This short (and sometimes NSFW) essay will conform to no particular intellectual standard, but will occasionally pick up an intellectual standard and flog a more or less consenting idea with it.
There will be fanspeak. If you don’t have a smattering of fanspeak, you are doin media rong.
Fangirls – and we are mostly female in BBC Sherlock-dom – often lust after male leads. This is the sort of ratings staple that is merrily encouraged by the inclusion in the text of, say, a riding crop that the hero uses in the first scene in full view of an admiring female character.
You don’t need to dig deeply to detect that this riding crop symbolizes someone’s professional interest in 1) getting the casual viewer sufficiently engaged by indicating that the character is interestingly eccentric, 2) getting wary Arthur Conan-Doyle fans on board by referencing the original Holmes’ ‘beating the subjects in a dissecting-room with a stick’, and 3) reeling in the potentially dedicated, mostly heterosexual, fangirl (such as me) through presenting Sherlock as a lust object. Category 1 rules in the economics of media, but category 3 contains many of the people who engage most deeply with the show.
Sherlock certainly scored with me for his first 30 seconds, until he put the crop down. The narrative then switched to the humiliation of a sexually aroused professional woman, shot from Sherlock’s perspective.
This, according to showrunner Steven Moffat, is there to show us that Sherlock is ‘cold and deadly’.
In fact the exchange with Molly is plugging Sherlock as a hot n’ throbbing identification figure for a particular misogynist fantasy – the man who is so very special that he humiliates women just by going about his business, so it’s not really his fault. According to producer Sue Vertue, (Sherlock Chronicles, p143), ‘Molly was brought on in the first series as a means for the lipstick joke, really, and wasn’t supposed to stay at all.’
Half of Sherlock’s first scene is devoted to presenting women who admire him as fall girls who are barely supposed to exist, in-world or out of it. Whatever it does for men, for a significant section of female fandom, this attempt at increasing Sherlock’s allure has all the compelling manly mystery of a diplodocus farting its way down into a mudhole and looking around for applause.
But. In that first 30 seconds, I’d seen Sherlock and I’d thought, OMG, he’s like me. Brainy, sardonic, intimidating, weird and apparently kinky, only with 100x better hair… I want to be him! Shag him! Be him! Fluffle his curls! See him find friends and love and fulfillment in spite of possibly being a bit unlikeable! Shag him! Be him!
Then came the psychological shove alongside Molly into abjection. Fuck that, I responded internally, albeit not in a very articulate and measured fashion just as yet. I’m not letting that little bit of joy go. I’ll be having… I’ll be having…
Ah yes, I’ll be having that riding crop. Sherlock looked both sexy and amusing with it; Molly enjoyed him looking sexy and amusing with it; Sherlock enjoyed using it to flirt (sexually? bloke-ally? it’s not clear, but there’s something) with John; and the suggestion is definitely that John has some major life improvement about to derive from the combination of the riding crop and the fluffy-haired nutter.
I’d homed in on the fun, which is the beginning of fandom. (The jouissance to offset the abjection, if you’re reading along with Kristeva.) The riding crop in “A Study in Pink” is a floating signifier, and in fandom a very positive one. It suggests playful (or indeed intense) sexuality, but it’s not pinned down to gender or role. Molly’s lipstick signifies laughable female wiles; Sherlock’s chiseled good looks are a tool of cruelty, but the riding crop escapes that. ‘Sherlock and his riding crop is my happy place’ I might put it in fandom terms. A place of positive associations, planted by the canon and assiduously watered by fan creativity. For example, I can start my day with the little chap.
The riding crop has certainly led to an avalanche of porn that’s very happy-making for a lot of people, although others claim to be shocked by it, kinky Holmes innuendo being in no way something that pre-existed internet porn.
In explicit fan art the crop symbolizes, well, a riding crop that you can (be) hit (people) with. For example, one fan on tumblr requested, ‘a gifset juxtaposing Sherlock whipping the dead body at the beginning of “A Study in Pink” with Irene whipping Sherlock with a riding crop in “A Scandal in Belgravia”. Not because I think it means anything. Just because they’re both riding crops!’
A fellow blogger duly obliged. One step on, by photoshopping the canon crop onto a canon or promo still you can make new images which have a stimulating effect for many:
Take another step further and you can splice TV show images with other footage to create your own reality that links back to the show through symbolism.
It doesn’t take much thought to suggest that the crop is a phallus invested with sexual power. However – and this is fundamental to its appeal for me at least – it’s a gender egalitarian one. People working to counteract stereotypes of BDSM will tell you that one of its benefits is its baseline equality: you choose your own role, in this case which end of the crop to be on.
The fun of it! Getting from gifsets to original art takes as long as an artist needs to set mouse to pixel. Like your pretty Sherlock dominant?
Or kind of vanilla but definitely not shy?
As a possibly asexual partner in a three-way relationship?
The presence of an item instantly recognizable from the TV show gives all the alternative fannish realities a delicious link back to the shared narrative of Moffat and Gatiss’ onscreen fan fiction, and even back to Conan Doyle. The sexuality isn’t random: it’s being applied in the context of existing creative richness. One of the aims of BBC Sherlock is given as being to round out the character in addition to having him detecting, and fan art just takes that a bit further in a direction the BBC can’t go: the erotic, which is a field as compatible with creativity as any other. Starting with the riding crop.
The crop is extremely versatile, whether you want to spin off from the Mofftiss version, or amend what you don’t like onscreen. Want to give Molly back the dignity stripped from her in her first scene? Well, canon did a bit of that in Seasons 2 and 3, but it also vanilla-fied her and gave her a boyfriend with a meat dagger. Isn’t it more rewarding to give her the crop? Then you can have lustful Molly and nonplussed Sherlock,
evil Molly who is actually Moriarty
… oh, and yes, there are occasional approving depictions of Molly being discomfited… with a sexy genderswapped Sherlock.
Just creating a gifset from chronological clips of the original scene can refocus the viewer on Molly, as witnessed by the number of these sets with comments on them that present her as being attracted to Sherlock not because she’s deluded but because she’s too hardcore to be intimidated: ‘And then she fucking ASKS HIM OUT’ reads one such comment at the end of a set.
My personal Molly headcanon: when you see her watching Sherlock through the window as he beats the corpse she’s thinking, ‘OK, that guy has serious dom potential, but wow am I going to have to teach him a safer swing style. And get him to ease off on the gurning. Also, that’s my corpse.’
In the onscreen context of Sherlock the crop can only be used to make coy hints at possible meanings, because of the cultural obligation to present it within a frame of conventional titillation. In the open field of fandom, it becomes a reference point for remixing the gender and power dynamics of Sherlock’s opening scene, aka making it fun. Cast off the narrative of shaming, and ogle on your own terms, sisters.
In “A Scandal in Belgravia” – a crop is used for a non-consensual beating. This stains the symbol darker, doesn’t it?
Sort of. It’s clearly dark in the official context of the TV narrative. There are a couple of reasons why that was inevitable: a) assumed values that make it acceptable to depict assault but not consensual kinky sexings, and b) follow-on doublethink tacitly acknowledging that submission is a common fantasy for men while not risking the ratings by requiring male viewers to admit any such thing. Deniability is slathered on thick in order to keep Sherlock within limits ultimately set by (creators’ and executives’ beliefs about) what the market will take.
Well… whatevs. The surface narrative can contort itself as it wishes; the fangirls still get long, loving, lingering shots of pretty, pretty Sherlock enraptured as a crop strokes his face…
… and holding the other end is an unprofessional abuser who gets first magically de-lesbianized and then defeated by the hero.
Hmm. For some reason this makes many fans want to stick with the Sherlock end. Fangirls can squee off into the stratosphere with that face shot, simply by giffing it as it is.
The crop has two roles in this scene. One is to enable the overt villain-assaults-hero plot development; the other is to suggest a psychological and/or erotic charge between Sherlock and Irene. And the latter can be interpreted in a way that doesn’t erase Irene’s lesbian identity, because kink /=sex as such, and certainly doesn’t have to revolve around the gender of your partner. My personal Irene/Sherlock headcanon is that when she says she’ll make Sherlock beg for mercy twice and he just stares at her, what’s going through his head is ‘Oh shit, I’m gay but there was also that crop business and I just deduced that I’m turned on by the idea of power exchange with any good dom; OMG wtf?’
Headcanons are fun.
Taking the crop as your base point and remixing the scene around it is once again a way to add both the respectful characterization of women and the healthy eroticism which are the strengths of some parts of fandom. You could – I could – with the help of etsy.com purchases – for example, represent Irene as a Cabbage Patch Kid.
If that seems bizarre, then look at one of the comments on the gifset – ‘Irene’s put on weight and looks much healthier.’ A Cabbage Patch Kid represents healthier womanhood than TV Irene and gets to have fun without being shamed or demonized. Shercloth Holmes is pretending not to enjoy himself in that gifset, and he just makes himself look pompous.
Likewise, by the power of the crop you can, if you prefer, ditch the swarm of conventions around the manly hero altogether, and have a female Sherlock being lusted after by both Molly and John. The crop appears in the opening image here, and is, as often, used as the glue that holds the alternate gif-narrative together
It’s interesting to note that one place where remixing yourself a spicy crop AU really *doesn’t* work is in Sherlock’s own head. In the 2016 Special he sees his Victorian self as a sort of pomade-slathered shark who wields a rigid stick (in keeping with Doyle canon) and chucks it at Watson. Here we can, if we wish, draw the daring conclusion that stick = penis, but that’s about it for intellectual or erotic excitement.
The fact that the crop’s kind of playfulness and flexibility can be brought to the text while it still remains recognizable is one of the things that keeps Sherlock attractive and rewarding to an emotionally invested fanbase. Without the crop or another floating signifier with ambiguous or shifting meaning and locus – such as John himself between Sherlock and Mary in Season 3 – the show’s gender relations can collapse into a crudity that is difficult even to subvert. For example, the obliteration of Mrs Hudson’s dignity when the line ‘I’m your landlady, not a plot device’ is forced into her mouth during the “The Abominable Bride”. The reference to an earlier script emphasizes the fact that the female character is just a device at the very moment she’s supposedly asserting herself. The absence of a sex toy is not very surprising here, but the absence of any gender-indeterminate signifier means there is nothing that can be extracted clean from the scene and used by fandom to recast the female character as something other than a joke.
Floating signifiers allow play and dreams and multiple interpretations, and another of the reasons for the show’s success is that Sherlock is such a signifier himself. From the moment he starts whipping a corpse in full view of a lab tech it’s clear that he would find the idea of defining his psychological makeup or (a)sexuality for the benefit of onlookers facile. The show has made him visibly brilliant and pretty and sarcastic and confident, but you can put what you like inside his lovely curly head.
Which means… you can put yourself in there. Do fangirls dream of the hero? Oh yes. If you’re a woman, then presenting yourself as intelligent and sexual and confident without one or other of those qualities being isolated and used to stereotype you as a one-dimensional bitch is too often just a dream. This is what’s happening when fan artists and writers are dismissed as vapid and hormonal.
We fangirls take the proffered riding crop, lever open the text and stir as we will.