For the fourth day of Sherlock, I’m supposed to share my favorite quote from the show. Just one quote. That would be impossible in a normal show, much less Sherlock, but as it turns out, there’s a moment I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Plus it gives me an excuse to talk about slash in the Sherlock fandom, which is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I really think it’s a question of interest to people who don’t know the first thing about Sherlock, if they deal with slash (either writing it or resisting slash interpretations) in any fandom. So even if you’re not a Sherlock fan like me, please do bear with me.
The moment comes from “The Blind Banker.”
While Sherlock and John try to track down who’s murdering people smuggling things out of China, John manages to get a bit of a private life going on. He secures a job since his vet benefits aren’t providing enough to live on, and he’s successfully asked his boss at the clinic out on a date. Trouble is, Sherlock wants to go out that night (as they did the previous night) murderer-hunting. John explains he can’t, and ends up having to explain the whole concept of a date to Sherlock:
Watson: Actually I’ve got a date.
Watson: It’s where two people who like each other go out and have fun.
Sherlock: That’s what I was suggesting.
Watson: No it wasn’t. At least I hope not.
Sherlock eventually suggests a particular circus, which turns out to be from China, and then Sherlock turns up. Apparently he’d called back after John reserved the tickets and got one for himself. He’s literally crashing his entirely-platonic-why-do-you-ask flatmate’s date. Leading to this nifty little exchange:
Sherlock: Exit Visas are scarce in China. They need a pretty good reason to get out of that country. Now all I need to do is have a quick look around the place.
Watson: Fine. You do that I’m going to take Sarah for a pint.
Sherlock: I need your help!
Watson: I do have a couple of other things on my mind this evening.
Sherlock: Like what?
Watson: You are kidding.
Sherlock: What’s so important?
Watson: Sherlock, I am right in the middle of a date. You want to chase some killer while I’m trying—
Watson: While I’m trying to get off with Sarah!
… at which point Sarah walks up behind them, overhearing the whole conversation. It’s one of the most embarrassing, flat-out hilarious moments in the series and entirely underrated. But it’s also got some deeper significance, I think. In “A Study in Pink,” John is drawn to the battlefield, to th excitement of pursuing criminals. Fine. But soldiers don’t get to have a personal life. They don’t get to have girlfriends, at least not in that same part of their lives where they’re actively fighting. This sets up quite nicely the fact that John is being torn between his desire for an epic struggle on the one hand and a normal life on the other – the two simply don’t go together, at least not when Sherlock is entering the mix.
Which leads me to the slash issue. If you’re reading this and you don’t write fanfic, slash is usually a romantic or sexual relationship between two characters of the same gender. And the Sherlock fandom divides fairly neatly into the Johnlock contingent (folks who think there’s a romantic relationship between John and Sherlock) and those that think they’re just good friends. Here’s the challenge: if they’re good friends, they’re really good friends – the kind of friendship that make cross-gender friendship seem so implausible for most people. And in a world where homosexuality and in particular bisexuality is really accepted as a non-issue as it seems to be here, same-gender friendships would be just as challenging.
I think in the late 1800s, when the Arthur Conan Doyle stories were published and set, husbands and wives really did occupy a separate place on the emotional landscape than platonic good friends like Sherlock and Watson. There were some things you did with your mates that you simply didn’t do with your wife, because of different gender roles and because of the purpose of marriage in that period (I’m just guessing, but… domestic stability? raising the next generation? that kind of thing). So if Watson got dragged off by Sherlock to go have a cigar or two at the club that wouldn’t be seen as a threat to Watson’s and Mary’s (Watson’s wife in the ACD stories) relationship – it’s just not the kind of thing Watson and Mary would have been doing together anyway.
But does that nice division of labor still work in 2013? I’m not married, but the way I think of marriage, it’s supposed to be the most important relationship in your life. This is why cross-gender relationships are so tricky: if a married woman becomes really close – not romantically involved, just good friends – with a male friend, at some point that can take on the emotional dynamic of a marriage. And in the age of gay marriage and equal acceptance for LGBT people we see in Sherlock, that’s not going to be restricted to opposite-gender relationships. Sarah could be forgiven for wondering just what’s going on when Sherlock turns up, and in the next scene when Sherlock keeps leaning over and explaining what’s going on to John, as she’s trying to cozy up to him? There’s a very real competition going on here.
Here’s the thing, though: even if you don’t think John and Sherlock are romantically involved, their friendship would still present a challenge to any serious romantic relationship either of them might form. This isn’t a pre-feminist world where men did things with other men they simply didn’t do with women. And it’s not a quest situation, where Harry can go off with Hermione to destroy the horcruxes without that interfering with the Harry/Ginny relationship. This is their daily lives, and if either Sherlock or John is to ever have a successful romantic relationship, they’re going to have to balance that against the intense friendship between the two men. Because that friendship is emotionally intense, if nothing else, and it’s operating in the same world where both of the men are trying to pursue romance.
At some level, I’m not sure it really matters whether John and Sherlock are romantically involved. The level of emotional intimacy means even a purely platonic friendship will be a challenge to any romantic interests either men might have. I think this is a real challenge for anyone writing close male friendship in the modern era. Think House’s and Wilson’s friendship in “House M.D.,” for instance, or Bashir’s and O’Brien’s in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” I don’t mean to suggest true friendship is impossible, that romance has to be closer than friendship. Quite the contrary – my point is that whether it’s romantic or not, in today’s day and age intense friendship often involves the same emotional bonds that are so important in romance.
All of which means, if you do want to write men like Sherlock and John as platonic friends, you still have to deal with the fact that that crowds out and impacts the way those men can go after romance. Sarah is truly patient in this scene and the ones coming after it. But really, as much as she might like John, I’m not sure the two of them had much of a chance here.
For the record, I don’t think of Sherlock as gay. I see him as asexual, or perhaps drawn to the qualities like intelligence you see in both genders. So if Sherlock’s attracted to anyone, it’s to their mind, not their body – which can mean he’d look an awful lot like a bisexual, except the physical side of gender just isn’t much of a factor for him. The fanfic series which I recently lost myself in described Sherlock as a Johnsexual, someone who wasn’t attracted to men as men but was attracted to people for things like their heart and intelligence and courage without that necessarily being limited by gender. That seems about right to me. (I do enjoy reading other peoples’ take on Johnlock, both because it’s a fascinating topic when done right, and also because –let’s face it– this is Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch we’re talking about here.) The thing is, if I was going to write fanfic, I think I’d treat their relationship like
I think that's why I like Johnlock stories more than non-Johnlock stories, even as I don't read that relationship as sexual myself. The non-Johnlock fanfic I've come across just don't get the degree to which John's and Sherlock's friendship is a roadblock to a serious romantic relationship, for either man. It fascinates me how this dynamic works in modern or futuristic TV, and the way it's much less of an issue in TOlkien or other more historical periods. I'm curious - has anyone who writes or reads slash (or prefers not to) come acorss this issue? Do you see close platonic friendships being a challenge to romance with your favorite characters? Curious on people’s thoughts here.
In any event, poor Sarah never had much of a chance. it’s a pity, since she was a real trooper. But her “date” made for some great comedy, I’ll give her that.