BBC’s Sherlock has just started running its second season in the US on PBS, and viewers are flocking to watch, particularly after last week’s somewhat controversial Irene Adler storyline. Created by Steven Moffat of Doctor Who fame, the show is brilliant, but shows many of the fatal flaws Moffat’s demonstrated in Who, especially with regards to women. Moffat infamously has trouble grasping social justice-rooted critiques of his work and doesn’t seem to understand why people get so riled up about the women of Who.
Sherlock is, in a way, ideally suited to Moffat’s personality and writing abilities. The creator doesn’t seem to understand women, has trouble crafting female characters, and is utterly baffled when audiences express unease or discomfort with the depiction of women in his work. Doyle’s classic, even updated, is very much a man’s world, revolving around the central relationship of Holmes and Watson. Other people may come and go from the story, but they’re the leads.
In Sherlock, the man who has trouble writing female characters had an ideal fix to his problem: a world where women aren’t expected, wanted, or needed. He could have made a calculated choice to add more female characters—Lucy Liu will be playing Watson in a CBS adaptation, for example—but he didn’t. Evidently Moffat has gone from cavalierly ruining female characters to avoiding them altogether, figuring this is the wiser course of action.
Well, almost avoiding them, at any rate, and therein lies the rub, because even with only a handful of women, Moffat still manages to make a bollocks of it.
Mrs. Hudson is a cardboard cutout who flutters at the edge of the scenery much like she does in the books, there simply because “the boys” need a housekeeper and occasional foil. The sandwich shop downstairs seems to get more screen time than she does, and despite her periodic battle cry of “I’m not your housekeeper,” she very much is, ushering guests upstairs, brewing endless cuppas, and threatening to tidy up ‘round the flat. Every now and then she’s allowed to have a stroke of brilliance that betrays a steel core, but then she subsides again into listlessness.
With Irene Adler, Moffat did even worse; in adapting the text, he made the character weaker, not stronger, which was quite a feat considering she wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of female liberation in the first place. The new Irene Adler doesn’t outsmart Sherlock: She besexes, befuddles, and bemuses him. He becomes obsessed with her beyond the point of rational thought, and very rarely does she have an opportunity to display the keen critical mind she had in the books. Probably because she doesn’t really have one.
Instead of being a smart woman who plans every move with deliberation and care, Adler became a muddled mess, flailing about the screen. Equally infatuated with Sherlock as he was with her, she teased and confused Sherlock in a way that was strikingly telling of Moffat’s attitudes about women; Irene Adler became a distraction with her wicked and wanton ways, clouding Sherlock’s mind with texts and flirtations. She almost became his ruin, until cold male logic and reason were able to overrule her feminine softness and lack of control.
Adler is also, of course, a sex worker, which adds another layer of complexity to Moffat’s depiction. Telling again that she should be a dominatrix, skilled in the art of power, control, and intense physical intimacy; the scene where she beats Sherlock across the face with a riding crop is a titillating glimpse of what Moffat thinks her working life must be like. The fact that she’s really the only woman of note in the series means she occupies an outsized role, and this, apparently, is how Moffat wishes to depict women.
It’s difficult to view Sherlock without considering Moffat’s record on women, and the handling of women in the show itself doesn’t speak well of him. It’s a great pity, because overall, the show is excellent; the artful cinematography, music, and editing are stellar, and really make it stand out artistically from other shows currently airing. As a work of art, Sherlock is nothing short of hauntingly beautiful at times, which is adventurous and somewhat daring for a television series. There’s a reason the budget is on a cinematographic scale.
And the relationship between Watson and Holmes is fascinating. The portrait of two men growing into themselves and getting to know each other is complex, intimate, and layered, illustrating that Moffat and his writing team are capable of truly incredible character development when they feel driven to pursue it. Having a woman (or even more than one) on the writing team would probably be beneficial if the series truly wanted to explore women more fully and deeply, which it doesn’t seem to want to do, even though the modern world of criminal investigation, and crime, is an equal opportunity environment.
Women may not be as heavily represented as men, but they are still present and highly active. In a series that’s been updated to accommodate modern times, with the latest of technology, society, and culture, the lack of women on Sherlock stands out. It’s striking that Moriarty appears to be far more cunning than Adler; think of how much more novel and intriguing the show would be if their roles were switched, and Moriarty was a woman leading a crime syndicate while Adler was a male sex worker struggling to protect himself.
In creating a show with partnered leads who aren’t in a romantic relationship or constantly dogged by romantic tension, Moffat has done something that is again interesting and exciting. However, it’s clouded by the thought that this seems to be his idealised working model; two men, pillars of logic and calm and function, going up alone against a world filled with women-as-furniture, disposable girlfriends, or evil temptresses out for blood.
Much like his writing team, it would seem.