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12 March 2012 @ 04:46 pm
Sherlock: the Case of the Invisible Women  

So we watched the last episode of Sherlock season 2 today, and I was really struck by how much of a men’s story it is: it’s all down to a confrontation between the two (male) leads on a rooftop, while the remaining (male) lead rushes to the rescue and comes too late. The H and I identified 5 women in the entire storyline, and there were so few women with so little screen time that we had to struggle to come up with them. The women (whom you barely see) fall into the broad roles of: the moral support (Molly/Mrs Hudson), the evil bitch (Donovan), and a couple supporting characters (the helpless kidnapped girl whose only role is to scream her head off, and the housekeeper who gets 20s of screen time before we move on to more important things). Everyone else is male. I mean freaking everyone else, up to the superintendent and the contingent of assassins that conveniently move in next to Baker Street.[1]

Meanwhile, those few women are all… bit parts? People far removed from the centre of the narration, who total very little screentime and have so very little importance overall. As a cumulative effect, it’s rather unsettling, and ends up being alienating (even the H balked). And I wish this was a one-off effect, something that happened only in this episode of this particular show, but this isn’t the first time I’ve had the feeling that TV shows only show us major women characters through a great effort of will (A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, basically only had Irene Adler as a major female lead); or if they happen to need a handy victim (in which case said women tend to be dead, or to wind up dead in very short order).

And, you know, we were talking about it with the H, and I actually started making excuses for the show, going “but of course they’re going by the original short stories, and those were misogynistic as heck…”. Then some dim memory of reading the short stories struck me, and I checked myself, and went to the bookshelves to get our thick volume of Sherlock Holmes stories. And sure enough, those are full of women. I’m not saying they’re good women roles (they mostly conform to Victorian expectations), but at least they’re here, and they’re not only here, but up-front and centre in a great majority of the stories. You have heiresses to fortunes, and adventuresses (hello, Irene Adler) and spies; but you also have wronged wives, and wives trying to protect their children from grasping husbands and insane sons, and spinster ladies struggling to make a living; and sisters living together in their old ages, and dozens other women who have a strong presence in the narration and that don’t give you the feeling that the writer just happened to erase those bits of humanity that he didn’t approve of [2].

I thought about it some more, and mentally called up other 19th-Century “realistic” novels (excluding adventure novels, which are a really particular subgenre), and you know what? Most of those are horribly misogynistic, but they almost always give some space and some roles to women. Les Miserables has Cosette and Fantine and the Thenardier daughters; Charles Dickens’ books have plenty of prominent women characters. And, all in all, it ends up being a little of a paradox.
Women had a clearly defined place and clearly defined sphere in Victorian society, even though that place was deemed inferior to men. If you were a 19th-Century writer and wanted to write a story that took place in a realistic society (again, excluding “adventures abroad”), then you could hardly write something that had no women in them. It was expected that upstanding members of society would be married and have children, or have relatives which would include women (aunts, cousins, sisters). And those characters might well be subservient to men and have little freedom, but by and large, they’re always here. The wife, the maid, the daughter–they have a place and a role; they exist. The world isn’t 100%-male.

Whereas in our modern 21st-Century Western world… women have gained more rights in a general fashion, but we’ve also been moving towards a more individualistic society. Sherlock Holmes, a confirmed bachelor with no outward interest in the opposite gender, was an anomaly by Victorian standards (notice that Watson, the staunch everyman of the narration, gets all but engaged in the second ever Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of the Four); by our modern Western 21st Century standards, a man who gets married/into a serious relationship too quickly is the oddity, rather than bachelor Sherlock Holmes. This means that you can put a male character in the narration; and said male character can be a bachelor with distant/non-existent female relatives, and no one will blink an eye. Et voilà, you’ve just managed to handily remove women from the narration.

There is also a very clear separation between our daily work spheres and what we get up to at home: compare this with the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which this line is more blurred. It’s not that people didn’t have day jobs (there are several stories with tradesmen); but you get far more examples of gentlemen of leisure, or housewives, or people who work from home. Many stories take place on weekdays in households, which, again, would be a rarity today [3]. Most people are assumed to hold an office job. Why do I mention this? Because this means that it’s acceptable today to tell a story that is entirely in and about work settings, with very few inklings of relationships. Cop shows are a prime example of this (and Sherlock owes a lot to cop shows). Since the workplace is already almost entirely male (why bother with putting women on screen, they’re just distracting), you can also skip on showing women onscreen altogether: even if your male characters do happen to be married (like Lestrade), you can skip on showing their partners altogether.

All of this makes it, paradoxically, really easier if you want to cut out women out of the narration altogether: you make the characters not be married, or have casual flings you refrain from showing on-screen (like Watson’s girlfriends, who don’t really feature in this season. It’s telling that his only girlfriend with a significant role was solely there to be kidnapped in The Blind Banker). You set the story away from people’s homes, in a male-dominated workplace, and no one blinks an eye.
And this is why you end up with an adaptation of Conan Doyle for the 21st Century that ends up even more misogynistic than the original short stories. Or maybe a different flavour of misogynist, but just as bad. *headdesk*

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Did things really get worse in terms of screen-time for women, compared to the original stories, or am I misremembering my Conan Doyle/19th Century novels? Do you think not showing women at all a worse thing that showing them in subservient roles, or is it a different flavour of erasure?


[1] I won’t get into how much everyone is lily-White, but that was also a significant problem in that particular episode. And, hum, OK, maybe one of the assassins was a woman, but we only ever saw her picture, and never her in the flesh.
[2] The Conan Doyle stories also have POCs. Their depiction is as racist as heck (fiery, temperamental South Americans, untrustworthy Chinese, and so on, including a particularly lovely bit about a mixed-race South American/English that traumatised me when I was young). But at least POCs are here, they exist and they’re acknowledged, which is more than can be said the POCs in the Season 2 episodes (and few of them actually die in the stories, which is also pretty amazing compared to most mainstream Western TV).
[3] I’m not saying everyone commutes to an office job today–just that it’s become far more common and accepted in our current society. </p>

Cross-posted from Aliette de Bodard

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( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
Caroline Mcoth on March 12th, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
How depressing. It's many, many years since I read any Conan Doyle, and Sherlock was never my favourite thing anyway. But...

How depressing!
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
Well, to be fair, I'm finding a lot of shows are very very bad news for female (and POC) representation. I'm not saying we should tick boxes for representation in every show or book, but the sheer accumulation of female erasure starts to be bloody annoying.
Caroline Mcoth on March 12th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean about accumulated erasure. When we wanted boxed set tv to watch with our (then) nine-year-old daughter, we ended up with Charmed and Stargate, largely because they were the only shows I could find to our tastes that had any strong female roles in the central team. So they both passed the first test. But now we've watched quite a bit, I find I'm getting increasingly annoyed with Stargate. There are two strong female roles in Samantha Carter and the Doctor Janet Fraiser, and you see non-Terran females quite a lot, but there is almost never a single woman in any of the non-speaking roles - those two might as well be the only women on Earth a lot of the time. And as for PoC...forget it, mostly. Stargate plots quite often foreground issues of race and discrimination, so it talks the talk, but it doesn't walk the walk. Charmed does a bit better, with the three women in the lead roles, a black senior policeman, and at least some women and PoC characers sometimes who are netiher family nor victims, but oh my god the plots....
Aliette de Bodard: gruffialiettedb on March 12th, 2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
I've never seen Charmed, but I'm totally with you on Stargate. It's almost as though having two strong women on the team dispenses you from hiring female actors at all...
(and yeah, as you say, it totally talks the talk but fails the walk when it comes to POCs, discrimination, and issues of colonialism, paternalism and cultural interference. By the time we reached season 10, I was ready to chuck the remote at the scriptwriters. It didn't help that in addition to all of that, it failed basic science, which added insult to injury)
threeoutsidethreeoutside on March 12th, 2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
I think you're right on target. However, the "that's how it was back then" plea doesn't really fly when everything else about the stories has been updated, does it? He's got a cell phone, they're modern computer-using people...such misogyny is ridiculous. Nothing else is mired in Victorian times, why the sexism (and de facto racism by default)?

What's interesting to me (And I've only had access to the first season, so something might have changed) is that the woman police detective who seems to so hate Holmes (though I think they imply it's because he spurned her at some past time), is the only one viewing him realistically. She is absolutely right - he IS a monster. He says himself that someone like him, with his sociopathy plus that intellect, only remains at all civilized because he's so easily bored - solving crimes is his drug of choice. No one outside the mental health field (my husband was a counselor) seems to understand that these people are NOT fully human, they DO NOT soften and learn to love. At best, they manage to fit in without hurting anyone, and those who don't, eventually either get caught or get tired as they age. The woman cop has it right: Holmes is bad news. But she's made to look the fool: the spurned, frustrated woman.

It's hard not to believe that most of the people who make decisions in the entertainment fields really, truly, loathe women.
Aliette de Bodard: dragonaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 04:36 pm (UTC)
I actually find it amusing (or depressing) that not only did they keep the sexism, they managed to make it worse by totally erasing women from the narration... At least Doyle acknowledges the existence of the female gender.
The woman police detective (Donovan) turns out to be an embittered bitchy character: she correctly points him out as a sociopath, but she's shown to jump to false conclusions about him in this episode by accusing him of being a murderer (and thus loses viewer sympathy). Part of the reason I enjoyed the show was never knowing what sociopathic behaviour Sherlock was going to come up with next (because you're right, the way they've shown him in this incarnation is as an absolute monster, who merely solves crimes on a whim, and whom you can very easily imaginging committing them if he happens to find this distracting. It's interesting, because the primary model, Conan Doyle's Holmes, is midly sociopathic, but most certainly adheres to standards of morality, even though he eschews most emotions).
I really hated that the second season, and this episode in particular seeks to make much of Holmes' "moments of emotion" (tear-jerker music, long loving close-ups to characters as Holmes shows "weakness"), and so it looks like it's trying very hard to invalidate Donovan by showing us that Holmes does care about his friends (he actually fakes his suicide to save Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade from certain deaths). However, as a viewer, I never believed a word of this. Holmes is sociopathic and monstruous, and not above faking emotion to get what he wants. I just didn't understand why the episode seemed to work so hard at "redeeming" him in such an implausible fashion.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on March 12th, 2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
It's precisely because most people don't understand what a sociopath is. They are capable of "caring" about certain people - ones they think of as "their" people. Sherlock's Watson, for example, Mrs. Hudson, and even Lestrade. But I would guess that if it was to his advantage to leave them to be killed, he would do so without compunction, not a blink. His fury would be because someone had dared to violate "his" territory. And yes, he has already shown he's 100% capable of mimicking human emotion to achieve his own goals - flirting with the female morgue tech (I think that's where she works; I'm not sure - the one who was being "dated" by Moriarity so he could get closer to Sherlock) to get her to bend the rules in his favor, for example.

I suspect he loathes his brother so much because his brother knows exactly what he is. Haven't seen enough of Mycroft in the new BBC series to know whether they're presenting him as a sociopath, too, or just the intellectual equal of Sherlock.

Unless the whole production team are all sociopaths themselves (in which case this show would be their hilarious tweak on the whole viewing public), I suspect most of them don't know what they're creating here, either. It's very reminiscent of the new Doctor Whos - you've got a superficially fun, lighthearted adventure story with an absolute horror in human form. I love Doctor Who, but I can't watch a lot of episodes in a row without getting the crawling heebie-jeebies. Same with Torchwood.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
But I would guess that if it was to his advantage to leave them to be killed, he would do so without compunction, not a blink. His fury would be because someone had dared to violate "his" territory.
Well, you can argue that their being threatened in the ep violates his "territory", and that's why he fakes his death rather than do what Moriarty wants. However, it still doesn't make me believe the tears and the apologies. My money's still on fake. (speaking of territory, I did think they got this instinct right in a previous episode, when Mrs Hudson was attacked and tortured in Baker Street: you saw Sherlock get mad because they'd attacked "his" landlady, but he didn't care beyond that. When he exacted retribution on the villain, I read it as him being pissed Baker Street got invaded, more than caring at all about Mrs. H, to whom he never spoke a kind word).
I don't know about Mycroft, to be honest. We're shown very little of him (it occurs to me the show is very centred on Sherlock, too much so at times), so it's hard to know if he's normal at all. He seems a little more understanding and a little more emotionally balanced, but that might just be a weaker version of Holmes.

Some of the writers of Doctor Who are very much aware of what they're creating, I think. The two-parter in pre-WWI England by Paul Cornell (Family of Blood?), and some eps like Waters of Mars and the end of season 5 (which has some very silly moments, but also a very smart view on the Doctor's tendency to destroy everything in his wake) very clearly show us that the Doctor is a megalomaniac who is even more dangerous than some of the stuff he stops (I'm not sure sociopath applies? I'm not very well versed in psychology). I haven't done a precise correlation with who wrote what, but I think that doesn't apply to all writers.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on March 12th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
"you can argue that their being threatened in the ep violates his "territory", and that's why he fakes his death rather than do what Moriarty wants. However, it still doesn't make me believe the tears and the apologies. My money's still on fake."

Yes...that's the point, innit? Sorry, that "however" in there suggests you thought you disagreed with me, but the rest of the paragraph is exactly what I meant...We are in accord. :^)

"you saw Sherlock get mad because they'd attacked "his" landlady, but he didn't care beyond that. When he exacted retribution on the villain, I read it as him being pissed Baker Street got invaded, more than caring at all about Mrs. H, to whom he never spoke a kind word)."

Bingo!

"but that might just be a weaker version of Holmes."

Or merely an even smarter version - one who chooses to side with the establishment not only because it's a better cover, but because he knows how to get whatever he wants using the establishment itself. Holmes, I think, stays on the "right" side of the law mostly because he doesn't want the hassle of dealing with pursuit, policemen, etc. even though he'd probably shed them like water off a duck's back.

Also in accord about the Doctor Who writers. If we want to *really* get geeky, and treat the Doctor as a real person, he's not human - so maybe none of the psychological terms even apply to him. As an alien, and such a powerful one, he's battened on to the human species for some reason, as something that means a great deal to him. So much that he is constantly trying to *be* human. At the end of "Family of Blood," when he seemed so cold to the woman his alter-ego had fallen in love with, I'm not sure how badly he really felt for her. I think he did realize his effort had succeeded about as well as a bull in the china shop, and was trying as gracefully as possible to remove himself from the picture to avoid further damage.

But in that last scene between them, I thought Tennant did a really good job of playing the alien, who at core, just lacks humanity. And if you look at it from his point of view - he's got the Tardis, he's got all of time and space to remove to - why *wouldn't* he just leave when things got icky? He wasn't born & raised with our set of human values or skills so I don't see any reason why he would bind himself to them, any more than I would bind myself to a beetle's value system. In fact, now I think of that, it's very apt. Kid watches beetle: ooh, pretty, and fascinating, I'll name you Alfie and love you and cuddle you -- oops -- stepped on your beetle-hole entrance. Yikes, it's all destroyed, well, I'd better leave, let you get on with fixing it. I, after all, wouldn't have the faintest idea how to do that beetly thing. Ta ta!
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 06:36 pm (UTC)
He, Mycroft as a smarter version of Holmes, that should rankle :=) I always thought Sherlock in the series played detective rather than criminal because he liked his creature comforts in Baker Street rather than being on the run, but that's just me putting a lot into the character that we're not shown.
"Family of Blood" was awesome at depicting the Doctor, I thought--the chilling inhumanity of him, the way he just doesn't get how his human alter ego behaved, and the way he freaks out his lover when he reverts to alien.
The beetle metaphor is very apt, too :-D
C.L.Hollandxanthalanari on March 12th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
At some point in the second season Holmes and Mycroft have a conversation about how they're "not like other people", so I think they have the same issues. (I've heard Aspergers suggested rather than sociopathy, but don't know enough about either to form an opinion.) Perhaps Mycroft's just less extreme, or Holmes hates him because they're so similar and he has to be the best at everything.

I read Holmes "suicide", whether he cares about his friends or not, about beating Moriarty. If he dies Moriarty wins, even though Moriarty died first. This way Holmes gets to live, and so do his friends. You can argue he's lost everything, but he's beaten Moriarty in the way that matters.

I do disagree that Holmes doesn't care, though. He has issues connecting to people, yes, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care about them. For example the scene with the break-in and Mrs Hudson. True he barely says a kind word to her, but with Homes it's as much about what he does as what he says. And I don't just mean throwing intruders out of windows.

Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of it boils down on how much rope you're willing to give Sherlock--I personally tend to incline on Terry's side, and view him as an amoral sociopath, but your reading makes sense (much more sense than mine, given how the series is progressing, sadly...).
The thing is, when you see that he's quite capable of faking emotions, whether by saying or by doing things, it's making it quite hard for me, as a viewer, to believe that any subsequent display of emotion isn't going to be a sham. And I loved the break-in and Mrs Hudson, and I would like to believe that he does care for Mrs. H, but the thing is, Terry's explanation also occurred to me...? I mean, this is a guy who deliberately poisons his companion in the Hound of the Baskervilles, just to see whether his hypotheses were correct--a fact which doesn't exactly play in his favour. So, I'm definitely willing to believe that he does care, but I think that, for me, the show hasn't done enough to support this? I can think of ways to do this, but right now I feel like everything in the series could be explained by Sherlock being a sociopath, and there isn't a moment that makes me go unambiguously, "ah, no, he does care" [1].

[1] OK, I lie. The only moment that did make me think he cared was the suicide note. He could have bragged to Watson that he was doing this to save his life (which would have been really excruciatingly painful to bear for Watson). Instead, he lies, and passes himself off as a fraud, which must have cost him a heck of a lot to do.
Dr. Kvetchrose_lemberg on March 12th, 2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
So much yes. There are many women in the original stories as you say, and instead of updating these portrayals with more up-to-date portrayals, the number of women has dwindled. I disliked the portrayals of PoC in the original stories, but as you say, they're there - and a lot could have been done with this material in the right hands.
*sigh*
Aliette de Bodard: gruffialiettedb on March 12th, 2012 05:06 pm (UTC)
He, thanks, glad I'm not the only one.
I agree, a lot of missed opportunities. Problematic depictions notwithstanding, there are many things I love about Sherlock Holmes, and seeing him really adapted for the 21st Century, with up-to-date characters and social mores, would have been awesome. I keep watching the show, expecting that maybe at some point it will get properly modern, but so far I've invariably been disappointed. And the H (who doesn't particularly like Holmes) is starting to get a bit impatient with the quality.
Dr. Kvetchrose_lemberg on March 12th, 2012 05:10 pm (UTC)
I am afraid that this is modern, or at least a certain kind of modern storytelling that seems so pervasive as to be invisible; many people seem to feel that this kind of representation is somehow "historically accurate." I don't need to spell out what I think about it :P
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 05:16 pm (UTC)
Fair point. I meant "more in tune with my personal beliefs" rather than "modern" :P
Dr. Kvetchrose_lemberg on March 12th, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm completely with you there. Modern should mean something else than what it currently does :(
Helenheleninwales on March 12th, 2012 05:24 pm (UTC)
When the programme was first shown here in the UK jemck (Juliet McKenna) had a good rant about the treatment of Irene Adler in the BBC update (and also in the film, which I haven't seen). As she put it: "In A Scandal in Bohemia, she is beautiful, a supremely talented singer and – this is the crucial bit – she outwits Holmes and departs to live her own life on her own terms. Now she is [...] facing death only to be saved by Holmes’ melodramatic intervention."

Despite that -- which did leave me grinding my teeth because I had re-read the Holmes short stories fairly recently and thus the original "Scandal in Bohemia" was fresh in my mind, I do enjoy the series.

More generally regarding the portrayal of women on TV, in the UK the soap operas (which I don't watch) have plenty of female characters, as do series like "Casualty" (set in a hospital). Not far behind come series like "Law and Order UK", in which the two male detectives have a female boss and the legal team has some strong female characters, including a young black woman. I am also pleased that "Scott and Bailey" (sometimes described as "Cagney and Lacey" set in Manchester) is back for another series. So it is patchy, but "Sherlock" is probably the exception these days rather than the rule.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 06:40 pm (UTC)
I hadn't seen Juliet's take on this, but yup, totally agree with it (the treatment of Irene Adler in the movie was shoddy, but to be honest it was a shoddy movie from beginning to end).
The BBC Scandal is a pretty good movie on its own, but it seems rather backward when compared to its story original.
I don't know about UK soap opera: I tend to watch SF, which has a rather bad history with women and POCs (the few cop shows I've watched tend to do better on both counts, I agree with you). Though nothing I've seen has been quite as bad as Sherlock, I think (I have issues with Doctor Who, but it's way more inclusive than Sherlock).
Abigail Nussbaum has a rather fantastic essay on Season 2, and I think nails a lot of the reasons why it didn't work for me: http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2012/01/big-guns-thoughts-on-sherlock-s-second.html
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on March 12th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
I think you're spot on. The treatment of Irene Adler in the series had me spitting nails, because it was all about her body. Not her as a person, as an intelligence, but just tits and ass. Her cleverness was all about that, too -- and of course Sherlock must get the better of her and she must fall in love with him, because that is how the 21st c. hero works, it seems. This kind of problem runs through all of Moffatt's work: his plot arcs on Dr Who for women are nearly all about emotion and romance and presents them as inherently irrational (with the exception of 'Blink', which manages to give us a woman with real agency and no Dr complex). And his first series, Coupling, was rooted in gender essentialism, with women as bodies and bundles of irrational emotion.
And the critics love it. Because it's a man writing women and that must be good, especially when he reflects all their beliefs and prejudices right back at them.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
I bitched throughout the ep (the H, bless him, couldn't see what the fuss was about, and then I showed him the original story, and he went, "er, OK. I see your point"). I had *huge* problems with her falling in love with him (part of the appeal of her for me being that she was her own woman with her own story, who knew what she wanted and wasn't about to let some weird consulting detective stand in the way of her happiness).
And Moffat isn't stellar on women, I agree (though a lot of the RTD Who is also about emotion and romance, and sentiments that feel overwrought to me). Though I admit to enjoying Who more than Sherlock, mostly for Matt Smith.

(it's not only the critics, I'm afraid. Several--female--friends don't understand why I complain quite so much, and I invariably have to explain, and mostly get blank looks to the tune of "so what? Every other show does the same". At which point I go bang my head against the wall).
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on March 13th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
Matt Smith is a good thing.
But I share your feelings about RTD: he seems to turn everything he touches into a soap, and a soap with an overwrought, teenage level of sensibility at that. His depiction of older women is shameful, too. Moffatt is an improvement -- at least Amy isn't in love with the Doctor, and there were things I liked about Coupling. But Sherlock... I like Freeman and Cumberbatch, but then I always have. The scripts however -- head against wall about describes it.
The women who love it baffle me, I have to own. But we are so soaked in the male gaze and male privilege that I guess it can be very hard to see through it sometimes.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 13th, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
Moffatt is an improvement
I suspect that's pretty much why I like the new incarnation of Doctor Who--at least we're not plumbing the depths every season finale... (the only one I actually liked was way back in the first season with Christopher Eccleston).
I love Freeman and Cumberbatch; like you say, I just wish the acting came with a decent script.

But we are so soaked in the male gaze and male privilege that I guess it can be very hard to see through it sometimes.
Yes, this. It's also partly a case of being resigned to it, I suspect--if you have no other alternatives, then you end up watching something that is rather iffy at best (and Sherlock is way past "iffy" in my books).
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on March 13th, 2012 06:40 pm (UTC)
RTD's finales... So full of fail. And I understand about the iffy thing. I mean, I watch Glee, even though I dislike nearly all the characters, because I keep hoping they might remember their non-white characters and let them, y'know, *be* characters.
handful_ofdusthandful_ofdust on March 12th, 2012 09:06 pm (UTC)
Don't disagree with you on almost any point, which is sad-making (not because I'm sad to be agreeing with you, so much, but because of what we're agreeing on). Still, in re POC representation by Doyle, I will point out that in "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" the big reveal is that a man's wife has been married before to a mixed-race American guy, and is hiding her much more African-looking daughter in an adjoining house, making her wear a yellow mask to conceal her features. When Holmes solves the mystery, the woman expects her new husband to kick her and her daughter out, and he just says: "I would hope I'm capable of at least acting like a better man than you've apparently given me credit for being." So yeah, minus one for calling Yellow Mask Girl a "charming little negress", but the denouement was pretty brave, for the time.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, I remember that one, albeit in a confused fashion. When I read it again a few years ago, it did strike me how hugely progressive it had been for the time period. Definitely one of the better ones.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on March 12th, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
I'm just so fed up with the same old half-dozen tropes about women in TV and movies, generally. It's lazy, and unimaginative, and now that I think about it, it's not just women -- it's humans in general. When the aliens who have been watching our broadcasts since the beginning of TV finally get here, they're going to be astonished at what a teensy-tinesey sliver of the range of human personality/interests/emotions/inventiveness they have learned from our own transmissions. I doubt they'll be able to handle it, frankly, which puts them on equal footing with almost everyone making popular movies and TV shows today.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
I have given up on TV showing us anything breathtakingly original, sadly. It just serves up more of the same, reheated... (it's impressive how much of a social effect it has, though. Just think that we're all talking about a show that we all watched--pretty impressive commonality...)
倩 / Zenqian on March 12th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
This is sort of tangential, but your post reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend once where we were comparing Western Anglophone TV with other genres we were familiar with (anime/manga and Bollywood movies respectively). And my broad impression of Western TV is that where the women aren't invisible, they are really flattened -- you know, they're either the Spunky One or the Love Interest (or sometimes both rolled into one). Anime/manga can rely on sexist/misogynist tropes in different ways, but it seems to have more variety in terms of the female characters you get -- like, there are different kinds of women, who are treated as individual characters with their own wants and interests, rather than just as props for the male characters.

I'm not at all saying that it isn't sexist, just that the portrayal of women is -- more interesting, on the whole, even when it fails to tick the gender equality boxes Western TV professes to tick? I'm generalising from an incomplete knowledge of each genre, though, so I may not be right, and even if I am right I don't know what the reason would be.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 12th, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
He, that's interesting. To some extent, though, I'd argue that everyone seems flattened on Western Anglophone TV (at least compared to French soaps and anime, which are the only two types of TV series I vaguely know anything about?) People tend to be reduced to tropes/archetypes awfully easily, and whereas it's a mild problem for main characters (they might be a bit flatter, but they still have their arc), it's a disaster for any sidekick (they just get as flat as cardboard awfully easily). And as women tend to be sidekicks, you can guess how that ends...

This is just a random guess, but I wonder if the trouble isn't that so many of those shows are sold and written as high concepts, and it seems to translate into the writing (to a certain extent, at least on some US shows, there's also writing by committee, which is devastating to turn any episode into an average mediocre bit of TV with all the salient bits scraped off).

On the subject of Western vs. other cultures: my experience is limited to some Vietnamese culture, but I think that though Vietnamese is more segregated between men and women, it can actually be very much fairer than Western thought and its so called equality (which very often translates as "ladies, it's OK, as long as you act like *men*!"). It's a bit like the Victorian thing: when women have an actual place, you can't go around and ignore them.
The Green Knight: Don Quixotegreen_knight on March 12th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
If something portrays a life without minorities (women, sigh, counting as one) I am not interested. Because if a writer isn't capable of looking around long enough to work out that half the human race is female, and considerably more than half is not-white, and a significant proportion is QUILTBAG, I don't think I can trust them to have observed humanity at all.

I speak as someone who is currently revising a novel that had almost no positive female characters in its first draft. They're all evil or weak. Rewriting the story is work, but hardly rocket science - all I needed to do was look at the character whose gender is not fixed by the story _and make a significant portion of them female_. Don't tell me that in a story set in the 21st century the writers could not have found opportunities for strong women, starting from Lestrade down.
Aliette de Bodard: dragonaliettedb on March 13th, 2012 06:33 am (UTC)
I don't believe for a moment that the writers failed to find opportunities for female characters (even without regendering Lestrade or the other canon characters). It's a combination of laziness and rather worrisome erasure of one half of humanity, as you say.
I was honestly rather surprised that the original stories erased neither women nor POCs, to be honest.
The Green Knight: writing toolsgreen_knight on March 13th, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
I don't believe for a moment that the writers failed to find opportunities for female characters

They didn't spend two seconds looking for those opportunities. I was surprised how easily a fundamentally mysognystic world could be turned into a much more open and much more interesting one - simply by looking for and finding women above the previously installed glass ceiling. A policewoman as worthy foil for Sherlock would have gone a long way towards signalling that it's not just about the boys, for the boys.

I was honestly rather surprised that the original stories erased neither women nor POCs, to be honest.

Well, as you said, they didn't need to - they could keep them in subordinate roles and nobody complained. Once you have strong minorities - articulate and proving, over and over, that they're just as intelligent and capable as white men - you get pushback from people who wish to keep their privilege, so that the opressive language becomes stronger, and the portrayals more exaggerated.

And that kind of pushback is something you can see throughout history, so it's all the more important for us to resist - and one form of resistance is to call out the publishers and filmmakers and say 'if you portray only white men, I'm not giving you my money.'

And, of course, offer better narratives ourselves.


Edited at 2012-03-13 11:54 am (UTC)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 13th, 2012 06:21 pm (UTC)
He. Fair point. That makes a lot of sense. Off to work on better narratives now :)
Terrytzine on March 13th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
When I was studying feminism, our group found this pattern running through the 20thC. Although each of us chose different subjects to do our presentations on, and we chose those aspects we most loved - for instance I covered women in SF, - but for each of us that pattern was there. The older women, or the further back the characters went, the stronger the women were. They had fewer rights, but they had stronger personalities. Then they got wimpy. Later, feminism made them stronger again. What happened in the middle?

I suspect it had to do with the end of WWII and the need to get women out of the factories and back into homes so that the returning soldiers could find jobs again. Around then, the media really turned on women and talked about what bad mothers they were, how bad it would be for their children, if they did not quit their jobs and stay in their homes.

There are times when I think we're still feeling the repurcussions of that era in terms of action and reaction against it.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 13th, 2012 06:34 am (UTC)
Ha, that's interesting. (I didn't study feminism, and my literature for the 20th isn't as up to date as my literature for older centuries). And wow. That's not a nice thing to do...

(a lot of TV still seems stuck in another age and time, sadly, so I wouldn't be surprised if we were feeling repercussions for this)
elanidelanid on March 15th, 2012 12:23 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. I read it a day or so ago and was hoping to manage a comment more insightful than "Ah, my issues with modern fiction in a nutshell!", but -- ah, my issues with modern fiction in a nutshell!

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