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Laurie Penny on the BBC's Sherlock: I'm tired of stories about clever white men and how special they are

We need to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.

School's out in Westminster and there's nothing good on telly, so everybody seems to be talking about Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the BBC. And since everybody's talking about it, and since it's a terribly clever update of a traditional British adventure with saucy gay innuendo and phones that do the internet, Sherlock has become rather more important as a cultural barometer than 90 minutes of Sunday-night crime drama would normally suggest. Most of the commentariat has decided that Sherlock is a good thing, but I beg to differ.

It's not that Sherlock is a bad show. It's beautifully shot, with a lovely suggestive rapport between Martin Freeman's cantankerous Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch's rakish, manic Holmes, who seems so taken with his own genius that he can barely keep his balance. Gatiss and Moffat clearly have a great deal of affection for the original books, and the scripts are stuffed with the sort of throwaway quips designed to please Sherlockian geeks, of whom I happen to be one - as a child, I read every Holmes story over and over again until my charity-shop paperbacks disintegrated. Nonetheless, the series has failed to make a case for why yet another dramatisation of the exhaustively adapted Holmes tales is really worthy of BBC licence money, only six months after the latest big-budget Hollywood retelling, much less a version implausibly set in modern London.

On a number of levels, the adaptation simply doesn't work. The real fascination of Holmes and Watson's puzzles was always that they could only be solved by rigorous forensics, by using reason over superstition, a method that set Conan Doyle's icy protagonist at odds with the law enforcement of the day. The notion that today's force would need the help of a wayward genius to solve forensic puzzles is more than a little clunky.

This is just one of the reasons why Sherlock Holmes doesn't belong in the 21st century. Ultimately, the decision to have him dashing around texting his sidekicks, slurping frappe lattes and looking broody under the London Eye was misplaced, because substantial thematic elements of the original stories simply refuse to be rehabilitated. Like a lot of excellent fiction from previous centuries, Conan Doyle's writing is scarred by ugly cultural assumptions about race, class and gender, and while there are many stories from the 19th century whose dodgy sexist, racist or imperialist undertones can be excused on the basis of being incidental to the plot, Sherlock Holmes is not one of them.

In the books, the maverick detective's deeply felt superiority to women, to people from other nations and to the "criminal classes" is an intrinsic part of the stories, as is the fetishisation of the British empire as a place full of bristling, hostile natives, rum deeds and murder most foul.

Sherlockians have a choice: we can acknowledge and try to understand the racism and sexism implicit in our beloved detective's adventures, or we can try to pretend it's not a problem.

Gatiss and Moffatt seem to have gone for the latter option. Cumberbatch's Holmes retains his disdain for women, who are there merely to provide two-dimensional foils for the protagonists' character development, presuming they are lucky enough to survive to the end of the episode. Sunday's show, moreover, was less of an update than a direct transposition of British Sinophobia in the late-Victorian period.

In précis, the plot of The Blind Banker was booga-wooga yellow peril exotic chinky slaughter emporium: an exhilarating romp through nearly every hackneyed orientalist cliché going. There were improbable and sinister circus contortionists, ersatz torture devices, yellow-themed cryptic writing, keepers of dusty Chinatown shops attempting to peddle curiously significant pieces of ethnic tat, a submissive and inevitably doomed eastern maiden pouring tea in traditional dress, and even, for Christ's sake, ninjas. As the British-Chinese blogger Anna Chen observed:

Sherlock morphs into Nayland Smith (hero of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books) . . . and it's all Black Lotus, Tongs, drugs and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? Unaccountably, they omitted the Limehouse opium den scene, but there are some Victorian values which should be locked in a hansom cab back with the swirling pea-soup fogs.

The description of the mysterious Chinese assassin, Spider, all broad brow and smouldering evil eyes, had a worrying resemblance to the following uncomfortable passage from the opening scene of Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Three Gables:

The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room. He would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific . . . his broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us to the other . . . "I've wanted to meet you for some time," said Holmes. "I won't ask you to sit down, for I don't like the smell of you, but aren't you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?"

"That's my name, Masser Holmes, and you'll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip."

"It is certainly the last thing you need," said Holmes, staring at our visitor's hideous mouth.

The racism, sexism and imperialism that are fundamental to Conan Doyle's stories do not mean we should dismiss Holmes out of hand, but they do raise the question of why, precisely, Sherlock Holmes still means so much to us, and why we're so anxious to rehabilitate him to the modern world, as it's highly unlikely that this will be the last BBC dramatisation of the books.

Holmes has enduring appeal because he's the original brilliant outsider, the lone maverick who wins every time, simply by being cleverer or braver than everyone else. The formulation appeals particularly to teenagers -- all of whom are brilliant outsiders -- and remains an enormously important part of pop culture, particularly in crime fiction and especially in Britain, where we just love an oddball. Harry Potter, Gene Hunt, Jonathan Creek, Inspector Morse, John Constantine, even Doctor Who -- all are brilliant outsiders with rich interior lives. They are all also always male, always white and always western.

I'm getting bored by stories about posh white men and how much cleverer and more special they are than everyone else. I've been hearing that story, in one form or another, since I was old enough to listen. I want to hear about other lives, new adventures. Adaptations are all very well, but it's long past time we updated our myths for good, rather than struggling to rehabilitate the past.

If we want to avoid cultural implosion, it's high time for the British to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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