themselves. Quite often, after being discovered by the hero, they have their own monologue where we get to see the situation from their point of view. And these are legitimate villains.
So, given that Mycroft and Sherlock both declared this KKK feminist movement to be “right,” couldn’t we have got just a little bit of that as well? Some space for the women who form the “invisible army,” to speak for themselves? The women who Sherlock pompously declares are denied a voice, only to deny them a voice himself? And none of them claims it, even though there’s tens of them and they are all apparently killers or at least complicit in killing, so you wouldn’t think they’d have that much trouble with self-assertion. John’s maid certainly didn’t when she spoke to him in her professional capacity. But the only time they speak during the showdown, they speak about the dead Emilia. Never for themselves.
Why not? Give me more details about Lady Carmichael, or Mrs. Ricoletti, or any other one of them. Let them tell me their plans. Sir Eustace was clearly filthy rich. Did they plan to establish a refuge for abused women in his house after his death? Did they use the inherited money to support women who left their tyrannical husbands? Did they offer counseling as well as the ultimate solution to marital problems? Anything, anything at all beside killing? We don’t know.
So, this all seems pretty damning. However, much like in the episode, there is a twist coming in this article. So far, I’ve been sticking purely to the Victorian storyline, but actually in what I called an intermission between Act 2 and 3, something unexpected happens: Sherlock wakes up on a plane and we discover that he’s been on a trip, metaphorical as well as literal. For the rest of the episode, we keep switching between the Victorian era and modern period.
I’ve seen some reviewers claim that all of the story’s characters are just fragment of Sherlock’s drugged imagination. I personally believe the view of reality and fantasy the Sherlock special presents is a little more complicated than that. It’s not the topic of this article, so I won’t go into it too much, but let’s just say, while the entire structure of the story does show the Victorian storyline to be rather fantasy-like, it’s far from clear cut what is real and what is not, and the episode heavily references its own fictitiousness, or rather, the fictitiousness of Sherlock Holmes.
But here and now, I’m only interested in whether this affects the “feminist” storyline, or rather its implications and problems.
It turns out it does, quite heavily.
For one, by this reveal, the entire Abominable Bride case is framed as simply a way for Sherlock’s mind to examine the suicide of Moriarty. There are hints of this even inside the Victorian world, where at the very beginning of the case, Sherlock contextualizes it with regards to a “very old case,” he only shows interest in the mystery of Mrs. Ricoletti surviving her suicide because of how it ties to Moriarty’s, and actually abandons a crime scene, leaving the case unsolved, because there’s a hint of his arch-nemesis. Seen from that angle, the story of oppressed women taking to terror to escape their oppression is framed as interesting mainly because it provides our Personal Favourite White Boy with a quaint background on which he can examine his own issues (with his own Personal Favourite Most Hated White Boy).
For another, declaring the entire thing Sherlock’s fantasy could actually have been a saving grace – in certain circumstances. If the show clearly indicated that this was just Sherlock’s dumb idea of what 19th century feminism looked like, and that it was absurd…then it could work. In this sense, it doesn’t actually matter how real we consider the Victorian storyline and the modern storyline, as long as the final solution of the Abominable Bride case is called out as stupid.
So, is it? The answer is, not explicitly enough. Sherlock does mention how nonsensical the idea that a murderer would contract a detective to investigate a murder they committed was (a trope that sometimes appears in detective fiction), and there’s a scene where modern!Sherlock exhumes Mrs. Ricoletti’s body to confirm a part of his hypothesis and finds out he was wrong, but it doesn’t knock out his whole solution of the case and the scene takes on a dream-like quality immediately afterward, so its relevance is doubtful. And last but not least, when Sherlock, at the culmination of his mansplaining monologue, tries to reveal Lady Carmichael as the mastermind behind the whole organization, it’s actually Moriarty under The Bride’s veil, pointing out the whole thing is absurd and not real because criminal masterminds don’t really do the thing with masks and robes and secret lairs – a statement that is super problematic given that the imagery of the movement was directly inspired by KKK, who did, in fact, actually have masks and robes, and were actual real-life villains, though perhaps no masterminds. And that is the closest we get to ridiculing the entire concept. It’s no mere mention in passing, but still. The idea itself of 19th century women getting together to murder men vigilante-style and Sherlock and Mycroft both being perfectly OK with it is never cast into question.
I’d like to believe it’s because they don’t want to spell everything out for us and assume we can work it out from the aforementioned clues, but…feminism was dragged into this entire episode in a completely hamfisted way with no subtlety whatsoever, starting with Mary’s initial appearance and ending with Sherlock’s pompous mansplaining. It appears like there was zero nuance in their scripting of this, which admittedly is a little strange given how many things about this episode were overcomplicated. One could, I suppose, claim that all this hamfistedness was meant to underline the absurdity of the story, and so its unreality, but that is frankly approaching the territory of honeypot.
But let’s say I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the whole thing was truly intended only as Sherlock’s silly idea. That their intention was to say “look how stupid his ideas about feminists are, poor dear.” Even then, I can only say: you still can’t do that. Like I said, not explicitly enough. It’s very nice to be so enamored by your own cleverness that you have hints within hints, but you can’t have a harmful message in your media because “when you get through our three layers of clues, you realize it wasn’t really meant like that at all”.
Not to mention, even if we read the discovery of Moriarty under the veil as declaring the whole idea absurd, one question would still remain: why film it at all? Why give people such ultra-problematic imagery, imagery that can stay with them even if the story tells them it wasn’t actually being serious later? And surprisingly enough, we do get sort of an answer to that, in-verse. There are hints in the final mansplaining scene that show it’s at least partly intended as Sherlock’s reflexion of his own sexism. As Molly and Janine talk about women being treated badly by men, flashbacks to modern!Sherlock’s bad treatment of them appear on our screens, and in the second part of his monologue, Victorian!Sherlock says “the women I (corrects himself) we have lied to, betrayed.” Given the meta tendencies of this special, I believe it’s the show trying to be self-reflective – commenting on the feminist criticism of it in the past – and, at the same time, showing it as Sherlock examining his own prejudices.
But the thing is, the Abominable Bride doesn’t go after Sherlock, she goes after other people instead. Sherlock’s speech does seem to imply he identifies with them to a degree (something rather out of character for Sherlock, who tends to see himself as separate from the masses), but still, he’s never in danger from her for a moment. That doesn’t quite fit with the idea that she was primarily intended as a metaphor for his own guilty conscience and his own knowledge of the fact that he’s treated many women terribly in his life.
Also, even that interpretation would be a little problematic, given that it would still be an apparently female storyline turning out to be all about male character development. It would be all about our Personal Favourite White Boy once more, though at least this time his relationship to women would be at play, not only his relationship to his nemesis. Moriarty, after all, represents his weaknesses here. He could stand for his sexism as well.
But that’s still not all. By declaring Sherlock’s solution of The Abominable Bride case, or the entire case, absurd and unreal, you solve one problem and create another. Because the thing is, while KKK-style murdering feminists are certainly absurd, the problems that storyline refers to were, and still are, very real, and declaring the case unreal marginalizes them in a way. If treating the solution as unreal was the intention, it needed a detour, however small, into what 19th century feminism was actually like. Into what women had to deal with in Victorian times and what measures they took to alleviate their own situation – including perhaps violent ones, as long as it’s not framed as a KKK conspiracy. Because portraying women as powerful and dangerous, as someone men should be afraid of if they treat them badly, could have been a very feminist message…had it managed not to liken them to an extremist, racist, murderous organization in the process. So either put in a real representation of women’s struggles as well, or don’t script the bloody offensive thing in the first place.
And then, of course, there were all the small things. Like ridiculing John’s unwillingness to chastise his maid because it was “his wife’s job”. This would have maybe been funny if it was about John being unable to eat because all of the dishes were dirty but not being willing to do them because it was his wife’s job. But if there’s one person in the household responsible for staffing issues, it actually makes sense to delegate staff problems to them, because it can be assumed that they might have some conception or idea behind how they deal with they employees. It’s like how the boss from the next department, if they were seriously unhappy with your cooperation with them, would normally talk to your boss and then your boss would talk to you. Yes, it was sexist that it was automatically assumed in Victorian times that women should be the ones to take care of staffing issues in the house, but if this system is established already, them randomly butting in isn’t feminist, it’s just idiotic, and implicitly places no value on an area of female specialization.
Or like that fact that women have been allowed to become medical professionals since 1876 in the UK, so by the time this supposedly takes place, it’s been possible for twenty years and Molly could have studied as herself. Of course I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been easier to do so as a man – hell, it probably still would nowadays, and the first female doctors were certainly not pathologists – but John takes her crossdressing pretty much as a matter of course. That’s quite anachronistic in any case, but even more absurd if he could feel there was no real reason for this.
Or Emilia Ricoletti actually having to die, because women are always martyrs. No, she could not have faked her own death as we see Sherlock do, in spite of identification being more difficult in the 19th century, so her job arguably being easier. She had to go.
And I appreciate the fact that it’s Mary who finds the hiding place of the “conspiracy”, but it gets rather ridiculous immediately afterward, when she is completely baffled by the motivation of the secret sisterhood (despite being a woman who has clearly expressed through the story that she feels oppressed by the patriarchy) and needs Sherlock to mansplain the whole thing…bringing us back to the main point.
To summarize, I believe Gatiss and Moffat might have well had the best intentions, and much like with GoT, I think this could have been avoided with a female writer on the team. I think they quite possibly were trying to make, among other things, a commentary on their own sexism and Sherlock’s sexism and ridiculous ideas some people have about feminists when they imagine them like some sort of extremist secret organization ruling the world. But while doing so, they provided us with exactly that imagery, and if there had been a genuinely feminist message in there at some point, it got lost under too many twist and turns. I don’t mind complicated stories, even over-complicated stories, but we have to be careful of the messages we send.
And there is, of course, also the very unfortunate possibility that while intending some degree of self-reflection of their own, and Sherlock’s, sexism, they actually meant their portrayal of feminism seriously. If that was the case then let me do some womansplaining, Messrs. Moffat and Gatiss. Feminists in the 19th century weren’t a secret organization killing men in a KKK fashion. They were a group of women and men who fought, and suffered, to get basic rights for women, and they should be recognized and celebrated, not caricatured and indirectly demonized. Every great cause has its martyrs, Sherlock says of Emilia Ricoletti. Yes, it did. The suffrage movement had its martyrs, but they didn’t look like this. What you wrote was not a feminist narrative, and you don’t get brownie points for approving of the first wave feminism goals. That should be a bloody given.
Now go read about Emmeline Pankhurst or something.