It's been a very interesting month to consider that other legendary character whose name begins with "S," and he's been shedding some light upon our friend Sherlock Holmes's place in our culture as well, if one is looking in that direction.
Both Superman and Sherlock Holmes were born representing a sort of excellence. Sherlock, evolving along with industry and science, Superman, rising with nuclear power and space flight. Both are symbols in their way for paradigm shift. And both, unfortunately, also have a tinge of white European male dominance that makes them a little less easy to sell unadulterated these days.
This is most obvious in the case of Superman, once a symbol of hope, truth, justice, and the American way. In recent movies, creators trying oh-so-hard to make him relevant and get a little of the Batman mojo, have made him a super illegal alien and a symbol of our fears. Fear of those from somewhere else, fear of big government, fear of . . . .
Well, it is a little interesting that the nuclear age gave Japan its Godzilla and us our Superman -- only in recent films Superman is more like Godzilla, destroying his America's Tokyo, Metropolis, in his battles.
But here's the thing: While Superman seems to be an unfilmable character as he has existed for so long, Supergirl is doing just fine sticking to the original Super-style on television. In modern culture, we don't have room for a superior white male lording his powers over everyone. But an empowered woman? Something else entirely. It works fine.
Sherlock Holmes gets a little bit of a hedge that Superman doesn't, even though he's the superior white male, at least in America, because he has an English accent. Whether it's James Bond or Lucifer, America definitely has a trope that an Englishman can be a little bit better than us just because of that accent. And yet, even with Sherlock, we can see alterations happening to make him more palatable to a modern audience as a dominant white male figure.
In the case of America's TV version on Elementary, the drug addiction as well as the Big Bang Theory sort of wacky nerdiness is played up. "You know how those screwy smart people are!" And with BBC Sherlock, a more interesting thing is happening . . . Johnlock.
Yes, there are touches of "Let's diagnose him with some mental condition!" in Sherlock, but a major way of viewing the show in fandom that makes him palatable to many who would not accept a dominant white male hero is the part where it's easy to see he and John as a gay couple. If Sherlock Holmes is gay, he's not part of that old culture any more. He's someone we can get behind as an underdog despite his superior abilities and talent for dominating a crime scene. (And making him a submissive, as many a fic does, totally counteracts any issues there.)
Taking all this in, it almost seems that, like Superman, in order to get our purest Sherlock Holmes in a culture that is still struggling to make things equal for all, it's well past time for him to be a woman. Smaller productions like S(her)lock and Baker Street: The Web Series have already done this, and showed it can work well. I still feel like the biggest mistake CBS's Elementary made from day one was making Watson, and not Holmes, the gender-bent character -- they really missed an excellent opportunity to get ahead of the curve.
But with Jonny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even a seems-to-be-returning Robert Downey Jr. filling up screens, it may be a while before there's room for any new major Sherlock Holmes. When it does happen, however, I hope the creators give full consideration to what gender, race, and orientation will make for the best Sherlock Holmes at that time. Because we're certainly going to be open to that version by then, and probably more than ready for it.