Sherlock Holmes is considered one of the first asexual (or least, ace-coded) characters in media. Even in literature, he shows no interest in romantic or sexual relationships. However, I am focusing (for my own specification on mainstream TV) on the BBC show, Sherlock, for my analysis.
Sherlock takes place in modern-day London. It follows John Watson, back from the war, and his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, in this adaptation, is portrayed as a cold, inhuman genius whose humanity is only revealed rarely.
When Sherlock is first asked about sexuality, he responds, “I consider myself married to my work”(“A Study in Pink”). He is indifferent to sex or romance. This is a stark contrast to Watson, who seeks a new girlfriend almost every week.
Referring to Sherlock’s asexuality, Benedict Cumberbatch says, “He is asexual for a purpose.” Rather than confirming his asexuality, Cumberbatch actually perpetuates negative stereotypes: sexuality is a choice, etc.
Sherlock refers to sex as “trivial.” He does not find fulfillment in romantic and sexual relationships, as evidenced in this scene. Evidently, Sherlock’s aversion to sex shows that he is at least, on the ace spectrum.
Many fans, specifically those who are ace, believe in this idea. “I definitely think he is asexual,” one fan said. “I’m asexual myself and he checks pretty much every asexual box” (TimeandMonotony). Others agree.
So many people believe that Sherlock is ace, that some consider Sherlock to be asexual representation. One viewer joked, “I’m so starved for asexual representation that I’m starting Sherlock” (green). This shows a sad truth, as we asexual people are so starved for content, that we will try to find our own content within these heteronormative shows.
In one of Alexander Doty’s interviews, one interviewee remarked, “‘We’re so starved, we go see anything because something is better than nothing” (8). As a result, this hunger for content becomes a “compromise,” and ultimately, a “given degree of alienation” (8).
Doty’s research, as shown here, reveals the more toxic side of implicit representation. This queerbaiting pushes queer identities to “internalize… heterocentist,” and in this case, acephobic ideas (8).
Sherlock, consequently, falls into a familiar, harmful trope, one that becomes alienating to ace people. Ace characters are often dehumanized. Sherlock is no exception.
In “A Study in Pink,” he is mocked for his lack of emotional expression and disinterest in relationships. In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Irene Adler and Moriarty taunt him, referring to Sherlock as only, “the virgin.” John reflects on his friend after his “death,” as he says, “There were times I didn’t even think you were human.”
But this tension – human vs. inhuman – is what drives the show (Coppa). Scholar Francesca Coppa, in her essay, “Sherlock as Cyborg,” argues, “Cumberbatch’s portrayal… is an almost perfect synthesis of man and machine” (Coppa 211). He self-identifies as a high-functioning sociopath; removes himself from common society not only through his genius, but by this title.
Will Sherlock finally become human? Will he experience actual emotion and break out of this disconnect he has trapped himself in?
These answers we all ache for is one of the more enticing parts of the show. Scholar Lynne Joyrich believes that “solving the mystery of sexual ambiguity” may overtake audiences’ attention rather than plot (29). Consequently, Sherlock’s sexuality is perhaps the only mystery fans care about. This is easily shown by the popular relationship between John Watson and Holmes (commonly known as “Johnlock”), which many fans are invested in. As Coppa writes, “The real drama… turns onto the question of whether or not” Sherlock will develop emotion (namely romantic feelings for John) under Watson’s influence (217).
Sherlock and John’s will they/won’t they relationship becomes exploited too easily. The tension of if or not they will get together (known as queerbaiting) draws many queer fans to the show. To make Sherlock asexual, creator Steven Moffat believes, would end this romantic tension, and the mystery we all care about – what is Sherlock’s sexuality? He said:
It is a double-edge sword; to confirm Sherlock’s ace identity would mean a mainstream asexual character, but it also means to embrace ace stereotypes.
Marks, in his own analysis on asexual representation, remarks, “The few times that a character is shown in television or film as being uninterested in sex (never explicitly asexual though), they are either a juvenile, child-like character, assumed to be too innocent to know or care about sex, or as an evil villain whose life is too full of world domination to care about lowly pleasures” (16). This argument is interesting, as Holmes is not only dehumanized but portrayed within these stereotypes.
Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes
In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock’s encounter with the sexually deviant Irene Adler, makes him examines his own sexual and romantic experience (or in this case, inexperience) and also makes him immature. When forced to go to Buckingham Palace, he acts like a child.
I believe that Sherlock tries to infantilize him in this scene, for us to believe in his sexual inexperience. Or perhaps a better word, is desexualized. In this case, his ace identity has become further stereotyped. His dehumanization is no more evident than in this scene:
Watson – a character we readily associate our desires with – cannot accept Sherlock’s asexuality. This one scene serves to create more tension for Sherlock’s ambiguous sexuality.
The ultimate catalyst, however, is Irene Adler. She is a woman who exudes sexuality (or perhaps another foil against Sherlock’s asexuality). The first time we see her, she is the sexually deviant dominatrix about to be intimate with a woman. The choice to make Adler a lesbian (she canonically says she is gay) is interesting for multiple reasons.
The first reason I argue, is to the dangle the possibility of LGBTQIA visibility for queer audiences. She is an unapologetically confident, queer woman who knows what she wants, but we do not know. The fact that Moffat/Gatniss created a queer interpretation of this character is meant to exploit the hopes of “Johnlock” fans.
This tactic is exemplified in other queerbaiting shows, as Supernatural shows a scene in which Dean and Castiel watch two other men fall in love. The second, however, is to create antagonisms with both Sherlock and her sexuality. Adler repeatedly brags, “I know what he likes,” as her specialty is desire. Sherlock, a man seemingly devoid of it, creates a unique juxtaposition with her.
One fan, Ivy Blossom, believes “Adler” is the “female version of Sherlock,” and that is the cause of Sherlock’s fascination with the character (Blossom). She writes:
“This Irene Adler is a female version of Sherlock, so it’s no wonder they’re fascinated with each other. She literally is, I’m not being metaphorical: look at her. She’s rail thin with high cheekbones. They’ve even styled her hair as an echo of Sherlock’s. She puts on his coat and deduces alongside him. Irene is Sherlock.”Ivy Blossom, Irene is Sherlock
In this case, Adler’s sexuality may suggest that Sherlock does have sexual desire, or “impulses,” as Watson puts it. While making Adler the sexually obsessed one (rather than the man), the writers create more tension with Sherlock’s sexuality. Is he gay? Straight? Throughout the episode with Adler, Watson is confronted by his “bromance” with Sherlock.
His girlfriend at the time says, “You’re a great boyfriend, Sherlock Holmes is very lucky” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”). Adler and Watson discuss this:
This reference to romance (yet even more queerbaiting) implies Sherlock could be gay. Then the writers distort this answer. Sherlock could be straight… He takes Adler’s pulse in such a sensual and seductive way and appears flustered at certain points. But all of this convolution actually enforces Sherlock’s asexuality.
“Sex doesn’t alarm me,” he says (“A Scandal in Begavia”). He appears removed from the sexusociety Adler represents, and ultimately, his attraction is really just fascination. He is fascinated by her power plays, by her confidence, that he dubs her, “The Woman.” The first person, a woman, who almost beat Sherlock Holmes.
Adler is just another mystery to solve. We believe she holds the key to Sherlock’s sexuality.
THE FINAL PROBLEM (ACTUALLY, THE PROBLEM, NOT THE EPISODE)
The fact that Sherlock’s asexuality is seen as a “plot device” that would be boring, really shows why asexuality is so rarely represented in media. Once again, our society is obsessed with sex. The tension his ambiguous sexuality brings (which further exploits queer fans) is something the writers cannot let go. Sex sells. If it is removed, what else can the writers manipulate audiences with? But if his asexuality is confirmed, the inhuman stereotypes of asexuals would be further embraced.
It is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s attention. Is it worthy solving?
Asexuality: Sherlock’s Biggest Mystery – FEM Newsmagazine. https://femmagazine.com/asexualitysherlocks-biggest-mystery/. Accessed 17 June 2021.
Blossom, Ivy. “Sherlock Meta.” Irene Adler Is Sherlock, 26 Jan. 2016, http://saganomjagsherlockmeta.blogspot.com/2016/01/irene-adler-is-sherlock-meta-by-ivy.html.
Coppa, Francesca. “Sherlock as Cyborg: Bringing Mind and Body.” Sherlock and
Transmedia Fandom: Essay on the BBC Series, by Kristina Busse and Louisa
Ellen Stein, Jefferson (North Carolina), McFarland & Company, 2012, pp. 210-23.
DOTY, ALEXANDER. “There’s Something Queer Here.” Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Zotero, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttcmx.5.