This discussion gets pretty spoilery, so if you haven’t watched either Elementary or Sherlock, proceed with caution.
When Season Three of Sherlock (now available on Netflix streaming) first aired, Dr. Wife and I had a pretty big discussion on the portrayal of women on the show. While showrunner Steven Moffat has been taken to task before over his portrayals of women, I’d always found Sherlock, given the caveat that everyone on the show is defined in relation to the main character, male or female, to be fairly balanced. But upon further discussion, and comparison to its ugly stepsister in the states, it became a little more complicated.
Let’s take both shows’ approaches to its female characters. Although a relatively minor character in canon, Irene Adler is basically the go-to main female character for most adaptations cos, well, sausage-fest. She’s the Princess Leia of this universe. In Moffat’s interpretation, Adler is a brilliant criminal who, although a lesbian, is brought low by her attraction to a very male Sherlock. Her sense of agency is undercut by her obligations to both him and Moriarty, and the need to be rescued by Sherlock after being thwarted by him.
Rob Doherty‘s Adler has a history with Sherlock established long before we encounter him as an ex-pat living in New York. They had a relationship in which they were mutually attracted to each other’s genius before she was ruthlessly murdered by a serial killer whom Sherlock eventually learns was an assassin working for a mysterious new foe known as Moriarty. When Adler turns up alive and threatened once again by Moriarty he seeks to rescue her only to find…wait for it…[MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER NOW]…she is Moriarty. Adler was simply a persona she adopted to manipulate him.
In its second major gender shift in characterization (the first of which we’ll get to shortly) Elementary re-genders Sherlock’s perennial foe. This is a Moriarty with no less agency than any male interpretation and no less a match for our protagonist intellectually. While in subsequent episodes it becomes clear that Moriarty’s exposure to Sherlock (mostly through correspondence) is “reforming” her, it’s still a reformation that is very much on her own terms. Her decision to break out of jail is very much a decision. It becomes clear she could have broken out at any time. She chooses to be imprisoned. Her agency remains intact, even in jail. This is still an Adler somewhat defined in her relationship to Holmes, but with many more levels of complexity.
Sherlock‘s Mrs. Hudson is probably the most well defined and complex female character the show has to offer, although even she appears to be there to literally serve Sherlock. This is not to say she lacks a rich backstory, and it’s clear that she performs her actions out of a deep debt and devotion she has consciously chosen. So while it’s a stereotypical female role, it’s embodied by a very real person.
Elementary‘s Mrs. Hudson is still largely an offscreen presence.
Molly Hooper exists only in the Sherlock universe and has no real equivalent in the Elementary universe. While an accomplished scientist, much of her screen time is devoted to show how insensitive Sherlock is to her swooning, although she begins to slightly outgrow that role in Season Three.
Sherlock‘s Mary Morstan is also a character of considerable agency, embodying however, the Untrustworthy Woman. For what it’s worth, her deceptions are revealed to be at least in part committed out of a sincere devotion to John Watson. Although even here her most defining characteristics seem to be there to highlight John’s own addiction to danger. Still, she seems to be an equal partner in the emerging team that is herself, John, and Sherlock. We’ll see if/how this plays out in Season Four.
There is, as of yet, no Mary Morstan on Elementary for reasons that will become immediately apparent.
The key differentiator in terms of portrayals of women on Elementary is the fact that Watson has been recast as a woman. (Which is not to say that there could not still be a Mary Morstan, but so far her character has been defined as strictly heterosexual.) But the story of Elementary has been as much about her initial obligation and progressive liberation from Sherlock. She exists first as his sober companion (in this interpretation, his chemical addictions are something he’s recovering from), a position of considerable influence as opposed to his lapdog though she is, as with canon, his intellectual inferior.
Over time, though, she becomes his apprentice, sharpening her skills as a detective and choosing a new life path on her own, granted with considerable influence from her time with Holmes. This most recent season in particular, though, has seen her growth and her agency evolve, as major plot points have included a dalliance with Holmes’ brother Mycroft, against Sherlock’s wishes, and her own agency around choosing to move out explicitly because she needs to be her own person, apart from Holmes, while still assisting him with cases. It is, in fact, Holmes ultimate reaction to this that frames the season finale cliffhanger.
Watson’s growing, evolving sense of agency as a function of self-discovery makes her not only one of the most evolved female characters in the history of Holmes interpretations, but one of the most evolved female characters in modern pop culture.
None of this is to say that Sherlock is a poorly constructed show. Quite the opposite. From a writing perspective, it is actually the far superior show. To most shows on television, actually. Moffat is a master of dialogue and his version, on the whole, is vastly more entertaining. At the same time, his female characters are less nuanced and display less agency and complexity than Doherty’s. Doherty’s vision is serviceable as a show, basically on a level with any of a myriad of CBS procedurals, but attaining levels of feminist portrayal unmatched by Moffat.
So the bind is how to evaluate a show that is scoring on all of the things I usually look for in a show, at least technically and artistically. Which is not to say I don’t look for good representations of women, but I don’t usually consider that an evaluation of artistic merit so much as a social merit. But maybe I should start.