Curator’s Note: In contrast with academic writing in the humanities, in which one argument advanced by an individual – or, in some cases, two or three – is typically sustained over several thousand words, fan meta often evolves out of sustained conversation, extending in multiple directions at once through hyperlinks or, especially on a platform such as Tumblr, reblogging and commenting. Out of a short observation comes a longer discussion or debate, and in this way ideas are challenged, strengthened, or sometimes even supplanted by new theories or understandings. This inaugural post is an example of this kind of conversation; the first piece is a brief consideration of racism in the Sherlock Series 1 episode, “The Blind Banker,” while the second is a response to an anonymous clarification of a term – “Arabia!lock” – used by the author in the first piece, both linked thematically through what the author identifies as the Orientalist fantasies of the two episodes. As in the case of most meta, the conversations have continued from here, with others adding on their own interpretations, disagreements, and clarifications to the original posts, primarily in the form of reblogs of the original post.
(〥) A Strange Yellow Squiggle: Racism in The Blind Banker
The whole episode depends upon the unlikely premise that Sherlock Holmes never noticed the Suzhou numerals on the items he bought at Chinese markets for his experiments. Because, really, what’s the likelihood that OUR Sherlock hasn’t spent time in Chinatown? It’s not like London’s is so enormous that you wouldn’t be able to map it…
What’s more troubling is a Sherlock Holmes who IS flipping oblivious.
This is the crap that Steve Thompson’s script for TBB gave everyone to work with: Soo Lin Yao, a fragile little porcelain Chinese doll; a stupid brute of a Sikh warrior; Japanese geisha nicknacks for sale in a Chinese…not a shop…the script calls it an emporium… The script also tells the production designer to put up images of every non-Western character set that comes to mind (as if Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t know the difference between Greek and Chinese and Hebrew and Arabic and … ancient hieroglyphics!?)
It’s like Thompson got dizzy in the British Museum and every culture kind of melded together then he wrote a script in the Oriental East Asia wing. In the 1970’s.
I mean if Sherlock can finesse his way around terrorists somewhere in “Arabia” then he must at least have more than a Fu Manchu concept of China. Right?
Not necessarily. Arabia!lock is just as big of a problem politically as the fragile little Chinese doll is.
I’d be happy to explain my position further if this introduction from the actual script to Soo Lin doesn’t speak for itself but if you want to get truly brainy and think hard about the subject go watch Edward Said talk about his book, Orientalism. That should at least explain why the Sikh at 221b is… erm… problematic, and why Arabia!lock shouldn’t be consumed (lusted after) without a certain discomfort. It’s important to be aware of why it’s a problem that a rich white privileged British male is wearing “Arab” garb in an adventure story. In 2012.
As a fandom we get why Sherlock saving the only strong woman in the entire series Belgravia is a big problem. There is a chorus of Sherlockians ready to call Moffatiss on on their sexism but our tormentors almost get a free pass when it comes to race. Let’s be more thoughtful about this issue.
Seriously, everyone should know about Edward Said’s work. There’s a documentary about the late Columbia professor’s work. Here it is on YouTube. It will make you think and you will see our beloved show in a more complicated light. I love Sherlock no less for being able to criticize it. In fact, I actually adore the show MORE.
Arabia!lock: The Karachi Conundrum
Hello wonderful Anon with your interesting ask! Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to let me clarify myself! And it’s not at all silly— it’s quite serious indeed.
The title isn’t an error. I meant to say Arabia!lock. Listen to the audio on that post. At the very end we have the cast talking about the shot of Sherlock with dancing eyes and a scimitar in hand intentionally evoking Lawrence of Arabia, a visually stunning Hollywood movie by a British director starring a British actor, Peter O’Toole. That movie is based on a book. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence.
The real life Lawrence was a superstar. His accounts of his exploits in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt captured the British imagination, the Britain of empires and colonies. To escape his tremendous fame Lawrence entered into service anonymously and took a position below his rank. He did actually serve for a time in Karachi in the late 1920’s under these conditions. That’s not the image of Lawrence Moffat’s after, though.
The costume Steven Moffat & co. put on Sherlock is intentional; it’s no mistake— well it IS a mistake but not because the crew don’t know anything about Pakistan and simply got the costumes wrong. It’s an ethical mistake. Like the scene with the so-called Sikh warrior in The Blind Banker, it’s a text book case of Orientalism (here’s my post about that) where the actual, real life cultures and people simply don’t matter and everything becomes conflated with a fantasy construction of “the Middle East.” The fact that “Lawrence of Arabia” has absolutely nothing to do with Pakistan is quite the point. Sherlock is Lawrence in this scene and Lawrence stands for military adventures in “Arabia.” Therefore they use “Karachi” to signify “someplace our troops go where there are terrorists” and Arabia!lock to signify “our quintessentially British hero who goes adventuring with and against all the people that we war with and colonize, etc and he does it somewhere over there.” The difference is that while T.E. Lawrence was in service of the powers that be who were creating and redrawing borders, he did actually know where he was on the planet earth. Moffat, in putting Sherlock in “Arabian” costume in Karachi acts like he has no idea. And it’s problematic and ultimately, to me at least, offensive.
Moffat is perfectly capable of getting things right. They used documentary footage from a firefight in Afghanistan for John’s war flashbacks in the other episode he wrote, A Study in Pink.
Which leads me to a reading that will be unpopular with many people who have read this far. I don’t think Sherlock saved Irene. At least not in the way they frame “the flashback.” The scene represents how Sherlock felt about Irene in his fantasy world (whether he actually saved her or not.) He wasn’t in realistic situation in real life Karachi but the “adventure” reminded him of the excitement of Lawrence’s Hollywood style escapades. He casts himself in the role of one of Britain’s biggest 20th century heroes. Remember, in ACD canon John is the survivor of a massive British military defeat— in Afghanistan. Sherlock’s ending here is a compensatory myth to soothe that defeat and to counteract BBC John’s documentary-style war trauma. John’s war is real life, PTSD-inducing shell shock and Sherlock’s “war” to save Irene has no tie to the real world at all.
Ultimately what I mean to say is that the ending of Belgravia is utter Imperialist fantasy with all its epic pleasures and unspeakable horrors. The sexism of the ending is another matter. (Though sexism— the subjugation of women, Orientalism and Imperialism are all messily intertwined…)
As a disclaimer— I get incredible pleasure from David Lean’s film and (obviously) from Sherlock. Lean’s film is breathtaking. It’s also a political quagmire. And so is Sherlock.
Then there’s the issue of the khussa shoe Sherlock keeps his tobacco in. In itself I don’t think it’s a big deal though I can always make a big deal about ANYTHING if it’s required of me! 😉
Thanks again, Anon! xx -m
“(〥) A Strange Yellow Squiggle: Racism in The Blind Banker” ©mid0nz, originally posted on Nov. 3, 2013
“Arabia!lock: The Karachi Conundrum” ©mid0nz, originally posted on Nov. 19, 2013