How is the concept of gender represented in Sherlock? By Tobyn Naylor
The target audience for the TV crime drama Sherlock is teenagers to adults. It is scheduled just after the national watershed so nothing too explicit in content may be shown. Sherlock appeals to a broad demographic (See 'Lynnette Porter – Sherlock by the numbers') but perhaps those in demographic category A – C2 most, as Sherlock is known for his intellect not his physical skills. The series appeals to both male and female audiences, however there is a large female fan-base for the lead character of Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Perhaps introducing a female lead to this episode was a conscious decision made by the programme makers to appeal to a male audience without alienating the existing female fans.
When this episode of Sherlock opens, the audience is left in no doubt that the central female character, Irene Adler, is deliberately playing the role of the Femme Fatale. This archetype is found commonly throughout popular culture. The word 'femme' refers to women and femininity, while the word 'fatale' means danger and can be translated to 'fatal'. This gives us the term Femme Fatale, which means a female who is an attractive seductress, often leading the men she seduces into danger or a compromising situation. Her character uses gender as a weapon against Sherlock Holmes.
The setting is a luxury apartment/ hotel suite. The room is furnished expensively and the colour scheme is light. To the right hand side of the opening shot, sits Sherlock on a sofa. He appears out of place as he sits awkwardly, although the surroundings are more than comfortable. He also appears out of place due to his attire. He is wearing a black suit and dog collar - the clothes of a vicar and nursing a (staged) wound on his cheek. His dark clothes contrast with the otherwise light scene. The director has used Sherlock’s body language and clothing and the setting’s lighting and colour scheme as symbolic code to create the instant impression on the viewers that Sherlock is 'out of place'.
At the beginning of the scene, the director plays with the audience’s expectations, we hear Irene’s high heels as she walks towards the room where Sherlock is sitting. We hear her offer an ordinary welcome in a reassuring tone of voice and Sherlock begins to reply but is cut short when Irene enters the room - naked. The narrative now switches to the power play between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler as she uses her sexuality to dominate the scene before Sherlock regains control at the end. The music played during the conflict between them emphasizes Sherlock’s reactions, for example music starts up as the camera zooms towards Sherlock’s face when Irene first appears naked.
The camera code in this Sherlock scene follows the 'male gaze' theory, which is where the camera shows the images that would usually be seen through the perspective of a heterosexual man. The male gaze theory is a common technique that directors use to try and capture the attention of the male audience who are watching the program. It usually applies to scenes where an attractive female is involved to try and portray them in a sexualised manner. In the scene introducing Irene Adler, it is used to show her nude. The director has tried to show as much of Irene’s body as possible without exposing anything explicit before the national watershed.
The camera shots also focus on Sherlock’s reaction to Irene Adler. There is a zoom-shot to Sherlock’s face when Irene is revealed and cuts to close-ups and mid-shots of him throughout their conversation. Sherlock’s reaction challenges the stereotype of the hot-blooded male as he appears almost completely neutral to Irene’s charms throughout. He is clearly unnerved but not necessarily aroused by her. She is frustrated by her inability to read him.
Sherlock does know that Irene is a high-class escort, so his decision to wear a vicar’s outfit is particularly symbolic. Irene herself refers to this when she says "a disguise is always a self-portrait". This is another example of her provoking him. But despite her best efforts to seduce him, Sherlock remains the cool detective that he is. Sherlock even appears to feel uncomfortable, a feeling that Watson shares in a more obvious way. However, unlike Sherlock, Watson expresses his discomfort and requests that Irene puts on "anything at all". Sherlock then stands, offering Irene both his coat and his seat; this symbolises a change in power as Sherlock takes the stage and robs Irene of her dominance. Only once does Sherlock stumble and hint at what his true feelings may be: after Irene says "brainy is the new sexy" he trips on his words before correcting himself and returning to his usual quick delivery.
In a scene from the TV crime-drama, Luther ('Do You Believe in Evil?'), there is the same pattern of verbal sparing between the male detective and female criminal lead. In this scene, the setting is Alice’s apartment. Luther has accepted Alice’s suggestively made invitation to come in. Once in the apartment, his body posture and clothing symbolizes that he is quite at ease: hands in pockets, loosened tie, unbuttoned jacket with turned up collar. In this way his body language is very different to Sherlock’s: like Sherlock, Luther is in professional mode, however he is quite relaxed. The medium shots of his facial expression suggest he is wary of Alice’s provocative manner, however he is not unnerved in the way that Sherlock is. Luther’s reaction here conforms more closely to the male gender stereotype.
Alice is portrayed as a (delusional) femme fatale through the use of symbolic code: she uses a seductive breathless manner of speaking. which is emphasized through close ups on her lips, which have bright red lipstick. The way that she is dressed and stereotype of the seductress.
Just as in the Sherlock scene, the femme fatale dominates the conversation at first. She accuses Luther of wanting to interrogate her (playing the gender role of the weak defenseless female) but really it is her that is interrogating him. She asks him personal questions about his marriage, trying to unnerve him. In this way she is like Irene, but not as subtle. Luther takes a stereotypical 'strong male' response. He removes his coat and then walks right up to her saying 'You’ll never understand love Alice'. At this point the camera shots lead viewers to expect a screen kiss. Although it appears as if he will kiss her, he pulls away at the last minute. She is a femme fatale but he is able to resist (playing the gender role of the male hero). The verbal sparring continues.
There are many parallels between the two crime dramas and their use of the femme fatale versus the male hero detective. In the Luther scene, the male and female gender roles are more conventional: Alice is bad and Luther is good. She is weak (due to her craziness) and he is strong. In the Sherlock piece the gender roles are not so clear: Irene is strong and vulnerable at the same time, Sherlock is weak and strong and Watson stands between them. Irene and Sherlock appear more equal than Luther and Alice. Sherlock is always looking for an adversary who can match him; perhaps in the character of Irene Adler he will find it.