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“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Sherlock,” by professorfangirl

Curator’s Note: We conclude this series of meta centered on Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” with professorfangirl’s visual analysis of the relationship and power dynamics between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler in the BBC’s Sherlock.


Watching the Detective

Like any detective story, Sherlock is all about looking: “you see, but you do not observe.” It’s built on the knowing gaze, the desiring gaze—the gaze that desires to know. Within the story, Sherlock’s the bearer of this observant look, and it’s his searching scrutiny that moves the narrative along. But the most frequent object of the viewer’s gaze isn’t the crime or the criminal, it’s Sherlock himself. The camera almost begs us to look at him, especially when he’s deducing. In “A Study in Pink,” Paul McGuigan uses a great many of the techniques that have traditionally been used to make women the object of visual pleasure in film to focus us on Sherlock and make us enjoy the view. The camera makes sure we take pleasure in looking at him.  He’s continually foregrounded, beautifully dressed and lit, looked at by others (mostly men) on screen, and sometimes just straight-up sexualized.

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As we see in the last image, McGuigan also cues us to look at him with others on screen. In one of his favorite framings, we look at Sherlock with John, over John’s shoulder. (John, like ACD’s narrator Watson, is our point of identification within the story, the mediator between us and Sherlock. We see—and love—Sherlock along with John.)

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In traditional cinema, the viewer’s cued to identify with the men on screen who look at women, and it’s no different here; it seems other characters here, mostly male, can’t take their eyes off this pretty, pretty man. (Given this, as I’ve said, elsewhere, the showrunners shouldn’t be surprised by slash: “If you set Sherlock up to be looked at the way traditional cinema sets up women, and you still make the assumed audience of the show male, and you make most of the men on screen look at him too, don’t you fucking be surprised when we say he’s a sex object for those men.”)

The camera wants Sherlock, and wants us to watch. In most detective films the detective will be to one side, with either the crime scene or the suspect in the center of the screen: the detective and the director will be focusing our visual attention on the suspect or crime. At those points we see as the detective, as the detective tells us how to see. With Sherlock, however, he himself is at the center of the screen at these moments, for he and his deductive process together are the beautiful things to watch.

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Many of the show’s best effects make Sherlock’s thinking process visible. He embodies it, for one thing; ideas can make him clap and dance, and the camera follows him along his course of thought.

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Even overlaid with graphic depictions of his deduction, Sherlock’s beautiful when he thinks:

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And sometimes the sight of him realizing something is positively pornographic:

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Man, this show and its directors love looking at Sherlock, they love to watch him think, and they make us love it, too. But there’s a point at which making a man the object of visual desire starts to upset traditional models of cinematic pleasure, based as they are on heterosexual men. Beautiful Sherlock is inspiring a het female audience to, well, get off on and want possession of him (often in ways the showrunners don’t like).  Moreover, if we stick to the bare-bones Mulvey idea that the presumed bearer of the cinematic gaze is male, if the unconscious assumption is that the audience for the show is mostly men, then we might say this isn’t a het male gaze but a queer one. What’s a director to do?

Objectifying the Woman

So if your detective’s too pretty and all the girls & boys & others are looking at him a bit too much and a bit too wrong, then you gotta straighten things out. You better bring in a woman, sexualize the fuck out of her, and make clear that she’s the object of a desiring gaze that is obviously male—a gaze that is, at least in part, Sherlock’s. This gives the show a heterosexual object and tries to make Sherlock a heterosexual subject (that is, she’s the object that’s wanted, and he’s the subject who wants). I say “tries”: Sherlock looks at Irene, naked and clothed, intimately and not, but I see no sign that he ever takes erotic pleasure in it. I see no sexuality in his gaze. For Sherlock, Irene is not the object of desire but the object of deduction: it’s not pleasure he takes from the looking, it’s knowledge. And of course knowledge is power. This is the project of “A Scandal in Belgravia”: to bring in Irene Adler, align her with Sherlock and his deductive power, and then disempower her by making her the erotic object and him the knowing subject. In other words, she’s the source of visual pleasure, and he’s the source of narrative power.

The episode identifies Sherlock with Irene with a long series of cross-cuts, camera angles, framing, and plot devices. These audacious mirrorings and doublings link them in a complex exchange of power and knowledge. They are paired, and at first Irene’s on top, visually and in terms of her power to move the plot along by temporarily beating Sherlock at the information game. But in the end, he outsmarts her and wins. The upshot is fairly simple and very traditional: Irene = sexual female body, Sherlock = rational male mind, with sexuality less powerful than rationality. So much, so obvious. But the episode just works so damn hard to do this—why? I think it’s because to this point in the series, Sherlock, in his beauty, his visual centrality, and most of all in his relation to John, has presented an unusual model of masculinity, complicated and perhaps contradictory—and ever so queer. This episode tries to straighten that out; in the end, however, it doesn’t fully succeed.

The first glimpse we have of Irene is her hand on her phone, where she keeps all that dangerous information, and then her negligéed ass walking toward a certain royal female person.

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So this is Irene’s power at the start: information, and sexual agency. (To wit: information about sex.) In this she challenges Sherlock: in an early image we look at a photo of him in his fame and deductive power, and at her hand in its beauty and sensuality, covering up his face.

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“I’m going to get you,” that hand says. (Yep, it’s a gorgeous object—but note that hands are also symbols of selfhood and agency, for they are how we manipulate, use tools, and touch.)

Our full introduction to Irene comes in a series of alternating pictures of her and Sherlock that seem to firmly equate the two as they look at each other.

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This is on one hand a visual relationship of equals, each both looking and looked at, but then, the photos of her were taken with her knowledge and used as adverts, to make money; those of him, taken in secret and used in surveillance. He’s only learning from her what she wants the world to know; she’s learning what he—well, Buckingham Palace at least—would just as soon keep from her.

Next we get another bit of dandy parallel editing, the intercut scenes of the two getting dressed. The equation couldn’t be more obvious. John asks Sherlock what he’s doing: “Going into battle, John—I need the right armor.” And Kate asks Irene, “What are you wearing?” “My battle dress.” “No,” he says to his first costume. “Nah,” she says to her first gown. There’s a strong sense that the two are coming together as equals, as well-matched opponents.

But there’s a very telling difference in how they’re framed here: she becomes more and more objectified, displayed and static in the power of her beauty, while he is shown in motion, an active agent. Here’s how she searches for her outfit:

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And here’s how he looks for his:

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She walks slowly forward, staying centered in the frame; he moves frenetically in and out (and we watch him with John, over John’s shoulder as we so often do). But she gets some extra bits of elaborate exhibition in mirrors, presaging the fact that her power’s going to come from her sexually beautiful body (and her vanity).

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Caught in the mirror, Irene’s displayed from all sides; we get to see every pretty bit of her.

Then they each put on “a splash of color,” a little touch of blood-red. But the two scenes are highly gendered: Kate strokes Irene, John punches Sherlock. Her makeup’s about sex, his is literally about battle.

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Note that her lips (“What shade?” “Blood.”) are isolated and centered on the screen in extreme close-up, while his bit of blood is also centered, but only as a detail while he and John are in action.

The costumes they do end up with are highly symbolic, a shy and vulnerable vicar and a naked temptress. In the scene at her house, where they’re “both de-frocked,” a progression of camera angles establishes their power relation, in the end leaving Irene firmly on top.

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He’s looking up at her, she down at him.  “I could cut myself slapping that face,” she says—just in case we didn’t get the assertion of her power.

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Here we get just a piece of him, small, dominated by her nudity which is given the strong right side of the screen. (And judging from his glance, he does kinda know where to look.)

There’s one more way her nudity is powerful: it gives him no clue as to her identity or motives. She’s a beautiful, seductive blank, and his gaze can get no grip on her.

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Fact is, for one instant Irene does have something like sexual power over Sherlock. “I like detective stories, and detectives,” she says, demanding that he explain the case of the dead hiker. “Brainy is the new sexy.” And so he starts to show off his own power, that of deduction—but he stumbles. That sentence, and the suggestion that he might be sexy, throw him off his game; he stutters, for the one and only time in the series.

But Sherlock’s smarts almost get him what he wants, by having him read Irene’s body: the code to her safe is her measurements. “You did know where to look,” she says—but he looked at her not for pleasure, but for information. That’s the key to the relation between these two, and to the way the episode asserts masculine control. First it empowers her with a compelling sexuality—and then it negates her sexual dominance in favor of his intellect. For true power in the series is and has been and will always be Sherlock’s knowledge. The rest of the episode plays that out in no uncertain but very interesting terms. Irene has the illusion of knowledge and power for a bit—the cinematography gives it to her blatantly—but after a while, well. Comes time to put Sherlock on top.

Power, Pleasure, and Epistemological Desire, or Sherlock as Sapiosexual

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”)

While the BBC version of “Scandal in Bohemia” bears little resemblance to the original, they seem to have gotten this paragraph right at least. Yes, Irene Adler is the Woman. In SiB it’s how she names herself, it’s her professional title, and her profession is sexual. (And no, Sherlock doesn’t love her—that’d be a “false position”—but I’ll get to that later.) And as the woman, the representative of all women, the heterosexist visual economy of film says she must be objectified by the desiring male gaze. That’s definitely what happens in ASiB, as we’ve seen. To a certain point her objectification, her sexual appeal, gives her power over Sherlock and the narrative. But Sherlock is first and foremost a show about knowledge, and in the end the power of intellect, Sherlock’s power, wins out.

For knowledge is not just power for Sherlock, it’s pleasure. Identifying his sexual identity is fraught, and has sparked oh so many fiery discussions. But in the end, the most essential question is the easiest to answer: what does Sherlock want? He wants to know shit. He is driven by epistemological desire. He takes profound pleasure in knowledge, and often that pleasure looks distinctly erotic. To me, Sherlock is sapiosexual: he desires to know, and when he knows, he gets off. Not genitally (I haven’t checked his pants), but it often looks just like physical pleasure and a satisfaction of lust.

(Note: I’m using the word “sapiosexual” as an adjective, not an identity label; I don’t actually think it’s an orientation. It may fit somewhere on the asexual spectrum, but I’ll let others determine that.)

Through much of ASiB, Irene’s sexuality makes her formidable. Up through the scene in her home, her ability to control the gazes of the men within the story falters only once, when the fire alarm startles her and she glances toward the safe where she keeps her phone and her secrets. (In a neat touch, this happens just as Sherlock begins to explain how the hiker died—a car backfired and led him to look away from the boomerang that killed him. Irene’s taken down much like that hiker was, looking away from what’s really dangerous.) Sherlock follows her gaze—looks at her look and at what she looks at—and gains the upper hand (for a minute). He sees where she’s hidden the phone, in her safe, and sees the safe’s combination in the shape of her own body. (Her measurements are the code.)

(It’s important to note that he realizes this last fact only under extreme duress—that is, a threat to John’s life. It’s tempting to say that something in his love for John pushes him to “get” her body. He only realizes how to look at her when he thinks about John. I don’t quite know what to make of this, but man, it’s interesting.)

In any case, Sherlock’s smarts save the day and foil the CIA, for which we’re all grateful. The shot of him unlocking the safe uses the signature framing and visual effects of the “deduction view”: Sherlock full-face, looking into the camera as he thinks, and the white lettering showing us his data. (I love that he taps out the winning code with a raised middle finger, a little bonus fuck-you to the Americans.)

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Knowledge is obviously and directly power in this story, and it seems that both Sherlock and Irene have it. But they are absolutely not equal in the way they use what they know. Irene’s power may come from the possession of information, but not from the use of her intelligence: she depends on men for that. I.e., she needs Moriarty to tell her how to use the information she has; she needs Sherlock to tell her what the airline code means. She doesn’t what to do with information, but she knows men (and women), she knows what they like: her knowledge/power comes almost solely from sexuality and seems always to lead back there.

For instance, the one time we do see Irene use her intelligence in an analytical fashion, it results in an exchange of power with Sherlock that takes sexual form. She outwits him first by drugging him, then, with him at her side and using his method, successfully deduces the death in the meadow. This puts Sherlock, perceptions warped, unable to think, not just in a bed, but in a bed at a crime scene, which should be the place of his greatest power. He ends up on the floor semi-conscious under her crop in a highly sexualized shot.

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Her victory could hardly be clearer or more monumental—or more implicitly sexual, at least where a dominatrix is concerned.

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This is Sherlock as object and Irene as subject; she looks down on him—and us—to say “I’m the woman who beat you.” (I think there’s also some sexual violence here, for if Sherlock’s sapiosexual, then drugging him and forcing knowledge on him is a little like date-rape.)

The scene where she brings him back his coat caps her victory with a crucial shot, a superimposition of her face on his, indicating the moment of their greatest equivalence—and her greatest power.

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The scene of Sherlock’s most crucial deduction also contains Irene’s most blatant come-on. Sparked by her challenging kiss, he reads the coded email with speed flamboyant even for him. It inspires her to what looks like an admission of real desire: “I would have you right here on this desk until you begged for mercy twice.” He gives her an unblinking stare, then tells John to “check those schedules and see if I’m right.” Because being right not just powerful for Sherlock, it’s also extremely pleasurable, and whether or not that pleasure manifests physically, as a response to a sexual come-on I think it carries a sexual charge.

Shortly after this, after Sherlock’s given her (and Moriarty) what they need, Irene makes a serious play for him. The scene’s sensual and erotically charged from its first image, Sherlock’s fingers caressing his violin by firelight.

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(Caressing his violin, it must be said, while he thinks of John.) It’s blatantly, obviously, a scene of seduction—I mean, just look at it.

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Looks like soft porn to me.

Works like it, too, at least where the erotic exchange of knowledge is concerned. Again Irene responds to his knowledge, the story of Coventry, with a proposition: “Have you ever had anyone?” She uses a euphemism for sex that means possession, and that is indelicate of her, because for her sex is not just about fucking. (As she says later, “I should have him on a leash.”) You could read his response, “I don’t understand,” as evidence that he doesn’t understand sex (for some, that he’s asexual). But I like to read it in an opposite direction: if Sherlock desires knowledge, then “I don’t understand” feels to me like his own come-on, like a statement of desire.

And his desire gets satisfied. He responds to her proposition with his own delicate touch, and a searching, sensuous look. He’s taking her pulse; he’s seeing the signs of arousal in her eyes. I find this deeply erotic, for if Sherlock’s driven by epistemological desire, then in this moment of physical contact it’s being fed in the most intimate way: he’s getting crucial information from her body in a moment of sexual arousal. Her aroused body is satisfying his desire to know. (This also suggests that they’ve already had an erotic exchange, when he read the code to her safe in the measure of her breasts, waist, and hips.)

If Sherlock is sapiosexual, then the revelation of Irene’s plot is a kind of castration. It’s Moriarty’s plot, too: “Jim Moriarty sends his love” to Sherlock. The mention of Moriarty’s name seems to start his deductive cascade. Moriarty “didn’t even ask for anything,” Irene says. “I just think he likes to cause trouble.” And he likes to use knowledge to do it. “Gave me a lot of advice about how to play the Holmes boys,” she says. “Do you know what he calls you? The Ice Man—and the Virgin.” And there’s the sigh and shudder of understanding from Sherlock, as he realizes that it’s not Irene he’s been having his intellectual intercourse with, it’s Moriarty. She’s just Jim’s stand-in. This is what Sherlock looks like in that instant, as he figures the whole thing out:

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This little think-gasm spells the end for Irene. Sherlock shuts her down abruptly and completely. “I said no.” He points quite explicitly to pleasure as her misstep: “You were enjoying yourself a little too much.” And in the end it’s erotic pleasure, the pleasure of love: “Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.” (It should be noted that as before, when Sherlock brings up love he has to bring up John—“I imagine John Watson thinks love is a mystery to me…”) Irene’s crush on Sherlock effectively kills her: his name is the code for her heart, the clinching key, the final proof. Her desire for him—not his for her—is the ultimate weapon. Deducing her means reading not just her body, but the signs of her sexuality in her body: in the end, the quality that gives Irene her power—her sexuality—is precisely what brings her down.

Irene weeps, utterly defeated, but I don’t read those tears just as defeat or shame. I don’t think she’s heartbroken, I think she’s terrified. She denies her own agency and truth—“all those things I said, I didn’t mean them”—in a desperate effort not to gain Sherlock’s forgiveness or love, but to save her life. That makes his final insult even more painful: “Sorry about dinner.” Which, given how Irene means “dinner,” makes clear that the whole thing’s been a sexual game whose rules Sherlock just doesn’t play by.

Given that cruelty, the final scene of Irene’s rescue comes as a relief and a bit of moral rehabilitation for Sherlock. (Though that certainly doesn’t make up for its racism.) And it does one more thing: by echoing the shot of Irene at her moment of greatest power and replacing her with Sherlock, it asserts without question that he is on top.

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That’s Irene looking down at Sherlock as she brings him coat and gloats; that Sherlock looking at Irene as he rescues her. Same camera angle, same position, similar framing, similar lens flare: again and again, the camera has treated these two like the same person, while the story says “definitely not.” For instance, Irene’s face is here to be beautiful, to be looked at, but Sherlock’s is hidden. For he is powerful not as the object of the gaze but the subject of the narrative, whose strength is not in his appearance but his actions, not in how he looks to others but how he looks at them, pared down to the power of his own beautiful gaze.

In the end the upshot is simple: Sherlock’s thinking is stronger than Irene’s sexuality. That’s the moral of the story and the message of the plot, and it doesn’t take so much analysis to tell us that. But this isn’t just analysis, it’s deconstruction in the lit-theory sense: it shows us how this opposition is too simple and crude, because for Sherlock the sapiosexual, thinking is erotic pleasure. That’s what we learn not just from the action of the plot but the aesthetics of the telling. But the symbolic and thematic effects of the cinematic techniques do something more: they naturalize this moral so that it seems an intuitive, inevitable outcome. When we take pleasure in the way the story’s told, its implicit message feels right. It becomes part not just of our reasoning and conscious thought, but of our pleasurable perceptions. That’s how ideology works, how it gets its claws in you, so to speak.

Fortunately, many readers resist. They take hold of the show’s meanings and put them to their own uses; there are as many Sherlocks as there are people to read him. Their differences may be subtle—is he turned on in this scene or is he cold?—or they may be large—is he het or is he queer? And while they always grow from the elements of the show, and depend on the show’s techniques, inasmuch as they are meaningful they are valid. For that’s the ultimate goal of the show, right? To create meaning, and give us the pleasure of understanding that meaning. In this reader’s opinion, it brings out the sapiosexual in all of us.


“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Sherlock” Parts One, Two & Three ©professorfangirl, originally posted on Dec. 29-31, 2013

One comment on ““Visual Pleasure and Narrative Sherlock,” by professorfangirl

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