Like many of my Anglophilic countrymen, I tuned in excitedly to watch the highly-anticipated Sherlock Holmes Christmas special, and, predisposed to its favour and infatuated with Victorian kitsch, I expected myself to be happily entertained. Indeed I was, and I offer no critique here of any narratological or cinematographic elements that may have fallen short of the mark. I noticed only that my enjoyment was checked by some peculiar issues that arose in the episode’s presentation of the suffragette movement and terrorism. I ought to caution, perhaps, my more tardy readership that heavy spoilers will immediately follow.
It is curious that the show’s producer and writer, Steven Moffat (who has historically dropped the ball when it comes to the presentation of women in his shows – see Dr. Who) should so singularly butcher what appears to be an attempt at righting his track record. In the shocking climax, we learn that the eponymous, murderous ghost (the ‘Abominable Bride’) is no villain, but rather a front for a heroic band of suffragettes terrorising the men of England to gain some unspecified political end. These suffragettes are discovered by Holmes, no less, in purple KKK-styled gear, in an underground chamber chanting quasi-Satanic hymns. I hope the description here should suffice to lead us to at least an exclamation of bewildered confusion. What is perhaps even more outrageous is that it is clearly evident that Moffat thinks he is, in some a-historical and warped way, paying homage to the suffragettes rather than vilifying them.
Not only tarring the suffragette movement and playing into the hands of their caricatures as angry, men-hating schemers, Moffat has managed to, by the same stroke, slander contemporary feminism by extension and association. How or why he thought it would be a brilliant idea to make suffragettes some angry, murderous cult with the trappings of the KKK and the atmosphere of witches is a question that even the best-intentioned Sherlock fan might struggle with to no success. The ‘Abominable Bride’ herself evokes all the exaggerated features of that (hopefully) bygone sexist diagnosis of ‘female hysteria’, and seems to be woefully and maddeningly obsessed with men – indeed, the whole character is nothing more than a relational vessel of hatred towards the men who had wronged her. It appears that, despite the implicit lionising of this band of suffragettes, Moffat is still unwilling to present female characters as independent agents, whose lives and motives can – shockingly – exist independently of men and male characters.
Now, while it is perhaps unproblematic that a self-professed ‘high-functioning sociopath’ might find nothing the matter with this murderous enterprise, the latent approval given in the show to what is essentially a terrorist organisation is another troubling dimension of our Christmas special. With methods that are truly horrific, this band of clandestine assassins terrorises both private individuals and puts on public displays of macabre pomposity. When discovered, the stoic Holmes bursts into uncharacteristically passionate approbation and no attempt to bring this gang of terrorists to justice is at all made – instead, we are told, we should ‘let them win’, because their casus belli is noble.
In a political and social climate where contemporary Britons and Europeans are increasingly aware of the threat of terrorism and its brutal methods, this message is as untimely as it is inappropriate. To imply that sufficient moral justification exists for the terrorisation of civilians for political ends – or simply even for vengeance – is outrageous. It is to say that, should one’s grievances be suitably powerful, it is permissible to strike anonymous horror into the hearts of innocents with grotesque public shootings and intermittent, mysterious assassinations. The women in the homicidal society are more than simply heroic vigilantes, they wield the instruments of physical and psychological horror with such exactitude as to make Mr. Holmes doubt, if for a moment, his confident naturalism.
All in all, this tactless episode has left us with a mystery that would need its own Sherlock to solve: the mystery of just what in the world Steven Moffat was thinking.