Curator’s Note: We do our best to keep our own predilection for Sherlock meta to a minimum here on the Reader, but this wonderful look at the character of Sally Donovan has been sitting in the queue far too long, and we’re very pleased to be showcasing it today. This is especially nice for its fan fiction inspiration, foregrounding the ways that different kinds of fan writing cross borders of style and genre to mutually inform one another.
I keep thinking about this subject. Recently there have been fandom discussions about race and exclusion, with a lot of good points made. What a lot of us would like most is a world where it is just as likely that we’d have Vinette Robinson playing Sherlock Holmes, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sgt Donovan. We don’t have such a world, although people are working to change the status quo.
Still, there’s something about Sally that consistently interests me, without me having to consciously decide that today I am going to find a female character to identify with. Far more meaningfully than any of the show’s villains are, Sally is Sherlock’s polar opposite – to the extent that the extremity of their defensive posturing reveals a common humanity. I doubt this symbolism was intended by the show runners, but it works for me.
On the surface, the show presents us with the idea that Sally is ordinary and Sherlock is extraordinary, and we’re invited to identify with Sherlock (we all want to be the special hero, and apparently that means being a white man). But scratching the surface makes the tension between them look much more interesting. Their first encounter neatly sets up the antagonism: Sally thinks Sherlock’s extraordinariness makes him irresponsible and possibly dangerous; Sherlock thinks Sally’s ordinariness make her a pettifogging irritant.
Where do these attitudes come from? There is of course the immediate context of a crime scene (and to some extent each of them is right) but the attitudes on display are more deeply rooted in these characters’ experience of being outsiders, and the different level and kind of risk involved for each of them.
Sally is a black woman in the Met. We don’t see this onscreen, but it would be remarkable if she hadn’t spent her career fending off, and fighting not to internalize, sexism and racism. She must know all about being seen as Other, and all about the price that you risk paying for it. Being ‘ordinary’ is both a survival skill (she’s just one of the lads, so why pick on her) and a triumph (her foremothers might have been slaves in this land, but here she is administering the law). Then along comes Sherlock, laden with every privilege you can think of, but under the impression that Sally’s ordinariness (aka protective colouration) is nothing but a brainless reflex that gets in his way.
Fitting in can be a life or death question for immigrants and minorities, but Sherlock acts like it’s just a default state for idiots. With his flamboyant performance of Otherness, he’s flaunting what Sally cannot afford (whether or not she wants it – and in the name of survival she’s probably suppressed that question so far that it never gets asked) and abusing her for not having it. It’s no surprise her defensive reaction is to lash out with ‘I never wanted that anyway; it’s shitty and weird’. Hence Sally’s whole vicious routine with ‘freak’.
She’s identifying the fact that Sherlock is doing something wrong/unfair, but (being ordinary) she doesn’t go digging around inside herself for the full extent of the pain, and instead settles on an approximation of the truth: that Sherlock is just an arsehole. This is why I love Vinette Robinson’s performance. The equivalent character in the pilot was quite neutral, but Robinson creates space for interpretations of her character that are far more interesting than what I suspect the script intended, i.e. a convenient foil for Sherlock.
When Sally calls Sherlock a freak, she’s indirectly treating him as human in a way nobody else but John does. In calling him to account for his behaviour, she implies that he should be judged by human standards, and therefore is human. The people who accept the idea of Sherlock as a trans-human phenomenon, good or bad, don’t do that. And I just like any on-screen woman who responds to an arrogant man with a variant of ‘fuck off’!
Like John, if less sympathetically, Sally has on some level picked up the elements of pretence, pain and falseness in Sherlock’s persona. His embrace of Otherness and her avoidance of it have the same roots; fear/experience of being outcast. Sally has chosen one strategy – assimilation – probably because the historical and to an extent the contemporary risks of doing otherwise for a black woman are just too high. Sherlock chosen another – defiance – in part because the character is clearly fuelled by some kind of internal fire that exceeds the norm, but also because he’s got the resources to pull it off and live.
They both have to decide: who and what can I be, and how much will it cost me? Sally has more to lose and is in a more vulnerable position. Sherlock is less personally well-adapted to bear the cost of compromise. They make opposite choices, Sally for stability and Sherlock for risk. Can either of them bear the spectacle of unmade choice that the other represents?
I rather think Sally may have offered her friendship to Sherlock on that basis – ‘Hey, we both stick out a bit round here, don’t we?’ – once, and got slapped down for her troubles. Hence her very personal resentment. These two know each others’ weaknesses intimately, because each one represents the other’s silent fears.
Also, Sherlock, emotionally stunted muppet that he is (and I say this as an adoring fan) can’t behave sensibly for shit. He runs off from everyone useful towards Moriarty who – ooh, ego-stroke – is just like him. Far more interesting!
Unfortunately, BBC Moriarty is actually a cardboard man. Assuming the script writers didn’t just cock him up (another question entirely) he chooses to present himself as a grab bag of cliches about mad genius with no consistent substance. He is ultimately a massive distraction, if a compelling one.
In my interpretation of the underlying narrative structure, just as Sherlock’s match is not the overtly fannish Moriarty but the steadily supportive John, his nemesis is not the overtly hostile Moriarty but the righteously affronted Sally. Sherlock’s relationship with the Met has always been weird. Moriarty turned up and raised the stakes but there was always going to be a day when the highly bureaucratic Met asked itself ‘What’s this guy actually doing?’ Whenever that day came it wasn’t going to be Lestrade, who is too dependent on Sherlock, or Anderson, who is too blindly hostile, who decided the way the wind blew, but Sally, with her scrupulous moral authority. You don’t even have to step far outside convention for that: even in heavily patriarchal society women are sometimes given a sort of mysticised safety-valve authority as oracles, i.e. moral arbiters outside normal structures.
Sherlock’s downfall pivots on Sally. If he had made intelligent use of what common ground he might have with her, she might have been speaking up for him. Instead, he used their differing outsider statuses as a weapon against her, a means of trying to prove that unlike her he’s brave enough to be overtly different, ignoring why Sally might have made the choices she has and anything else he might have learnt from her. In return, in defence, she shuts her heart and mind to what is genuinely extraordinary about Sherlock, denies him the way he refused to see her, and gives her blessing to his demise.
That’s my interpretation of their relationship, possibly blending canon and supposition by this point, but your mileage may vary.
And P.S.… what if Sally was like Sherlock? Imagine a working class black British woman with Sherlock’s mind, a woman given all the depth of characterisation which Irene does not have screen time for. What would happen to her? I honestly don’t know (though I really want that story, a modern update of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister with hopefully a less bleak ending). She would be broken in innumerable extra ways, but the question is how, and how far she would fix herself, and what the result would be, and how much she would illuminate.
Somewhere, in the back of Sally’s mind, I think she’s longing for this woman too.
This ramble was inspired by discussion around some Sally fic:
Monochrome by aderyn
Sally and the Genius by me
“Sherlock, Sally and Otherness” ©pennypaperbrain, originally posted on 19 February 2013