Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Sherlock?

I'm sitting in a Dunn Brothers coffee shop, listing to Earth, Wind, and Fire's "September" playing over their satellite radio (I don't care that it's practically December; "September" is a song that demands to be played anytime, every time) and contemplating how exactly to go about tying things together in my senior paper. While this picture was taken several months ago in my apartment, the process looks a little something like this:

The process isn't hard; actually, it's the most fun I've ever had writing a paper. The problem is that I have so much to say, so much to tie in, I find myself leaping from one idea to the next without completely illuminating how they tie together because my brain seems to be moving faster than my fingers across the keyboard and I find myself stopping and thinking, "Wait, where was I going with this point?"

But at the moment, I'm in the midst of writing about why Sherlock is the focus of my paper, instead of perhaps a larger fandom like Doctor Who or a multifaceted one like The Avengers. I could choose any of these to express my point. But Sherlock serves the best. Why? Because Sherlock Holmes is a cyborg.
Let me parse this out. In the book Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (the book I happen to be trying to hide under in the photo above) a wonderful essay by Francesca Coppa called "Sherlock as Cyborg" states this more definitely and eloquently than I can in this spur of the moment post. Simplistically, Sherlock represents the struggle between the mind and body we've come to know as the Cartesian split, due to his "highly iconic physical body rushing around London" and his "disembodied cognitive self which hurtles across the web in search of links and information" (Coppa 211). If you're thinking of Spock or Data right now, bingo - exactly. His lack of interest in the physical (not eating, having little interest in physical relationships) and focus on the mental (the emphasis on the importance of his mind, the need to keep knowledge particularly arranged like the hard drive of a computer) represents the Greek ideal of transcending the body (Coppa 212). This has a great resonance with female viewers because society is constantly expressing to young women that they must over come their physical desires and become something else. If I had my Susan Bordo books with me I'd find you a wonderful quote that expresses just this but I left them at home and am now kicking myself for it, so paraphrasing will have to do. Bordo describes in Unbearable Weight how anorexia may stem from the need for control or agency over one's body and that starving one's self becomes a way of gaining control over a body gone rouge that is constantly hungry and yearning for something. This is a gross simplification of Bordo's argument, but highlights that this is not an argument for anorexia or a way of seeing it in a positive light but a way of better understanding what is at work when a woman becomes anorexic and how much society influences this disorder. Another way of thinking about the mind-body conflict in women is thinking about how women are told not to think about their physical desires (think about the hypocrisy in how men can talk about sex versus women, or how women are the ones shown having little appetite while men are offered "Hungry Man" frozen dinners in advertisements) and yet also are criticized for having high mental ability. This double bind between mind and body are not limited to women; think about how gay men and women are told to think about their bodies, versus those who identify as asexual, transsexual, bisexual, etc.
Sherlock Holmes, however, allows fans to "renegotiate and integrate these binaries in new ways for themselves" (Coppa 218). Sherlock gets pleasure from doing mental tasks and forms a powerful relationship with John Watson that (as of yet) shows no physical side, perhaps allowing for the idea that Sherlock is a romantic asexual. Sherlock is capable of both demanding physical tasks (I can tell you right now if you asked me to sprint through London after a taxi in the late evening I'd probably fall down a sewer and break my ankle) and difficult brain work (world's greatest detective, he most certainly is). In a society that emphasize only physical pleasure or only mental prowess yet is satisfied with neither, Sherlock represents an attempt at something else, something different. And for viewers who happen to be in their formative years (15-25 or so) and/or may be struggling with their own identity, Sherlock provides a different way of dealing with identification, a formation still in progress that questions the standard notions of binaries and perhaps develops a space for something beyond what is defined as the traditional way of defining oneself. In this way, Sherlock sounds a lot like Tumblr itself - a space for redefining oneself, questioning and puzzling about the world, and forming a different mode of identification. That's my argument at least.

With this very quick scribbled musing, I'd very much like to hear what other Sherlock fans think of this argument. Does this sound like a valid claim? Do you identify with Sherlock's mind-body conflict or perhaps the constant questioning of John's identity? Does Sherlock perhaps work a little differently than shows like Doctor Who because queerness and identity are integral to the plots and themes? I'd love to hear what others think as I try to integrate these motifs into my paper and to make sure that other fans see this too. I've got a fairly good argument for all of this paper-wise but I think I'd feel more assured if I heard agreement from fans personally that this seems reasonable.


  1. I think that's a very solid argument. Sherlock provides a different grounds for young people to express themselves, and as Irene so aptly pointed out, "brainy is the new sexy." Sure, the fandom has made JohnLock as sexual as possible, but the focus of the show is so far from sex, it could identify as asexual. By leaving the sexual element (so far) out of the show, the door to the mind has been opened, and has taken the foreground as an effect of the show. (If that made sense. I'm not as eloquent with words as you are.) So basically, once again, you've stated my exact opinion about something. Good on ya, Gina! :)

  2. This is less about the post above and more about feminism in general... I had a very short discussion last night about feminism with someone and you're the only person I could think might be at all interested. It was infuriating and I had to block the guy before I started ranting at him (I should have been in bed and I could have written an essay in response). How can you possibly say to someone's face "we're not equal"!?

    But re: Sherlock... I think your reasons why women might identity with Sherlock works for a lot of men as well. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous, brilliant men in literature (and like you said, good physically as well with the running and boxing etc). But when boys watch Sherlock, they're not seeing the sort of "brilliant man" that society's told them people want. He's lean rather than big, bulky and muscular. He spends his time thinking rather than jumping in all guns blazing. He's not obsessed with money, fame, sleeping with as many women as possible etc. And obviously they see that a lot of women are attracted to Sherlock. So I think it's a show that allows men to reassess themselves regarding the way society says they should be in order to be a man (I'm sort of thinking this relating to your article on People's sexiest man). And also everything else you said sounds very good as well :D

    1. Kudos for blocking the guy instead of ranting; I probably would have gone the ranting route and regretted it by getting no sleep and getting very, very angry. "The scientific fact that men and women are very different?" Where is he getting his science? Grr...

      I 100% agree with you about Sherlock being a different sort of male role model. I was actually just thinking about something like this the other day, especially with Sherlock's comment, "Heroes don't exist and if they did, I wouldn't be one." Sherlock doesn't think of himself as a hero, doesn't act like a traditional hero, and is more of an anti-hero or Byronic hero, especially in appearance. He does provide an outlet for a different representation of masculinity and a different way for men to look at themselves. Thank you so much for mentioning this!

  3. I'm thinking that a lot of this ties into your 'slash' piece a while back: spaces outside the systems, outside the hegemonic constraints. Queer spaces. Safe spaces. Alternative spaces. Can't help thinking how Sherlock's cerebral, dis-em-bodied self is appealing: look at all the stuff he doesn't have to deal with.

    A case for NOT. For absences. For denial. For refusal.

    1. Brilliant insight as always, Robin. Definitely needs a mention in the old paper. :)