In which I yell, at impressive length, about how much I love antiheroes, and also pose the question: where are the goddamn women in the type of fiction I like? (And for some reason the page break’s not working so I apologize profusely for spamming your dash with all of this.)
Before I commence my fannish screaming about sexism and narratives, it’d probably be helpful to have some idea of what texts I’m talking about. So, in no particular order:
Sherlock, BBC, Season 1 & 2, Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
The Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett
Doctor Who, BBC, Seasons 5 & 6, Steven Moffat & a frillion other people but mostly Steven Moffat
Along with passing mentions of Bones.
Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with all of them, I’ll do my best to explain what I’m talking about— and also to keep it all (fairly) major spoiler-free for the books on the list. The one major spoiler I’ll be giving away is the identify of Lymond’s love interest, who is throughout the series but isn’t clarified as such until Book 5, but— and trust me on this one— you don’t mind. You really don’t .
Most of this will probably be Sherlock-focused, because that’s my most recent fandom and the one that sparked all this intense thinking. I’m fairly confident, however, that the central tenant of the argument carries across to all narratives of this same type. So, onward!
If you’re a certain type of person, you’re probably drawn to a particular type of narrative and character in your fiction, right? And I know, because the Internet is a wonderful place, full of wonderful people who are startlingly open about their fictional attachments, that I’m not the only person who really, really loves a Guile Hero/Jerkass Woobie. You know what I’m talking about: those freakish characters of such intense intellect that they’re always three steps ahead of not only their enemies, but all their friends and loved ones as well. These attractively crazy bastards are the heroic incarnation of the Chessmaster, the Trickster and the (usually within semi-heroic limits) Manipulative Bastard, and are just so damn good at it that you can’t help but love them. It’s a pleasure to see them on the page or on-screen, weaving such elaborate plots that they frequently only narrowly escape accidentally entangling themselves in the strands. Combine that with the Universe constantly fucking them over so hard that you’re sitting there swearing it can’t possibly get any worse (the Woobie), and the social grace of your average scorpion (the Jerkass), and you have a list of my favorite characters of all time.
That’s not to say there is no diversity within the Guile Hero/Jerkass Woobie type, because there’s lots! You have the ones who are polite until someone flips their jerk switch, at which point they may drive you to near-suicide (the Doctor), the ones that stomp all over social niceties in hobnailed boots until they need them to achieve a semi-tangible goal (Sherlock), and the ones who are, alternatively, the suavest of social engineers and the most devastatingly belittling dickwads (Lymond). But all of them share certain traits:
- Terrible things happen to them. A lot.
- They are frequently, inexcusably nasty to people who don’t quite deserve it.
- They are all semi-godly in ability, be it intellectual, athletic, or aesthetic— or, most frequently, all three— and arrogant about it.
- They are always put in situations where there is no totally acceptable solution, at which time they will calmly undertake the action that does the least amount of damage.
We can say, in shorthand, that these characters are “head” characters— they live in their minds, and they often say or do things that bring their belief in rationality over emotion to prominence. They may do a very good job of pretending to be warm and fuzzy, but when the shit hits the fan, they are able to turn it off and calculate exactly what needs to be done, even if it means a great deal of loss for them personally.
And now that you’re all looking at me funny going, “How is this at all related to feminism?”, I’m going to plead that you hang with me for just a bit longer and you’ll see. But first, we gotta talk about Irene Adler and River Song and Philippa Somerville.
There’s been a lot of text on the webernets recently devoted to debating whether or not these women fall into sexist stereotypes (the linked article is only one of many— a quick Google should provide you with hours more reading both for and against, if you so desire.) And a lot of good points have been made on both sides, far more than I could ever recap here without breaking Tumblr due to the sheer wall of the text. And I think that the fans who are crying, “Sexism!”, have a legit complaint; but I also think they’re not digging deep enough. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it outright: when we hate on Irene Adler as a sexist stereotype, we’re not hating on Irene Adler at all. We’re hating on Sherlock himself. I know that sounds weird. Stay with me? Because I want to lay aside the sexism aspect for right now and discuss, instead, some reasons why these love-interest characters have to be how they are, for narrative structure.
Irene Adler’s a really good example of this: if you are a writer handed a character like Sherlock who has literally never been outwitted before, and who is, in the original text, uninterested in anything to do with sexual activity, and you want to play up the dramatic tension, it makes perfect sense to bring on a character who is as unabashedly sexual as possible, because that’s basically the only thing that’s guaranteed to fuddle your leading man.
It goes in the other direction, too. Lymond, the smooth-talking seducer who has the entire French court, male and female, literally playing dice over who gets to bed him first by the second book, is later (hilariously) saddled with a virginal child-bride who is trained to be a courtesan by the best teachers in Europe (the keepers of the Ottoman Sultan’s harem) and whom he cannot touch. It’s Sherlock all over again: Lymond has no idea how to handle this woman who is so far outside the realms of his experience she might as well be from another planet. Like Irene but in reverse, you can argue that Philippa’s de-sexualization in this context is sexist, but the fact remains that it’s the only way to provide the necessary drama in the plot, particularly when they (of course) fall in love significantly later in the relationship. These things may come off as anti-feminist, but they make a lot of narrative sense.
So if the manipulation of the female love interest’s sexual presentations isn’t the problem, what is? Well, I’ve read some concerns about River and Irene and how they are being portrayed as “irrational women”, incapable of divorcing themselves from their emotions and suffering for it. (See: “I AM [SHER]LOCKED”, etc.) The same accusation could absolutely be leveled at Philippa. And really, what it boils down to in one sentence is this: if Sherlock, Lymond and the Doctor are the ‘head’ characters, then Irene, River, and Philippa, no matter how intelligent and capable, have to be the ‘heart’ characters. Fictional romances work off of opposition and drama and unresolved tension, and having two characters who are both capable of making totally rational decisions against their own emotional interests ends a romance awfully quickly. Someone has to be the one who stays there even after it’s no longer a good idea, and since we’ve already set up the main characters as the super-rational ones, it’s going to have to be their love interests. Without Irene’s slip-up, her actual feelings for Sherlock would have gone totally unrevealed to either him or the audience, and the tension would have died right there .
The same idea applies to scenarios larger than just the romance, as well. When River tells the Doctor that she’ll suffer more than every other living thing in the universe if she kills him, she’s speaking from her heart— and it works because we’d never, ever hear the Doctor say something like that.
I sound like I’m writing some kind of horrible apologia for the women in these stories, don’t I? I want to make it clear: I’m not. I think there’s a deep seed of sexism buried at the root of these narratives, but we’re looking for it in the wrong place. Irene, River, and Philippa are not sexist in and of themselves; their portrayal is justified because that’s how the narrative has to operate. And I’m okay with that. I love them! I think ‘heart’ characters are strong and wonderful and amazing in their own ways, and I particularly like Irene, River and Philippa because they manage to balance their incredible I-can-keep-up-with-the-big-boys intelligence with their passionate hearts and (for River and Philippa) their stubborn loyalty. I idolize these ladies, I really do.
You know what is sexist though? If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that every Guile Hero/Jerkass Woobie I’ve listed is a dude. Where the fuck are our female Sherlocks, Doctors, Lymonds? Why are our much-loved ‘head’ characters only men? That’s what’s sexist about these stories, right there. Irene and River and Philippa are not the problem; Sherlock and the Doctor and Lymond are! If ‘heart’ characters are needed to play opposite ‘head’ characters, why are all the ‘head’ characters men? It’s sort of like a chicken-egg question of sexism: do we blame writers for making all the ‘heart’ characters women, or do we blame them for making all the ‘head’ characters men? Personally I’m more inclined to go with the latter.
And here’s the thing that really gets me: even in those rare instances when female Guile Heroes/Jerkass Woobies are present, their stories are not told in the same way. Like Bones. Look at that list of things that happens to Guile Heroes/Jerkass Woobies again. Don’t almost all of those apply to her? Yep, they sure do! But the show’s writers are a far damn cry from treating her with the respect Moffat & Gatiss afford to Sherlock; instead, Brennan’s social ineptness and intellectual ability are played with a strongly tongue-in-cheek flavor, and, instead of her romantic counterpart playing second fiddle to the Guile Hero/Jerkass Woobie plotlines, the entire show revolves around her relationship with the male ‘heart’ character, Booth. Jesus Christ. If that’s not thinly-veiled sexism, I don’t know what is.
And sure, it’s possible to argue that the choice to make Sherlock, the Doctor, and Lymond men is entirely understandable, due to the writers being handed pre-existing characters (in the first two cases), or writing about a time-period where women didn’t do much swashbuckling (Dunnett.) But I’m not talking about just these stories any more, I’m talking about a whole genre, dammit. So next time you hate Irene, or River, or Philippa, or one of their counterparts, ask yourselves: are you hating them? Or are you hating the fact that the preternaturally intelligent, distant and weirdly attractive main hero is almost certainly male?
So this is what I want. I want my Guile Heroes, my Jerkass Woobies, to break out of this ridiculous sexism, this automatic masculinization. In the next five years, I expect— no, as a consumer of media, I demand— serious storytelling about absurdly intelligent, emotionally inaccessible, sarcastic and wounded women, and their loyal, clever and emotionally volatile love interests. And if I don’t get it, well, I’ll write it myself. And yes, that’s a threat. And a promise.
 I’ve given that series to probably 20 people to read and only 2 of them have made it through so statistically the chances of you ever slogging your way through Dunnett’s ridiculous historical accuracy and untranslated quotations is only 1:10. And I say that with great respect for you, and great admiration for Dunnett. They’re just… not for anyone who doesn’t want to come out the other side with the practical equivalent of three history degrees, a linguistics minor and a need for several years of therapy. Highly recommended, of course.
 I know there’s some debate on whether or not the fact that Irene ‘loses’ their game to Sherlock reinforces the idea that women must ultimately lose to men; but Moffat has explicitly come right out and said Irene ultimately took the prize and that’s good enough for me.