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"the whole sex at his mercy" [ILLU]

The original Sherlock Holmes stories have been noted as examples of unbridled masculine friendship, in that one of the appeals of the series is the close friendship depicted between two men. Of course, one question that has come up again and again is, was it just a friendship? Was Holmes truly not interested in the fairer sex? Was Watson the lady's man Doyle described? As the years have gone by, these questions have been explored in many texts, some depicting Holmes as a homosexual, some having both Holmes and Watson in  a loving relationship, others have both men taking lovers, some even have Holmes getting married.

As Dr. Ann McClellan has shown in her essay Redefining genderswap fan fiction, a Sherlock  case study, regardless of the characters' sexual preferences, the characters do take on the roles of both genders on occasion, particularly in the series Sherlock and the new fanfiction which has arisen about the series. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. McClellan in the town of Plymouth, New Hampshire where she is the English Department Chair of Plymouth State University.

I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: What is genderswap and how does it relate to Sherlock Holmes, particularly the series Sherlock?

Ann McClellan: Genderswap is actually quite a complicated term. In fandom, it means stories in which the main characters (or subsidiary characters) change gender from male to female, or female to male. At minimum, one character changes gender, but there are some stories where the authors swap all of the characters’ genders. The term itself is problematic for anyone who studies gender theory, however, because what most of these stories are actually describing is ‘sexswap’—i.e., a character who changes biological sex. But for some reason (perhaps because of the more frequently understood definition of sex as sexual intercourse), most stories do not use this term.

Sexswap or genderswap often goes beyond biological sex changes as well. Many writers play around with stereotypical gendered behaviors (masculine and feminine) and their association with a particular sex. For instance, you could have a biologically sexed female character, like a female Sherlock, who is identified by her logic and reasoning, lack of emotion, and interest in science—all of which, culturally, have been associated with masculinity and masculine behavior. Or, you could have a male John Watson who is nurturing, a homemaker, etc., which some could argue is exhibiting traditionally feminine characteristics. As you can see, it all gets pretty thorny very quickly!

When it comes to Sherlock fan fiction, genderswap is a relatively minor subgenre within the thousands of fics published on the web; however, I believe many fans are drawn to it because (a) Sherlock Holmes is such a famous, iconic male heroic character, and (b) he seems to embody many of the most traditional cis masculine behaviors and characteristics (emphasis on logic, rejects emotion, interested in science and the law, lacks close emotional relationships [other than Watson], exists somewhat outside the bounds of law and society, etc.). Many of the blogs and fans I researched thought there wasn’t a female equivalent of that in Western literature or media, and they didn’t want an approximate of Sherlock Holmes: they wanted a female Sherlock Holmes.

IHOSE: In your article, you explain how both Holmes and Watson in Sherlock both "embody stereotypical masculine and feminine gender behaviors simultaneously within male sexed bodies." Can you give specific examples when this occurs? Also, is this unique to the series or do you feel this also occurs in the original canon?

AM: There are a few specific behaviors and scenes that come to mind. In regards to Watson, I always think about that opening scene in "The Blind Banker," when John is off at the grocery buying food—we are led to assume—for the household, while Sherlock is at home fighting the baddy. When John comes back and complains that Sherlock hasn’t moved all day, he notices their kitchen table has a new scratch in it and he tssks at Sherlock for not taking care of their things. That, to me, stood out as two stereotypically, related feminine behaviors: doing the shopping and minding the furniture. This gets picked up over and over in the fanfiction with John making tea all of the time, doing the washing up, buying groceries, etc. while Sherlock is responsible for bringing excitement in their lives. At the same time, of course, John is shown to be a highly effective bodyguard and a violent man—typically masculine traits.

Sherlock isn’t immune to feminization, either. He is clearly clothes obsessed and is often fussing with his hair, ruffling his fingers through his curls and looking at himself in the mirror—which, some would argue, is a stereotypically feminine obsession with his appearance. We can also comment on his sulks on the couch, like in the beginning of “The Great Game” episode, and his snark, both of which could be described as feminine.

Is this unique to Sherlock? I would say no. Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes was delightfully snarky and peevish; Brett was a masterful television actor and used very slight facial expressions and gestures to indicate huge ranges of thought and feeling, which were delightful. One could also argue that Robert Stephens’ Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was similarly feminized, but that seems a bit trickier since so much of the premise of that film is about whether or not Holmes is gay.

Of course, in the original canon, Watson gets on Holmes's case for his health and for his cleanliness, which are, as I said, stereotypical feminine traits.  Doyle breaks so many rules in his writing.  There are no backgrounds to his characters which makes it easy to start questioning the characters' relationships and their behaviors.

IHOSE: You mention the fact that Sherlock has been criticized for its lack of female characters and perceived misogyny, yet the series has a large female fanbase. What do you see as the appeal to the female fans, beyond Benedict Cumberbatch?

AM: That is a great question. I think there are several things about the show that appeal to a female fan base. First, it’s not a simple mystery or detective show that focuses solely on the crime solving elements; rather, it seems more invested in character development and the relationships between characters, no matter how subtly drawn. Second, it’s a highly stylized show with brilliant cinematography, lighting, and innovative camera developments that engage the senses and makes for a visually, as well as intellectually, stimulating show. I know, personally, I was immediately intrigued with how the show was shot as well as how it was written. And lastly, I think it’s very clever. As Moffat and Gatiss themselves often say in interviews, they don’t write down to their audience. The dialogue, action, and scenes are very fast-paced and technologically driven; it’s challenging to follow Sherlock’s deductions. He doesn’t slow down for the audience so you have to work hard to keep up. I think all of those elements combine to make a smart show that smart people like, especially women.

I guess I would add one more caveat: a lot of women love the relationship between Sherlock and John and really enjoy the sexual tension between the two actors. There have been a lot of arguments online about whether the show is ‘queer baiting’ the audience—that is, leading the audience into thinking that Sherlock and John have erotic or romantic feelings for one another when they have no intention of going in this direction. Moffat, Gatiss, and the entire cast have gone back and forth on Sherlock’s sexuality, whether the two characters are attracted to one another, both denying and admitting as much in different interviews. What we can’t deny is that they talk about Sherlock and John’s feelings for one another and raise questions about what kind of feelings these are in virtually every episode. Virtually every other character on the show thinks or has hinted that the two have romantic feelings for one another. I think this intrigue is something that drives a lot of female fans, too.

IHOSE: Towards the conclusion of your essay, you mention that while gender identity is fluid in Sherlock, you only found one example of fan fiction which actually shows Sherlock Holmes physically changing his body and becoming a woman. Why do you think this fan fiction genre is rare? Do you think this subgenre will increase over time?

AM: To clarify, I was talking about a transgendered Sherlock—that is, one who has taken cultural and possibly medical steps to change her sexual and gender identity from female to male. My article was published over a year ago, so there may well be more transgender Sherlocks now in fanfiction, but at the time of my research I had found only one. I expect, with the recent media coverage of transgender issues in the U.S. media that there are probably more transgender fics published now than there was a year or so ago. I can’t answer for any of the authors who choose to write fanfic as to why they write a specific kind, or why they might write a Fem!Sherlock but not a transgender Sherlock.

I can speculate that, at the time, probably fewer fanfic authors were very knowledgeable about transgender people, politics, etc. so they might not be as comfortable writing a fic about this particular kind of identity. On the one hand, I could argue that not making Sherlock transgender but just Fem!Sherlock raises a lot more questions about the relationships between sex and gender than somehow re-aligning Sherlock’s biology with her gendered behaviors. If Fem!Sherlock identifies as male and exhibits masculine characteristics (i.e., acts like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock on the show) and then changes her sex to male, doesn’t this seem to reinforce those behaviors as masculine and therefore ‘appropriate’ to a male body?

Many of the Fem!Sherlock fics I read expressed a lot of anxiety and even disgust about the female body; many of the characters didn’t want to be seen as female because it somehow made them less in the other characters’ eyes. By taking that female Sherlock and turning her back into a man, one could argue, one is re-affirming stereotypical gender roles that men are logical, scientific, and reasonable—that these traits don’t fit a female body. Now, I’m not saying this is true for transgender people at all. I think sex and gender are much more complicated than simply assigning certain behaviors to specific body parts. This is why I’m so fascinated with genderswap fanfiction—because it challenges what we culturally assume about gender and sexual identity.

IHOSE: On a slightly different note, you recently gave a talk about the popularity of Sherlock Holmes at a local library. What are some of the reasons as to why Holmes is the world's most popular fictional character?

AM: Yes, I give talks throughout the state through a wonderful organization called the NH Humanities Council on the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. I think Sherlock’s longevity and popularity come from a range of specific characteristics: the cultural milieu in which he was created (the prestige of the British empire in late 19th century England, the 1884 Education Act providing federally funded education to all children between the ages of 5-11—just a few years before Doyle started publishing the Holmes stories, the rise of affordable magazine publishing which made disposable magazine publishing in reach for many working and middle class homes, Doyle’s invention of the series genre); the public’s engagement with Holmes throughout the past century (we look at the public reaction to his reported death in “The Final Problem” and the faux obituaries that rose up and compare it to the “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” global phenomenon in 2012) and how they immediately treated him like a real historic figure.

We then talk about how Holmes is grounded in a real physical place (221B Baker Street) which gives a verisimilitude to the fictional world not found with any other literary character in history. I also then talk about a concept introduced by scholar Matt Hills, detachability. Hills argues that cult films have scenes, phrases, and feelings that can be lifted out and used in everyday life and experiences. So much of what the public knows about Holmes—his deerstalker hat, his meerschaum pipe, his inverness cloak, the catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”—of course, do not come from any of the original 60 stories. Rather, they have been picked up through different media over the past century and attached to Holmes’ identity. The Sherlock Holmes we all know worldwide today is, in fact, not the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle but rather a modern media invention. Sherlock Holmes has been detached from his fictional Victorian world and has become a part of modern media history and culture, so that we can’t even trace back the origins of his identity. It’s fascinating.

IHOSE: The question we ask all Sherlockians. If you were stranded on a desert island with just one Sherlock Holmes story, which would it be and why?

AM: Ugh, that is such a hard question. For length, I would pick The Sign of Four because it has so many wonderful Sherlockian elements—drug use, murdering pygmies, Indian history. However, it’s not perfect; Doyle gets caught up in figuring out how to get Jonathan Small’s story out and the second half is full of way too much exposition. If I had to pick a short one it would be “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” It has so many of my favorite elements: domestic battles between Holmes and Watson, Holmes in disguise, the underbelly of London’s opium drug dens contrasted with the idyllic (and frightening to Holmes) countryside, mistaken identity, and some fantastically interesting assumptions about class, identity, work, the East. It’s really wonderfully rich.

IHOSE: What are your upcoming projects?

AM: I’m completing a book on world building in Sherlock fan fiction which analyses how fans (re)write, expand, and challenge the fictional world of the BBC’s Sherlock. Primarily focusing on fan fiction, the book looks at how fans explore facets of setting, character, genre, and the boundaries between fictional and real worlds.

Ann McClellan is Professor of Twentieth Century British Literature and English Department Chair at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire, USA. She is the author of How British Women Writers Transformed the Campus Novel (2012) as well as numerous national and international articles on nineteenth and twentieth century British women's literature, Sherlock Holmes, and fan fiction. She is currently working on a monograph on world building in Sherlock.