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ImageToday I was on Twitter and it came to my attention that Amanda Abbington (the actress who plays Mary Watson in the BBC Sherlock) is getting a lot of abuse because of her comments in this article.

The bit in question I quote here:

 

What Abbington doesn’t particularly like is the tendency of some rabid fans — as alluded to in the premiere episode — who insist on concocting a romantic relationship where none exists; as, for example, between Sherlock and John. It’s especially worrisome to her when they make pictures of it and put them on the Internet.
“It’s one where you have to be very careful what you say to them,” she says. “You have to be very careful of how you broach that. You can’t be too critical … you have to pretend that it’s not out there. But it’s on the Internet for everybody to see. It’s a phenomenon; it really is.
“I’ve seen some particularly explicit paintings of Martin and Ben. Let’s not say it’s John and Sherlock; it’s Martin and Ben, because you don’t see Basil Rathbone and his Watson. I don’t think it’s about the characters; it becomes about the actors.
“It’s just out there for everyone to see, and at some point, my son is going to want to Google his dad. It’s the sort of thing where, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I had a diary when I was that age, and I wrote everything in my diary. The fact that you can now put it on the Internet and get really cross about it when people make a comment on it, it just makes me think, that’s interesting.
“Don’t put it on the Internet, then, if you don’t want somebody to comment on it. It’s immediately accessible, and it’s immediately public.”
 
Understandably, many fans who write fan-fiction and fan-art are upset because they have been made out to look like they are insane: the article calls them ‘rabid’ (implying this is what Amanda said, though not quoted). It also implies that the stance of the Sherlock writers is that fan-fiction is ‘worrisome’, whereas Mark Gatiss has very explicitly said he is opinion-less on fanfiction because he refuses to read it, but that he’s ‘very happy that the show inspires other people to write’ (source: Sherlockology). Personally, I think it is the article who has gunned for the fans, not Amanda Abbington, though she does raise some interesting critiques.
I do not want to put words into Amanda Abbington’s mouth, but I would say that her main points (as laid out by the article) are that: a) creators of fanfiction tend to be very protective of their work, despite it being on the Internet and is therefore open to criticism by all and b) that the explicit paintings, drawings, altered images are of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, not their characters and these images may not suitable for public domain.
 
Let’s address a) for the moment. The Internet is an extraordinary place, it allows us to interact with other people all over the world, which is fantastic for keeping in touch, sharing ideas and, for fans, it is a fantastic place to share your love of a TV series/book/actor/actress/singer/band/etc. This includes the sharing of fanfiction. However, what is phenomenal about fanfiction in particular is that its intended audience is fans – people who think like you and celebrate your favourite thing in the way you do. Of course there are disagreements – the variety of imagined romantic relationships shows us that. Some believe in Sherlolly (Sherlock and Molly), others Sherlock (Sherlock and John Watson) and, more recently, Mystrade (Mycroft and Lestrade). Of course, not all fanfiction is based on sexual/romantic relationships, but it is this that causes the most controversy. Most fanfiction writers I know are incredibly private about their work; it is an exercise in love and devotion to the series and the characters, but they want to share this with people who feel this too. Most are not professional writers. This means when someone like Amanda fails to understand what they have created and, perhaps, dismisses it or them, they feel rejected on numerous levels: their fandom community is rejected for being made up of ‘rabid’ and ‘worrisome’ people, their work is rejected for its content and they are made to feel guilty for writing something that came out of a place of admiration for the writers, actors and everyone involved.
That being said, does this mean we are not free to criticise? Of course not. The Internet is a place where you can and have the right to say what you like as long as it is not threatening. People have to realise that when something is on the Internet it is free and accessible for all to see and I think Amanda is right in saying she should be able to criticise the freedom of access to explicit content.
 
The second issue then: many images on the Internet of Johnlock (the sector of fanfiction and art Amanda refers to) are explicit or even pornographic in some cases. Fans express their desire to see John Watson and Sherlock as a couple by painting, drawing and writing them in a sexual relationship. The problem Amanda Abbington has with this is that the images are of ‘Martin and Ben. Let’s not say it’s John and Sherlock; it’s Martin and Ben’. She qualifies this with ‘because you don’t see Basil Rathbone and his Watson’, which is technically incorrect – it is not exclusively the BBC series, but actually her next comment backs her point more clearly: ‘I don’t think it’s about the characters; it becomes about the actors.’
 
What right do we, a viewing public, have over the face of the actors in a series? If the BBC wanted to, they could of course enforce the copyright from all the images expressly taken from the show, but many works out there are hand-drawn (spectacularly well, some of them), and are the copyright of their owner. Yet, they are made to look, and indeed do look like Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. These men are actors; they have families, children (in Martin’s case), friends, colleagues, who can all see these explicit images.
 
Now, I want to make something clear here, the issue is not that the characters are in a homosexual relationship. The explicitness of the images have nothing to do with gender or the ‘shocking’ nature of a gay relationship. The problem is that Martin and Benedict have no control over how their faces are used to portray them. As actors they have been employed to act as Sherlock and Watson, not to participate in sexually explicit photo-shoots/images/gifs. I think most people would agree they would be horrified if someone took a photo of them from their Facebook page, altered it to be explicit, and then re-posted it on the Internet publicly. It would feel like a violation of your privacy, even if your Facebook photos are completely public to view. Should fans then be allowed to create content like this and put in on the Internet? Should it not stay in the privacy of their own homes?
 
I am not the judge of that by any means, but I think Amanda has brought up an interesting issue and I don’t think she should be belittled or attacked for feeling protective of her husband’s image as a person and a father. I think it is so easy to forget that these men are not just characters (though we love them dearly for being so and portraying them so well), but where do we draw the line? To restrict what you can and can’t post potentially restricts freedom of speech, and some may argue that by participating in Sherlock the actors have consequently agreed to participate in all that makes up the Sherlock fandom. I am not sure I agree with that, but without someone who is willing to stand up against criticism, a dialogue cannot begin. This issue is not exclusive to Sherlock or Benedict and Martin. One Direction fans also create similar content, as do many other fandoms. The Internet has brought together so many people and mediums so quickly, legislation and copyright just have not caught up. It will be interesting to see where this dialogue leads.
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2 thoughts on “Fans or actors: who owns the face?

  1. Sensible and measured. Her point of view is unique – Martin Freeman isn’t just actor to her. His is her long term partner and the father of her children. People need too grow the fuck up – her opinion is important and the ramifications of this go beyond the show. If you post what is essentially porn on the internet then be prepared for criticism. The positions adopted by the figures in Johnlock art (if you can call it that) are those that we see in porn. Porn is viewed as degrading and demeaning to women – this I feel is no different.

  2. Pingback: Armitage Weekly Round-Up Week 5 | I Want to be a Pin Up

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