April 30, 2016

Sherlock vs. Elementary: A Feminist Reading

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.


  1. Jeff says:

    While not specifically related to the feminist questions you posed, I’ve always been rather delighted by the spot on naming of the two shows, a good deal of which is illustrated by your points here. There is no one on SHERLOCK who doesn’t exist to support the main character, and while the fanboys may make on over the relationship between Holmes and Watson in all it’s permutations and possibilities, it’s ultimately futile. Even Freemans’ Watson is simply a complex plot device designed to drive Holmes’ character forward. ELEMENTARY is a much more fundamentally simply show, and it’s character motivations are much more simplistically addressed: Watson is finding herself, Holmes is rebuilding himself (though even he doesn’t fully realize it), Moriarty is growing more human. All simple, even elementary, goals.

    Just a thought,

  2. swanpride says:

    Every Irene Adler who is written as a criminal is an insult to the canon character imho…in this regard, both shows fail.
    Elementary has exactly one female character in the main cast (Joan). Sherlock has at this point three, and that is discounting Sally.
    And if I compare Joan to John….during the first season Joan looses her job, her places to live and cuts off a lot of her former contacts. She becomes more and more dependent on her Holmes. Plus, I always thought that the notion that a female Watson can’t be an ex-army doctor is very insulting.
    John on the other hand, who starts out jobless and friendless, has in only nine episodes time to built his own social circle, has a job independent from Sherlock and a love life which eventually results in his marriage.
    Sherlock’s females “centre” around Sherlock or in Mary’s case John, because the two are the main characters of the show and with every show, the supporting cast is only important in connection to the main characters. That’s storytelling. Elementary’s one female is actually supposed to be one of the main characters, and if you consider that, Elementary actually does very badly with Joan.

  3. Dan says:

    This is an interesting take and I generally agree with a lot of it, but to be honest I don’t necessarily agree that from a pure writing perspective the BBC show is far superior. It’s narrative has greater continuity and is written in a classic “mini series form”, so it feels more fluid, but in terms of the over arching narrative I actually think that the story arcs and character development in Elementary is significantly superior to Sherlock.

    I’ve only just gotten into both of these shows (Sherlock first), but watched them excessively over the past few months, and whilst at first I thought Sherlock was probably the better of the two for the greater continuity of its narrative and closer resemblance to the books, but in spite of excessive filler episodes that have a “House” air to them, the actual overarching narrative and characters are more interesting and the performances are stronger in Elementary. I even think I Miller’s acting is better and more engaging than Cumberbatch’s.

    Cumberbatch in a way has the simpler task – playing a detached “high funcitoning sociopath” genius deductionist is easier than playing a misanthropic, yet still capable of empathy, recovering drug addict genius deductionist.

    Miller’s Holmes is a more relatable and likable type of flawed genius; his suffering gives his character a humanity that Cumberbatch’s lacks. Some of the writing regarding his struggles with addiction are wonderful too, and he performs them with such deep emotional conviction it’s hard not to be taken along with him. I particularly liked his lament regarding his recovery that his sobriety is “just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip.”

    Moreover, I Moriarty’s role in Elementary is just much more interesting and engaging than the rather poorly written and paper thin character presented in Sherlock. Indeed, this is largely where I began to prefer elementary over Sherlock. There’s something just very pedestrian and almost irritating about Moriarty in Sherlock; the character isn’t engaging at all and the final confrontation is a let down. The stakes just don’t feel high enough and his character isn’t terribly convincing.

    For a character like Moriarty you really have two options; an enemy that is brilliant and yet flawed, but whose motives have their own twisted logic that makes hate of them outright difficult, or you can make them effectively a force of nature that appears to have semi-omniscience and requires great sacrifice to stop.

    Now, Elementary chose the former with the Adler merger and it was brilliantly engaging and unexpected. She’s brilliant like Holmes, but simply lacks his interest in the common good. She’s not evil, she’s simply pathologically utilitarian in her approach to life, and her murders all serve a purpose. But they both let eachother get under their skin making themselves vulnerable where they otherwise wouldn’t be.

    On the other hand, Sherlock’s Morarity isn’t really either a force of nature or relatably flawed evil genius; he’s simply a mirror of a certain petulance in Holmes that is then extended. By the end when you finally meet him it’s almost comical, but ultimately dreadfully boring…

    If they were going to keep the narrative relatively conventional with regard to Sherlock Holmes canon, I’d much have preferred they went down the “force of nature path” in the same way that “A Game of Shadows” did in the Robert Downey Jnr Holmes sequel. That film presented a Morarity that was engaging because he really was a force of nature; he’s defeat requires Holmes to make himself vulnerable and swallow his pride and in the process maiming himself physically before risking death to defeat him. Being condensed into a film almost didn’t do it justice, but it was a version of Moriarty that was genuinely menacing.

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