Shocked by Sherlock? – The problems with diversity on TV.

IreneAdler

As hypothesised in my review of Monday’s Sherlock, the pre-watershed broadcast of (discreetly shot) nudity (only Irene Adler’s, I note, not Sherlock’s) has got certain people all hot under the collar. Well, the Daily Mail, inevitably. Indeed, so eager were they to condemn this filth being available to those children still up at 8.10pm, they printed the above picture of it for children to see at any time of the day, alongside their usual sidebar parade of bikini-clad celebs cavorting on the beach.

It is debatable whether a show where one of the central characters is a paid dominatrix who uses her sexuality as a weapon in her games is acceptable pre-watershed viewing. But I stick to my guns of saying that it walked a thin line without falling off; think of all the pre-watershed crime dramas in which prostitution is a key part of the plot. It used to be almost a weekly occurrence in The Bill, back when that was a half hour show on at 8pm. Not to mention the downright dirty jokes in sitcoms and sketch shows as far back as the 70s – did anybody really not get the double entendres about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy in Are You Being Served?

Nor is (I’ll repeat, discreetly shot) nudity anything new in pre-watershed programming. I don’t recall any storms of protest over pre-9pm broadcasts of Carry On Camping, which contains that scene of a young Barbara Windsor accidentally losing her bra. And oddly, less discreetly shot male nudity seems to go without comment on many occasions – what about that bit in Doctor Who episode Love and Monsters where man-hungry mum Jackie Tyler contrives to get Marc Warren’s shirt off?

No, the Mail’s usual hysteria didn’t strike me as anything to worry about. But as a bit of a lefty liberal, what did concern me was a couple of articles condemning Steven Moffat’s portrayal of Irene Adler as demeaning to women, and a retrograde step from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. Both Jane Clare Jones’ piece in The Guardian and its presumable inspiration on the Another Angry Woman blog maintain that the final few minutes of the show undercut a previously good portrait of a strong female character, by having her machinations revealed to have been planned by Moriarty (a man), then falling for Sherlock despite having previously claimed to be gay, and finally and most ignominiously of all, having to be rescued from peril by Holmes himself. Both argue that this reduces the ‘strong woman’ status of a character who, in Doyle’s original, needed no help from a man.

It’s certainly a reading you can make. And I can understand all sorts of objections to that final flashback, which tonally did reduce a previously cerebral drama to the level of Boys’ Own heroism (and yes, I did choose that particular comic as an example intentionally). However, it has provoked the same heated online debates as so many feminist articles in The Guardian – it’s anti-men, it’s humourless, it’s just a TV show etc. I must admit, this was my first reaction on reading the original blog post, but then I realised it was a topic worth thinking more seriously about. And to give her credit, blogger Stavvers posted a well-reasoned follow-up in light of the controversy, making a good argument for the need for diversity in mainstream TV. But in defence of Steven Moffat, I’d like to add my two cents worth as to why I didn’t  – quite – see it this way.

Firstly, it must be remembered that the original Irene Adler only appeared in one, pretty short, Holmes story – A Scandal in Bohemia – and that Arthur Conan Doyle was, at the time, writing basically pulp literature for those with short attention spans (one reason I’ve always found it so accessible, I guess). As such, detail on Irene’s character, her personality and her past is necessarily sparse, and much of the popular perception of her is based on the reams of theses and fan fictions produced by scholars and fans of the Holmes canon.

Yes, in the incident with Holmes she is a strong female character, who achieves everything she does independently, without male help. And yet, how do we, the readers, know that she’s always been this independent? Doyle provides no definitive answer either way. Like so much perceived prejudice on TV, our perception of Moffat’s version of Irene depends on preconceptions we ourselves have developed before watching; I really don’t think we can categorically say that Doyle’s character was definitively a more independent woman than Moffat’s.

The nudity in that scene where Irene first meets Sherlock has been seen as exploitative, too, but I took it to be rather cleverer than that. Most obviously, she’s done her research on Sherlock, and knows how much he can deduce about a person from their clothing. Her nudity is a deliberate attempt to prevent that – as shown by his visualised inability to work out anything about her from her initial appearance. But it does go deeper than that. This Irene, extrapolating from what we know of Doyle’s original, is empowered enough to use her sexuality as a weapon. And while John is most obviously discomfited by this, it’s worth remembering that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is cleverly poised between genuinely asexual and deeply repressed. I don’t think he would have been entirely immune.

Which also has a bearing on another big objection both Stavvers and Jones have to this portrayal. It can seem as though Irene (who has stated that she’s gay) has overcome her sexuality to fall for Sherlock because he’s just so great, while he, conversely, is free of such ‘feminine’ things as emotions, and therefore superior to her.

Again, though, I disagree on almost every count. Sherlock is portrayed, both in the writing and the performance, as deeply emotionally repressed – but that doesn’t mean he’s without emotions (or superior for that matter – in this regard, John comes off as the better human being). The whole point of the relationship is that, yes, she does have feelings for him, feelings she can’t admit – and so does he. Cumberbatch’s performance sold that to me totally, and I’m surprised anyone missed it.

As to Irene’s apparent disregard of her sexuality, it should be noted that the context of her statement about being gay is very significant. It comes just after she’s been taunting John  about the homoerotic undercurrents in his relationship with Sherlock, and he’s exasperatedly exclaimed, “I am not gay!”, with hints that this is just denial. When she follows it up with, “I am.”, I took that as yet another dig at him and his apparent denial, as we’d already seen that Irene’s sexuality was rather more fluid than that from her ‘clients’. And speaking as a man who is – mostly – gay, I always prefer my TV characters to be sexually fluid rather than rigidly pigeonholed by attraction to one gender or the other; that was one reason I found the portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness in the recent Torchwood so disappointing, as he’d gone from being ‘omnisexual’ to just plain gay. That, to me, felt like more of a retrograde step than this portrayal of Irene Adler. And there, I’m willing to admit, is a view shaped by my preconceptions…

That last flashback, though, in which Sherlock rescues a prone Irene from decapitation-hungry terrorists, is harder to defend. Aside from lowering the tone of the drama rather (not that this bothered me particularly at the time), you can see how Irene ends up as the traditional damsel in distress, dependent on the hero for rescue – very much the antithesis of how the character is usually seen.

The problem here is one that I know has offended Holmes purists as well as feminists – Irene doesn’t win, as she did in the original story. As a Holmes fan, I wasn’t sure I liked that either. But if the final story in this three part series is indeed based on Doyle’s The Final Problem, we’re going to see a cliffhanger which looks like Moriarty has beaten Sherlock – or at the very least ended up with a no-score draw, as both characters are seen to die. I don’t think the series is established enough yet to start showing Sherlock as so fallible at he loses more than he wins in one year. That’s not sexist, it’s just the nature of a show which depends on having a (nearly) infallible hero.

But speaking of Moriarty, what of the claim that his assistance renders Irene’s independence as a woman invalid? That’s an interesting one, precisely because I originally wondered whether, in this new ‘reinvention’, Moriarty would be ‘reinvented’ as a woman. There’s precedent for that kind of thing – Blake’s 7’s ubervillain Servalan was originally conceived as a man, apparently, but the casting of the majestic Jacqueline Pearce in the role gave the narrative a whole new dynamic.

With that in mind, I’d thought that a female Moriarty (the Imelda Marcos of crime?) would be an interesting idea. But I can see precisely why Moffat didn’t do it – because, as a Holmes fan, he wanted to feature Irene Adler as ‘the woman’. So we’ve ended up with a male Moriarty, although I wonder whether, given his level of camp, he’s actually gay. More likely, as a counterpoint to Sherlock, he’s similarly ascetic, I suppose. But I didn’t get the impression that he’d masterminded Irene’s scheme. Again, quite the reverse – he was willing to postpone killing Sherlock and John when he had the chance, simply to allow Irene to use them as tools in her game. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

As Stavvers notes, Doyle’s Irene does what she does to ensure the security of a good marriage, but that’s the social context of the period in which the story was written. Fair enough, but what about the context of this time period? Have we reached a stage where mainstream TV diversity is so guaranteed that it’s irrelevant, plotwise, what gender/sexuality/ethnicity a character is and how independent they are? Both Stavvers and Jones maintain that we haven’t, and further that Steven Moffat is a serial offender in negative portrayals of women as weak and dependent on men.

I find the second point hard to accept about the man who created Lynda Day in Press Gang and River Song in Doctor Who. In fact, I tend to find River Song annoying precisely because she eclipses the (male) main character so much of the time. And Coupling, which Stavvers condemns as “heteronormative” and “binary-obsessed”, was surely a typical situation comedy, not seeking to broaden horizons but merely to entertain in a mainstream way. Besides, from what I’ve seen of it, both genders come off equally unfavourably.

But the argument that we still haven’t reached a point where diversity is the norm is harder to refute. Many moons ago, Star Trek sought to redress a criticism that its ‘inclusive’ universe didn’t include any LGBT characters, with the awful Next Generation episode The Outcast. This totally fudged the issue in two ways. Firstly, by evading the actual subject, introducing an asexual species for whom any sexuality was a thoughtcrime. Secondly, and more significantly, by making it an issue at all. In a truly inclusive future, it simply wouldn’t be a big deal, which Star Trek later did right in a throwaway line in Deep Space Nine. Confronted by a ‘reincarnation’ of a former lover, now female like herself, Jadzia Dax is torn over whether to rekindle their relationship. But it’s not a gender issue; rather, it’s a cultural one relating to her race. As far as same-sex relationships go, the rest of the crew just shrug and wonder why she isn’t just getting on with it.

That’s the right way to handle it, as soap operas are slowly realising with some believable storylines in shows like EastEnders and Hollyoaks. But there are still plenty of plotlines revolving around homosexuality as an issue in itself. Regardless of Harvey Fierstein’s one-time assertion that any visibility is better than none, I’d rather see LGBT people not ghettoised on TV as they were in the 70s, when John Inman and Larry Grayson were everyone’s TV shorthand for homosexuality.

Of course, Russell T Davies made giant strides here, first with the breakout success of Queer as Folk, then with the “just like anyone else” gay characters in Doctor Who. For which he was, of course, accused of having a “gay agenda”. Again, this is an issue depending on the preconceptions of the viewer, and this viewer saw it as a positive step that, in the Whoniverse, gayness was just accepted (except in the historical context where it wouldn’t have been, in stories set in the past, but even this is generally handled well). For my money, Moffat’s run on the show has continued this trend, with characters like the “thin, fat, married, gay Anglican Marines” in A Good Man Goes to War, and the Doctor’s general acceptance of every kind of relationship – as exemplified by his kissing James Corden to distract him in Closing Time.

In terms of diversity, though, some insightful bloggers like Jennie Rigg have noted a tendency, particularly over the last couple of years, for non-white characters to be treated as cannon-fodder – in Star Trek terms, disposable red shirts. Having watched the show recently, I can see this point, though it’s worth pointing out the flipside of this. Basically, there are now so many characters with no script-specified ethnicity – as it should be – that many of them, including the more numerous background characters, are non-white. The flipside of this, of course, is that non-recurring characters in Doctor Who have a tendency – even under Steve Moffat – to die.

I’d argue that the reason it might seem like Who has a racist agenda in this regard is actually as a result of increased inclusiveness in its casting. This is, after all, the show whose reintroduction featured its white heroine in a relationship with a black man, something some more conservative territories found hard to stomach. True, she did almost immediately run off with a dour Northerner, but Mickey Smith went on to show himself as one of the strongest characters in the show, as did, later, Martha Jones. That’s a non-white, female character saving the world when the Doctor can’t, right there. And it didn’t even seem like an issue, because that’s one thing Who tends to get right.

One that did stand out this year – and this was remarked on – was the death of Muslim character Rita (Amara Karan) in Toby Whithouse episode The God Complex. But here again, this was the most positive portrayal, without being overly earnest, of a Muslim I’ve seen on TV recently. And in that episode, every – human – character died, white or not, leaving the only survivor of the episode David Walliams’ weaselly alien Gibbis – was the episode anti-human?Smile

No, I think Doctor Who’s got it about right, in terms of the balance between ethnic diversity in major, minor, regular and non-regular characters. But having done that, it’s churlish to complain of perceived racism if some of them get killed in a show which, let’s face it, has a lot of death in it. After all, how many white people got killed in the show the last few years. Come to that, how many non-humans? There’s only one ethnic boundary left to conquer – the first black Doctor. How about the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya? Or perhaps a female Doctor, as we know from Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife that Time Lords can change gender when regenerating. If we’re concerning ourselves with diversity, it’s interesting to ask yourself which of those – if either – you’d find harder to deal with. (Clue – it should be neither of them.)

This has ended up being a longer ramble than I originally intended, and the fact that there is so much to say on the subject shows, in my mind, that there are still are problems with diversity on television. But I think we’ve made bigger steps than Stavvers or Jane Claire Jones think. Again, this is a result of my preconceptions, but I’ve tried to examine them and think it through, something I’m not sure those with less reflective agendas have. There are often hints that some commentators believe writers should be issued with an equality checklist for every character like the ones you get on job applications, to ensure that each TV drama/comedy contains the requisite proportion of demographics, and that none are portrayed in any way negatively. But on television, as in life, positive discrimination is still discrimination, and reaching a decent balance needs to be achieved some other way than by militancy.

2 thoughts on “Shocked by Sherlock? – The problems with diversity on TV.”

    1. Thanks Matt!

      Yours was rather good too – I’m particularly glad you pointed out that, as far as the adaptation of the original story went, Irene did win. But as you say, Moffat then carries the narrative on. You could almost see the second half of the story as a sequel of sorts.

      And no, of course Moffat’s not a sexist – but then isn’t it interesting that we’re pointing it out and we’re both men? *IRONY*

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