Asexuality and Queerphobia in ‘Sherlock’

[caption id="attachment_7235" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Sherlock promotional still. Sherlock promotional still.[/caption]

Written by Erin Tatum.

Sherlock is a fantastic show. As you can probably guess, it’s inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but imagined in modern-day London. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is arrogantly cerebral and painfully introverted, finding a perfect foil in the loyal and more rational ex-military doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman). Together, they form your classic unlikely pair that brings out all the best in each other, intensified by the adrenaline rush of high-stakes crime solving. The jokes are witty, the pacing is breakneck, and the emotion is genuine.

One of the main appeals of the show is the allegedly overt homoeroticism between Sherlock and John. It’s been television standard for a while now to feature bromances that play to the audience with tongue-in-cheek gay subtext. However, showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat delight in turning every episode into a perpetual game of gay chicken. The driving force behind the development of Sherlock and John’s relationship seems to be “let’s see how gay make them before we’re obligated to establish legitimate sexual tension.” They live together, work together, and regularly admit to their love and infatuation with each other. Almost every other character will either tease John about his implied crush or outright assume that they are a couple.

[caption id="attachment_7232" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Sherlock and John hold hands while escaping. Sherlock and John hold hands while escaping.[/caption]

That feels pretty progressive, right? There’s been a recent onslaught of praise for bromances as essentially the only vehicle for mainstream acceptance of queer subtext, as if male emotional expression in itself is queer. If the “Johnlock” dynamic were allowed to persist on its own, I might be willing to begrudgingly stomach yet another instance of subtextual breadcrumbs being hailed as a watershed moment for queer inclusion. The problem is that any potential for alternative readings of their relationship is deliberately and painstakingly squelched by John’s constant and resentful vocalization of his heterosexuality.

Sherlock’s sexuality appears to be a source of fascination for John from the get-go. He professes to being open-minded, curiously interpreting Sherlock’s lack of social awareness to a carefully constructed veil over his personal life and somehow extrapolating that back out to internalized homophobia. John insists that he’s perfectly fine with Sherlock having either a girlfriend or boyfriend. All self-loathing queers need to snap out of their funk is lukewarm tolerance from straight people! Undeterred by Sherlock’s indifferent denial of a relationship with anyone, John conducts similar interrogations of Sherlock’s other friends, but fails to draw any concrete conclusions on Sherlock’s romantic history or orientation.

[caption id="attachment_7233" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Mrs Hudson and John. Mrs Hudson and John.[/caption]

For someone who considers themselves to be so liberal towards others, John certainly has a lot of anxiety about his own sexuality. He reacts to every playful insinuation or misguided perception of his relationship with Sherlock with weary and sometimes angry defiance. When (spoiler alert) John informs their elderly roommate Mrs. Hudson that he’s met someone, she excitedly asks if it’s a man or woman, acting surprised when he informs her that he’s engaged to a woman. Growing impatient with her goodnatured skepticism, John irritably shouts, “I am not gay!” Insert laugh track here. This is why I can’t get behind any endorsement of bromance as the best mainstream queer tofu. Fuck the people who worship countless heterosexual male friendships as groundbreaking because they include a few zany domestic scenarios and the occasional double entendre. John’s sexuality is used and abused as the butt of the joke and he’s not even gay, which is somehow almost more insulting than if he were actually gay. The implication is that each reference to homoeroticism chips away at his manhood and slowly unravels his self-assurance, suggesting that no matter how progressive you claim to be in the abstract, to be queer is to be always anticipating humiliation. Moffat and Gatiss, we are well aware John is straight. Making him squirm for shits and giggles is unnecessary and juvenile. If you coyly stigmatize and degrade an identity to obsessively remind the audience everything that your characters are not, you wind up being just as exclusionary and discriminatory as shows that steer clear of queer subtext altogether.

[caption id="attachment_7239" align="aligncenter" width="300"]highfunctioningsociapath Sherlock deftly deflects mental health stigma.[/caption]

Of course, any discussion of queer baiting draws focus from the other elephant (not?) in the room: Sherlock’s probable asexuality. Sherlock himself proclaims that he is a “high functioning sociopath,” but his difficulty grasping social cues as well as his astronomical intelligence also parallel the traits of Asperger’s. John in particular links this supposed diagnosis to his peculiar absence of romantic interest. When John investigates the matter with Sherlock’s friends, he isn’t trying to determine if Sherlock has a preference for men or women, he’s trying to suss out whether or not Sherlock has the capacity to feel at all. I should acknowledge that the narrative has never concretely established Sherlock actually having a mental disability. Nonetheless, the message that disability and asexuality are linked is unfortunate in a number of ways.

This aspect of the show creates an ideological war within me. On one hand, the tired and apparently benign stereotype that disabled people fundamentally lack any sort of sexual impulses makes me want to rip my face off and feed it to hyenas. On the other hand, asexuality is a completely legitimate orientation that should be respected and the fact that Sherlock may or may not have Asperger’s is entirely coincidental. Don’t think too hard about it though! The fact that that Sherlock doesn’t want to get laid only comes into play to underscore his characterization as a freaky weirdo with adorably oblivious, borderline misanthropic tendencies. Sherlock’s asexuality ironically leaves open a wider array of pansexual opportunities in the minds of many viewers. By the laws of television, the absence of something (especially sex-related) must be alluding to the presence of something. His romantic apathy is so uniform and universal that you can make an argument to pair him with just about anyone. It’s nearly impossible in modern society to fathom anyone being completely devoid of sexual desire. Consequently, a lot of viewers choose to simply attribute this potential lack to Sherlock’s extreme social awkwardness. He may want someone, but his chronic inability to feel empathy could obscure what’s going on behind the mask.

[caption id="attachment_7234" align="aligncenter" width="250"]Sherlock kisses his friend Molly after realizing she has feelings for him. Sherlock kisses his friend Molly on the cheek after realizing she has feelings for him.[/caption]

To be fair, Sherlock does not deny accusations of loneliness and has rare moments with women that could be interpreted as ambiguously romantic. I don’t care who Sherlock ends up with or if he ends up with anyone at all. The point is that I wish that it would be portrayed as acceptable for Sherlock to be asexual even if that’s not the case. He doesn’t want to pursue anyone, so why should we perceive his choice as repressive denial? This assumed cat and mouse mysteriousness conveniently also influences viewers to judge femininity and female characters on their ability to properly facilitate traditional masculinity within Sherlock, ergo sexual activity. Sherlock doesn’t need to wait around for whoever is judged as sufficiently Manic Pixie Dream Girl enough to awaken his libido. His friendship with John illustrates that Sherlock can still be a compelling character with emotions and compassion and meaningful relationships without having a love interest. He doesn’t need to have a partner to satisfy cliché character development and growth arcs. He is fine on his own, especially if he wants to be that way.

[caption id="attachment_7237" align="aligncenter" width="246"]Sherlock and Molly kiss passionately. Sherlock and Molly kiss passionately.[/caption]

The writers have recently thrown the audience a few bones since we apparently can’t have a male lead without a few panty-dropping moments. (Spoiler alert) Much of the comedy during this series three premiere stems from the wild speculation as to how Sherlock faked his own suicide. One theory features Sherlock sharing a dramatic kiss with Molly, a lab assistant whose unrequited crush on Sherlock is regularly presented as pathetic and delusional. The other theory shows Sherlock sharing a giggle with his arch nemesis Jim Mortiary before suddenly leaning in for a kiss. It’s no accident that both accounts are initially established as actual events, revealed as fantasy sequences only when an outside character interjects and abruptly shatters the illusion.The person who proposes the homoerotic Sherlock/Mortiary hypothesis is a Gothic teenage girl addicted to social media, in a not-so-subtle lampoon of the yaoi fangirl stereotype. (A ballsy move in light of the predominantly female Johnlock fanbase.)

[caption id="attachment_7236" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Sherlock and Moriarty have a moment...at least according to some. Sherlock and Moriarty have a moment…at least according to some.[/caption]

Needless to say, the episode was fantastic. I always enjoy when creators are able to poke fun at their own material. However, as far as the messages it sends, I’m reluctant to fully embrace it. I’m a sucker for shows that boldly go meta, but the undertones of those silly fantasies are hard to ignore. The fact that Sherlock kisses people in both sequences feels too deliberate. It’s as if Sherlock’s capacity for intimacy is meant to be the moment where the audience recognizes this chain of events as absurdly implausible. But why? If we’re all supposed to be secretly rooting for Sherlock to blossom into a Lothario, why does it feel so laughably ridiculous? Further, gleefully dangling wish fulfillment to tease the question of Sherlock’s orientation mocks the perceived inadequacy of and frustration with its absence. Fueling the widespread conviction that Sherlock has to be lusting after someone deep down contributes to continued asexual erasure.

There are many great things about Sherlock. It’s far and away one of the strongest television series in recent years. Ultimately, that doesn’t make the show immune to valid social critique. For a franchise that capitalizes on and even structures itself around queerness, Sherlock is pretty damn queerphobic. To laud subtext as representation is lazy, but more importantly, a show that regularly invokes queerness as mean-spirited comedy shouldn’t be considered a milestone because it perpetuates discrimination and pats itself on the back to boot. Giving a minority a thumbs-up while winking at the status quo is just two-faced demographic pandering. If there’s a case that Sherlock needs to solve, it’s why we continue to confuse vaguely defined tolerence with progressivism.

5 Comments

  • qwert
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    While I understand your criticism, I am not sure I understand what it is aimed at. I never had the impression that the show tries to sell itself as “progressive” in any other way than being extremely stylish and smart in use of its technique (the editing etc). Furthermore, Sherlock Homes as a character by Conan Doyle has no romantic connection to anyone, not even famous Irene Adler, who wouldn’t even have made the iconic characters list (frankly, her case isn’t that exciting) if it weren’t for exactly that (apparently human) desire to pair him up with ANYONE. Doesn’t it seem as if even in the 1910s, people were keen to find him any kind of love interest, so they got stuck with Irene Adler because she’s the only one who’s ever – vaguely! – mentioned in that context? So, trying to be true to their material, the writers couldn’t possibly introduce a real love interest for Sherlock, whether they wanted it or not. What they do, however, is picking up on ALL the “meta” that surrounds the character of Sherlock Holmes. It must be fifteen years ago when I first read an article about “clandestine” mentions of homosexuality in old mainstream culture, the author arguing that Holmes and Watson must have been closeted gays. It’s sort of “common ground” to cite those two as possibly homosexual if only the contemporary morals back then hadn’t forbidden an open mention. I never quite understood that theory either, simply because – why, it might even be true, I don’t know, but why does a crime-solving story NEED characters with a sexual agenda? Has anybody ever speculated about Hercule Poirot and his Hastings? No? Why not, then? Because Poirot is an old man? Or because his sexual preferences are of absolutely no significance within the subject matter, i.e. cerebral crime-solving? And that’s exactly what Sherlock Holmes is about and has always been about. I don’t complain about the utter absence of murder and crime in Pride and Prejudice either, it’s just not the POINT of the whole thing!

    In a similar vein, I don’t quite understand your issue about “disability” and “asexuality”. What’s the one got to do with the other? Until reading this very article, I never heard anyone suggest that people with a disability, regardless of its nature, would also lack sexual desire. There is just no connection between these two matters. It seems as if you get it out of thin air so you can level it at the presentation of the character. Sure, Sherlock clearly has no easy time relating to other people. Does that make him “disabled”? I don’t think so. If a lack of social graces constituted actual disability, wow, you’d suddenly have a lot of cases on your hands. Sure, he’s extremely smart. Doesn’t make him an autist, as you well perceive when saying the show doesn’t answer the question either. But the show hasn’t INVENTED that question to begin with, it’s in the source material. Sherlock Holmes cannot really connect – but not because of any disability, but for sheer lack of interest. He CAN be charming if the need arises, he is able to adress others on the necessary/adequate/opportune level when he has to, but most of the time he cannot f***ing be bothered to do so. In so far, the show is very much in tune with Conan Doyle’s creation, and I think that is what the makers are trying to achieve in the first place – being true to their source material. The “rest” is a reflection on how both the canon and their own material is received by its audience. You are very right, a whole lot of people appear to crave some kind of romantic or sexual relationship for Sherlock, and they associate him to anybody pleasing their own imagination. They can do so very easily because there isn’t anything in the material contradicting their given fancy. And whyever not, if it makes them happy. But which serious scholar or author would base a socio-critical work, or thesis, on a crime/comedy show which makes no pretenses whatsoever that it was anything else but light-weight? Is Sherlock’s sexual orientation, or perhaps the complete lack of it, of any importance? Does the character need any label for his particular brand of un-socialness? If the writers actually labelled him as either gay, or asexual, or disabled, why, in that case I’d understand people who are gay or asexual or with the same disability to cry out and say “this is a gross misrepresentation of our sexuality/disability etc.” But there isn’t anything in there. It’s just not the point.

    If you were to have adressed the culture that cannot do without exactly that stereotypical labelling, a cultural context that feels the need to cite a show as shallow as Sherlock as a laudable example for presenting homosexuality (or whatever else) – I’d understand THAT issue. But on this point, you remain rather quiet.

  • darlincompanion
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I find johns reactions to be quite realistic. I dont think its uncommon for a man who is ok with other people being gay to at the same time not want people to think he himself is gay. And I too would probably be a bit annoyed if someone who I had told what my sexual orientation was constantly forgot or didnt believe me. If he would have been gay and she constantly thought he was straight, we would think very differently of it.
    I also think the show does a great thing in not revealing anything when it comes to sherlocks orientation and disability. I like that they joke with their own fanbase in the need for finding out who he will end up with.

  • Heather Lodge
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I have to disagree on the queerphobia. I truly see the (admittedly overdone) trope of mistaken assumption/emotional denial surrounding John as a pretty basic comedy-of-errors trope, and just because it involves a matter of sexual identity, I don’t feel that it casts any aspersion on the denied identifier.

    If I may jump fandoms in the hopes of drawing an easy analogy, I see this as being played much like the Martian banter in Doctor Who’s *Runaway Bride*. Is it offensive to be considered Martian? Not necessarily. Would his status as either Martian or non-Martian in any way affect any of the character interactions? No. So therefore, this mistaken assumption does not objectively matter. The human character knowing, understanding, or acknowledging the title character’s true nature in no way impacts the events. However, he still finds himself stammering over and over, “But…I’m not Martian!”. At first, it’s a correction. Later, it’s an annoyance. *Because he already made the correction and it was ignored/forgotten.* Eventually the audience is treated to a fourth-wall-approaching eye roll and shrug, where he resigns himself to “oh well, so she’s going to call me a Martian–now let me get on with things.” We see this sort of thing echoed, and played upon heavily, once the Donna character becomes a companion, as both characters constantly find themselves clarifying that they are not a couple. Does it matter? Not in most situations. Would it be offensive? Not at all. And here comes my point, and I promise to make it with actual Sherlock references now. 😉

    It’s a bit less light and shrug-off-able in Sherlock, which is a less comedic show. So we get the human annoyance only slightly tempered by patience, but that patience is worn thin with repetition. In earlier episodes, John shrugs off the comments and assumptions, because he realizes that it’s a pretty natural assumption, just a wrong one. But as time goes on…as more people continue to assume this wrong thing…and especially as the same people refuse to hear/internalize/understand his clarification (Mrs. Hudson has certainly not let go of that bone), he grows weary. The difference is, he’s no longer content to just figure, “it doesn’t matter”. In the emotional part of his mind, he is constantly barraged by multiple people making the same erroneous assumption about who he is, and it can start to eat at a person’s self-image. Not because being gay is bad. But because, how many times can you explain a thing about yourself before people actually see you for how you are. Before you are important enough for them to care about the details of YOU, and getting them right.

    I’m brunette. If someone called me blonde, I would be puzzled the first time. Bemused. Because it seems pretty obvious to me that I’m not blonde. I don’t hate blondes. If I were blonde, it would not affect the way I see myself or the way I interact with the world. But the fact remains that it is not an accurate descriptor for me. Now, if I were subjected to years of this mistaken assumption. If unrelated people commented on my blondeness, if familiar people continued to insist that I were blonde despite my insistence that I was most definitely brunette, my emotional state would slip from patience to annoyance and most likely to irrational anger and defensiveness. Not because it is wrong. Not because it affects my self image. But mostly, and quite simply, because it can be extremely frustrating and isolating to *not be heard*, to be *misunderstood*. Even if the erroneous assumption is benign. Even if in the grand scheme of things, it changes nothing. It’s still “something about me that people don’t value enough to try to be accurate about”.

    I do think that we’ve seen this progression with John. I think that initially, he shrugs it off, but by Season 3, his patience is wearing thin and his attitude is a combination of “haven’t we BEEN through this already?” and “how can you not know me better by now?”. And once a person is bristling over a touchy subject, it’s quite common for them to have that reaction even with a new player. Try having one child ask you a question countless times and then a different child asks the same question. You might just be human if you snap at the second child. 😉

    Okay, I’ve talked myself in enough circles. For your consideration. I don’t think that any denial of being queer is *necessarily* based in hostility toward queer folk.

  • MotherGinger
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I think that perhaps at the root of one aspect of your consternation is that you perceive Asperger’s to be a “mental disability.”

  • Erin Elisabeth Byrne
    Posted September 23, 2015 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I always thought Watson in the books was bisexual, given the way he admiringly describes the physical forms of both men and women. John’s constant outbursts that he’s not gay in Sherlock borders on bisexual erasure and is very homophobic (people thinking you’re gay is not an insult and taking insult to it is, well, insulting) and strange, given that Mark Gatiss is gay.

    As for the asexuality issue, Steven Moffat outright said that Sherlock isn’t asexual because “that would be boring.” So instead he forces romantic/sexual tension between Sherlock and female characters (Molly, Irene Adler, and later Mary’s friend) and treats any possible romantic/sexual tension between Sherlock and any male character – Moriarty, John – as a complete joke. Because an asexual Sherlock would be boring, but the idea of a homosexual Sherlock is laughably ridiculous.

    The constant sociopath gag is a horrible ableist joke. That’s the only way it’s ever presented – as a joke. Isn’t it funny that he’s a sociopath? Because sociopathy is stigmatized they consider it okay to make a joke out of. Having Sherlock say he’s autistic and having that be a joke would be too blatant, so they stick to something “less insulting” even though the comparison between autism (how Sherlock acts) and sociopathy (how Sherlock describes himself) itself is insulting.

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