Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why Sherlock Holmes needs to be a woman now.

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.


  1. I don't understand this need you suggest of Holmes being a woman or gay.
    Or whatever change you need him to have.
    Is he not good enough as he is? Can't other people create superheros to suit their needs and not recreate someone elses works?
    Yea, Baker Street, the web series is fun, and well done. But it is not Sherlock Holmes.
    Well wait, I guess you are right, because come to think of it Tarzan should be a woman or a gay person also.

    1. He's good enough for your generation, John, but times are a'changing. Tarzan and the Lone Ranger just don't work any more, being from a time when non-whites were viewed a lot differently than they are today. Holmes has his own issues.

    2. That is why there is a new Tarzan movie coming out.
      Instead of making Holmes non-male, or non-white, or gay, why not come up with new heroes to suit that need.

      I guess we could make Wonder Woman trans-gender.

      The arguement isn't whether any group should or should not have it's heroes, fictional or real, but why do you need to take someone else's creation and make it fit your need?
      Is your audience not big enough to creat your own?
      Holmes was not created to fit into a need to represent a certain demographic in society. He was created by someone who just happened to be a white male. And it caught on.
      Can our heroes, fictional or real, not just be who they are without the need to make them something they were not.
      Can we not find women who can be heroes? Or gays who can be heroes? Or any other demographic you want.
      Is that what we want to teach our daughters, that women can't be heroes of their own creation?
      He has been good enough for a lot more generatins than just mine.
      And Superman is not a product of the nuclear age.

    3. Um . . . you're the Elementary fan, right?

    4. The exercise with Elementary (and Sherlock) is to see how much they get right (or Sherlockian) knowing full and well that it is not a good representation of Sherlock Holmes.
      Mr. Miller does not make my top 10 list of the best Holmes.
      And I often argue that the biggest problem with Elementary is the things they do to 'Holmes' that are unSherlockian.

  2. So does this mean that no one of the latest generation should read the canon? Or that it should be rewritten to suit their sensibilities? I think he is good enough for any generation, but then, I AM a curmudgeon.

    1. The Canon is always going to be there. I was talking about new adaptations in film and TV, really, and those have already changed to suit sensibilities, and are probably going to continue to.

  3. One thing I can warn you about is that anything you think may be new has probably been done before. I'm almost done rewriting my essay "The Original Baker Street Babes", a history of women performers of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson, and I can tell you it is going to have 144 (or more) entries dating back to '1899'. Just because it is unknown doesn't mean it hasn't been done before. You will be amazed by how many women have played Holme and/or Watson. I will send you a copy when I'm finished.