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Sherlock Marathon : How Sherlock (TV series) can help in understanding everyday sexism ?


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Steven Moffat's Sherlock modernises a classic figure of literature. Sherlock is not a distant character studied in a classroom and forgotten as soon as the lesson ends but a modern, cold, smart, socially awkward man. The power of the TV series is successfully turning this distant figure into a character that we as an audience care and feel for. By showing Sherlock's journey from distant to a compassionate person, it teaches the power of friendship, connection and caring. It brings back to life classic stories and shows us they are still accurate today and that we can learn from them to this day. Having aired between 2010 and 2017, Sherlock can also teach us a lot about sexism in society and on screen. Since the last episodes of Sherlock, three years have passed. Watching them back in June 2020, there were things that didn't shock me at the time but that I would not accept now in a TV show. As much as the male characters are brilliantly written, many of the women are still stereotypes. It is more subtle than many other TV shows but with time, it is very obvious that John and Sherlock's behaviour towards women are problematic. Unless flagged, many people would not notice them. Many of us would let it go and not think much of it, but we can and should take this opportunity to talk about what daily sexism is and how it can manifest in the most common situations.


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For example, Mrs Hudson is treated like a housekeeper for the whole duration of the show. She is the landlady but it does not seem to matter. Sherlock might consider her family but he stills treats her as help with an obvious lack of respect. She is often portrayed as an impressionable and fragile woman. The TV series tried to redeem this depiction by giving her a tumultuous past. The question still remains : would have Sherlock treated a landlord the same way ? Given that there are certain behaviours he only displays with women, I don't think so. For a start, he never asks John to clean or make him tea. He always asks Mrs Hudson to make them tea.

The first woman that appears on the series is Molly. The first time we see her Sherlock bullies Molly about her appearance and attempts at femininity. She puts on lipstick, he comments on it. She takes it off, he comments on it. When she comes to his place with a gift for the Christmas party, he makes fun of her feelings because the wrapping shows she cares. He never does that to John or Lestrade. Even when she gets a boyfriend, he had to be a copy of Sherlock. The engagement breaks off so she can be available for any work Sherlock might ask her. Her whole character arc is dependent on Sherlock's character. Her actions are directed at Sherlock. Any decisions she takes is to provoke Sherlock's reaction. It is a typical case of a woman written by a man. Quite surprisingly for some, women can have a crush and move on.


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Putting that aside, the comments Sherlock makes are only directed as women. When the female police officer spends the night with Anderson, he does not say anything to him but he makes a comment about her wearing a man's deodorant to her. Some might argue this is the way Sherlock is. I would agree if he commented on both women AND men's appearances, actions and feelings. But he doesn't. It reveals a bias towards women and a lack of respect that is deeply rooted in the way society treats women. Sherlock does not remember John's girlfriends names which shows that they are not important enough. Even John himself does not remember his girlfriend's name. Both of them find it funny but it show that they do not consider the women important enough to remember their names when they remember names of killers and case details. When looking at the overall TV series, it never happens with a male character.


One of the other things that never happen with male characters is the inclusion on the plot based on looks only and for the benefit of the male characters. Mycroft's secretary is obviously here for her looks and always mentioned for her looks and the attention Watson gives her because of that. Why mention how hot she is but nothing about how competent she is at her work ? She is working and Watson is trying to get with her. She refuses but still he insists once more. This an obvious representation of why consent is important. No means no and not try harder. I wish Mycroft would have said something about that behaviour. Watson is doing that when he is not depicted as a bad guy shows no matter how nice a guy seems to be they can also do things that are sexist without noticing it.


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The only woman having a real impact on Sherlock is a prostitute. Irene Adler is a great character but I do find it peculiar that out of all the jobs she could have been given in the modern version, she gets the one relying on her looks. I like the fact that she is not ashamed of her sexuality but I do not agree with it being her defining feature. I wish she could have been given more depth than a high end prostitute with the highlights on her looks. When Sherlock ends up being naked in Buckingham Palace, we only see the naked shoulders and the head. With Irene, it's the whole body that is exposed to the audience's eyes. The female body is sexualised without a second thought but if it comes to a man, it's unthinkable. I have a feeling it might have something to do with the fact that the DoP, director and writers are male and would have probably felt uncomfortable giving the same treatment to Sherlock. Although, Sherlock has become some kind of sex symbol after the TV series came out so maybe it's time to get into uncomfortable territory and get more women on set.


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Talking about uncomfortable, John is mad at Mary in season 3 for not telling him about her true identity and her past. The situation runs for several episodes during which it is made clear that Mary was wrong and John has the right to be mad. It almost breaks up their marriage. This storyline put honesty at the centre of their relationship moving forward. But when John starts flirting by text with another woman, it is kept awfully quiet until Mary tragically dies and then depicted as harmless. If you ever wondered, this is what double standards look like. Even worse, Mary gets the same wound as Sherlock in Ferguson's house and falls the same way but she does not survive. Why ? It seems to me she had to die so Sherlock could get John back on his cases without having to compete with a wife and a baby. She had to die so the dynamic between the two men could remain the same. It sets a bad precedent by making her life worth less than Sherlock's. He survived because he is essential to the plot but she did not because she was a threat to his work with Watson.


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My biggest problem with the TV series is the depiction of the sister. She is the only female siblings and the only one who is crazy. Mycroft and Sherlock are smart and it's all good. But as Mycroft said it in season 4, Eurus was too smart for her own good. In other words, too smart to be controlled, too smart for Mycroft and Sherlock to be able to follow. In some ways, we can see her as a metaphor for the brothers' fear of powerful women that might be smarter and more successful than them. Her abilities go beyond Mycroft and Sherlock's so of course she can not live in our world. She has to be locked up. Maybe because if she was out, Sherlock's talents would not be considered as incredible ? Did the production consider what message it sends to the women watching the TV series ? There is a special episode about feminism and then, a season like that is released. Why ?


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The special episode is an attempt at introducing feminism into the series. Sherlock says it very well that "it is a war we must lose" - we referring to the men. Some have argued that Sherlock tried to mansplain feminism to feminists but I disagree. Given the audience of the TV series, I think it was more directed at making the men. Some men will feel threatened by women saying the same so having a male character saying it on screen is quite powerful. It is good to have two male writers make their privileged character admit that they have to "lose" it - meaning "losing their privileges" and that equality is important.


In a way, the creators admit they might have not done a good job and that they realise they might have done some wrong. It translates in all the "wronged" women appearing in that episode - which accounts for all of the female characters that have appeared on the series. It does not make anything okay of course but it is nice though to see such a popular series admit its shortcomings on female representation. It makes it clear that it's not only about having women on screen but how they behave, their place in the narrative and their relationship to their male counterparts. Having many female characters does not make a TV series feminist and Steven Moffat acknowledged it in his way. Overall, it does not make Sherlock a bad TV series because remembering when we watched it for the first time, few people would have probably seen that but seeing it now means that the times have changed. It means that we always need to remember that one day things were different. Erasing is not the solution because there's need for proof of where we have come from and where we are going so we do not make the past mistakes. I think the show can start interesting discussions for people who might not understand every day sexism. it provides an entertaining material to start important discussions.

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