I am becoming a fan of the BBC series Sherlock. It is exactly what it sounds like: a modernized version of Sherlock Holmes created by Steve Moffat (of Doctor Who fame). Now, while I enjoy the program immensely, I realized something disturbing (and in retrospect obvious) last night while watching: Sherlock qua Sherlock could only be played by a white, able bodied, cis man, whose character must also have some degree of class privilege. This is not at all to say that I think only such a uniquely privileged person could play Sherlock Holmes well, but this specific version is dependent upon a great deal of social and economic privilege. There are potential spoilers ahead. This Sherlock is a stoic/brooding, silent, intellectual type, living in relative comfort in a nicer district of London. Furthermore, he makes extensive use of his smartphone, which, while not necessarily indicative of wealth, certainly doesn’t help matters. More to the point, a great deal of the series thus far (I just finished series 2) hinges upon the fact that Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, holds a fairly high position in the British government. But the privilege doesn’t stop there. Sherlock also has a somewhat territorially combative but generally easy relationship with the London police, being allowed regular access to crime scenes and police laboratories. Despite his almost inside knowledge of the crimes committed, he is rarely ever suspected in any serious way of having committed them. His intelligence is in no way questioned despite any immediate evidence of an extensive formal education, and he can rely upon others (particularly his landlord, Mrs. Hudson) to take care of the day-to-day matters of his existence. Now, on this point it could be argued that John Watson is more responsible for “taking care of” Sherlock, but Watson is in many was feminized versus Sherlock. This is not to denigrate femininity at all, but to make a point that, within the context of the show, Sherlock’s masculine, stoic “intellect” cannot be bothered with such petty things as grocery purchases, cleaning, or knowledge of basic facts. Additionally, where Watson is emotionally expressive, caring, loyal, and cares about relationships, Holmes is aggressively anti-social, seeks solitude, is regularly rude and abrasive, and only shows sympathy or emotion in extreme circumstances, and even then only in stereotypically masculine ways. This dichotomy between Sherlock’s “extraordinary” mind and those of the “ordinary” folks he so regularly denigrates reinforces the idea that, somehow, Sherlock is above everyone else. To think such a thing, and to have it reinforced by so many others depends upon the possession of some degree of social privilege. Furthermore, Sherlock is quite plainly a misogynist, not only treating women with particular contempt, but also relying upon sexist stereotypes in many of his “deductive” analyses. That the generally lead him to the correct conclusion is beside the point–such stereotyping would not hold in the real world and Steven Moffat can write whatever he likes into Sherlock’s universe.
While women, people of color, working class folks and other oppressed folks could certainly be as intelligent as Sherlock, and are capable of the same feats, their more precarious social position (compounded by intersecting oppressions) means that they would be granted far less freedom than, and have access to far fewer resources than, this Sherlock. Sherlock can treat folks horribly, “exposing” them as hypocrites for simply trying to maintain social grace, and be written off as “just Sherlock.” Were Sherlock a woman, she would be a “bitch.” Were Sherlock a person of color, s/he would be seen as “uppity” or “reverse racist.” Were Sherlock disabled, s/he might not be able to perform the physical feats that this Sherlock does (such as jumping roof to roof) or have their intelligence taken seriously, being dismissed instead as “unstable.” If Sherlock were not cisgender or within the gender binary, they would have a much harder time trying to navigate the social sphere, attempting to pass while still remaining the same stoic, abrasive, unfeeling character that we know this Sherlock to be. In short, this Sherlock is a variation upon the brooding, masculine, loner genius who nobody understands. That itself is a played out trope, proven time and again to be reliant upon similar social privileges as I have enumerated here.
I don’t think a non-white, non-male, trans*, poor, disabled, and/or queer Sherlock is at all a bad idea. However, I do think that the current interpretation of the character requires a great deal of privilege to be what we know this particular incarnation to be. A character with less privilege would have to work harder to navigate the social sphere, but ultimately I think it would make for a stronger character, and a better series. I like this Sherlock, but I’d like to see other Sherlocks, as well. For the record, I have not seen Elementary, but I want to do so.