One of the biggest questions in the Sherlock fandom is whether to “ship” John and Sherlock. In fandom lingo, that roughly means whether you characterize them (in your thoughts, your fanwork, etc.) as more than just really good friends. I’ve always said that to my mind, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote them as very close but Platonic friends, and that in the BBC version Watson is thoroughly heterosexual while Sherlock is simply not interested in sex. I still stand by those statements, as an interpretations of the ACD and BBC canon.
I’ve grown incredibly frustrated with having to say the words “I’m not a Johnlock shipper, but…” For one thing, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock fanfiction, including a fair bit of Johnlock. Not because I’ve sought it out, precisely, but because it’s been recommended to me. Also, because it’s usually a better bit in any given fanfic that Johnlock will get the intensity of the relationship and the way the two men in the BBC series rely on each other to deal with their respective psychological problems and find a degree of healing, much more than I’ve seen in non-romantic looks at this relationship. As I’ve thought about the nature of friendship and read that A.C. Grayling book getting ready to blog about it, one of the things I’ve been struck by is how thin the line between intense friendship and romantic attachment can be. A friendship can be complete and good without having anything to do with romance or sex, of course. But the things that make it complete are usually at the heart of a good Johnlock romance, too.
That’s only half the problem, though. Increasingly I’ve noticed an undercurrent to the people who say they don’t view John and Sherlock as romantically involved. To be clear, this isn’t everyone. I’m sure some people reading this who’ve watched the show see John and Sherlock as just truly good friends without John. There’s a part of me that finds that attractive, because as someone with very low sex drive myself (I’m much more interested in sexuality and gender as abstract topics rather than actually having a relationship of any kind), I find it very attractive that someone could have a full life without it revolving around sex. It’s affirming.
But there are also some circles where saying you’re not a Johnlock shipper takes on a much uglier tone. There’s almost a defiance, a self-martyrdom involved. And there’s almost always a certainty that they’re more serious, more faithful than people who choose to write or think of John and Sherlock as romantic partners. Here are just some of the memes I’ve seen that made this point today:
To be fair, on the third one, I posted a version of it today on FaceBook with the caption that this was the closest John and Sherlock came to holding hands outside of fanfic. There’s a way to share it that actually pokes fun at fannish tendencies and can be quite cute. But I’ve since seen this picture shared multiple places, each time with multiple (and distinct) comments to the affect of “That’s the only acceptable Johnlock.”
“Acceptable” makes my skin crawl a bit, at least in the context of fanfic. The whole point of fanfic and fandom generally is that there are things left unsettled by the original author, which we fans have the freedom to offer our own takes on. Fandom is not an invitation to impose your interpretation on other fans and take away their freedom to interpret it differently; it’s a chance to invite other people into our imaginations, to try on different ways of approaching the stories. It thrives on multiple, parallel subcreations to use a Tolkien term. To say one is the only acceptable spin really goes against all the reasons I love reading and writing fanfic. It’s my job to prove my take on things is plausible; not that it’s definitively correct.
It’s the first meme, and to a lesser extent the second, that really pushed me over the edge, though. The clear implication (particularly as it was framed by the person who posted it) is that a romantic relationship between Molly and Sherlock is more valid than one between John and Sherlock. The thing is, while canon is certainly not definitively on the side of Johnlock, there’s a lot – I’d argue at least as much as there is for Molly and Sherlock, or anyone else on the show. One particular fan video looking at some of that subtext (spoilers through Reichenbach):
My point isn’t that either Arthur Conan Doyle or Steven Moffat actually intend Sherlock and Watson to be romantically involved. I don’t think they do. But I also see exactly where the people who see a romance between these two characters would get that impression. They are engaging with and extrapolating from the source, just like fans of any other non-canonical interpretation do. And they do have a fairly solid place to start from in that interpretation.
So, why do I “ship” John and Sherlock? A couple of reasons:
1 – I find the interpretation plausible. This doesn’t mean it’s the first interpretation that occurred to me, but there’s enough in the canon (at least the BBC version) that this pairing doesn’t come out of left-field. On top of the video, I linked above, a few things are worth noting:
a) In their first meal together at Angelo’s, Sherlock assumes John is flirting with him. This is a man who’s usually right.
b) Sherlock corrects everyone about everything – but never about the possibility that he and John are a couple.
c) Mrs. Watson assumes Sherlock and John are a couple at their first meeting. Mycroft jokes about it. Irene hints at the possibility. Jeanette (John’s girlfriend in “Bohemia”) refers to Sherlock as John’s girlfriend. Even the press calls John a confirmed bachelor.
So I think people who want to put these two men into a romantic relationship aren’t actually coming out of left field. There’s a lot of canon to look at as evidence of a romantic relationship. Also a lot of evidence if you choose not to read them that way. My point is, this seems like a valid way to work within the framework of the show.
2 – But more importantly I find the interpretation meaningful. Outside of canonically gay couples like the Alec/Richard pairing in Swordspoint, I’ve really only “shipped” one gay couple: Boromir and Theodred in Lord of the Rings. It’s not that I can’t write a fanfic story or enjoy someone else’s that involved other gay characters; it’s just not part of my personal head canon. To get to that point, I need more than just possibility; I need some kind of emotional or sexual connection that actually makes the characters work. And the more Johnlock I read, the more of that I’m able to see. John and Sherlock have a very close relationship. They live together, they work together, and Sherlock at least doesn’t give John room to develop his romantic lives. A romantic relationship on either of their counts will pretty much require a reformulation of their friendship. Even if you don’t think they have a romantic relationship, it’s entirely too easy to write this friendship as a functional romance even if there’s not actually any romantic love or emotional attachment or sex involved, and I think if I were to write (say) John’s dating and eventual marriage to Mary Morstan (in the ACD stories; no clue if she’ll show up in the BBC series). If I was writing John’s and Mary’s marriage, I would probably think of Sherlock along the lines of “the other woman” or at least an ex who’s now his BFF.
More than that, though, I think the two men are really natural complements to each other. Sherlock is an exceptionally intelligent man who struggles to express emotion; John is exceptionally well in-tune with his emotions and has a strong moral compass, but is only above-average intelligence (not genius territory like Sherlock). And they offer each other something that completes the other. they’re the kind of person I can see so easily growing old together, it makes me ache when I remember ACD eventually has them losing touch. There’s a measure of love involved here, certainly a close enough bond that if it’s not romantic love, it’s the kind of friendship that looks an awful lot like love. They are emotionally invested in each other and trust each other’s judgment (by Reichenbach, it’s John who’s quietly telling Sherlock how to thread social situations, kind of like an old married couple at a party).
This could be interpreted as friendship, yeah. But there’s enough going on here that interpreting it a different way seems valid and like it’s really an interesting way of engaging with the story. We’re not talking about two men who simply were unattached to anyone else, but didn’t have any other kind of chemistry going for them. Which leads me to:
3 – Quite aside from the canon, John and Sherlock just make a very cute couple. They are fun to imagine in situations in the kind of situations an established romantic pair would find themselves in. I want to imagine them just spending time together, pottering around the house between cases, sharing the holidays, even raise a kid (itty-bitty Hamisch and once he gets a bit older), and even growing old together. It’s not that this is what I think Doyle or Moffat imagined, or even that it’s the natural, most likely interpetation of the show. but it’s an extrapolation that I really do enjoy, as far as extrapolation goes. Imagine a warm family life for those two extending into old age where Sherlock keeps bees and John no longer needs the thrill of the chase to keep the nightmares away? I can dig it.
4 – And finally: I simply don’t want to paint myself with the same brushstroke as people I find offensive. Offensive may be too strong a word, actually. Everyone is free to interpret how they see a certain character, and even in the BBC series (which I’d say is the most Johnlock-friendly I’ve come across), there’s plenty of reason to think John and Sherlock aren’t involved. But in my experience there is a part of the Sherlock fandom that tends to take real satisfaction in establishing the Serious Fan (TM) bonafides by delegitimizing people who write Sherlock and Watson as a couple. Who tend to get frustrated that other people write and portray this relationship – that somehow one person’s interpretation crowds out another person’s freedom to make up their own mind. On the other hand, I’ve found the Johnlock shippers for the most part are more willing to let other people make up their mind and present this as one possibility among many.
Which really is the straw that broke this camel’s back. I’ve been leaning toward Johnlock for a while, not quite as how I view canon, but as a world that I could slip into more and more easily, that felt like an increasingly non-AUish alternate universe. I could enjoy stories that posited Johnlock and see them as how I wished things were, and in the best of stories it was a spin that seemed like a plausible way of reading the stories, a way they might actually be.
I’m not sure I would have made the leap from seeing Johnlock stories as someone else’s imagining to how I really see them in my own imaginings if I hadn’t been pushed there. But in the end it wasn’t such a big leap to say: this is the mode of fannish exploration I’m ultimately most comfortable with.