I don’t usually do this sort of thing. Write about television or visual media. I’m a book person. I’m comfortable there. But I suppose there’s a crossover, given that the writer for the most recent Elementary episode is Paul Cornell, whose fiction I’ve read and enjoyed here and there.
Elementary is my favorite tv show. It’s currently the only show I watch regularly and keep up with, as it comes out (online, 10pm is too late for me to stay up and watch it on the day). One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Elementary is it’s ability to represent lots of different kinds of people, to never feel like it’s consciously excluding any one group. It seems, instead, to make a conscious effort to include people from groups that are generally marginalized in mainstream media. It’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it does seem to make an effort.
So, we’re back to this week’s episode, “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got you?,” written by Paul Cornell and featuring a comic book hero as its main plot. It was funny, don’t get me wrong, and enjoyable to watch the way Joan and Sherlock’s relationship seems to have really come to a point of mutual understanding and closeness.
Except, where were all the other women?
Except for Joan’s friend running the charity for whom she’s doing the clothing drive, there are basically no other women in the entire episode with speaking parts. Even Morland’s Russian seamstress doesn’t get a word in when he casually dismisses her so he can conduct his seedy business with Joan.
Bad enough this happens at all, but add to it the fact that the episode is about comic books and superheroes–two subjects that have been really, well, shitty, about their treatment of women characters and women in general–and overall I was left with a feeling that the creators of this episode just didn’t think women were necessary or belonged. Which is a hell of a feeling to get about a show that up till now always made me feel welcome, whose main characters always cared about what happened to those generally left out.
Let’s break it down a little more, and really dig at what was so deflating about this episode.
First, Joan’s friend. It’s great when we get to see aspects of Joan’s personal life, especially her friends who are women because she’s so constantly surrounded by men in the course of her work. But the friend just happens to be the manager of a charity designed to help the disadvantaged–a very feminized form of work for the public good, especially compared to the very masculinized “heroes” we meet later on–and she’s the passive recipient of a huge amount of money from Moreland, who has a really bad history with women and is later revealed to have made the donation pretty much to manipulate Joan. Oh yeah, and the clothing donation Joan is dropping off at the point happens to come from Everyone, in an embarrassing episode in which Sherlock forces them all to strip in his living room, and who is front and center in the shot while he’s explaining it all to Joan? Of course, it’s a woman in black bra and underwear, who just happens to be very attractive, especially in comparison with the overweight and otherwise “undesirable” men she’s with. And of course she’s the only woman. Fun times.
After the revelation of the murder, we meet Joan and Sherlock in the waiting area of Superlative Comics, and Joan reveals that she knows a lot more than Sherlock’s recently acquired knowledge of all the Superlative heroes because her brother was a comic nerd. Yeah. Joan couldn’t possibly be a geek, and even though she’s not even claiming the title she’s put through the classic geek girl test, and by her partner no less. Maybe the show’s creators just thought it was a clever way to “introduce” the Superlative brand, but it comes off as another example of a woman taking on the emotional labor of knowing everything about the activities of the men in their lives, while getting none of the rewards.
Of course, all the people Joan and Sherlock talk to at Superlative are men, because a woman couldn’t possibly be a writer for a comic, and definitely not in charge of anything so important as a publishing house. A woman may have been glimpsed walking around the Superlative offices, but she was probably just getting coffee or something.
Let’s talk about overall plot. Plot A comes down, basically, to the fragile masculinity of the grandson of the Midnight Ranger comic’s creator (the superhero impersonated by the murdered “hero” of Greenpoint). This is in counterpoint to the “heroes” themselves, who are typical representatives of masculinity you find in action movies–their physical prowess, particularly–which they use directly to stop crimes. I practically laughed out loud when half the crimes were saving poor hapless women from purse snatchers. The grandson and murderer, by contrast, only has an arsenal of weapons, and is characterized basically as a physical coward who just wants what everyone else has.
While all of this is happening, Moreland Holmes is trying to use the guilt and sense of obligation that women are socialized to feel towards anyone ever doing anything nice for them in order to get Joan–not just to work for him–but to have sympathy for him. Moreland wants her to understand that he is not only wronged in business, but sorely misunderstood by his son, who really ought to just get over all that stuff with his mother anyway. Moreland thinks, and wants everyone to think, that he is always in the right. Joan’s secrecy about her meetings with Moreland didn’t feel right with her current relationship with Sherlock; she was portrayed as some version of a sneaking or cheating spouse; she’s like a woman expected to always get clearance from the man in her life, going against his wishes in poorly contrived scene after poorly contrived scene.
Joan’s decision to use the real mole to her advantage is in character with her previous actions and willingness to be more cutthroat than Sherlock, however because of the way it was staged I worry that it will not only go sour somehow, but the fact that it does go wrong will be used to put Joan in her place sometime in the future, to pull her back from the level of near-professional-equality she has achieved with Sherlock. Once again, as long as Joan is supporting Sherlock, she’s fine. When she oversteps her bounds, that’s when we have to start expecting punishment. Just look what happened when she cheated on Sherlock with his brother. She got kidnapped and almost killed.
All in all, this episode gave the distinct impression that women have a defined role in this world, and it certainly doesn’t overlap with the affairs or interests of men. Women are meant to be quiet, to be decorative, to fill their time in charitable activities, but above all not to presume they are owed equal place with men. Joan was just one more example of the exceptional woman whose expertise is trotted out when it’s convenient or needed to verify the place of some man in her life and to serve his ends, and whatever experiences she has, whatever knowledge she has acquired, must first be vetted by a man before it can be accepted as real.
And then there are all the intersectional casting issues with this episode, which I don’t even think I’m qualified to get into here.
Anyway, yes, I love this show, but this episode was terribly problematic.