Aliette de Bodard (aliettedb) wrote,

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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Tags: feminism, rant, sherlock
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