“The Abominable Bride” is Moffat’s Biggest Feminist Failure
And that’s saying something.
“The Abominable Bride”, the Sherlock Christmas special between seasons 3 and 4, was one of the last times I found happiness watching this godforsaken show. I saw it in the theater with a few friends. While watching it, we laughed and gasped and made predictions in all the right places, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
And then in the car, as we thought about it more, we started foaming at the mouth at all the stupid shit the writers did.
This was nothing new. It’s been my experience with the show almost from the start. I began watching during the hiatus between seasons 2 and 3, so watching the first two seasons was pure fun. I thought the twist conclusion to the bomb problem at the beginning of episode 4 was funny while also tying into the story, and any dropped plot threads or character steps back didn’t bother me, because we were just getting started. I make a point not to judge a show by its first few seasons — it often takes a bit before the writers and actors get into a good stride with such a drawn-out story.
But after season 3, I started to get wary. The writers don’t bother giving a proper explanation of how Sherlock survived, the thing we’ve all been waiting to know the answer to. The repercussions of Sherlock coming back from the dead after TWO YEARS, both physical and emotional, were completely solved within the course of one episode. The twist about Mary came out of nowhere; so out of nowhere that the actress herself didn’t know until she got the script for the final episode of the season.
I actually got the chance to talk with Moffat and Gatiss directly about this choice, which you can see a clip of below.
And then of course, season 4 came along and crushed everyone’s hopes and dreams, including Mofftiss’s. Nothing made sense, stuff was thrown at you out of nowhere, and all sense of reality went out the window for the sake of a Samara-Jigsaw hybrid character who gets saved with the power of hugs.
But I think about that experience in the theater sometimes. Watching this special was the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a while. And as the bridge between okay-that-was-a-letdown-but-maybe-they’ll-turn-it-around season 3 and oh-God-everything’s-on-fire-and-two-men-are-asphyxiating-because-they-refuse-to-remove-their-heads-from-their-own-asses season 4, and considering I’ve only seen it all the way through once, surely it deserves another look.
There are so many things I could talk about, but the one I’ll be focusing on is what Moffat was trying to do with this whole special: address the many, many criticisms he’s gotten over the years for how he writes women. Not to mention how he talks about them.
It’s one of his most common criticisms, and one he does try to push back against. But as you can imagine, a man who confidently said that women are “needy” and “[always] out here hunting for husbands” struggles a bit with female empowerment.
Like many a naive male writer, Moffat believes that woman + violence = empowered woman. We saw this with Irene, where instead of intellectually beating Sherlock (because we can’t have that, can we?), she beats him in the literal sense.
But then of course, she needs him to be her knight in shining hijab and come save her from being beheaded by…al-Qaeda? ISIS? Terrorists R Us?
And then we get Mary in season 3. Most people figured out there was something going on with her because the great and clever Mofftiss didn’t anticipate the audience’s ability to hit pause.
As I mentioned, her secret life as an assassin isn’t as set up as it could be, not just because of bad writing, but because the writers were so concerned about spoilers (or about giggling to themselves over how clever they were) that they didn’t bother telling, you know, THE ACTRESS PORTRAYING THE CHARACTER until it was too late.
But honestly, her being an assassin isn’t the biggest problem in the world. If done right, it could have been really interesting. It further proves the point that John is drawn to dangerous people, gives Mary a solid reason to tag along on adventures, and helps establish her character as more than the throwaway wife she was in the books.
In practice, the reason she’ll do anything to protect knowledge about her past is because of John. Not because of what he represents (a normal life, a new start, etc.), not because she’s worried her old enemies could use him to get to her, but because John himself is just so goddamn amazing. When Sherlock asks why she didn’t come to him when the blackmail started, she says:
“Because John can’t ever know that I lied to him. It would break him and I would lose him forever — and, Sherlock, I will never let that happen. Please understand. There is nothing in this world I would not do to stop that happening.”
She’s talking about John like a possession more than a person. It’s a very selfish thing. Again, this would be interesting to contrast with Sherlock’s relationship to John, even in this very episode — Mary shoots Sherlock to save John from suspicion at the risk of killing his best friend whose death nearly destroyed him the first time; Sherlock shoots Magnussen to keep John and Mary safe from his blackmail at the risk of being sent away to be tortured and killed in Eastern Europe. In other words, Mary risks John’s mental state to keep him with her, while Sherlock sacrifices his own life so John and Mary can be happy. Selfish love vs. selfless love — easy, right?
Except of course this is never fully explored and John basically forgives Mary for all of it after sulking a bit and it’s never brought up again. The only good thing about this scene is how Martin’s acting manages to undercut what I have to assume was meant to be a scene of complete forgiveness.
And then after all that, the writers kill her off right at the start of season 4. Mary is by far the best written woman on the show, and they kill her off after exactly one season so John can moo out his man-pain.
Unlike the writers, let’s not forget Molly. I’ve talked a bit about this in a previous article, but for such an inspired idea, Molly really gets the short end of the stick. She’s a woman in a prominent position in a STEM field, but doesn’t let that curb her interest in feminine things like cats and pink and pretty things and…Glee, apparently.
But after that first episode, her character never really moves beyond that point. From season 1 to season 4, she continues to harbor a crush on Sherlock. This despite the fact that he’s insulted her appearance multiple times, embarrassed her in front of an audience at least twice (albeit unintentionally), and generally regards her as a second option for assistance when John isn’t available, at best. She gets engaged to another man for like a second, but that gets called off with literally no explanation at all. Also we’re supposed to believe that her fiance is a dead ringer for Sherlock and that’s the joke, but like…
The idea that any 30-something woman would continue to actively hold a torch for a man who is so very clearly not interested and treats her like garbage is the kind of thing E.L. James makes millions off of, not a solid character beat in a detective show that claims to be grounded in reality and logic.
Molly in particular is robbed of agency at every opportunity. One of her first actions as a character is fucking gettin’ it by quite boldly asking Sherlock on a date, but then…
There’s nothing wrong with this inherently, especially as a beginning to a show. We’ve established that one of Sherlock’s blind spots to his all-seeing powers of observation is social situations, and we’ve set the stage nicely for Molly becoming more confident in herself.
She does seem to give up hope at a certain point, and start dating around on her own. And who is the first date we meet?
That’s right — she unknowingly dated everyone’s favorite villain, Jim Moriarty.
After that, she’s back on the Sherlock train.
Anderson’s theory about how Sherlock survived the fall, and Molly’s part in it, can’t help but include one tiny detail.
And then we get Tom, and then he’s gone, and we’re back to Sherlock again.
Not only is Molly’s part in the story constantly tied to the men in the story, but the men she’s romantically interested in at the time. She doesn’t contribute to the story because of her knowledge of pathology, or anything she went to school for, or even her interests outside of men, but because of what she will do for the men she loves.
She does have one moment of “empowerment”, though.
She’s mad at him because he did drugs, see. It wasn’t the years of emotional abuse or making her an accomplice to a faked death that made her snap and finally get mad at him. It was cocaine.
Like Irene’s moment before it, this moment of anger and violence doesn’t really serve as character growth because it’s still related to her love of Sherlock. This moment is played as an “anger out of concern” moment, where she’s mad because he put himself in danger, rather than a moment of pure anger for what he did personally to her. This doesn’t really change their dynamic any, and by season 4, she’s mostly gone except as a person in the ambulance with Sherlock and for that dumb love confession right at the end.
I have two points with all this. First, this series has had a problem with how it writes women from the beginning. I didn’t even have time to get into Mrs. Hudson, who is by far the best written but still mostly a joke rather than a formidable part of the team, or Janine, who was almost entirely pointless. Character growth in general is mostly nonexistent on this show, but the women get an especially bad deal.
And second, if you’re going to try and acknowledge these criticisms, maybe don’t make the exact same mistakes again.
Abominable Is Right
Here’s the thing about Moffat’s other works: most of them are dismissive, condescending, and/or outright hostile towards their female characters, but for the most part, none of them are striving to be anything other than a story for their male main characters. That doesn’t excuse it by any means, but there’s an honesty to it. “Why would I care about my female characters when it’s about the male characters?”, right? It’s dumb, but at least you can hope for a good story from the male characters.
“The Abominable Bride”, however, is a thinly veiled attempt to be more feminist. “Oh, you lot say I can’t write good female characters?” You can hear Moffat shouting through the void. “I’m going to write the best bloody story with the coolest female characters you’ve ever seen! It’ll be proper feminist!” Don’t question me, my Steven Moffat impression is flawless.
I mentioned a few times above that Moffat subscribes to the “woman + violence = empowerment” myth, and it really comes to play here.
Quick sum up of the mystery here, which by the way is a completely original story by Mofftiss. There’s a few references to other stories — the title is taken from a throwaway line from “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” where the case of “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife” is mentioned in passing, and includes some elements from “The Five Orange Pips” and the famous waterfall scene from “The Final Problem”, but they’re only references. There’s no one to blame for the actual plot than Mofftiss.
And listen, we don’t even have time to get into the time-travel-drug-hallucination thing. Basically the whole episode is a mindfuck where even by the end, you have no idea if the Victorian stuff was hallucinated by modern Sherlock, or vice versa, or some combination of both. For our purposes, we’re going to acknowledge that the Victorian plot could be modern Sherlock’s imagination, but still mostly focus on the Victorian stuff.
Got it? It’s fine if you don’t, neither do Mofftiss.
So in 1895, it’s Emelia Ricoletti’s wedding anniversary, and she’s celebrating in the traditional way.
She’s seen shooting at a bunch of people in the street below her, then finally turns the gun on herself and blows her head off, with the body being taken to the morgue by Scotland Yard. BUT that night, she comes out of a carriage to meet her husband outside an opium den, who positively identifies her before she kills him with a shotgun then turns around to reveal the exit wound on the back of her head. BUT THEN they see her body is still at the morgue, and it’s definitely her!
So they go to the morgue and don’t find any real answers there, and then this woman shows up, Lady Carmichael, who claims her husband Eustace is haunted by Emelia Ricoletti. He’s not the first — ever since the original incident, people have claimed her as the culprit for several murders that Sherlock seems uninterested in, but for reasons that aren’t the clearest ever, they decide to make an exception for this case. There’s a bit of a chase the night they go there, but it ultimately leads to Eustace being murdered and no one any closer to figuring out what’s going on.
And then it TURNS OUT that there was more than one culprit. Dozens, in fact.
This is clearly a reference to “The Five Orange Pips”, which was foreshadowed when Eustace received said orange pips in the mail before he was killed. See, in that story it turned out the culprit was the literal KKK. But while this group dresses almost exactly like the KKK, aside from the robes being blue, they are actually —
Or, I mean, are they? Sherlock mentions voting when talking about them as a group, but they seem more interested in, like, killing abusive husbands than anything else. So what are they? Well, Moffat calls them a “secret society” that endeavor to “put the fear of god into bad people, bad men”. Which is…not very specific.
It’s also supposed to serve as a big metaphor for all the women he’s abused, and yeah, to be fair, this bit is super satisfying.
But aside from her and Janine (and Moriarty in a wedding dress, because gay character must be flamboyant at all times), there really isn’t anyone else Sherlock recognizes there, which sort of shoots a hole in the supposed point that “Sherlock doesn’t respect women” and “Sherlock abuses all the women in his life”. Mrs. Hudson and Irene Adler are absent from this Guilt Group of Sherlock’s, and Mary is there but not part of the group.
So let’s get back to that whole killing abusive husbands thing. There’s a string of in-universe sexism throughout this entire story, with women constantly being talked down to and dismissed. When Mary suggests coming along on John and Sherlock’s adventures, John almost laughs and asks “What could you do?”. When she asks if she’s just supposed to wait around while John and Sherlock go out again, John says, “Of course not! We’ll be hungry later!”. And there’s a whole scene of John being the worst boss ever to his maid, ringing the bell constantly and threatening to have her fired for taking like five seconds to get to him from who knows where in the house.
That’s a little weird, right? If this is supposed to be about Sherlock discovering he’s been underestimating the women in his life, why is John given all the sexist lines? Is it Sherlock just projecting his thoughts onto John, since we’re in his head? But if he’s not ashamed of them and that’s the lesson he needs to learn, why would he go to the bother of projecting them at all?
And more importantly, from a writing standpoint, if Sherlock is the one who’s supposed to learn the lesson, having John embody the problem and Sherlock exposit the lesson in a monologue is a really confusing way to do it.
You also don’t really get a sense of what these women are fighting for. From a literal perspective, they’re apparently killing “bad men”. But, what constitutes bad, in this case? It turns out Eustace knew Emelia Ricoletti before…
He knew her out in the States.
Promised her everything.
And then he had his way with her…
…and threw her over.
Left her abandoned and penniless.
And then with Mr. Ricoletti, she “thought she found happiness…but he was a brute, too”, which is a bit vague.
So sure, I can see Mrs. Ricoletti and Lady Carmichael teaming up to kill these two assholes, but did we really need a dozen more people and all the other murders to do it? And why did they bother with all those other murders? Was it just to keep the legend of the ghost bride alive? If so, how did they choose who to kill? What is this actually accomplishing that all these women are interested in?
As you can see, this doesn’t really work from either a literal sense or in a “Sherlock teaching himself a lesson in his own head” sense. The women do feature more prominently in this story than they have in any other Sherlock episode up until that point, but instead of their motivations being personal freedom or suffrage or anything else, it’s yet another revenge story. A revenge story centered around men, no less.
And I’m sorry, we have to talk about those KKK robes again.
This is a good example of what has been called “dissonance of framing” in film criticism. And before you get on me from being pretentious, I learned that from a video about the Transformers movies. This is, for our purposes, when the script says one thing and the camera says another.
For one thing, despite all the flaws I mentioned, the script is telling us that this is a group of brave women who are fighting oppression and that Sherlock and John are absolutely in the wrong here.
But the camera is saying, “Look! It’s the KKK!”
It’s really hard to take your claim that these women aren’t “insane feminists” or your take on suffragettes when you have them dressing in the delightfully-colored robes of an actual bigoted murder cult. Even if that truly wasn’t your intent, the camera is mightier than the pen. No matter how good your script is, in a visual medium like film or television, what you see sticks with you more than what you hear. No matter how much you say these women are right, that they have been wronged, that what they’re doing is a just cause, the audience will mostly remember that the killers wore scary robes.
I linked to one bit of one article three times up above, so I think it’s worth showing you a screenshot if you haven’t already clicked one of the links.
In that last line, Moffat accidentally reveals the whole problem with this special: it had nothing to do with the suffragists.
If this really was supposed to be the big special that proved Moffat could write decent female characters, it’s almost sad. He literally couldn’t imagine women being empowered without employing the tired “woman scorned” trope and having their pain and motivation based entirely around men.
And the worst part is that there are threads of interesting plots in there. Mary states outright that she’s a suffragette, and her husband doesn’t seem to know. Why not show her at activist meetings or at protests, and have her discover something about the case while there? Instead, she just randomly happens upon the hiding place of the secret society, and we’re never told how or why.
The best part of the whole damn special, though, is this.
Yep, that’s Molly, who in this timeline dresses like a man and goes by “Hooper” so she can still work in the morgue.
There is so much in that. For one thing, we’ve never known exactly how important Molly’s work is to her. Is it just what she does to pay the bills and stay close to her crush? This tells us very clearly that no, it isn’t. She wouldn’t go to the trouble of crossdressing, leading a double life, and risking jail time just to see that guy she likes, and any suspicions of that are quelled when “Hooper” shows a clear disdain for Sherlock and does everything “he” can to get him out of the morgue as fast as possible. Slight as it is, this shows us that Molly has a real passion for her work, and is capable of taking huge risks when the situation calls for it, despite her seemingly quiet and non-confrontational appearance in the rest of the series.
This is also the first time we get to explore Molly’s justifiable anger at not being taken seriously. In series 1, she’s confident enough to blatantly ask Sherlock out on a date. From his rejection onwards, his hot-and-cold reactions to her cause her to become more nervous and self-conscious, to the point where she shows up to a casual Christmas party wearing a goddamn evening gown in the hope that he won’t insult her for once, which of course he does anyway. Even after Sherlock apologizes, his behavior doesn’t change all that much, until he needs her help, of course. This special is the one and only time we see Molly truly get angry at Sherlock for reasons other than “OMG I’m worried about you bb”, and the fact that this is all happening in Sherlock’s head means he knows it’s exactly what he deserves.
So, I must ask, why not make that the main focus?
Have whatever mystery you want, but why not make it less of a secret society of women out to get him, but have it centered around the fact that he has ruined any chance of friendship with Molly Hooper? Focus less on Molly’s pain, and more on the fact that no matter how nice he is now, no matter how much he’s learned, there are things that saying “sorry” can’t fix, and that Molly absolutely does not owe him forgiveness just because he acknowledges he fucked up. By treating Molly less like a person and more like a tool to get what he wants, literally objectifying her, he has lost any chance of being even respected in her eyes, much less liked, and he can’t fix that. He has to deal with the consequences.
That’s just one example of one way this story could have actually focused on Sherlock’s faults and the show’s general dismissal of women. But as Moffat has proven time and time again, despite his audience being predominantly female, he has no interest in seeing female characters as more than a means to an end, or exploring their inner lives apart from how they relate to men.
I hate to say it, but if I have a choice between Moffat trying to be feminist and him blindly letting the men do all the interesting stuff, I’d almost rather have the latter. At least then, we can all pretend he just doesn’t know any better.
Boys will be boys, after all.