The Gospel According to Benedict, by Aaron Hicklin
I'm sure different people reading any sizeable piece will zero in on different aspects of it. For me, the thing I kept coming back to was the tone. It wasn't so much the substance of what Benedict said as how he said it. He swears a bit (F-bombs, mostly). He groans at his fans taking notice of him during the interview (the "florals"). And the words Mr. Hicklin uses to describe his fans ("rabid," "rapacious," "Cumerbitches," even the choice to use Cumberbatch's descriptive of those fans as "florals") doesn't help either. But thinking about this, the thing that really jumped out at me was the way Benedict seems to be having a bad day. On the subject of perhaps over-intense spotlight and fannish attention:
"I've spent a lot of time getting to where I've gotten by observing human behavior, so I'm really sensitive to it anyway," he says. "And you can't help but feel that you're on show, which on good days is fine – you breeze through it, and do whatever you do as a performer and a human being to just feel relaxed and comfortable in your own skin. But we all have days when we'd rather not show our face for whatever reason – because we're hungover, withdrawn, whatever it may be, physical or emotional. And then it's really hard. It's really, really hard, because you just don't want to engage with it."
I can relate to this in my own small way because I've been teaching university cases and living in the neighborhood of the school. You run into students, former and present, and in a few cases it's actually been with their family. So there's a fear or at least hesitance about running out in sweatpants and a t-shirt, even if it's just to get a half-gallon of milk from the grocery store. Or not being able to go out to dinner in the neighborhood and be able to read your book without people walking over and wanting to say hey. I have such a small portion of what an actual celebrity would have, and even there I know it can get tired after a while. What I noticed, though, was the very first thing that the interviewer said on sitting down: "We've barely sat down at our banquette at Gin Joint [...] when Cumberbatch curses gently under his breath: 'Oh lord, here we go, here we go.'" This isn't the reaction of a man on a good day who just breezes through it.
Writers and editors make all kinds of choices in how they put things together, for all sorts of reasons. And readers make the same choices (sometimes at a subconscious level) I don't consider myself a "Cumberbitch" (I usually opt for "Cumbercookie," myself) in the hardcore sense these days. I like him, think he's adorably geeky, and like seeing him happy and awkward, but if I'm attached to any entertainer these days it's probably Mark Gatiss. But I am a Sherlockian and I definitely like thinking positive things about him. So psychologically primed to think the big mean reporter is being unfair to him. But I do think there's an element of being presented a certain picture here, of some facts being used and others not, choosing to paraphrase or use a certain quote, that leaves me thinking that we are being primed to think of Benedict, and this interview in particular, under certain guises. I'm biased and it's hard to get away from that, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong.
And reading this interview, I think I was most struck by a sense of "Ugh, these women!" (meaning I got the sense the interviewer, and possibly Cumberbatch as well, had that impression). Context matters here. For a man sitting down to dinner, to react negatively and have his companion ask what the problem is and say "the florals" to identify which people he's reacting to is one thing; for a reporter to include that exact phrase in an put-together print piece when he could have said "the women Cumberbatch had indicated" is quite another, and for him to keep using it (there are three other reference to "the florals") is quite another. "Florals" to me hearkens back to Laura Ashley, girls in back-to-school finest and older women who wear too much perfume. It's cloyingly feminine. And I'm trying hard not to trade in stereotypes here, but I can't quite forget the fact that this was written for a magazine geared toward the gay community – to the male gay community, if the other articles on the site are any indication.. And I can't get past this idea that women are silly and simplistic and just not worth our time.
I know not all gay men are misogynistic, or even more likely to be misogynistic than lower-class men from middle America. I do think that, to the extent they are, it's more likely to take a different form, and I do smell a bit of this wafting in from the offings. Perhaps unintentionally.
I suspect there's also a class issue at work here. Sometimes it's blatant, like with the concerns that the Cumberbatch fans were treating a production of "Hamlet" like a One Direction concert. To the extent that these are American women and teenage girls buying up all the tickets, they're doing it not just to see Benedict but to see him playing Shakespeare. They're not buying a calendar, and they're not even hounding him at ComicCon. I know people who are going to see the play or would have if they could have gotten their hands on tickets, and they may be from flyover country, but they're not unsophisticated intellectually or about art. The metas I've seen them produce about Sherlock, and the fanfics and the fan art – actually, strike the "fan" part because while it is part of that community, it also operates as fiction and art to go toe to toe with anything I've seen commercially, including the BBC show itself – all of that speaks to a sophistication and maturity. They may not be rich, they may have gone to a public high school and even a state university rather than Harrow like Benedict and Cambridge/Oxford like Sherlock (per the common interpretation of Sebastian's references to coming down to "Public Hall"), but they're not treating this as just a chance to meet Benedict and maybe get an autograph if they're lucky.
Those are some rather obvious classist moments. I think they come from Hicklin more than Cumberbatch himself (but again with the same proviso that I'm psychologically primed to excuse Benedict and blame Hicklin), but whatever the case I think they explain a lot of the harsh depiction of the fanfic – and particularly the slash, doubly so the Johnlock, corners – is probably very influenced by this. I was struck in particular by this part (this passage gets a bit NSFW, so be forewarned...):
"People keep coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, he's so sexy, do you think [Sherlock would be] interested in me?' " says Cumberbatch. "Do you not think he'd just look at you twice and tell you everything you hate about yourself and crumple you up like a little bit of paper and flick you away? He's a machine and brutal and ruthless and has no time for the distractions of your fawning. Because, you know, they either want to make John [Watson] into a sort of cute little toy, or me into a cute toy, or we're fucking in space on a bed, chained together."
Cumberbatch is referring to the rapacious slash fiction community that has turned his chilly, acerbic, and distinctly asexual Sherlock into a lustful cock monster. "It's always, like, one of them is tired, one comes back from work, the other is horny, a lump appears in his trousers, and then they're at it," he says. "It's usually me getting it – I'm biting Watson's dog tags."
Where to start with this? I could give you the whole "Johnlock 101" spiel here, but really, I have to wonder whether anyone who can apply the adjectives "chilly" and "asexual" to Sherlock has really fully understood the most recent series. Just off the top of my head, what about the "goldfish" conversation in TEH, his reaction to being told he's John's best friend, that final farewell on the Tarmac, or really most of Sherlock's best man speech says emotionally old? And is asexual really the best reading of this character, in light of the frankly sexual coding of their investigation of the Mayfly Man's apartment, especially in light of the knee-grope conversation? I'm not saying these characters can only be read as sexually interested in each other, but surely we can at least admit that people who have read Doyle's stories or watched Team Moffat's TV show and not seen just a great mind but also an arguably greater heart aren't reacting to nothing? I get that you can read these works without seeing a budding romance between the two leads, but it's not delusional to see that content either.
I really do think there's something gendered going on here, where someone rational who goes out into the world and saves the world is good drama but those silly women with wanting their relationship and their sex and what-not – how dull. I also think he's missing the point of the question. It's not that we want to fawn over him, much less have him see us in that light. To the extent that women want to self-insert into 221B (and I know some women do; I've never really felt that impulse that I'm aware of), I think it's that they want to be John Watson. We want to be in awe of him, overwhelmed even, but we also want to be his equal and want to be his equal, his full partner, emotionally and otherwise. That's what it means to love and be loved – fawning really doesn't enter it. And more generally, I think it's a big mistake to treat the story taking place in a more traditionally-masculine, public space as legitimate where the story taking place in the more traditionally-feminine, private (household) space isn't. The Doyle stories so often involved both of them. The BBC episodes, certainly in the first two series, include that as well. It's what kept most of us coming back. But I think a lot of stories that are considered successful seem to minimize the domestic approach to focus on heroes and dragon-slaying to the exclusion of the quieter moments that give a more rounded picture of characters. For whatever reason these are aspects that a lot of women (not all women, or even only women, but for whatever reason there does seem to be a connection) find important. I'd even go so far as to say that fanfic has always been about filling these gaps readers see, gaps that are so often felt particularly by women. It's about relationship and building character and building a life together – all the stuff you don't have to do once the bullets (crucio curses, orc arrows, whatever) start flying but that you need to have in place all the same. It's at its heart egalitarian.
As a side-note – and I'm fully aware, I've already said entirely too much about this – I think Benedict has a really crappy understanding of the fandom. Of fanfic and fanart in particular. I know the story about John and Sherlock chained to a bed in space (though is there sex involved? I wasn't aware of that). It's a bit of a fandom joke, marvelously done to be sure but I never got the impression it was meant to be taken all that seriously. I also know at least one example of Sherlock biting John's dogtags, and let me tell you, it's hot as hell in context (or for that matter out of context), and I'm not one to criticize it. But if you think there's anything at all wrong with it, at least be aware that there are wonderful stories doing wonderful work at just the kind of psychological issues Benedict seems so drawn to. There are people trying to explain the aftermath of the John-Mary-Sherlock dynamic, however it turns out. Also, the Reichenbach Fall and doing a damned better job than Team Moffat has done to date. It's not all smut, and even the smut, at least the bits I read, have use the sex to show something about the characterizations. It's not "just" two guys going at it like particularly horny rabbits. I'm not saying that would be a bad thing, but if people think this is somehow not quite respectable, it's worth pointing out that it's far from the only kind of fanfic being written. I get why Mr. Cumberbatch wouldn't choose to expose himself – he's busy, and his work needs a bit of psychological distance from the people consuming it. I don't expect him to troll AO3 or Tumblr, and I wouldn't even recommend it. But to use an analogy I developed with a friend this morning, if for some reason all you know about gay culture is the racier bits of gay pride parades, there may well be a reason for that ignorance and it may even be a good one, but the least you can do is recognize your limited perspective.
This is really interesting to me because the gay community probably does have some very real gripes against the slash fandom. I don't think all slash fetishizes gay relationships, but there are probably some people who think this is a way they can be a bit edgy and progressive, the way when I was a teenager it was important to have a black friend because that meant you were open-minded, not because Kevin was actually a cool guy worth hanging out with. A lot of people tend to think sex isn't complete unless the male penis penetrates the other person's body, which has always struck me as basically turning a gay couple into a male/female one. The whole language of "tops" and "bottoms" and the psychological connections people sometimes make there (being penetrated = being sexually submissive, doing the penetrating = being the "man" = making the decisions sexually), which is not only imposing mainstream heterosexual norms onto a homosexual relationship, but doing it in a pretty retrograde, heteronormative fashion.
(Good God, I have been hanging out on Tumblr too long, haven't I?)
But my point being, I can see how an interview for a gay men's magazine may not be the most understanding, affirming place for a description of slash fiction. It doesn't mean I have to like it or agree with it, but I do wonder how much of that is entering into this interview. For Benedict's part, again, I can empathize here. He's old enough and clearly wants a family – actually older than me by several years (thirty-eight to my thirty-two) – and while I don't have any desire for kids or a relationship myself, I know the feeling of wondering whether you're thoroughly successful and established as an adult, absent that. The baby thing makes me wonder if I'm a "real" woman sometimes, and with the way gender works in our family, I can see still getting established in that area leaving Benedict a bit susceptible to having people he's never met write about someone with his body doing things with his body that he'd never choose to do and sharing that with the whole internet – that can be uncomfortable. Particularly if he's just seeing the most pornographic examples, or if it's just an abstract idea rather than something you have a lot of exposure to. You don't have to be homophobic for that to impact your masculinity or feelings of virility, I don't think.
Which brings me to another theme in this episode: the idea that fans (predominantly female, predominantly young, predominantly of a social class that apparently doesn't know how to handle themselves with decorum around celebrities) always want more of Benedict than he's prepared or able to give.
"The worst thing is when you have guard dogs, because then it just becomes an extension of you," he explains. Recently at Comic-Con in San Diego, to publicize both Penguins and The Hobbit, he was caught in just such a moment, after bodyguards blocked the crowd as he exited to a waiting car. "People were literally dragged off the streets [crying]. 'I just wanted an autograph.' It's horrible. And then I get into the back of an SUV, going, 'Sorry,' and this one girl goes, 'Yeah, whatever,' with tears in her eyes. It's not fucking me. I can't control an ex-military security man who's just had a whole day of it, and just thinks he'll lose his job if he doesn't punch some poor teenage girl in the face to give me an inch more room to breathe."
He's right, it's not fucking him – but I'm pretty sure it's not fucking us as well. It's the situation, and the economics, and no one quite being sure where to draw the lines these days. Because on the one hand, we are only entitled to his performance and not to his personal life. Cons and even live plays where you work the crowd are a bit of a greyer area because you have people paying more for more intimate access so you're drawing a finer distinction to begin with. Some fans clearly cross the line; other lines (and I'd put this person in that category, based on this sketch) aren't so much crossing a line as being frustrated and put out by it. And from what I've seen of Cumberbatch, he apologizes for these kinds of situations, he seems sorry to disappoint his fans. I'd say he's not very good where fans expect more than he has time or ability to give – even in situations when they've been promised (implicitly or explicitly) or been led to expect that. It's not his fault he couldn't sign that one more interview – but it's also not unreasonable for this girl who probably saved up and has been looking to Comic Con for months now, and maybe standing in line for an hour or more, to be disappointed when he has to leave. Particularly if she's close enough to make this kind of an impression. Sometimes there are lose-lose situations where someone is disappointed or even gipped, and it's not always because the other person did them wrong.
Things can get a bit murkier, IMO, because Benedict has often used his fame for good causes and to advance his careers. The ALS ice bucket challenge is a great example of this.
The man has sat around what I can only assume is his home and drenched himself. Repeatedly. In one case, all but inviting us (through the camera which is our take on the whole thing) into the shower with him. He's accompanied his mother to a flower show, given us glimpses of the two of them hanging out. He chose to take his on-screen persona and have his off-screen, actual parents play his onscreen parents (or at least was ready enough to go along with it, as it wasn't his choice). He does a video response to receiving an award in his swimming trunks, and photo shoots that are seductive and intimate, just him sitting around his house. These things matter. He's breaking the fourth wall in more or less daring ways, and it gives his fans a sense of familiarity and connection with him that let him raise massive amounts for charity or sell out a three-month showing of "Hamlet" within minutes. But that sense of familiarity also makes it easy to get over-invested. At some level that's not his doing or his responsibility, but it is a not unreasonable or unpredictable response to his own actions.
That doesn't mean, of course, that he should feel bad for having to turn away, or shouldn't resent impositions into his personal life when people cross the line by taking a photo of him behind the scenes or in his personal life that gets leased to the public. My point is this is a new situation we're all trying to navigate our way through, and it's not always clear just where the boundaries are or should be. I also think we're coming up against different expectations between being a Hollywood star and a British superstar actor, that culturally people who run in these circles are still trying to sort out and parse. It's messy. That's understandable, perhaps unavoidable, and I get that. I guess I just resent having it sound like this all comes down to those women being the ones to cross the particular line.
One other thing that jumped out to me about this interview was when Benedict got a bit philosophical. I know, I know – I've got philosophical training and framework I bring with me when I read things like this that people without that experience just don't, and it's not fair for me to expect actors to always operate at that level. Still, he talks a fair bit about tolerance and intolerance and whether true tolerance means tolerating people whatever they do. As he says, "And, I believe, the older you get, you have to have an idea of what's right or wrong. You can't have unilateral tolerance. You have to have a point where you go, 'Well, religious fundamentalism is wrong.'"
("Paging Aristotle, Ward 6. Paging Aris...")
The thing that's so frustrating to me isn't that he thinks this. It's a perfectly respectable philosophical perspective, but one I don't think he's wholly fleshed out here – what right and wrong mean, what it means to tolerate if you're not just going to say whatever you believe, that's okay – if tolerance means something other than letting the idea run its course, or if it only applies to some beliefs but not others. To his credit, this is also something a lot of smart people have worked for significantly longer than he's had on and still don't have a good answer. But something about what he says here makes it seem like this is a simple thing, you say religious fundamentalists shouldn't be humored or given leeway and *poof* we now have a tolerant world.
There's also that element of class privilege working its way into play here.
He describes hearing a ruckus in the street one afternoon. [[Marta: I get the impression this was in the school dormitory at Harrow, though I could be wrong.]] "These kids were chasing this poor kid, and they came into my house, breathless – a Sikh, a Jordanian prince, an Indian, and a Nigerian. I said, 'Stop, stop, stop, stop,' because they all just came charging down the corridor, and I said. 'What just happened?' and they told me, 'It's disgusting, isn't it?' And I went, 'No, your behavior is fucking disgusting. How would you feel if you were chased because you have a turban, or you were chased because of the color of your skin, or you were chased because of your religion? It's about being an individual. You can't tolerate that? Are you sick in the head?' And they were like, 'What? No. Why, are you gay?' And I said, 'No, but I can clearly see that you're bullies. You're just nasty human beings.' "
It's not that I disagree with him here. Chasing kids because they're "other" is wrong. What gets me is this assumption that it's so incomprehensible that people could react this way other than being a bully. If we're talking about school days with other posh boys at Harrow, that may be the case – there's really no reason other than being a bully and wanting to feel bigger than everyone else to be singling kids like this out. But he seems genuinely surprised and disgusted that gay people still face problems qua gay people anywhere in society. I agree, they shouldn't – but there's something about his bafflement about it that makes me think he's coming from such affluence, it could escape him how important it is to feel like the people you're working with are trustworthy and like you. I agree with him, gay people shouldn't face any more difficulties in any area of society than non-gay people. But I think when you're more aware of scarce resources, that kind of discrimination is still wrong but perhaps more understandable as a response to the situation. It's a rather superficial understanding of how bigotry flourishes, and seems like it has to come from a place where you're utterly sure you'll have what you need to live well. It comes from, as the article describes the stereotypical Harrow background, a "posh boy."
And that doesn't sit well with me. I don't know how much of this is Benedict himself and how much of this is the author choosing which parts to present, but it makes this jump you see sometimes from recognizing that A shouldn't happen to thinking that anyone who doesn't agree with A must somehow be mentally deficient. This was, interestingly enough (and yes I really can be this much of an odd duck) the most disappointing part of the piece for me. Not because I'm homophobic or want to make room for such people, but it seemed to be such a sheltered exposure to what drives a lot of human behavior. It's kind of like how John gets furious with Sherlock in "Performers in a Leading Role," the way Sherlock judges his acting choices to go for financial sure things without really having any sense of what would lead a gifted actor to make that kind of a decision. Until you've seen your dad scrounging through garbage bins, how can you really know?
(I know I've said this twice already, but I keep thinking I need to emphasize it once more: I'm not saying the attitudes Benedict is objecting to are okay. They're really not. But this isn't about whether I agree with those attitudes it's about understanding them and what motivates them and not writing it all off as willful bullying.)
At the end of the day, this interview was a bit frustrating and disappointing to me. But I'm not sure that's such a bad thing – it's made me think about how I relate to the celebrities whose work I follow, how important it is that I agree with them, and also how much of what I think I know about them is filtered in a way that can be hard to account for. It also has me wondering, even as I write this, whether I have stereotypes about gay people and rich people working in how I read comments by them, and how accurate those bits are. Self-reflection like this is almost always a good thing, and working out that I don't have to agree with the famous people whose roles have touched me – that they're allowed to be actual people, and so am I – seems like a deeply human activity.
Just not always a pleasant or easy one. To be fair, though, few worthwhile things are.
(ETA: Apologies to anyone who receives an email whenever I edit a post. I think I finally tracked down that missing blockquote tag but not before editing this one about seven times...)