The Cumberbatch Effect

I have only vague recollections of life before I truly discovered Benedict Cumberbatch. I recall thinking his name was strange, and that he was odd-looking. I knew his fans were scarily obsessive, and called themselves Cumberbitches. I knew he was British and played Sherlock Holmes in a new BBC adaptation I hadn’t seen and didn’t intend to see.

But that changed during a late-night meander through the bowels of Netflix. Ten minutes into the first episode and I had a new piece of information to add to the list of Things I Know About Benedict Cumberbatch: he’s a good actor. Outstanding, actually. But that gets lost in the fervour that surrounds him everywhere he goes. Everyone is so busy marveling at his cheekbones, mocking his name, and making fun of his rabid fangirls, that it seems those fangirls are the only ones really noticing what this compelling alien is actually capable of.

Well, that’s not exactly true — award juries have noticed, evidently. Ben (as he’s called by his friends, and by the fans who wish they were his friends) has racked up dozens of prestigious nominations, including his first Oscar nod this past year for his performance as socially awkward gay genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He even took home an Emmy for his brilliant, cold, verbose take on Sherlock.

But watch him on any late-night chat show and you quickly see: all anyone wants to ask him about is his name, his fans, his face, and his spot-on Alan Rickman impression.

I mean, he does a hell of a Rickman. But that’s not all he can do.

My parents are media-savvy individuals: dad works in public relations and mom is a former entertainment reporter. Their reactions, when I told them I was doing a deep-dive into the world of Benedict Cumberbatch for a writing assignment, spoke volumes about the actor’s reach and effect on those who watch him.

My mom pontificated gleefully for five minutes about the episode of Sherlock I made her watch last week, in which the lightning-brained Holmes deduced the meaning of a series of seemingly random numbers, in what must have been a feat of memorization for Cumberbatch. When his monologue ended, my mom turned to me and said, “Wow!” The performance, she said, reminded her of her mega-crush Hugh Laurie and the deductions he used to rattle off in House M.D. She didn’t know, I guess, that Laurie’s diagnostician Dr. House was based on Sherlock Holmes — who, in turn, was based on a diagnostician who Arthur Conan Doyle knew. (I bet she also didn’t know that Hugh Laurie played Cumberbatch’s dad in a short-lived English TV drama called Fortysomething.)

My dad, by contrast, just emailed me a link to an article that came out today: “Chocolate sculpture of Benedict Cumberbatch.” He included no further comment, evidently assuming that the headline and photos would speak for themselves. They did.

Archive of Our Own is a website which, according to its About page, “offers a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting place for fanworks using open-source archiving software.” It is, in other words, a hotbed for fanfiction: the derivative stories penned and devoured by devoted fans of various films, books, and TV shows.

It’s become one of my favourite online haunts — a place to while away the hours, filling my eyes and brain with often absurd scenarios set in fictional universes that are comfortingly familiar to me. Today I’m surfing the Archive while perched in the window of a café, sipping peppermint tea. Idly, I type “Benedict Cumberbatch” into the search box on the site’s homepage, and five things immediately jump out at me:

1. My browser tries to autofill the search term, because — admittedly — this is not the first time I have typed this particular name into this particular search box.

2. When I press the Enter key, the search presents me with 2,134 stories. Two thousand, one hundred and thirty-four individual pieces of fiction. On more than two thousand separate occasions, someone has cared enough about Benedict Cumberbatch to write a story about him and upload it to the internet for others to read.

3. The seven most recent stories were uploaded today. So the number is growing — fast.

4. These are undeniably fanfiction, yes, but not in the usual sense. These stories are not about the characters Cumberbatch has played. They are about Cumberbatch himself. The real-life person.

5. Many of them are so sexually explicit that I can’t read them here in this café because there are some 12-year-old boys sitting at the next table and I can tell they are peering over my shoulder.

“Real-person fanfiction” — fictional stories, often filthy ones, about celebrities — is one of the many features of the internet that tends to terrify people from the pre-web generations when someone bothers to explain it to them. By all standard measures, it is creepy as hell. It mostly involves the celebrity in question — in this case, our man Benedict — catching the eye of an “original female character” (a transparent stand-in for the writer herself) at some kind of promotional event or public place, sparking an immediate attraction that soon devolves into grammar-deficient sex. It would probably take me a year to get through all the “Cumbersmut” (fans’ loving name for the subgenre) on the Archive, so I’m not going to read it all, but some of my favourites have titles like “Professor Cumberbatch,” “Benedict’s Secret,” and the refreshingly straightforward “Kissing and Fucking.”

The fanfiction medium is arguably new — a case could be made, after all, that most Renaissance art was basically Biblical fanfiction — and it’s flown largely under the radar for such a massive subculture. When it does show up in mainstream media, someone is usually mocking it: Cumberbatch himself seems none too pleased about the fictional scenarios his Cumberbitches have dreamt him into. Recently he complained about Sherlock fanworks in an interview with Out magazine, prompting the article’s author to decry fanfiction writers for turning Cumberbatch’s “chilly, acerbic, and distinctly asexual Sherlock into a lustful cock monster.”

This pronouncement didn’t slow fans down at all. In fact, they doubled down, reclaiming the term “lustful cock monster,” using it in their stories, and — in one case — designing a T-shirt bearing the slogan and then donating proceeds from the shirt’s sales to Archive of Our Own. The Sherlock fandom has a mind of its own and even King Benedict himself can’t stop them.

What is it about this man that makes him the focus of so much fawning teen-girl attention? How is it that a 38-year-old posh Brit who looks like (according to various internet sources) a sphynx, an otter, and “a cross between a sexy elf and a space alien,” has inspired so much lust and affection in the hearts of so many that they have to write fiction stories about it in order to process their feelings?

Of course, there’s lots to like about Ben, just as there’s lots to like about anyone good-looking and talented enough to reach the upper echelons of entertainment-biz fame. His cheekbones (or “zygoma,” as he memorably called them in an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit) are so sharp they could probably break skin. His distinctive baritone voice, which British journalist and Sherlock fangirl Caitlin Moran says is “like a jaguar hiding in a cello,” lends a sense of gravitas to every role he tackles. His lips, reshaped by years of playing the trumpet as a child, boast a prominent cupid’s bow that’s described in worshipful detail in many a Cumbersmut story.

His many promotional interviews show a smart, thoughtful, even humble person. When complimented by his childhood hero Harrison Ford on a talk show, Ben was visibly taken aback and remarked, “Wow, that’s a bit of a moment.”

He sees the silliness of his skyrocket to fame and is able to poke fun at himself. In 2014 a video went viral of him repeatedly mispronouncing the word “penguins” in a nature documentary he narrated — ironically, just before the release of the Madagascar spinoff film for which he provided a voice, Penguins. When talk show host Graham Norton asked him about it, Ben laughed along with the audience.

He’s shown himself to be socially conscious and even proudly identifies as a feminist. When he stated that he felt the Cumberbitches moniker “set feminism back a little bit,” some members of the group switched to alternate names — Cumberbabes, Cumberpeople, the Cumber Collective — all of which he’s more comfortable with.

Asked to explain his own widespread appeal, Ben has said that teenage girls find his take on Sherlock attractively nonthreatening because he’s completely disinterested in women. The character’s asexuality (or homosexuality — no one at the show seems willing to make a firm statement either way) also gives him that “you want him but you can’t have him” allure.

But then, don’t all celebrities have that? Aren’t all celebrities inherently unavailable, especially the ones who, like Benedict, are married?

There may not actually be a concrete explanation for why Cumberbatch has the wildest, weepiest fans of practically any entertainment act since the Beatles. It may have just been a case of the right role at the right time, in a popular culture that increasingly embraces brainy weirdos and unconventional beauties.

But what’s clear is that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually worthy of all this adulation, even though I’m sure he doesn’t always want it. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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