Friday, December 16, 2016

"It's All Fine" - Queerbaiting in BBC's Sherlock

By J. Elizabeth

The stage is set. The curtain rises. We are ready to begin.

Series four of BBC’s Sherlock, that is.

We are only a few weeks away from the promised land. After three years, not including last year’s special "The Abominable Bride," we will finally see our favorite consulting detective back in action. The fandom is certainly in need of some beekeepers because we are abuzz right now.

As we celebrate this award winning, international hit show, it’s only fair we talk about its flaws. And there are flaws, let’s not kid ourselves. From how it handles female characters to its lack of people of color, it could be better, despite the best intentions from the showrunners. The flaw I’d like to talk about now is the excessive amounts of queerbaiting.

What is queerbaiting? Well, it’s a term used by queer fans of media to call out TV shows/movies/comics/etc that intentionally insert queer subtext or "add homoerotic tension between two characters to attract more liberal and queer viewers with the indication of them not ever getting together for real in the show/book/movie." So how does Sherlock do this?

Let’s talk about the obvious "jokes" first. In the very first episode, Sherlock Holmes mistakes John Watson’s questions about his relationship status to be a come on, or that’s how mainstream audiences are supposed to perceive it, anyway. And I laughed when I first saw it four years ago before I realized what it was I was laughing at: the absurdness of a gay relationship between iconic literary characters. John having to defend his "not gay"-ness becomes a running joke that appears in literally every one of the nine episodes. And every time, Sherlock, the man who John himself has stated has to have the last word, never corrects anyone’s assumptions about them. In that very first conversation over dinner where John questions his sexuality, Sherlock says women are not his area and that he doesn’t have a boyfriend. The whole thing is written to keep his sexuality ambiguous.

On the subject of Sherlock’s hypothetical boyfriend.
If it were just jokes, that would be one really crappy thing, to poke fun at homosexual relationships in that way. But there are genuinely stark, emotional moments that cannot be a joke, and if they are, that is exceedingly cruel. For example, in the original canon, Irene Adler was Holme’s one exception to his disinterest in women. In the BBC version, Adler is a lesbian dominatrix. She has a conversation with John in which she accuses him of being jealous of Sherlock’s attention on her. John, once again, defends himself by exclaiming “I’m not actually gay.” Irene responds with “Well, I am. But look at us both.” John doesn’t respond to that. Is that a joke?

I’d like to note that John repeatedly says he’s not gay. Which he’s probably not but, guess what, gay and straight aren’t the only sexualities.

Later on in the series, John flips his lid when he finds a woman, Janine, in 221B after he’s moved out to be with his wife, Mary. This is a very funny moment, because John and I had the same expression at seeing Sherlock kiss a woman.

Does not compute.
This funny moment gets a little harder to laugh at later on, before John knows it’s a sham, when he sees Sherlock propose to Janine.

He looks so happy for him!
I can’t get into all the nuanced exchange of looks or phrasing or how they costume Sherlock’s parents the same way Sherlock and John dress (whoops, I guess that one snuck in there), but there are overt references to a perceived relationship by characters within the world. Mrs. Hudson believed them a couple for years, and she is the Queen of the Foreshadow. But I don’t have time to mention how Sherlock pasted John’s head on the body of the Vitruvian man, or how he literally brought himself back to life after being shot by Mary to save John, or how he was reading John’s blog post on how they first met when he O.D.’d on the plane ride to his inevitable death (I did it again, dang).

Of course, how we perceive acting or costume choices are objective. The Kuleshov effect proves that. So it makes sense that if a bunch of queer people were watching this show, they’d see parts of themselves in it. And guess what, a lot of queer people are watching this show.

Queer women, to be more precise.

A show as massively popular as Sherlock attracts a very diverse audience. But if you look at the hardcore fandom, a vast majority are women and/or queer identifying people. What results in all these queer people being attracted (or baited) to this show is a space for them to exist without the social constraints of being out in normal life. What fandom has done for me, personally, has given me a space to think in terms of queerness as if was not something strange about me but the norm in that environment. It rewired my thinking and helped lessen my own heteronormative behavior in my art and life.

This space is full of artists and writers who are exercising their craft where they feel safe to do so. This space is full of academics who study media and LGBTQA+ issues within it. And that is a beautiful, amazing thing.

So it hurts all the more when the showrunners, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the latter being a married gay man) dismiss the queer side of the fandom. Sometime after the 2016 San Diego Comic Con, Moffat and Gatiss did an interview that directly addressed the perceived relationship between John and Sherlock. It wasn’t pretty.

Moffat, clearly passionate about the topic, and frustrated at the way his words have been twisted, “It is infuriating frankly, to be talking about a serious subject and to have Twitter run around and say oh that means Sherlock is gay. Very explicitly it does not. We are taking a serious subject and trivializing it beyond endurance.” - With an Accent
Trivializing it. I wish to express to Moffat that this level of representation of a bisexual character is far from trivial to me. I get a distinct feeling that the creators see the John and Sherlock pairing fans as straight, young girls who want to fetishize male queerness. I can’t help but wonder if the creators would be more accepting and less harsh to fans if we were queer men instead of queer women. Mark Gatiss goes on to say:

“Don’t blame us for things that aren’t there. It is infuriating. We get pilloried for these things as if our show [...] has to have the shoulders to bear every single issue and every single campaign point. You can’t do that. It’s our show, they’re our characters, they do what we want them to do, and we don’t have to represent absolutely everything in that ninety minutes.”
Gatiss is correct in saying they don’t have to represent absolutely everything. He’s right that they don’t have to bear every issue on their shoulders. I believe that’s what every other show would say as well. But because of that, everybody is saying “We shouldn’t have to be the only ones to tackle these issues,” and nobody is actually doing anything about it. Sherlock has a real opportunity here to have its own chapter in queer media history, but why should they bear that weight on their shoulders, right? Even if they go with the flow and stay safely in the status quo of straight relationships, I’d be able to handle that if they didn’t talk to fans who wish otherwise so harshly.

Also, is anyone going to remind them that John Watson and Sherlock Holmes aren’t really their characters? They’re writing and producing high quality fanfiction, but they’re men, so it’s not trivializing when they do it. Moffat says the whole pairing is making a serious topic into “something extremely silly.” My sexuality is not silly. Wanting to see a major television and literary character portrayed with the same sexuality as me is not silly.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe everything we see isn’t actually there. Maybe they were all just gay jokes. Maybe we’re the assholes for blowing these jokes out of proportion. Then again, maybe this is some next level form of gaslighting, telling us we’re a bunch of wackadoos for interpreting this little exchange at John’s wedding... anything but a happy look between best friends at one’s wedding. Look at these guys, totally thrilled about all the life decisions that led them to this point. No pain or regret here.

You don’t even have to make it canon, just don’t talk to us like we’re stupid, teenage girls insulting you with our enjoyment of your show. Enjoying it so much, in fact, we are dying to see a part of ourselves validated in that world. And even if this was some elaborate ruse and they really are planning on making this pairing canon, this treatment of the queer and/or female fans isn’t justified. You can't talk down to us like that for the sake of a storyline reveal.

We’re your fanbase, not a plot device. 
It’s much more likely this is just a textbook case of queerbaiting. I hope I’m wrong and Sherlock ends up on the right side of queer media history, but that interview made that hard to believe. Sherlock will end up in queer media history, though. That much is certain, and the fandom can take credit for that. It’s up to The Powers That Be to choose which context it will be discussed in.

Regardless, series 4 is coming and no matter what happens, no matter what Moffat and Gatiss say, this is our show too. Not just theirs. Nothing can take away the art we’ve created, the stories we’ve written, or the friendships we’ve made. No matter what happens, your identity is valid.

Let this be an inspiration to all you future creators out there, to bear on your shoulders the issues others are afraid to. To challenge the way stories are told. To challenge whose stories get told. Be inspired to do more. To do better. One day, you and I both will be leading the industry, will be the future rulers of media, and...

What are some ways you handle problematic elements of your favorite shows and fandoms?


  1. I'm not sure I have a lot to add to your excellent discussion. I know that Sherlock has gotten harder for me to watch as people have brought the queerbaiting to my attention, as well as various sexist things that I don't appreciate as a woman. I know that I'll be watching series four soon and hopefully it will be great! Nonetheless, you make excellent, excellent points here and I'll definitely be keeping them in mind as I watch the next show.

  2. Great article and it's sad to see what happened.