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I'm not a fan of Sherlock. The show has clever references and is visually well-crafted, but Watson's Throwing Off the Disability in the first episode turned me off big time and I have seen little from subsequent, passing views that there is anything there to interest me.

Nevertheless, when my visiting mother-in-law wanted us to watch The Abominable Bride special I went along with it. Well actually I was like, "Wait, how about Suffragette?" at the last minute but my husband had paid the VOD system by then, so The Abominable Bride it was. Besides, it turned out that our subscription doesn't carry Sufragette anyway.


The bare-bones of the plot is as follows: In a Sherlock feature-length special set in the original Victorian England of the Sherlock Holmes stories, a woman named Emilia Ricoletti publicly committs suicide in her wedding gown only to apparently rise from the dead to murder her husband and stalk another potential victim. The murders turn out to be revenge for past wrongs that the men committed against her, and are portrayed as feminist in nature with references to the women's suffrage movement.

You might have read about Sherlock mansplaining feminism to women in this special. Yeah, the scene of the reveal is deeply problematic, with rows of women who had helped Emilia in her murderous quest wearing what look like purple KKK outfits. It was even worse than I thought it would be, actually, with the women standing like docile props for Sherlock's explanation of their motives, removing their pointy purple hoods on cue and staying silent until addressed by him.

That's not the part that turned me off the most about The Abominable Bride, though. Sherlock is called out on how contrived and melodramatic this scene is, and one of the twists is that the whole thing happened in his head anyway. It's just the kind of thing someone as deeply self-centered and self-aggrandizing as Sherlock would have created for himself, to make the systematic marginalization of women all about himself.

What bothered me was that the story itself treated Emilia Ricoletti's suffering and women's responses to it as props and nothing more, entirely secondary to Sherlock's friendship with Watson and his ongoing feud with Moriarty. Subpar as that scene equating feminism with murder and using feminists as stage props for Sherlock's mansplanation was, it is also the last true mention the issue gets as Sherlock dips toward the climax and finale between present-day reality and his drug-induced mental construct of nineteenth-century England, playing out his conflicts with Watson and Moriarty.

So not only is The Abominable Bride's construction of gendered abuse against women and feminism as a response to it distorted beyond recognition, in the logic of the story it is not even real. It's just fuel for an imaginary adventure to bring Sherlock closer to his buddy and play out his ongoing drama with his nemesis, which are what the story is really about.

Even aside from the worn-out cliché of dismissing a plot as "it's all a dream," the story in the end places issues of gendered violence and calls for justice in the distant background while foregrounding the crises and relationships of men, using the former as a stage and props to highlight the latter. That's the good old male gaze at work, making women's issues about men and giving lip service to the oppression of women ("this is a war we must lose") before brushing it aside for the real story: the story of men.

The Abominable Bride left me fairly confirmed in my opinions. (Which is what experience usually does to opinions anyway.) Sherlock is a slick, smart show that draws a lot of drama from the relationships between its well-defined principal characters. It doesn't go much deeper than that, though. This holiday special, like the show itself, doesn't have much in the way of self-awareness or moral authority, and that in a nutshell is why Sherlock doesn't interest me.
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L.J. Lee

June 2016

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