Yesterday a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook from the BBC called: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Legacy of the Teen Heroine’ by Naomi Alderman (article here). Alderman essentially argues that despite the last episode of Buffy being aired 10 years ago, TV and cinema have not followed its example of complex female characters and relationships. It’s especially unique in having a female-heavy cast who talk to each other about things other than their boyfriends and children. This got me thinking about the Sherlock Holmes stories – how do they stand up to the Bechdel test, for example? Answer: very badly.
The Sherlock Holmes canon comes from a time before women had the vote. It absolutely was a patriarchal world. Yes, there were the beginning signs of cultural change, but it is unsurprising that Doyle (a Victorian man) would avoid writing female leads and female villains. In fact, Doyle notoriously wrote very few women characters at all. When he did, it was generally to do with love, affairs, marriage or children.
You may at this point be thinking ‘what about Irene Adler?’, my response to which is this: the original case A Scandal in Bohemia is one where Sherlock has to retrieve a photograph of the King of Bohemia and Adler because it is indiscreet. A woman, once again, has not actually committed a crime but an indiscretion, which is bad enough. Yes, she outsmarts Holmes and yes, she is described as an ‘adventuress’ (which was a masculine term); but she is also called ‘the woman’, which some have taken as an expression of admiration. Equally, this could be a term of derision: how dare a woman outsmart Holmes? She doesn’t deserve a name. Also, she gets married: her position as a threat is neutralised by her marriage; she is now under control. My final point about Adler is that she’s the only one. In 56 stories and 2 novels, she is the only woman who comes anywhere close to being a villain.
My feminist self wants to tell Doyle off, but I must admit the stories are enjoyable regardless, taking into account the context of which they were written. However, in the context of a modern audience and the progressive feminism that is arising, should adaptations be doing more to even out the gender bias, or is this anti-canonical? Should adaptations be true to the canon regardless of the sexism (and racism) within it?
Take BBC’s Sherlock as an example: Moffat and Gatiss have done well to incorporate women into their episodes where there are none in Doyle’s stories, especially ethnic women. Watson’s therapist is a black woman; there is an Asian museum curator; 2 female doctors (one medical, one of biological science); and an ambitious journalist. Mrs Hudson is a maternal, domestic figure but holds her own against CIA interrogation; Molly, though predominately defined by her need for a boyfriend, is a mortician and is celebrated for her intelligence and discretion; Sargent Sally Donovan is a female, non-white policewoman who holds her own and is seen to think critically, not taking Sherlock’s alliance with the police for granted (though isn’t included on the main character list on the BBC website); and Mary Morstan, a character whose true merits are yet to be revealed, but has so far wowed us all with her grace and intellect in the latest 3rd series. This is generally a great program for women. However, there is more to be done: these strong, independent women clearly live in a patriarchal world. Men dominate the screen and the women are rarely seen speaking to each other and even then, we don’t hear what they are saying. As a modern adaptation that has clearly seen the Sherlock canon as inspiration, not as bible, I think the writers could go further with the development of their female characters.
Elementary is a clear example of a modern adaptation trying to take the feminist angle: Watson is a woman, an ex-surgeon and has given this up to look after people who have drug issues. As in Sherlock, she is the only woman in a male-dominated world: all other main characters are male. She has no on-screen female friendships (though does have an off-screen sister with whom she is close) and the series does technically pass the Bechdel test because Watson has conversations (albeit short) with female clients, but their conversations are always case-based. That being said, her value as character is better than her male counterparts; she is only inferior to Sherlock in terms of detection skills. Her intellect occasionally contributes an analysis that solves the case, making her superior to even the canonical Watson, who only really observes and records.
The above two examples are visibly Sherlockian, even if their modernity has shaken off some the more period-specific events and gender-specific roles of the canon, there is a loyalty to the canon to some extent, so perhaps this is why women, particularly female friendships, have less screen-time than their male equals? Doyle wrote what was essentially, an all-male leading cast. Is this the fault of the writers or of the audience’s desire to keep the essence of the canon?
Let’s take for example then, an adaptation more loosely based on the Sherlock stories: House M.D. Now some of you may be surprised that this is a Sherlock adaptation because it’s not immediately obvious, it is a medical drama after all, but here are some of the nods to the canon:
- Dr. House – a play on the name Holmes, which sounds like ‘homes’
- Dr. Wilson – House’s best friend whose name is resoundingly similar to Watson
- House’s Vicodin addiction – Holme’s cocaine and morphine addiction
- House is a genius and solves cases (albeit medical) just like Holmes
Perhaps then, House M.D. holds more hope for female friendship: there’s less pressure to stick to the canon. As with Sherlock and Elementary, House M.D. has a few developed, complex and leading female roles: Dr. Cameron, Dr. Cuddy (who is Dean of the hospital), Dr. Hadley (often referred to as ’13’ and is bi-sexual), Dr. Adams and Dr. Park (the only female non-white doctor) . Similarly to the other adaptations there is definite progression in the portrayal of women, though less so for ethnic women, and occasional episodes pass the Bechdel test. House certainly treats women and men equally – he hates them all and treats them all like idiots, often with humorous effect; but overall there is a serious lack of complex female relationships. They do branch out with Dr. Hadley’s bi-sexualism, but even this isn’t given much screen-time; not to mention all of the women are skinny and pretty, of which Dr House makes a big deal of, except with Dr. Park who is belittled for not fitting into the LA, size 0, white model look because she is Asian. There is an episode in fact where this is made perfectly clear, and the writers at least gave Dr. Park the personality to not only deal with the criticism, but to backlash against it, stating she is attractive, even if she does not live up to a stupid ideal. I don’t think this fully makes up for the attractive-women-only position House M.D. appears to take up until that moment, but it was at least an episode to celebrate.
With these examples I would like to say that I believe Sherlock adaptations are progressing the portrayal of women on TV further than other programs available to watch. These women, at the very least, are intelligent without being put down for being ‘masculine’, are in roles of power and are generally treated as a valued member of the team. Where these writers could go further is to make the casting less male-dominated and give more time on-screen to female relationships, which would make more episodes pass the Bechdel test, and I personally don’t think this has to be done by sacrificing the essence of the canon.
Sherlock (or a Sherlock-esque lead) will always dominate the screen in any adaptation, as will his relationship with Watson and as such, all other relationships (male-female, male-male, female-female) fall by the way-side to make room for their character development. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to portray female relationships in Sherlock adaptations – the stories demand time to develop the mystery and the two main characters, yet I live in hope the writers will give me more reasons to celebrate the adaptations I so love.