Sherlock’s ‘The Abominable Bride’: Abominable History?
From the characterisation of female figures such as Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins to the recent Suffragette film, producers have presented women’s suffrage campaigns in a variety of ways.
The much-anticipated holiday special of the BBC series Sherlock aired on New Year’s Day, much to many fans’ delight (myself included). Focusing on Holmes’ drug-induced ‘mind palace’ (an advanced memory technique), the episode takes viewers through the internal workings of Holmes’ brain as he tries to work out Moriarty’s apparent survival – following a dramatic and, what many would see as conclusive, death scene. To test his theory, Holmes takes himself to 1880s Britain to examine the murders committed by the ‘Abominable Bride’ – or, as it turns out, brides. The producers of the show, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, showcase the women of this period campaigning for the vote. Their decision seems admirable…until one critically examines the characterization of those women in the episode.
Yes, the producers decided to portray the women in purple gowns and pointed capes, drawing an obvious parallel with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an American organisation largely based on promoting white supremacy, primarily against African Americans, in the 1880s, 1920s and 1960s. The episode has been the subject of much discussion and scrutiny, especially over the producers’ presentation of women. Placing the episode within a historical context shows that this depiction was not only unhelpful, but also disturbingly inaccurate.
The episode was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original story ‘The Five Orange Pips’, published in 1891. Its victim, Joseph Openshaw, receives five orange pips from the KKK to signal his impending death. This was clearly the inspiration for the introduction of the KKK – even though it did not exist in Britain. However, this out-of-context reproduction is troubling.
As members of this underground organisation, the women are united in their quest to gain the vote. This becomes clear at the end of the episode, when Holmes explains the case’s solution to his companion, Dr John Watson. This, in itself, has received much criticism and has prompted claims that Holmes ‘mansplains’ feminism. Indeed, the newly coined ‘mansplaining’, here refers to a man patronizingly explaining something to a woman. On that note, it is important to remember that Holmes explains the outcome of every other case in other episodes – with the exception of Irene Adler in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’.
The choice of purple uniforms harkens back to the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was part of the wider suffragist movement. The union itself was not established until 1902, twenty years after the year depicted in this episode.
Indeed during the nineteenth-century, many women’s efforts to obtain the vote involved peaceful campaigns, which middle-class women conducted. As the recent Suffragette film indicates, most of this ‘peaceful campaigning’ is left out of the popular historical narrative. Those few women who did engage in militant tactics engaged in public vandalism, as opposed to planned, vindictive murders. Presenting the women of the early suffrage movement casts largely peaceful campaigners of the period in the negative light of a racist cult. Equating women’s fight for the vote with the KKK is reductive, historically inaccurate and ultimately offensive.
Whilst some articles have noted that the suffragette movement was chronologically misplaced in the setting of the episode, little has been said about its commentary on female members of the KKK, in 1880s America. Studies by Martha Hodes have revealed that, despite the bar against women, women often participated in KKK activities which reasserted their conventional positions: sewing uniforms. Men viewed women as objects of protection, their actions being assertions of their supremacy against the perceived threat of African American men. If women strayed from the expected ideals of sexual propriety, some KKK members would sexually mutilate them. That Gatiss and Moffat depicted women as having power within an organisation that marginalized and even abused women is very disturbing.
Although the episode was set in Sherlock’s drug-induced world, Gatiss and Moffat have made an unflattering and historically misplaced comparison between women of the early suffrage movement and female members of the first KKK. While Moffatt in particular has been criticised for his portrayal of female characters, the equation of women’s fight for the vote with first-degree murder is preposterous. In short, ‘The Abominable Bride’ makes for a rather Abominable History.
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