Sherlock Holmes and the case of toxic masculinity: what is behind the detective’s appeal?

OSTILL is Franck Camhi/

Ashley Morgan, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous detective of all time. Since he was imagined into creation in 1892 by the young Scottish doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, there has been hardly a decade in which a play, television series, film or book about Sherlock Holmes has not been produced.

An early sketch of Holmes, smoking a pipe.
Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, 1904.
Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, a fresh take on Sherlock Holmes burst onto British screens. This contemporary Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, inspired a whole new level of fandom and increased sales of the original books by 53%. People were especially taken with Cumberbatch’s flirty sex appeal. Hot on his heels came an American version, Elementary, in 2012.

In both adaptations, Sherlock’s brilliance and skills of deduction are unmatched. While I really enjoyed these shows, I was taken aback by Sherlock’s rudeness, exasperation, his disparagement of others, his desire to dominate and his latent violence. I saw Sherlock as a toxic man. Not knowing the books, I wondered where this came from, so I began reading them.

Male Victorian power

In one of the early stories, A Scandal in Bohemia, Doyle describes Holmes’s perspective of women:

All emotions […] 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 […] He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.

This is one of the very few descriptions of the character’s personality, which suggests that male brilliance relies on being totally unemotional. This conforms to the Victorian ideal of “muscular Christianity”, the idea that a healthy, muscular masculine body would lead to a healthy mind, and “manliness” enacted over social class and gender.

Although the concept of toxic masculinity sounds contemporary, it actually has roots very firmly in the past. Masculinity researchers have defined toxic masculinity as a performance of “traditional” male gender roles exhibited by a tendency to dominate others, a predisposition to violence, and to be emotionally cold and distant. It can also be expressed through highly competitive behaviour, or the desire to be the sole source of information – someone who thinks they are right about everything in every sphere. Men like Donald Trump, for example.

Holmes is obviously not akin to Trump. To start, with Holmes is a genius, and he hardly exhibits the same level of toxic behaviours that Trump does. But there are elements there. This is unsurprising, given that some of these features are seen in the original text: Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes at a time when traditional masculine values were openly venerated.

Nevertheless, when I was asked to write a book chapter on toxic masculinity in popular culture, I immediately thought of Sherlock and Elementary as useful examples. I felt that was an area that had not yet been explored in academic research, yet I felt it palpably on the screen.

Conan Doyle himself refers to Holmes as a machine, and some academics have suggested that his lack of emotion is both alien and mechanistic. But the recent TV adaptations are contemporary portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, so the original “mechanistic” man of the books has necessarily been updated.

Arguably, his poor social skills, sneering and derision of others are played for laughs: he needs to be likeable, after all. In the BBC version, he also refers to himself as a sociopath and Watson apologises for his “borderline Aspergers” – this, as I have previously argued, makes him seem more human.

Yet such comments and armchair diagnostics are contentious, not least because true sociopaths would never refer to themselves as such. All this left me thinking about the kind of man Sherlock might be, when divorced from his brilliance at detection. So I began to analyse elements of Sherlock’s behaviour that might be construed as toxic: in particular coldness, lack of emotion, shutting people down, jibes and sneers.

A toxic Sherlock?

These are some of the classic signs of toxicity, and both contemporary TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes are full of them, with greater incidences in Sherlock than Elementary. For example, the BBC Sherlock often tells people around him to “shut up” to allow him to concentrate, or because he finds them annoying.

He takes every opportunity to deride the police, often insisting on being the sole source of information. He is always exasperated at other people’s lack of brilliance: “Dear God what is it like in your tiny little brains? It must be so boring!” While superiority might be a common trait in brilliant people, what makes it toxic is that Sherlock projects himself as totally unique, creative and the answer to everyone’s problems, while putting everyone else down.

Elementary presents a quietly different, though no less toxic Sherlock. Here he is a pedantic Englishman, who corrects everyone’s grammar, overrides other detectives, and is disparaging to women and men. This is a more self-aware Sherlock than Cumberbatch’s. But he remains domineering, and imperious: “I am smarter than everyone I meet Watson, I know its bad form to say it, but in my case, it’s a fact.”

Toxic masculinity is a contentious issue and some consider it to encompass traits which contribute to the dominance and brilliance of some men. Arguably, Sherlock Holmes is widely understood as the most brilliant detective of all time.

In this context, I found it disappointing that the toxic elements of Sherlock’s character were not further challenged in the TV shows. While he is not actually violent, unlike many toxic men, and the characters around him do call him out on his behaviours, especially Watson, his intelligence is still understood through his toxic masculinity – especially in Sherlock, where it is presented as sexy. I find this problematic, especially in the context of contemporary society, where we frequently see toxicity demonstrated by men in power.The Conversation

Ashley Morgan, Masculinities Scholar, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In its portrayal of women, the classic South African novel Mhudi was ahead of its time

A statue of the author, Solomon T. Plaatje, in Kimberley, South Africa.
flowcomm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Jenny Boźena du Preez, Nelson Mandela University

Solomon T. Plaatje was born in 1876 and was one of the founding members of South Africa’s current ruling party, the African National Congress.

He was a politician, intellectual, journalist and author of the seminal Native Life in South Africa. He was also a writer of fiction. His first and only novel, Mhudi, was written in 1920 and published a decade later.

Despite being the first novel by a Black South African in English, it had little impact on the literary landscape of the country at the time. However, over the past century, the novel has garnered great interest from scholars.

One notable aspect of the novel is that it centres a woman as its protagonist – the Mhudi of the title – and her role in resistance. Her proactive, adventurous, quick-witted character has led a number of scholars to consider the novel from a feminist perspective. In fact, it has been described as “ahead of its time” for its portrayal of women in an era when women had few rights, and Black women almost none.

When working on my chapter for the new book, Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration, I found that most feminist scholarship on the novel has focused on the individual character of Mhudi. So, I turned my attention to Mhudi’s solidarity with other women and what this might tell us about Plaatje’s view of the nature of political struggle.

What the novel’s about

Mhudi takes place against the backdrop of fictionalised versions of actual historical events in what is today called South Africa. The action of the novel is set off by King Mzilikazi’s massacre of the Barolong people at Kunana in 1832. Mzilikazi was king of the Matabele, a group of people today known as the Ndebele and living mostly in Zimbabwe. The Barolong, now called the Rolong, are a clan of the Tswana people living largely in Botswana.

Mhudi, a young Barolong woman, manages to escape the massacre with her life, but believes she is the only one of her people left alive. However, after wandering in the wilderness, she meets a young Barolong man, Ra-Thaga, and they get married. The story follows the couple on several perilous adventures, in which Mhudi frequently saves Ra-Thaga through common sense and uncommon bravery, until they are united with the other surviving Barolong.

Read more:
Anniversaries spark renewed readings of South Africa’s celebrated Sol Plaatje

Determined to defeat the Matabele, the Barolong form a coalition with the Boers, the white, Afrikaans-speaking farmers descended from Dutch settlers. Ra-Thaga takes part in the successful battle, but is wounded. Mhudi, seeing this in a dream, leaves her children with her cousin and travels to aid him. On her way, she befriends Hannetjie, a young Boer woman, and Umnandi, the favourite wife of Mzilikazi, who fled her home because of the scheming of her co-wives. The Matabele routed, Mhudi and Ra-Thaga happily return home.

Women’s solidarity

The most obvious of women’s solidarities in the novel are those with their husbands. The second most apparent are the friendships Mhudi forms across racial and ethnic boundaries with Umnandi and Hannetjie. While personal, these relationships also have political implications.

An old book open at the first page, with text in an illustrated frame reading, 'Mhudi - an epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago.'
First edition of Mhudi, Lovedale Press.
Blessing Kgasa/Kanye Records Centre/Twitter

Mhudi’s relationships with these two women allow her to see the humanity of the Matabele and the Boers, who she had, until this point, seen as inhumane and violent. This is because these two women also express their disapproval for unjust violence and suffering.

Mhudi’s friendships with these two exceptional women and their significance has been discussed in feminist analyses of the novel. However, the collective solidarity that Mhudi has with Barolong women has not really been considered. And yet, this is important in how we understand Plaatje’s view of resistance. We can see this idea of collective solidarity – standing together – in a story Mhudi tells Ra-Thaga about how she escaped being killed by a lion when she was a girl.

The story goes that Mhudi is out picking berries with a number of other Barolong girls and comes face-to-face with a lion. The other girls initially run away, but when they see Mhudi is paralysed with fright they run back and manage to scare off the lion. The fact that the girls are willing to return to Mhudi, even to die alongside her, suggests a deep sense of solidarity and commitment, the kind that arguably binds together successful political movements.

The individual and the collective

The reception of the lion story among the Barolong shows a tension between the collective and the individual. Ra-Thaga knows the story well. Mhudi’s bravery has been celebrated and she has even been called a heroine. However, the collective role of the girls in saving her has been lost in the story’s retelling.

Read more:
Conversing across a century with thinker, author and politician Sol T Plaatje

We might understand this as a critique of individual heroism in stories of resistance (especially if we read the lion as a symbol of British and other imperialism) to the exclusion of the recognition of the collective that makes resistance possible.

It’s significant that Mhudi’s most productive relationships are with Barolong women from her community. Her relationship with Hannetjie has no real political impact besides shifting Mhudi’s view of the Boers. Despite herself and Hannetjie sharing a horror over the treatment of the servants, their friendship does not result in any material resistance to injustice.

Her relationship with Umnandi creates a deeper solidarity, as they both promise to use their influence on men to promote peace. However, it is her cousin looking after her children that allows her to make the journey that leads to her relationships with Umnandi and Hannetjie and to assisting her husband.

A book cover with a linocut-inspired illustration of a man and a woman, her arm around his shoulders.

Jacana Media

Therefore, I read in Mhudi a sense of the importance of collective, communal forms of solidarity. Even when resistance requires alliances across racial, ethnic and gender boundaries, it is the communal solidarities women form that allow for individual and boundary-crossing solidarities to exist.

This might serve as a reminder to consider how we intrepret Plaatje’s place in the history of struggle in South Africa. While Plaatje is a fascinating and notable figure, whatever legacy he has left us was created and preserved through solidarities with others.

This article is based on Jenny Boźena du Preez’s chapter in the book Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration published by Jacana Media.The Conversation

Jenny Boźena du Preez, Postdoctoral Fellow, Nelson Mandela University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tribute to J.P. Clark, Nigeria’s nature poet

J. P. Clark was one of Nigeria’s most eco-conscious writers.

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, University of Nigeria

Everyone dies. Everything that has life must someday relinquish it. But that exit is never final. Plants and animals are generally converted into new states and reabsorbed into nature. Human beings remain alive in people’s memories for varying degrees of time. And if you leave a legacy behind, your life will truly begin after your physical death.

The passing of Nigeria’s foremost poet and playwright, Professor J.P. Clark on 13 October, 2020, has reinforced this belief.

Thousands of scholars and and readers who encountered him through his literature retain him in their memories. They also transfer his existence to future generations looking for excellence in the arts.

Throughout his exemplary life, Clark touched on various issues affecting the globe. He displayed a thorough knowledge of his world through his poems.

His writing explored politics, arts and the socio-cultural character of humans. His intimacy with nature, conveyed via his poems, has made him a favourite of eco-conscious readers.

Rich ecological imagery

Clark’s exploration of the intersection between our natural environment and literature is an inspiration to writers and critics. He often found ways to accommodate nature, even when he addressed the mundane issues within politics and academia. His viewpoints can be found in his poetry collections The Casualties and Incidental Songs for Several Persons. His poem, The Usurpation, is a great example.

Read more:
J.P. Clark: the ‘pepper’ of the Niger Delta activism stew

Clark’s constant ecological imagery shows great knowledge of, and strong attachment to, natural entities. In all their dealings, human beings operate within the natural realm, interacting with other non-human entities.

I read Clark’s poems in the 1980s. My favourites were Night Rain, Streamside Exchange and Abiku. The stories in those poems often excited feelings of empathy with the human characters.

I revisited those poems 35 years later and realised the crucial influence of the natural environment in his work. Many of his poems set in the riverine areas of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, “embody environmental metaphors, capable of projecting authentic African eco-lit” according to a study of “natural trajectories” in the poems.

Read more:
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Nigeria’s bard, playwright and activist

His exploration of nature in his poems stimulates a romantic awareness of the African ecosystem, that goes beyond the current agitations of environmental justice in Nigeria. They project 21st century African literary traditions beyond the domains of activism.

Clark’s works are multifaceted. His attachment to his home region, coupled with his training in the arts and the humanities may have conditioned him towards exploring nature in his works. And he did so alongside other nagging socio-political and economic themes that he equally projected.The Conversation

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, Lecturer, University of Nigeria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Finished Reading: Life’s Little Instruction Book – Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life by H. Jackson Brown Jr

Life's Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding LifeLife’s Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life by H. Jackson Brown Jr.
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