Tracing the History of ‘Sherlock’s’ Illusory Homoeroticism

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Two weeks ago, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch announced that a scene set in a gay club had been cut from the 2014 season of Sherlock, and of course, the word “gay” coupled with the word “cut” caused a small tizzy. The show, it seemed, in its incessant gay pseudo-subtext and systematic revocation of its every gay insinuation, had gotten itself into a pickle with this fraught scene — had they kept it, it would have added another notch to their “queerbaiting” belt, and a small tizzy would have likewise been caused. To emerge tizziless, they opted, suddenly and uncharacteristically, to eschew all gay implication. Thus, bereft of the freedom and the desire to gay it up, Sherlock’s dance with gayness is an equivocal burlesque, revealing, at the last minute, the gayish pasties atop heteronormative nipples.

Having myself been baited by the familiarity of the show’s gotcha!-style gayness and its hyper-awareness of belonging to a culture of bromance-y heroics so often spoofed by SNL’s (unfunny) Ambiguously Gay Duo, I began to question why, in the presence of heroes, homsociality is read as homosexuality, and why the introduction of the sidekick — a cipher, a foil, an everyman — projects a titillatingly “other” form of sexuality onto the hero. To this day, the “bottom” is perceived as emasculated by virtue of being penetrated, and is therefore equated with a stereotype of feminine gayness. The sidekick is thus seen as the variable that renders the equation of hero and sidekick “homoerotic.” Oddly, however, the sidekick is often, by the end of so many hero narratives, either killed or reformed as an emblem of dull sexual normativity, while the hero is left distanced from his beloved sidekick, alienated from both the world and his untapped sexuality.

It’s easy to queerly allegorize superpowers, and whether Hollywood and its British impersonators like it or not, the hero, more than the sidekick, is entrenched in tropes that can productively be read as “queer.” It is no wonder that queer adolescents often adopt comic books as self-help guides: superheroes are burdened by having to balance their otherness with their attempts to conform, and these characters’ encumbered masculinities reflect this. Robin may wear the colorful costume, but disregarding superficial attempts to bolster heroes’ authority by coupling them with obsequious, emasculated saps, the stereotyped “gayness” the sidekick brings to the picture — so often eliminated by their dying or getting married — is a mere decoy for the more complex queerness of the hero.

The sidekick has always been a balancing mechanism, with some aspect of his personality functioning in opposition to the hero’s — i.e., the everyman sidekick and the anomalous hero. The hero/sidekick narrative’s contentment within a dom/sub personality binary is easily eroticized, and dates back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In these early literary examples, the sidekick is sacrificed by the author once their function is fulfilled. The Epic of Gilgamesh, lacking a female love interest (barring the hoards of women Enkidu has to keep Gilgamesh from deflowering), relies on the complicated relationship of checks and balances the two put on each other. Gilgamesh begins as a rampant heterosexual, a cherry poppin’ daddy intent on stealing a bride-to-be’s virginity before she’s married; Enkidu literally wrestles this urge out of him. Says the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture, “By wrestling with and finally embracing the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh is able to contain his own dangerously lawless heterosexual impulses and channel his superhuman energies in heroic endeavors, his love for Enkidu allowing him a psychological completeness unavailable in any other relationship.” Once Enkidu suppresses Gilgamesh’s DTF-itude, he is killed off, and Gilgamesh is left alone with his sadness and inexplicable penchant for greatness; his heterosexuality, it seems, has been expunged by the sidekick’s journey through his life.

In When Heroes Love: The Ambiguities of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David, Susan Ackerman draws a connection between this narrative and that of David and Jonathan. Their relationship has likewise been interpreted as homoerotic, with David “finding grace in Jonathan’s eyes” and its depiction of a homosocial ideal of “platonic” love greater than that between a man and a woman. David slays Goliath, but Jonathan, his trusty sidekick, is slain atop Mt. Gilboa. In both of these early stories of heroes and sidekicks, the sidekick was a foil — an object of desire and tenderness that enters the story, aids the hero, then disappears into his own mortality, leaving the hero devastated but, well, heroized.

Is it much of a surprise that the death-to-sidekick trope evolves, in later hero narratives, into a marriage-to-sidekick trope? Skip ahead, for example, to Lord of the Rings, and Samewise Gamgee’s unwavering obedience and longing stares that hardly seem platonic — a locking of eyes similar to that described by David re: Jonathan. From the get-go, Samwise occupies a role of professional subservience — like the half-naked pool-boy endemic to stories of domestic erotica, Samwise is Frodo’s gardener. After coddling and cuddling Frodo along the journey to destroy the ring, Samwise returns to the Shire, marries Rosie Cotton, and becomes an anthropomorphized testicle, pumping Rosie full of thirteen babies. Frodo, however, too burdened to return to normalcy, gets on a weird boat with some elves and goes to the “Undying Lands,” a parallel, it seems, to Mount Olympus, or, you know, other God places.

In Star Wars, our hero is an impressive Jedi knight, orphan (another superhero trope), and getter-of-no-tail. Han Solo, like Samwise, is hired to do menial work for Luke: he is his driver, and after all star wars are fought on Luke’s behalf, Han gets Leia. In both of these cases, the hero’s sexual desires remain wholly undeclared; he is, for all we know, asexual, and, by virtue of the sidekick’s love being the only thing he has resembling a relationship, the void of asexuality is filled, by the interpreter, with a simulacral gayness.

We can also analogize Harry Potter to Luke and Han to Ron. Recently, in a fit of pointless authorial second-guessing, JK Rowling reneged on pairing Hermione with Ron, saying that Harry and Hermoine would have been better-matched. This seems ludicrous. Never, over the course of Harry’s relationships, did Harry’s carnal desires approach hot-bloodedness. Ron is a foil to the “chosen one,” a pair of adoring eyes and bumbling lips through which we can gaze at the deified hero. So if Ron hadn’t gotten Hermione, what would he have gotten? Death? For what it’s worth, Harry likewise gets with a girl, but Ginny has always seemed an inchoate character, meant only to ensure that Harry get with someone; his ending up with her was tantamount, from this reader’s perspective if not from Harry’s, to his ending up alone. Any eroticization spurred by Ron’s caring role in Harry’s life is paradoxically muffled, at any point in the books, by Ron and Hermione’s ever-palpable marriage plot.

In the Seinfeld episode “The Outing,” Jerry and George get mistaken, much like Sherlock and Watson, for a gay couple, satirizing the implicit undertones of homosexuality in this (anti)hero/sidekick relationship. George-the-sidekick is interpreted as the passive “wife,” while Jerry, the hero, the one possessing a superlative talent (“What’s the deal with Tuesdays?”), is the active member of the relationship. But, while, throughout the course of the show, Jerry is left week by week to plow through New York’s seemingly endless supply of women willing to date adenoidal comics in high-waisted jeans and Technicolor button-downs, George is rewarded with a lasting relationship and the promise of a marriage (that is, until his fiancée is killed by her own wedding invitations in Seinfeld’s genius rejection of this very sidekick-marriage paradigm). Similarly, a great deal of Frasier’s humor comes from the ’90s idea that it’s a startling notion that Frasier and brother/sidekick Niles could be flamboyant and straight. Despite homo-speculation from its viewers and every character on the show, the sidekick marries Daphne, and, with this newly certified form of straightness, the show assures everyone he and his brother are just healthily wordy, not gay.

Then, of course, there’s Sherlock. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is (incorrectly) self-diagnosed as a “high-functioning” sociopath; Sherlock won’t be bothered by typical human trifles like love. It is questionable whether he’s truly asexual — a possible virgin — or just sexually repressed? The ever-concerned Watson asks, at one point, “Has Sherlock ever had a boyfriend? Girlfriend? A relationship of any kind?” We thus wonder whether Sherlock might secretly harbor feelings for Watson (while Watson dates and limply asserts, time and time again, that he’s straight). That is, until Sherlock falls for a dominatrix, someone whose hypersexuality can coax his libido out of dormancy; this doesn’t last. Despite Watson’s serial monogamy (and eventual marriage to Mary Morstan), his relationships are relatively desexualized. Weirdly, Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a serpentine sex-symbol, semi-asexual but very sexualized. The allure of this otherness brought about by his impenetrable intelligence might actually appeal to the queer viewer, while Watson is used as a cheap ruse, an illusion of gayness, whose bland relationships are then worn by the show like a giant “no homo” badge.

Regarding superheroes, the most iconic example of the eroticized sidekick is Robin. This was brought to the realm of public discourse in 1954 in Frederic Wertham’s homophobic and condemnatory Seduction of the Innocent, where the author cautioned parents that “only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin.’” Said Bill Finger, writer of many early Batman comics, “Batman was a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had his Watson. The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn’t have anyone to talk to, and it got a little tiresome always having him thinking. I found that as I went along Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That’s how Robin came to be.”

As a means of painting Robin as something other than a purely useless, he is described as the hero’s protégée, bound, at some point for heroism (think Justin Bieber before Usher rescued him from Canada and thrust him into the heroic role of taxi-driver-antagonist and protester of normative urine receptacles). The pedagogical aspect of the hero’s friendship to his sidekick becomes conflated, as pedagogy so often does, with the penetrative. Surely in middle school you heard someone call Robin “Batman’s butt-boy.” In his article “Unmasking ‘Gay’ Sidekicks: Queer Anxiety and the Narrative Straightening of the Superhero,” Neil Shyminsky suggests the plausibility of a pederastic reading of the superhero and his sidekick. Robin is often seen as gay while his rainbow-ish costume renders Batman, by comparison, hypermasculine and hyper-hetero. However, despite our automatic and problematic tendency to link a sidekick’s futility and tender obedience with gayness, the alienness of the venerated hero (i.e. Batman being bat-like, Superman being from another planet, or any form of exceptional deviance that makes the superhero “super”) is a more productive, apt and empowering parallel to the burdens of contemporary queerdom, especially queer adolescence, than that of the foil more typically seen as the “gay” one.

I’ll finish with a quote from artist Mike Kelley, whose obsession with Superman overwhelmed his work towards the end of his life, and who, in a statement about his eerie, phallic, and enclosed models of Supreman’s hometown, pointed to locked-away longing and othering as the causes of the hero’s isolation: “I find myself constantly thinking about the bottled city that Superman keeps safely stored in his Fortress of Solitude. Inside a bell jar is an entire city, filled with living people, from his home planet Krypton — a planet that has exploded. Krypton is the home that can never be revisited, the past that can never be recovered. Yet there it is, shrunken to the size of a doll-house — an ageless memento in real time. I wonder if the eternal Man of Steel ever feels the desire to smash this city and finally live in the present. That would put a stop to the fear of ending up in the shuttered room.” Perhaps when shows like Sherlock can unequivocally depict a mainstream hero as queer, we won’t need to strip-mine the hero narrative for signs of queerness (and it, in return, won’t have to bait us). We won’t have to try to see the hero’s isolation as a parallel to our own underrepresentation.