So, if the Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t about Holmes himself, what are they actually about?
Well, in large part they’re Gothic stories. I haven’t gone through all the stories and counted how often each element occurs, but there’s a sort of ur-Holmes story, which goes something as follows:
Holmes and Watson are sat at home, when a woman comes to them with a problem. The woman lives in a secluded, inaccessible place, and has some kind of male protector — a father, brother, or husband, but is otherwise cut off from anyone who might help her. The male protector, who has a mysterious past that he won’t talk about, has been acting strangely recently, and making seemingly-arbitrary requests of her, and she doesn’t know why. Seemingly supernatural events have been happening, usually involving a large or exotic animal of some description, and there’s also been a man with a grotesque appearance like a twisted lip or red hair hanging around. Holmes then figures out either that the male protector plans to kill his client before she inherits the money that she will come into when she turns thirty/marries, and that the grotesque man is really the male protector; or that the male protector is being blackmailed by his evil associates from his past life, and is desperately trying to hide this from the woman.
(In just The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a single short-story collection, that summary more or less works for The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, A Case of Identity, and The Adventure of the Speckled Band, and elements of it appear in several more of the stories.)
What we really have, in short, is a Gothic story, in which Holmes acts as a deus ex machina to provide, most of the time, a happy ending, and also to allow us to believe in the seemingly supernatural while giving it a rational explanation (and that wish for rational-supernaturalism is, of course, the same wish that drove Doyle himself to become a Spiritualist). The stories are magic tricks, that most Victorian of artforms, and Holmes appears at the end to show you that you’ve been fooled, like saying “is this your card?”.
No, it’s not Holmes who changes in the course of the story, it’s his clients. And many of those clients are women. In fact, the Holmes stories are often curiously feminist. This may seem strange given that Conan Doyle opposed giving women the vote, but in other ways Doyle was very sympathetic to women’s rights. In particular, he supported a reform of the divorce laws, which at the time he was writing the most well-known Holmes stories said that a man could divorce his wife for adultery, while for a woman to divorce her husband she had to prove physical violence or desertion as well as adultery.
When seen in this light, the stories often seem to have an almost propagandistic aspect to them — a lot of the time they’re about women gaining financial independence and being able to escape the control of abusive men, and the men resenting that and wanting to prevent it.
And this gets lost when one looks at the stories purely through the lens of Holmes, with fairly horrifying results, like this quote from an article I’m not going to link to, titled the 50 sexiest literary villains:
Irene Adler, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
One of the only people to have ever bested Sherlock Holmes, and (if you can believe him, at least) the only woman to match him. In modern adaptations, Adler is often portrayed as a love interest for Holmes, but in the books, she’s always working against him — sexily.
This is what happens when you have to have everything centre around the (white, male) hero and turn him into the protagonist. In the book (singular, Adler appears in only one story) Adler is not a “villain” at all — she’s a woman trying to live her own life, and not bothering anyone at all, whose arsehole ex hires Holmes to steal some of her property (a photo of the two of them). Adler barely interacts with Holmes at all, and then only because he forces himself into her life. She is never seen to treat anyone with anything less than kindness, decency, and respect. And yes, she gets her own way against Holmes, but “her own way” consists only of getting away from him so he won’t keep stalking her in different disguises and trying to steal her stuff. It’s the standard Holmes story above, except here instead of solving the problem, Holmes is the man with the grotesque appearance (he even goes in disguise, as the villains in the other stories often do).
And that’s not me putting a humorous slant on the story — that *is* the story, and Holmes himself refuses to shake his (male) client’s hand, and considers Adler by far the better person, by the end of the story. Even though A Scandal In Bohemia is one of the stories in which Holmes plays a more active role than most, and in which Holmes actually undergoes a change (going from thinking all women are stupid to admiring at least one), he is not the protagonist of the story — he is, in fact, a pawn of the villain.
But if we are forced to see the story as being “about” Holmes, to see him (or the Holmes-Watson duo) as being the character around which all else revolves, then he obviously can’t be a henchman, he has to be the hero, and so Adler has to be the villain, and we get an absurd, laughable, misreading, one which turns the story from being about a powerful man unjustly trying to destroy the life of a blameless woman for his own convenience, into one about… well, *about* nothing at all, except “sexiness” apparently. And so over and over again we get Baring-Gould types insisting that Adler must have been Holmes’ lover, and novels about how she was “really” a safe-cracking thief, and TV shows in which she’s a dominatrix, and basically anything other than the story that Doyle originally told, about an innocent woman being pursued by powerful men and managing, just, to live her own life in spite of them.
But if the violence that’s been done to Adler’s character is bad, that’s nothing to what this kind of reading does to Holmes himself…
I’ve always been a little dubious about the No More Page 3 campaign. Not about its aims as such — I tend to agree that newspapers are not the right place for soft porn, although I would also question whether the Sun can really be classed as a “newspaper” in any real sense, rather than the id of a particularly vile resentful white male football fan — but about its motives, which always seemed to me rather more concerned with prudery and “what about the children?” than I am comfortable with. But I was mildly supportive until today, when conversations with Jennie Rigg and Charlotte Gore on Twitter, amongst others, clarified my position a bit.
Truth be told, I also doubt the campaign had much to do with today’s decision to get rid of topless models on page three of the Sun (or sort-of, at least). Most of those involved seemed to be middle-class self-described feminists, and I don’t suspect many of them will be ending their “boycott” and moving from the Guardian or Independent to the Sun any time soon.
I suspect rather that the reason the Sun got rid of the models is just that the feature is no longer gaining them sales from the people it appealed to. I am reliably informed that it is now possible to see women’s breasts on the internet, and without paying 25p a day, so it seems unlikely that men are still buying the paper to ogle them as they used to.
Even so, I would be giving a qualified “hooray!” to the decision to get rid of topless models on page three, if the decision had actually reduced the objectification of women. Instead, it seems to have done rather the opposite.
Firstly, they haven’t got rid of the page three models altogether — they’re now on the Sun’s paywalled website, and prominently advertised on the page. It’s a way to drive paying customers of the newspaper to be paying customers of the website too, and while I don’t expect it’ll do much (see above, re: availability of free breasts on the internet) it might.
But more to the point, they have figured out that while the market for breasts is somewhat glutted, there are still only a finite number of places that the discerning masturbator can turn to see *celebrity* breasts. And so they have replaced the topless models with long-lens photos of soap stars in skimpy bikinis. These are presumably also cheaper — after all, they don’t have to pay the women involved.
The “old” page three was unpleasant in many ways (not least, as Jennie pointed out on Twitter, the ghostwritten views on current events attributed to the models — there’s little as dehumanising as the actual removal of one’s own voice and its replacement with someone else’s opinions) but the models in question were consenting, not being stalked by photographers. They made a choice to have the photographs taken — a choice not given to the people in the paper in their place today.
Is it truly less exploitative to show photos of women who haven’t been paid than to show photos of women who have? Is it truly less dehumanising to show photos of women who are being stalked and who haven’t given their consent than to show photos of women who have chosen topless modelling as a career? Is it truly less objectifying to show women wearing little more than a piece of string than to show women wearing nothing at all? Is it truly less encouraging of the male gaze to print photos of women going about their private business as if their private actions are solely for the benefit of male masturbators than it is to print photos of women who have at least a modicum of control over their image and how it is presented, and are deliberately posing?
I really don’t think it is.
I found the existence of page three disturbing, and think it said nothing good about our society. But I honestly can’t see any reason for the celebration of the anti-page-three campaigners unless it wasn’t the objectification or exploitation of women they had a problem with, but the mere presence of nipples. I would like to think otherwise, but I honestly can’t see this as anything other than a step *backwards*, not forwards.
And that’s if this really is the end of page three as it was known. I find this tweet all too plausible:
EDIT 01/01/15: Since I wrote this, Scott Aaronson has written a follow-up post, in which he says, in particular:
The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?
However, I now understand why so many people became so attached to that word: if I won’t use it, they think it means I think that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist, rather than just that I think people fixated on a really bad way to talk about these problems.
I think he’s still rather missing the point, but he’s *trying* to get the point, and it’s worth reading his post before reading what follows.
This is going to be both more personal than I normally get, and more emotionally draining, so before I get started properly, here’s a song that felt apropos:
Over the last couple of days, a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog has been doing the rounds a lot. The comment was originally posted a couple of weeks back, but Slate Star Codex linked it in a link roundup and it’s spread since then. In part, Aaronson claims that “being a nerdy male… put me into one of society’s least privileged classes” because “I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.”
Laurie Penny wrote a response to this, first on her Facebook and then on the New Statesman website (which I hate having to link to, because I do not approve of the transphobia that’s a semi-regular part of that site’s editorial policy, which in my view makes it a hate site; unfortunately the liberal/left commentariat disagree with me…), which has also been getting linked a lot, and which says that yes, Aaronson has suffered, but that suffering does not eradicate his male privilege, and is effectively orthogonal to him being male, since women also suffer in similar ways.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I admire both Aaronson and Penny. I’ve read every blog post Aaronson has posted for about the last six years, he’s increased my understanding of quantum physics, computer science, and the basics of mathematics far more than any of my university lecturers ever did (though I still don’t understand those things as well as I should), and I think his Quantum Computing Since Democritus is the best book in what we might call the hard-pop-science category since Feynman’s QED.
Laurie Penny, meanwhile, I’ve vaguely known in an internet-acquaintance way for about eight years. I don’t know her well, but we used to be LiveJournal friends back when that was a thing, we’re Facebook friends, we follow each other on Twitter, and we have a bunch of mutual friends. I think she’s got the right instincts, even when I disagree with her on the details, and while a lot of her pronouncements end up sounding silly, much of the criticism she receives is because she’s a young, good-looking, woman, rather than because of anything she actually says.
I say this, because I don’t want people to think that anything that follows is personal. Well, it is… but it’s personal about me.
I think Laurie is misunderstanding, slightly, the problems Aaronson’s talking about. I had pretty much precisely the same life experiences as Aaronson, to the point that I almost cried reading his comment.
I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-four, because I’m fat, ugly, and aspie. I still, in my late thirties, have crippling anxiety problems related to the idea that any woman, even my wife, could possibly find me attractive. I also, no doubt, in my late teens and early twenties, came off as creepy once or twice due to my lack of understanding of the rules, but far, far more often just removed myself from situations where the rules might matter. From puberty til my mid-twenties, my *only* experience of my own sexuality — the *only* framework I had for it — was as a source of shame, frustration, worry, and utter terror that should any woman I found attractive ever suspect for one second I was attracted to her she would be so revolted that I would actually be causing her harm by letting her know. That will never leave me, and is a large part of the reason for my ongoing mental health problems.
The idea that I grew up with — and this is not something unique to me, but is something that many, many, intelligent, socially-awkward, physically-unattractive but basically decent men have suffered from — is that me being attracted to a woman, any woman, is an unwelcome, unwanted, burden upon her, and that the only decent thing to do is not act upon that attraction *in any way whatsoever*. That’s not something anyone should have to suffer.
I know women — many of them — who have had the same experiences Laurie’s talking about, and while of course one can’t ever judge someone else’s mental state, I can say that the experiences are not comparable. They’re two very specific kinds of hell, and I will bear the scars of what I went through forever. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every problem my marriage has ever had has been directly because of my own messed-up feelings on this matter. (Don’t worry about that sentence — my marriage is, as far as I’m any judge, incredibly strong. But it hasn’t always been, and when it hasn’t, it’s been because of that.)
As one of the few examples I can point to directly without revealing even more of my life than I have here, or than I ever want to, a year or so back I was at a party and a (female) friend said, in passing “you’re a good-looking man”. Without thinking, I immediately blurted out “Bullshit!”, because I’ve been so hardwired with the idea that any kind of sexual attention from me must be a horribly unwelcome burden that my brain makes it go the other way too — anything said by any woman that indicates even in the most innocuous way that I may be desirable is immediately shot down, often (at least in my head, though I hope rarely in reality) quite aggressively.
I think the problem Laurie is talking about when she talks about the horrible time a teenage girl has, and the problem Scott Aaronson was talking about, are two very different things, and I don’t think it’s helpful to compare them.
But even so, even as I was nearly in tears at the similarity of Aaronson’s horrible experiences to my own, as soon as I got to the point where Scott Aaronson said he doesn’t have privilege, I just thought “oh, come ON! SURELY you’re not that stupid?”
Like Aaronson, I am a white, English-speaking, cis, het, intelligent male with no visible disabilities. I have been able to find jobs in the past for which I was unqualified, simply because my face fit. When I was unemployed after leaving university, I had no pressure from the Job Centre because “Oh, you’ll have NO problem getting a job”. Except when there’s a football match on I can walk down the street without fear of any violence.
Scott Aaronson has all these advantages, plus the advantage of having been able to attend one of the best universities in the world thanks to his background, and having had the support he needed to become a professor in a field he loves. To say he’s one of the least privileged people there are, simply because in one (admittedly important, admittedly upsetting) area of his life things didn’t go perfectly for him as they have in every other area, shows a cluelessness that’s hard to comprehend.
And this is important, because Aaronson is saying that nerdy men have no privilege — are, in fact, one of the least privileged groups around — and therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for the lack of women getting jobs in STEM fields. And in fact, it’s precisely this kind of attitude, this lack of understanding of our privilege, that *does* cause that.
To take one example, I used to work at a very big technology company whose name you probably know. In one meeting, my then-manager complained about having to do diversity training. “Look at us,” he said, “we’re a pretty diverse bunch!”
The group of people in the room at the time were all male, all without visible disabilities, and all (as far as I had been made aware) cis and straight. In the office we were working in, which had between fifty and eighty people working there over the few years I was there, there was no point at which there were more than three women working there — usually there were only two, and one was the admin/receptionist.
I don’t want to say conclusively that the blame for that lies all in one direction of course, but there were a *lot* of nerdy men working there, and not a lot of radical feminists…
Man can hurt. Men can hurt badly, and in ways that women can’t really understand. Not enough is done about those types of hurt, and not enough is done to even acknowledge that they exist.
But that doesn’t mean male privilege is not real. In fact, as far as I can see, male privilege is in large part the cause of those hurts. Well-meaning men like Scott Aaronson or myself (and Aaronson definitely means well — he’s one of the good guys) should acknowledge that despite those hurts, we are still in many other ways the beneficiaries of a huge systematic imbalance in power, and that correcting that will, as well as being the right thing to do morally, get rid of those hurts. And it will also get rid of the horrors that women go through, as Laurie Penny describes, and if we do it properly it’ll get rid of the suffering that people who are neither men nor women go through, which I can only imagine is not comparable to either and probably worse than both.
We need to get rid of the state of society in which anyone at all feels that their gender expression or (consensual) sexual desires are wrong, or disgusting, or make them less than human, so no-one has to feel like Aaronson did. There’s a whole movement devoted to doing just that. It’s called feminism.
[Note about comments: This post discusses both my own personal life in a way I’m very far from comfortable doing in public, and political issues which can often lead to very heated discussion. I am going to be far firmer than normal about deleting comments and banning commenters, and am going to ask that if you’re going to make a nitpicky or angry comment you first reread the whole post at least three times to make sure that I actually said what you think you said, and that you then bear in mind the comment policy an internet friend has in place, which I think will be useful here — “Your comment should be at least two out of kind, interesting, useful & correct. If you can’t manage that, don’t post it.”
Also, a favour — in the unlikely event you share this on Facebook, please don’t tag me. There are people I’m FB friends with, who I believe are not regular readers of this blog, and who I would rather didn’t see this.]
I was about to post a short review of Lawrence Burton’s excellent Faction Paradox novel and Phil Purser-Hallard’s equally excellent Senor 105 novella (a post which will go up tomorrow or Monday instead), when I went to the Obverse Books website to get links to put in the post, and saw this.
Obverse are putting out, next year, an anthology of Faction Paradox short stories, and it’s to be written entirely by women. From the FAQ:
Are unpublished women writers welcome?
Extremely! I’ll be setting up an (optional) online workshop so that the anthology’s contributors can read and give feedback on each others’ work.
If you have not previously been published, please include the first thousand words of your story with your pitch.
Why an all-woman anthology?
The majority of the writers published by Obverse so far have been men. This anthology is an attempt to circumvent whatever barriers are preventing Obverse from connecting with a larger number of talented women.
I’m a transwoman. Can I pitch?
Absolutely! You too, genderqueer folks.
What do I need to know about Faction Paradox to write for this anthology?
Other than what’s in this document – pretty much nothing! I’ll provide Faction-related content in the form of small stories that fit between each story in the anthology, featuring Tefen and Triphis and their competition. However, if you are familiar with the series, feel free to use its mythology in your pitch.
If you would like to know more, Lawrence Miles’ introduction to his creation is online at:
What genres and styles of short story can I pitch?
Each story needs a strong science fiction or fantasy element. We might see the Earth conquered by extraterrestrials, machines, memes, ghosts, mermaids, intelligent cosmic rays, mutant dogs, gods from a parallel dimension… the more original and weird your invasion force, the better. (Please avoid these heavily used fantasy creatures: vampires, werewolves, fairies, dragons, and zombies.)
However, the stories can present that SF/fantasy element within any genre: romance, horror, comedy, espionage, adventure, police procedural, technothriller, historical intrigue, psychological drama, you name it.
Any setting on Earth is appropriate, and any time, past, present, or future. The well-researched use of non-Western settings, culture, and mythology is encouraged. Characters of colour, characters with disabilities, and characters with alternative sexualities are also welcome. Adult content is fine, but please avoid sexual violence and child sexual abuse.
The stories can be told from the point of view of the subjugated humans – victims, collateral damage, resistance, collaborators, dupes, ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives – or from the POV of the conquerors; but each story will show some of the consequences of colonisation for the human race.
Now, I think this would be a perfect anthology for several of the women I know to submit to. Note especially that *you do not need to know much about Faction Paradox* in order to submit. I also think that this is something that should be supported wholeheartedly — Obverse are a company that put out great work, and it’s always good to see people consciously trying to fix an imbalance.
I’ve not mentioned this before, because the book’s not even finished yet, so there’s every possibility they’ll turn down the finished manuscript and make me look foolish, but the novel I’ve been working on is for Obverse, and I also have a short story in contention for a possible future anthology they’re putting out. I say this just to let people know that I’ve had dealings with two different Obverse editors as a writer, and they are very, very easy people to work with.