Quick: which of these thirty second clips is sexist, and why? Okay, yeah, trick question. They both are – but one is arguably much more sexist than the other.
[M]en (or more specifically, husbands) who are unable to complete a simple household task that usually involves a form of cleaning or food preparation are saved by their domestic goddess wives. And as women, we are meant to watch these commercials and think, “Oh, those dumb oafs! They wouldn’t last a day without me!”
And that’s true of this individual commercial. But when you look at the whole list of Discover card commercials in this line and there’s plenty of other people messing up, missing payments, and generally being stupid. The puppy commercial still falls into the sexist “Dumb Man” trope, but it isn’t the only example in the… well, “series”… of people being stupid.
And then there’s Irene Adler. A strong woman in the BBC’s Sherlock. Not only is she a strong woman in the series, but she’s one of the few characters at all whose intellect comes close to Sherlock’s. Lara Pulver fully inhabits the character, and fills the character masterfully. It’s a wonderful performance.
And yet Irene Adler is a self-identified lesbian sex worker who suddenly finds herself heterosexually attracted to our protagonist, and undermined by her oh-so-womanly feelings for him.
Yes, yes, yes. I know there are a lot of narrative reasons for Irene Adler to be the way she is in this particular series. There are many, many, many ways in which this characterization makes complete and total sense. And even the “going straight” bit is mirrored in Sherlock’s own turn away from asexuality. None of this would be problematic… if there was another woman in the series who was more than a tertiary character. You know, ever.
As Don Bingle once said, “There are bimbos in the world, and if one shows up in your story, that’s okay. But they are a small minority. When all – or even most – of your female characters are bimbos, you’ve got real problems.”
And that’s the problem with Irene Adler – and with evaluating sexism (or racism) in general. Context is important. A frequent straw man argument is “If the politically correct crowd1 gets our way, you’ll never be able to write a character like (insert stereotype here) again.”
It’s bullshit. No work is an island. And Irene Adler’s narrative arcs would simply be narrative arcs if any other constant female character on the series was even close to two-dimensional.2
That is the real challenge. Perhaps that’s why it’s so disappointing when people like Stephen Moffat say things like
“It’s absolutely narratively possible (that the Doctor could be a woman) and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it. It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it – and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this – were women. (They were) saying, ‘No, no, don’t make him a woman!'” (source)
Seriously? The “I know a woman who says they don’t want it, so it’s okay?” SERIOUSLY?
Moffat – and for that matter, Davies before him – have done much to make the female (and LGBT and minority ethnicity) companions more than just a screaming damsel for the Doctor to rescue in the last several series. And while I can see Gaiman’s point3 that a female doctor will be more narratively impactful after Capaldi4, there’s still a pattern that needs to be broken.
The challenge now boils down to this: Keep giving us a wide range of strong, well-rounded characters of all genders. And we’ll wait for the next regeneration.
1 And you know you’re probably dealing with bigots when they start talking about people being “politically correct” these days.
2 Mrs. Hudson comes closest, but only due to one quip about her husband in series one and thirty seconds about Adler’s phone. Poor Molly is a doormat, and Sgt Donovan is a short-sighted selfish cop who serves to be suspicious of Sherlock. Dr. Sawyer (the doctor who was John’s girlfriend for two episodes)… well, you probably didn’t remember her either, until I mentioned her, right? The fact that one has to start digging through Sherlockology is clue enough.
3 Most notably, I am cutting Gaiman some slack due to this quote: “[Having a female Doctor] would absolutely be on my list of things to do in the following regeneration. (I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate.)” Since he explicitly is acknowledging the pattern and wanting to break it more meaningfully, I can respect that. (I disagree, mind you. He is equating femininity with youth instead of gravitas in that quote, and that’s as much a bit of institutional sexism as anything else.)
4 I think it’s so cute when people try to equate any actor’s past performance with how they’ll portray the Doctor. They’re always so horribly, horribly wrong, it’s adorable.