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January 9, 2010

Is the New Sherlock Holmes Too Gay?

So apparently the literary estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a little concerned about Guy Ritchie's reinvention of Sherlock Holmes and any potential sequels.

WARNING: If you haven't seen the movie yet, there are some potential SPOILERS here, but nothing that would necessarily ruin the entire film for you. (Especially not if you've seen the previews.)

We went to see the movie the other day and although only one of us (Jezebel) had really read the books, we both left the theater wondering what the hell we had just seen. Yeah, it was a fun movie - as Guy Ritchie movies tend to be, with one notable exception - but we were surprised at how non-Sherlock Holmesy this Sherlock Holmes seemed to be. Since when is Holmes a tough-guy fighter... taking on guys bigger than him in bare-knuckle boxing matches?

So when we read that there was a potential controversy brewing over whether the film was true to the spirit of the books, we weren't surprised. But then we were surprised, when we realized that the issue was with the "homoerotic subtext" of the film. (And if you saw the movie I know you might be thinking "what homoerotic subtext?") Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have been all over the media since before the film even came out, joking about the "bromance" between Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson, but apparently some people can't take a joke.

Andrea Plunket, who controls the U.S. copyrights for the Holmes stories, has said that she would withdraw permission for any sequels if Ritchie decides to further explore the idea that the relationship between Holmes and Watson was more than just platonic.

"I am not hostile to homosexuals, but I am to anyone who is not true to the spirit of the books." [Coventry Telegraph]
Of course, that confused us a bit... because we couldn't imagine that she felt that the rest of the movie was true to the spirit of the books. Apparently it's okay for Holmes to be more violent, but possibly making him gay-ish is a huge deal? For the record, we're not saying that the character is gay-ish (whatever that means)... We just don't understand why some people are so uptight about homosexuality - even when it's barely implied - but they don't seem to care at all about violence.

Then we did a little more research into the books and the characters and well... it turns out that the original Holmes was a little more bad-ass than we remembered! Apparently, the bare-knuckle boxing really did happen in the books, as did martial arts, fencing and other fighting. Ritchie definitely has overplayed this aspect of the character more than any other film... but then you could make the argument that past movies have underplayed it. Of course, Ritchie's film does take some liberties with Arthur Conan Doyle's stories... as have other films and adaptation in the past. (In fact, Sherlock Holmes is listed as one of the most portrayed characters; there are over 200 films about him.) So the real question is why didn't the estate ever complain before?

Now the truth is, there really isn't that much homoerotic subtext in Ritchie's film... at least not anymore than there has always been. In Ritchie's film you see a tougher Holmes, but also a more vulnerable Holmes. Watson is planning to marry and Holmes isn't too pleased at the prospect of his sidekick moving out and moving on... but that doesn't necessarily mean he's in love with him. We do get to see a different dynamic between Watson and Holmes than most movies have shown, but it's really more about the unique friendship between two ass-kicking smarty-pants crime solvers.

The source of the gay rumors are mainly from Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law cracking jokes, but it's not like they were the first people ever to broach that subject. Fans have always been obsessed with Holmes' life-long bachelorhood and have been speculating about the relationship between Holmes and Watson for years. We won't go so far as to suggest that Doyle actually intended for the characters to be homosexual, but many people feel that there is a subtext that certainly wasn't invented by Downey or Law. That's not to say that meaningful platonic friendships between straight men are impossible... but one of the great things about literature and film, is that you can get from it what you want to. Everything is open to interpretation.

Whatever the case, it's clear that Holmes and Watson are more than just colleagues. Holmes' friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship, and an intense friendship between two men like theirs isn't necessarily inconsistent with the time period of the original stories either. Several of the stories also make note of Holmes' so called "aversion to women" (with the exception, perhaps, of Irene Adler):

"I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind" [The Valley of Fear]

"Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department ... The motives of women are so inscrutable. ... Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs.” ["The Adventure of the Second Stain"]

"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did..." ["The Adventure of the Devil's Foot"]

"I would not tell them too much. Women are never to be entirely trusted, -- not the best of them." [The Sign of the Four]

"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. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer." ["A Scandal in Bohemia"]

And then, of course, there's Billy Wilder's slightly parodic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The film features a segment which questions Holmes' sexuality, with Holmes and Watson being assumed gay after Holmes rejects the propositions of a Russian ballerina. Apparently Doyle's literary estate didn't seem to have any issues with Wilder's adaptation (even though it probably took more liberties than Ritchie's did) nor did they seem to have a problem with all the versions that portrayed Watson as a bumbling idiot or Holmes as a stuffy old guy - neither of which were necessarily "true to the spirit of the books".

It turns out, that Ritchie's version is far more true to the original spirit of the books than a lot of the other adaptations have been. Even if you do believe there's a little gay subtext in there. And it's not as though this would've been the first "straight guy" movie with a little homoeroticism. (Can we say Top Gun anyone?) Sometimes it's unintentional... sometimes it's just a little playful "bromance" buddy movie, but rarely has it hurt the box office or offended anyone's sensibilities. (We're not making the argument that all these movies have been successful or inoffensive... simply that a little gay subtext wasn't the cause.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet, back in 1887. It's 2010. Maybe it's time for a little update... If Doyle was alive who knows how different Sherlock Holmes would be. As Jason Starr, author of Panic Attack and other thrillers said:

"This sounds like exactly the type of updating the series needs to attract a new generation. Playing up the homoerotic undercurrents in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' worked rather well. If Conan Doyle was writing today, he would have been much more provocative with the characters. [New York Post]

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is action-packed, full of humor, full of suspense, and yes, it focuses on the chemistry between Holmes and Watson quite a bit. Although there's still all the stuff that's come to be synonymous with the name "Holmes" (the deductive reasoning and talent for forensics), it's still probably not the Sherlock Holmes you remember. But maybe that's okay. Maybe that's what Sherlock Holmes needed.


KJ said...

I've always assumed Holmes was asexual. There is little evidence Holmes had any interest in sex with men or women. Many asexual folks form life-long, strong friendships and use them as their primary means of emotional support. I can easily see Holmes as asexual, more so than any other sexual orientation. Of course, asexuality is invisible and often unnamed.

Ginny said...

The movie reminded me a lot of the tv show House {House & Wilson}

Anonymous said...

Apparently House & Wilson are supposed to be loosely based on Holmes & Watson.

Anonymous said...

Me and the rest of my teenage yaoi-fangirl friends noticed the gay subtext and found it squee-worthy.... but we can see gay subtext in ANYTHING, I thought we were just perverts like that :P

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was awesome to read! I had to skip some parts because I haven't seen the movie yet, but the quotes from the books were very interesting. I would imagine based on my limited knowledge that, like KJ said, it's more asexual (makes sense, if a bit simplistic - Holmes is all about reason, not passion), but modern audiences and even movie-makers who are constantly bombarded with hyper-sexualized imagery probably don't know how to even interpret asexuality.

I would assume the reason they care about the supposed gay subtext (or any other "divergences") this time is because this movie is hyped, high-budget, and going to reach a lot of viewers. I've never even heard of any of the other movies, so why would they waste money getting lawyers involved? But I also want to know, who actually thinks Hollywood would take the risk of taking a blockbuster and turning it "gay?"

Anonymous said...

Um, how could you *not* notice the gay subtext in the film? After watching the movie with my entire family, we were all discussing the high levels of explosions, shirtless boxing, and especially the BROMANCE. That's even the term my Midwestern sister-in-law used to describe it.

Actually, the Holmes-Watson relationship was very carefully directed and dialogued, and was really one of the best things about the movie. Too many jump-cuts and CGI, too few psychological thrills for me.

Anonymous said...

I never saw much emotion in Holmes )...until I read more of the stories (I started out with Hound of the Baskervilles)

"In an instant [Killer Evans] had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots. I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes's pistol came down on the man's head. I had a vision of [Evans] sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend's wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

"You’re not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"

It was worth a wound--it was worth many wounds--to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation." --from "The Three Garridebs"

Yes, obviously it's open to any interpretation, but I think the director choosing to put "gay subtext" in the film can be a valid interpretation. They should just show Doyle's estate that passage and say, "BUT THAT'S HOW I INTERPRETED IT!"

(I mean, of course they're worried about Teh Gay infiltration of yet another blockbuster! *eyeroll*)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to drop by to note that Andrea Plunkett actually has no claim whatsoever on the copyright to anything Sherlock Holmes. I'll let the expert over at Sherlockian.net( http://www.sherlockian.net/acd/copyright.html ) explain the details, but the jist is that Sherlock Holmes is almost completely in the public domain and this woman is simply using the movie to try to further her spurious claim of copyright.

Anonymous said...

I think there's definitely a homoeroticism to the film and a "bromance" of course. It just seems like anytime two men are shown sharing an intimate relationship, it automatically has to mean they're gay. Straight men can have intense friendships with other straight men that don't have to involve sex.

I don't think there's anymore gay subtext in the movie than there was in the books. Like I said, everything is open to interpretation... which is why the estate getting all uptight over it is so stupid. You'd think Guy Ritchie decided to throw in a Downey-Law sex scene for all the "threats" they're making.

Which by the way, thank you Anonymous, for that tidbit of info. I love it.

BenYitzhak said...

Sherlock Holmes didn't really do much brawling because he never really had to. I recall in one of the stories, a large man had come in and threatened Holmes and Watson. In the process of doing so, he bent a iron fire poker. Holmes showed absolutely no fear at this and, once the fellow left, bent the poker back to normal. There's no reason to suspect that Holmes can't fight.

As to his sexuality, there was just "The Woman" who he admired so deeply because she had gotten the better of him.

Condo Blues said...

I read all of the stories and am a big history geek - especially Victorian England. I thought the movie was one of the best portrayals of Holmes and Watson. Espeically Watson most play him as stupid - he wasn't. Holmes was always the smartest guy in the room.

If you're looking for gay subtext you're going to find it. Especially in Victorian English society. Even when married straight guys spent more time with each other than their wives as a matter of propriety.

The only negative I found was in some of the costuming. If Irene would have worn pants, they wouldn't have been tailored and she would have disguised herself to look like a boy. That being said Robert Downey Jr. Wouldn't have worn a pillow either. But who am I to quibble with historical costuming? Robert Downy Jr. wore a pillow!

Anonymous said...

In the Holmes series there are references by Holmes and Watson to "that woman". She was Holmes 'love of his life' of whom he let get away in his youth. He discussed her as the woman who no one else could replace nor compete with in his heart.

He was described as pining over her portrait which he secreted in his Baker Street digs.

None of which of course...excuses the ignorant homophobia of the Miss Thing who threatens to shut down any future projects if the movie dares to infer a nelly Holmes and Watson.

Anonymous said...

Irene Adler may have been "the woman" but it's not necessarily clear that she was the love of his life:

"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."

Mania said...

Ah, if there's anything in this movie to make my yaoi-girl come out (hello other yaoi fan ^_^!) is good in my book. It's always questionable when two men care to spend their time with each other too much. It's just what it is.

Anonymous said...

Really? cos I know A WHOOOLLLLEEEE lot of people that do want to see gay Holmes and Watson, granted these are mostly girls. Girls I know in real life as well as girls from the internet. A LOT of girls from tumblr.