Our culture has a Sherlock problem; you might even call it an addiction. We just can’t get enough of the straight white man who is smarter than everyone else in the room, and whose genius is often used to excuse his blatant assholery, pardon my French. Adaptations of varying proximity clutter our present cultural landscape, and their proliferation, I think deserves criticism on a couple of counts. First, because we have not yet managed to get past the maintenance of this iconic character as straight, white and male (SWM). Second, because I suspect his current appeal is highly related to the catharsis he provides other SWM around the ‘burden’ of being “PC”.
Before we go any further let’s just do a quick rundown of all the Sherlock send-ups popular culture has regurgitated in the last 15ish years:
Adrian Monk of the belated, long-running USA series Monk.
Shawn Spencer of USA’s recently ended 8-season Psych.
Gregory House of FOX’s belated 8-season House M.D.
Patrick Jane of CBS’s on-going The Mentalist (also in its 8th season, currently)
Walter Sherman of the very shorted-lived FOX show The Finder.
Cal Lightman of the 3-season FOX procedural Lie to Me.
Daniel Pierce of TNT’s recently canceled 3-year series Perception.
And then of course there are the more direct, nominal adaptations including the BBC’s wildly successful modern-day Sherlock series.
CBS’s Elementary, still going strong in its 3rd season.
The Robert Downey Jr. film series, which boasts two successful blockbusters and a third in development.
Not to mention Mr. Holmes, the upcoming adaptation staring Ian McKellen as an aging, Alzheimer’s-ridden Sherlock Holmes.
Our Hero Sherlock, Our Sidekick Watson
A quick glance affirms that in all of these adaptations, the primary “Sherlock” character is an ostensibly straight white man. In fact, I do not know of a single modern mainstream adaptation of this character that has him played by a person of color, a woman, or that has made him overtly, canonically queer. (This is an especially frustrating omission, as the relationship between Holmes and Watson is often cited as a primary example of blatant homoeroticism in English literature) Frequently the Watson role is used to check the ‘diversity box’ in these adaptations, particularly around race and gender. With the exception of the RDJ films, the BBC series and House MD, all of these shows have either a man of color or a woman (usually white) filling the primary “Watson” role. This pattern is typical of mainstream media more generally, which tends to give lead roles to SWM and “side-kick” roles to women, POC and LGBTQ folks.
However, aside from maintaining just the Lead/Sidekick hierarchy here – problematic enough on its own – the perpetuation of this dynamic also maintains the historical coding of genius, intelligence and ‘special insight’ as the purview of white hetero men. Although the original Watson was also a white straight man, his role has a lot of traditional codings that adapt easily to fit modern stereotypical roles for women and POC – the status as helpmate (read ‘wife’), provider of emotional support and guidance to the emotions of others, always adapting and conceding to the needs, whims and eccentricities of the precious, precious genius without hardly any reciprocity, or appreciation, etc. Put simply, Watson is the giver in the relationship, Sherlock is the taker, and this general dynamic maintains strongly the notion that women and POC exist to be in ‘service’ to important white men.
Addiction, Disability and the Schrodinger’s Cat of Sherlock’s Asperger’s
Disability, however, is a complicating factor here. Although the original Canon Doyle books did not make Sherlock disabled in the traditional sense, he was an addict, as are many of his contemporary iterations. Gregory House, for example, was both physically disabled by a leg infarction and became a Vicodin addict due to his chronic leg pain. Elementary’s Sherlock is a recovering addict who gets paired up with his Watson precisely when she becomes his live-in recovery sponsor. Many of the other Sherlock send-ups we’ve seen have had mental disorders of various kinds – Adrian Monk famously had OCD brought on by a traumatic event, Perception’s Daniel Pierce was schizophrenic, the BBC Sherlock is famously self-characterized as a “high-functioning sociopath.” Both Walter Sherman of The Finder and Patrick Jane of The Mentalist also experience traumatic events that lead them to have intense mental and emotional difficulties.
The relationship between Sherlock characters and their disabilities is quite complicated, and admittedly they vary rather widely from adaptation to adaptation. But the dynamic of Sherlock-as-addict is often portrayed to some degree as an outcropping of his genius; his emotional isolation from the mediocre masses is what drives him towards substance abuse as a coping mechanism, reiterating the notion that being a SWM genius is a special burden for which we ought to have endless sympathy.
My point is not so much that we should not be sympathetic to those with addiction, which is an illness and ought to be understood as such. My point is more, which addicts do we have cultural sympathy for and how does being a SWM genius automatically make you more worthy of that sympathy, than being, for example, a working class woman of color who is a single mother and a high-school dropout? Sherlock characters frequently are emblematic of what it means to be a highly privileged addict and the treatment of their addictions are often characterized by endless institutional accommodation and understanding, which is disproportionately afforded to them because they belong to an elite, overly-valued social group.
Additionally, many of these adaptations portray these men’s genius as being directly related in some way to their mental disorders, sometimes as a cause of it, sometimes a by-product, and sometimes as a thing they must overcome to make full use of their intellectual gifts. Although it is true that some mental disabilities and disorders are correlated with higher IQ or relatively unique thought patterns and intellectual capacities, it is extremely problematic to be treating mental disabilities as if they are rare natural-resources to be mined for public benefit. And disability scholars and activists have long protested the ‘inspiration porn’ narrative of the disabled person who heroically overcomes their disability to succeed or achieve greatness, which is a pattern Sherlock narratives can also conform to from time to time.
Lastly on the point of disability, Sherlock characters also often display symptoms of being high-functioning autistics. Whether Sherlock Holmes was an “Aspie” or not is a bone of contention that cannot ever be unilaterally resolved because he is a fictional character and not a real person on whom a formal diagnosis could ever be performed. However, that theory remains a popular interpretation amongst a fair number of fans, and varying adaptations following the Canon Doyle text have also included evidence that he might be. In episode 3.04 of House MD (“Lines in the Sand”) Wilson and Cuddy actually have a debate about whether or not House potentially has Asperger’s. The conversation is prompted by the fact that House’s patient of the week has severe Autism and can’t communicate his symptoms as a typical patient would. House articulates envy for the patient at one point, desiring his exculpation from social norms and niceties because of his mental disability. Cuddy in the end refutes Wilson’s contention by saying “House doesn’t have Asperger’s…he’s a jerk.”
This line perfectly encapsulates the difficult dilemma of how to issue judgment of Holmes-eque characters, especially in their frequent propensity to insult others and remain indifferent to norms of politeness or social sensitivity. The question fundamentally is this: can this behavior be explained by a genuine inability to understand when he is being rude or insensitive (a common symptom of being Autistic)? OR, is he just choosing to dismiss and walk all over the feelings of others because he simply does not care? Again, each adaptation is going to approach the issue differently and I think that either possibility is valid. But I would argue that if an adaptation is going to place him on the Autism spectrum, they need to do so explicitly, both for the sake of explicit representation, but also for the sake of distinguishing which versions of this character insult others inadvertently, and which are making a conscious choice to be obnoxious. This question leads me to my final point.
Backstrom and Anti-PC Politics
A couple weeks ago, FOX premiered the latest in a long line of these Sherlock adaptations with the show Backstrom. It is a crime procedural whose titular character is a sloppy, middle-aged white male detective, played by Rainn Wilson (The Office US); he is crass, rude and offensive, but his insights are apparently too invaluable to the local police department to be dispensed with, despite his horrendous lack of professionalism and his unapologetic racism and sexism. Despite the range of grotesquely offensive statements he reels off during the Pilot, one of the characters still earnestly argues “I believe Backstrom lives intensely in the moment, on a higher plane of existence from which he is able to hear the universe speak.” Riiiiight….
Technically the show is an adaptation of a book series by the same name (as was The Finder, incidentally), but the character is clearly a Sherlock knock-off. This ever-elongating list of send-ups should be reaching a critical mass by this point, and to be sure, not all of the aforementioned adaptations have been equally successful. Nevertheless, our cultural appetite for this general fare has remained remarkably stable and it is worth asking what it is about this stock character that holds such seemingly endless appeal.
Personally, I suspect the continuing cultural appetite for this character has largely to do with their ability, particularly as straight white men, to be given a pass on being “politically correct” because of their intelligence. In other words, these characters often cater to a particular fantasy common amongst straight white men of being able to be blatantly, openly, egregiously sexist, racist, homophobic, not to mention just plain rude, and get away with it. Moreover, these narratives frequently suggest the protagonist’s rudeness and abrasive manner is a ‘defense mechanism’ because they are actually emotionally damaged and chronically lonely. So, not only are we supposed to expect and accept this behavior from these types of men, but on top of it, we are supposed to use this behavior as evidence that they are damaged and we should feel sorry for them. Underneath it all, they are the real victims here, both of our overly PC culture and of their own isolation, brought on by the burden of their genius. The politics of this general scenario are questionable, to say the very least.
Recently, the ‘burden’ of having to be PC has become a target of societal criticism, not only from fedora-wearing MRAs and Meninists on the internet, to say nothing of right-wing law-makers, but also of fairly left-wing voices too. Well-known academic queer theorist Judith Halberstam penned a diatribe about it this past summer, and Jonathan Chait, a liberal media commentator of some stature, just published a New York Magazine Op-Ed complaining that “The Language Police are Perverting Liberalism.” (Dr. Brittney Cooper’s excellent response to Chait at Salon is worth a read, if you are so inclined).
And I think this debate is actually worthwhile to the extent that I would agree not every claim about slurs or triggers or -isms is by default accurate or valid. I think reasonable people can have disagreements about whether a particular term is PC, or whether certain jokes are off-limits or whatever. But the complaint that we should have to worry about that sort of thing at all is not a reasonable one, in my opinion. We should have to care about being respectful and humane and “politically correct” to others, both on an individual/personal level and on a societal/group level. That is a ‘burden’ that it is perfectly reasonable to ask all people to live under, including straight white men.
Granted, not all Sherlock adaptations fall into the trap of trying to excuse this type of behavior. Perception and Psych completely by-passed the Sherlock as insensitive jerk trope, while shows like Elementary and The Mentalist are to some degree about painting that inclination as a primary flaw the main character must overcome. However, it is worth asking to what extent any adaptation of this character is about catering to the fantasy in straight white men that inflated intelligence should come with a license to be a selfish, rude man-child. Backstrom, so far, has been extremely guilty of this.
In an era where straight white men are ceasing to be treated as special snowflakes of superlative importance by default, Sherlock characters work to retain that fantasy through the added element of hyperbolic intelligence. Being a genius allows one to maintain that longed-for and quickly eroding special place in the social hierarchy where one does not have to be concerned by things as trivial as the feelings of others. As much as I personally love Sherlock Holmes stories and adaptations — and I do — I think it is time for us to seriously interrogate the desirability of these narratives and the basis upon which their current appeal truly resides…both to aggrieved straight white men, and to slash communities who, despite a high degree of self-awareness, still take the bait more often than not.