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ITS SO OVERT, ITS COVERT

PERFORMATIVE MASCULINITY IN
CONTEMPORARY VICTORIAN
ADAPTATIONS OF SHERLOCK
HOLMES

By Mori
SUBMISSION DATE: 6 MAY 2016
WORD COUNT: 9,989

COVER ART AND DESIGN BY PETRA SZEMAN

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a


choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts
on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a 'one' who is prior to
this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with
deliberation which gender it will be today.
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four

Abstract
This dissertation explores the concept of gender performativity and masculinity, focusing on
queer texts, subtexts and paratexts and conceptualises the implications of queer representation
in modern adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles Sherlock Holmes detective stories.
Combining ideas of critical discourse analysis, Judith Butlers gender performativity and
Foucauldian definitions of power and discipline, the project outlines the discursive
construction of Sherlock Holmes as queer subject in contemporary Victorian adaptations
Sherlock Holmes (2009), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) and Sherlock: The
Abominable Bride (2016). It also engages with classic discourses within queer theoretical
studies such as the closet, gender subversivity, and drag culture to expose how themes of
queerness emerge with applying a qualitative performative analysis. These representations are
analysed using the broad theoretical framework of queer and post-queer theory as they
showcase how queer identities and their queer genders are constructed within media texts.
Highlighting the use of various representative techniques and applying Freudian definitions
and Lacanian concepts of the phallus and desire, the aim of this analysis is to create a
structured methodological approach towards recognising subtextual queerness in media texts
and to conceptualise the discursive-performative construction of the queer(ly) gendered
subject as a discursive Other.

Keywords: performativity, queer identity, Sherlock Holmes, critical discourse analysis,


masculinity

CHAPTER 1: Introduction
I think the word bromance is so pass. We are two men, who happen to be roommates, who
wrestle a lot and share a bed.
Robert Downey Jr. on Sherlock Holmes
Ever since Arthur Conan Doyle published his iconic Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand
Magazine at the tail-end of the 19th century, the world has been captivated. Holding the
Guinness World Record for the most portrayed character in popular fiction, Holmes image
has been immortalized through film, television, comic books, manga, pastiche books,
animated series and more. Holmes charm, intoxicating desire for adventures and sharp,
inquisitive mind have charmed audiences throughout the years, and he is now back in the
public arena in a range of contemporary adaptations. Every reinvented Holmes influences its
own generation, and modern adaptations starring high-profile celebrities like Robert Downey
Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Johnny Lee Miller are no exception.
Throughout the years of constant reinvention and representation, the topic of Holmes
sexuality has been discussed extensively in academic circles and digital fan spaces. Many
arguments have been raised defending various positions on Sherlocks sexuality: he is a
calculating, work-focused sexless being; he is only attracted to dangerous women and men
with a sharp wit; his queer desires are directed toward his friend and flatmate, Dr. Watson.
The possibilities are endless and fruitful when explored in-depth. Throughout contemporary
adaptations, queer texts and subtexts have been brought to the attention of the public even
more frequently than in previous generations. Holmes is today weirder indeed, more queer
than he ever has been, and his queerness, as this project theorises, is trapped in both a selfconstructed and socially manufactured closet which ultimately stems from his discursive
performance of masculinity.

The aim of this dissertation is to present an analysis of these queer subtexts that exist within
contemporary representations of Sherlock Holmes. This analytical discursive reading will
focus on the specificity of constructing a modern man in the temporality of a reimagined
Victorian era, and it will outline how queer messages emerge from constructs of the male
body and bodies around it.
Using Judith Butlers theory of performativity and discourse analysis as functioning
theoretical frameworks, this analysis will unravel how language, discourse, and
representations are used to construct Sherlock Holmes queer masculinity. It will consider the
bodily construct in three modern adaptations of a Victorian Sherlock Holmes, the use of
literary metaphors such as foil characters to create queer foils, which enhance queer
representations, and phallic symbolism (or the lack thereof) in making sense of emasculated
and subjectively queer acts and identities.
Relying on crucial texts in queer gender, gender theory, and psychoanalysis, the project will
ultimately aim to define a queer analysis framework for media texts. It will scrutinize the
queer male body, theoretically placing and discussing it in its discursive performative closet.
It will ultimately engage with and explain how subtext can be used to create powerful
representations of queer objects of desire, constructing discourses of the gendered body.

CHAPTER 2: Literature review


Queering gender
This research project will regard gender in its performative context as defined by Judith
Butler (1990) and the later works of Judith Halberstam. (1998; 2011) The notion of gender as
social construct underpins many studies of subversive gender identities, and it is contextually
applied when supporting or refuting gender identity theories. Queering gender (see
Halberstam 1998, Halberstam 2011) in an age of gender and sexual liberty is an
overwhelmingly queer practice and multiple discourses of power, oppression and ideology
relate both to transgender identities and other subversive identities under the queer
umbrella. Therefore it is important to regard the concept of gender in the specific frame of
queer and post-queer theory, insofar as gender queering can be seen as a term inseparable
from the concept of performativity. (see Butler, 1993; Butler, 1990; Prosser, 2006)
Using Freudian theories of melancholic identity (Thurschwell, 2009), discourses of loss and
Althusserian interpellation (Salih, 2002; Butler, 1990), Butler argues that no one does
gender: gendered bodies are always constructed by discourse and language and have no
meaning beyond them. Performativity provides theory with a means of recognising already
existing forms of normativity, showing how they shape reality and discourse. Recognising
normativity can be seen as the first step to subversion. Butler directly contradicts Foucauldian
notions of power and gender formation as a result of ideology (1977, 1980, 2009), saying that
whilst gender is not independent of institutional power, it requires and institutes its own
distinctive regulatory and disciplinary regime. (Butler 2004, p. 41)
Gender Trouble has invoked fresh criticism from gender theorists (Halberstam, 2012; Butler,
2004) in light of new subversive gender identity discourses, emerging in postfeminist and
post-queer contexts. The only subversiveness addressed by Butler in Gender Trouble is drag
culture, which I will discuss shortly in detail. Butler addresses these concepts and the more

particular subversiveness of queer gender identities in Undoing Gender. (2004) While


Gender Trouble might be the defining text for explaining performativity in the strict malefemale binary, Undoing Gender scrutinizes the concept itself. Butler reinvents the binary
connections to power, society and ideology, emphasizing that:
through the practice of gender performativity, we can not only see how the
norms that govern reality are cited but grasp one of the mechanisms by which
reality is reproduced and altered in the course of that reproduction. (Butler,
2004, p. 218)
Working with Butlers concept of performativity, we can explore gender identity in terms
closely relatable to queer theory. One of those terms is the closet, a long-existing institutional
formation, which exercises restrictive power over homosexual individuals. (Dean, 2014) In
Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick identifies the closet as epistemologically
distinctive to gay identity and culture, since gender, race, age, size, and handicap-related
oppression are based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases. (Sedgwick,
1990, p. 75)
This immediately relates to Sedgwicks Axiom 2:
The study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender;
correspondingly, antihomophobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist
inquiry. But we cant know in advance how they will be different. (ibid., p. 27)
While perusing this clear distinction in the critical discourse around gender and sexuality, one
must avoid devaluing the gender-sexuality relationship. (Butler, 2002) Regarding the coming
out process and discursive constructions of the closet as products of homosexuality is
wrong; they are instead products of the world of compulsory heterosexuality. (Rich, 1980;
Crimp, 1993; Salih, 2002; Butler, 1990) Sexuality and gender are elusive and contradictory;
they are public as much as they are private. (Weeks, 2000)

The gender-defying subject is therefore also trapped in a concept similar to the queer closet.
Returning to Butlers terminology, this subject refuses to discursively perform its gender in
what is socially considered the right way. The subject instead performs gender-bending or
gender-fucking to break the

gender-defender boundaries and rules. (Whittle, 1996;

Raymond, 1996) Therefore, despite the conceptualization closet in political activism and
eradicating gay shame (see Halperin, 2009), it still lacks the contextual depth to be placed in
a postmodern queer narrative. (Reynolds, 1999) Sedgwicks reading of the closet (while
appropriate and adequate for a strictly male homosexual context) must be redefined in the
context of this project to make useful interpretations and readings of post-queer gender
nonconforming individuals.
When discussing gender performativity in relation to queer gender issues, it is important to
view them in the broader discourse of queer contexts: queer past, present and future.
Integrating transgender and other gender-nonconforming individuals in queer metanarratives
like Stonewall and the AIDS crisis enables the exploration of subversive performativity
within historical contexts. The presence of drag queens, transsexuals and transvestites in such
moments of queer history is rarely documented in existing queer activism literature. (see
Weeks, 2000; Sinfield, 1998; Marine, 2011; Raymond, 1996) Nevertheless, parallels can still
be made between generally queer and generally transgender lifestyles. In In a Queer Time
and Place (2011), Judith Halberstam discusses readings of the transgender body and
subcultural identities in relation to the queer subject (also intrinsically related to the gender
nonconforming individual). Discussion surrounding subcultural identities is of particular
interest, as Halberstam criticises both heterosexual social hegemony and the mainstream
influence of gay and lesbian culture in modern post-queer spaces. (ibid.)
In a Queer Time and Place reconceptualises gender performativity and queering gender,
leading to the discursive definition of the transgender subject. Halberstams other text

Female Masculinity will be of use (in relation to Butlers analysis and case studies in Gender
Trouble) in the following critical look on drag kings and queens, cross-dressers and all other
forms of drag culture. In doing so, I will transgress the limits of performativity, use notions of
Freudian psychoanalysis and explore gender, as a mental function (and the direct result) of
discursive representation.
A Freudian psychoanalysis of drag
Looking closer at the existing body of gender studies, literature examining drag, drag
identities, and drag performance is growing steadily in tandem with literature surrounding
queer gender identities. This is hardly incidental, since drag is the most obvious example of
gender performance in the context of post-queer temporalities. Greaf (2015) writes that drag
identity is proof of the fact that gender is performative, defined not only by us and our bodies
but also our ability to pass as a certain gender according to our peers.
While sound, this analysis is superficial in the context of subversive gender identities. It has
been proven that not conforming to the existing gender binary is a state of identity, not a
simplified bodily narrative. (Levitt and Ippolito, 2014) It is therefore important to examine
drag culture and identity more closely when determining its relationship with the practice of
queering gender.
This distinction is conceptualised by Judith Halberstam in Female Masculinity. (1998)
Halberstam explores the specific textual contexts of drag kings in relation to the already
existing stereotype of butch dykes as well as different discursive readings of masculinity
in several cultural texts. In the book, Halberstam outlines the inherent anxiety of performing
in a classic heterosexual male role:
Performance anxiety, of course, describes a particularly male, indeed
heterosexual, fear of some version of impotence in the face of a demand for
sexual interaction. In comic representations, performance anxiety is often

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depicted as thinking about it too much or thinking instead of doing. (ibid.


p. 235)
Halberstam relates this experience to drag, stating clearly that drag culture is often used to
describe the theatricality of all gender identity. (ibid., p. 236) Butler refers to drag as the
ultimate example of gender subversive identities within performativity, though she only
views it within the context of gay men and considers drag kings the opposite of butch
performers. (1990) Halberstam notes that this is only partially true - the implications of drag
for parody and lesbian or transgender communities are too complicated to be rationalised.
Halberstams analysis points towards Freudian psychoanalysis. Gender identification of
others belongs in the unconscious sphere - when we are presented with someone who looks
and acts and sounds like a woman, we assume she is a female. (Devor, 2002, pp.7) In On
Murder, Mourning and Melancholia (2005), Freud also conceptualises discourses of
melancholia. Freud states that one of melancholias most curious features is its tendency to
turn into the symptomatically opposite state of mania. (ibid. p. 213)
All concepts in Freudian psychoanalysis should be approached with caution, as Freuds
mapping of the mind deals mainly in metaphors. (Thurschwell, 2009) The connections
between melancholia (as an ego state) and mania (as an id state) relate to specific readings
of bodily and mental gender. Concepts of melancholia and mania are useful textual tools for
this project to fall back on when conceptualising Halberstams performance anxiety. Another
useful term supporting Halberstams definitions is the Lacanian phallus. The phallus holds an
important position in Lacanian theory, conceptualised as a signifier of hegemonic power in
society rather than an anatomical organ. (see Homer, 2005; Gallop, 1989) As iek (2006)
explains, the phallus is a kind of organ without a body which I put on, which gets attached to
my body, but never becomes an organic part, forever sticking out as its incoherent, excessive
prosthesis. (pp. 34) This concept of the phallus (and its presence or lack) will enforce my

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argument that not all gender subversiveness is immediately physically identifiable. (see
Prosser, 2006) This will be used when distinguishing between drag performance and proving
existing subversive gender identities in the chosen texts.
Drag discourses raise significant questions on the textual and discursive stability of gendered
bodies. As this projects analysis attempts to determine and redefine gender performativity, it
should be noted that that even if bodies may be culturally malleable, it is important to
remember that not all people experience them as such. (Weston, 2002, pp. 20) In a 2015
article discussing Facebooks username change policy, drag queen and performer Lil Miss
Hot Mess highlights the issues this virtual space still has with individuals who refuse to
conform to societal gender standards:
Facebook has difficulty understanding users who operate outside of gendered,
sexual, ethnic, and national norms () who subscribe to theories of gender
(and other aspects of identity) as performative in a Butlerian sense. (Mess,
2015, p. 145)
Mess text rounds up analysis of gender and its deconstruction as a purely bodily experience,
transcending it by using virtual technology and social network contexts alongside academic
literature on digital gender identities and sexualities (Turkle, 1997; Sandercock, 2015; Chen,
2015). These representative discourses of drag and gender as a mental (rather than physical)
state will relate to the chosen texts and critically discuss their significance in terms of the
characters consistent gender-bending practices. This will first be explored through analysis
of literature pertaining to queer readings of Sherlock Holmes, as well as the possible
constructions of power and embodied masculinity which may be present in modern Victorian
Holmes adaptations.
Performativity in Sherlock Holmes

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The scarce academic literature discussing Sherlock Holmes stories evades presentations
questionable or queer masculinity. Considering the specific historical setting of Arthur Conan
Doyles books, there is a pronounced Foucauldian notion of power related to exhibiting
masculinity in its accepted forms. As Kestner (1997) points out:
In assessing the nature of masculinity and its relation to the Sherlock Holmes
canon, it is crucial to determine its role in policing the culture and the degree
to which normative masculinity functioned to maintain order. (ibid., p. 42)
In Sherlocks Men, Kestner provides a solid theoretical grounding for exploring Sherlock
Holmes masculinity. Kestner accounts for cultural factors which have affected contemporary
presentations of Holmes gender identity, viewing the character in three British historical eras
(the Victorian, the Edwardian and the Georgian or Interwar period) as three separate
personas, with gender restrictions set by these periods respective cultural norms.
While Kestners text fails to situate Sherlock Holmes in the broader context of masculinity
(Fusco, 2001), it still helps in decoding cultural implications active in the Victorian eras
temporal restrictions. Kestners chapter on the Victorian Holmes (and his introductory words
on the general theorising of Holmes in terms of masculinity) will be incorporated into my
textual analysis of subversive elements in these texts. Furthermore, Kestners text goes a long
way to deconstruct preconceived notions of masculinity and heterosexuality present in the
original stories.
Theory suggests that Conan Doyles writing of a subversively effeminate-acting Holmes is
anything but surprising. After the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde (and years of development in gay
literature which followed), effeminacy in literature became inseparable from male
homosexual identity (Bristow, 1995; Sinfield, 1994; Sedgwick, 1989). Bristow examines the
conceptual power of inversion when contrasted with Oscar Wildes image. Relying on
definitions established by Havelock Ellis in Sexual Inversion (Ellis, H. & Symmonds, J.A.

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(2008), Bristow (1995) classifies inversion as the tool which explains how femininity
defines the psyche, if not physiology, of an anatomically male body (Bristow 1995, p. 35)
and vice-versa. This creates an ideological idiosyncrasy in the context of this project, as it
immediately relates the concept of Holmes femininity (both in his conception and in later
adaptations) to his queerness. Bristows conclusions are useful both when analysing instances
of implied gender queering in the text and when differentiating between allusions of
queerness or subtle indications of subversive gender identity.
This leads to questioning the existence of queer(ed) gendered identities in the Victorian era, a
time period oversaturated with powerful discursive ideologies of virtue which (as Thas
Morgan suggests) comprise both a private practice of managing ones desires and a public
discourse and a public discourse in which law regulates the male body in the best interests
of the polity. (Morgan, 1999, pp. 111) Morgan goes on to outline that the differentiating
between female, feminine, and effeminate becomes increasingly necessary, devolving into an
ambition to police Victorian gender boundaries. (ibid.) This is a prevalent queer notion which
Sedgwick defends in Between Men (1989), and it is essentially both proven and disproven
throughout the analysis of Sherlock Holmes Victorian body. Agane (2015) takes queer
notions of gender further when exploring queer subtexts within contemporary adaptations of
Victorian texts, exploring how Sherlock Holmes takes on deconstructed gender practices,
intentionally conflating queered gender ideas and subtextual sexualities:
Viewers and adaptors, despite their postmodern sensibilities, ascribe gendered
domestic roles to romantic couples only, which forces a gay connotation of
queer gender identities. (Agane, 2015, pp. 167)
These interplays of power and their effect on Sherlock Holmes gender presentation and
performative masculinity will emerge in the critical analytical method outlined in the
methodological chapter.

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Conclusion
This review has brought together notions of gender performativity, queer identity and
subversion in an attempt to contextualise them before the full analysis. The epistemology of
gender performativity and notions, relating gender to Foucauldian power concepts will be
explored further in the methodology chapter in an attempt to define a comprehensive queer
method for analysis. Through exploring Butlers concept of performativity (and its
peculiarities when relating to drag culture), I will use grounding works in Holmesian
academia to analyse gender subversiveness in the chosen texts. These gender-related notions
of psychoanalysis and performativity will be used to critically evaluate and unpack Victorian
social constructions of the male body vis--vis post-2009 adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes
stories.

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CHAPTER 3: Queer Methodologies


This chapter will provide an in-depth discussion into the methodological issues within queer
theory that serve as the epistemological foundations for analysing queer subjectivities in
modern re-imaginings of Victorian gendered bodies. The first section explores the existing
discursive tension between queer and method. Briefly introducing to the notion of postqueer identities and temporalities this chapter will outline the progression from queer theory
referring to only mean gay and lesbian theory (Love, 2011). Using the work of Kate Browne
and Catherine Nash on queer methodologies (as well as a discussion of Female Masculinities
and Epistemology of the Closet), the first segment will outline the difficulties in trying to
adapt queer methodologies in an era of post-queer texts, where the research subject becomes
increasingly obsolete. (Talbert and Rasmussen, 2010)
Following this, Gender Trouble (1990) and more of Butlers work around performativity will
be revisited. It will now be regarded as a foundational text for a cohesive and theoretically
sound epistemological approach. Performativity will be redefined as a discursive queer
method, combining it with an effective form of discourse analysis for the benefit of analysing
media texts. Finally, this chapter will briefly consider the ethics and self-reflexivity issues
that may arise within my own subjectivities as a researcher whilst working within queer
media spaces.
Post-queer methodologies
Determining post-queer or after-queer as the timeframe in which this research is placed
does not require an integral deconstruction of queer theory. Rather, the present reality of
queer requires adapting post-queer ideas of subjectivity and fluidity in the concept of gender
and sexual identity, while retaining its original challenging of hegemonically conceptualized
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identities. (Freccero, 2011) Epistemologically, a post-queer temporality can also be seen as


an emergence of a staggering diversity of identity (Hoad, 2011). Considering their
subversive and changing nature, it becomes nearly impossible to analyse queer subjects
through traditional methods of social research. This tension is in part caused by poststructural
influences in early queer theory such as Foucaults notion of perverse implantation in The
History of Sexuality (2009) that falls into the trap of generalisation. This criticism can be
extended further to Butler, Sedgwick, and Halberstam, prompting a deeper discussion into the
discursive rift between lived queer lives and academically explored queer lives. Sholock
(2007) explores this issue in her work on autobiographical queer research. Sholock defines
one of the greatest failings of post-queer theory as the lack of a consistent method of analysis
in regards to queer subjectivities. According to Sholock, Halberstam manages to close that
rift with between academic writing and lived experiences with Female Masculinity, if only
because Halberstams researcher identity is far less prominent than her queer identity. An
even more prominent example of auto-ethnographic research practice is Tony Adams
Narrating the Closet (2011), yet his method present more issues. Adams is often unable to
avoid generalization based on his own personal experiences. As Boyd (2008) points out:
It is difficult to escape the trap of subjectivity because it is through coherent
and intelligible subject positions that we learn to speak, even nonverbally,
about desire. (pp. 189)
Browne and Nash (2010) pose questions relevant to this subjectivity trap in the introductory
chapter to their edited collection Queer Methods and Methodologies. The chapter
demonstrates the authors apprehensiveness to assigning a straightforward definition to
queer, claiming that any form of research exploring existing social hegemonies, societal
privileges and power relations can be defined as queer. (ibid.) They are working in

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Frecceros post-queer temporality, where queer research need not refer to gender and
sexuality though it often overwhelmingly does. Queerness of thinking can relate to many
different disciplines and in this methodological discussion my view of queer theory and a
queer method relates specifically to gender and sexuality. Regardless, this does not mean
that this analysis will not be making sense of these analytical structures under the heavy
influences of the post-queer. Browne and Nash acknowledge this when discussing the
discursive opposition between the concept of a queer subject and the attempt of finding a
clear-cut definition of queer to begin with:
For us, queer is a term that can and should be redeployed, fucked with and
used in resistant and transgressive ways, even if those ways are resisting what
could, and some would argue already has, become a 'queer orthodoxy'.
(Browne and Nash, 2010, pp. 9)
The quest for finding a queer method for this project has expanded beyond what had been
initially anticipated. During the research, it has become clear that adopting queer as a
theoretical and epistemological framework rather than a methodology would be a more
successful approach. Despite it being filled with paradoxes such as that of radical
constructionism, identity, transgression, and queer culture (Oakes, 1995), queer theory has
resisted all methods of research that I have attempted to apply to it. Therefore a more
epistemological approach in regards to the analysis was chosen. Queer theory fortunately
appeared to be quite susceptible to this line of enquiry, especially when reconsidering Eve
Sedgwicks work.
Sedgwicks aim in Epistemology of the Closet is to explore the construction of homo- and
heterosexuality regarding the performative nature of the two identities coexistent relationship
through history. (1990) This offers an interesting approach to a queer research question. As
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Butler (2002) points out, Sedgwick accepts the notion that a single subject may entertain
these unreconciled positions simultaneously, and, indeed, may be historically compelled to do
so. (pp. 117) Unlike Halberstam, Sedgwick goes in the opposite direction of autoethnography and analyses gay men, a societal group that she herself is not part of. Sedgwick
develops this by introducing her axioms whose inspiring simplicity defines her attitudes
towards queer and queering ideas throughout the book. In a way, this is the method
Sedgwick applies in her own analysis. Her axiomatic approach only proves Browne and
Nashs point about the fluidity of queer and the near impossibility of pinpointing and
defining a queer method.
To tackle this impossibility, the following segment will attempt to create a methodological
tool that will rely on the epistemological and philosophical implications of Butlers work and
help the analysis of subtextual queer cues in the chosen texts. The implications of this tool of
discursive performativity will be considered, as well as its benefits to the research, and the
difficulties encountered when trying to define a straightforward research method to discuss
queer subjectivities.
Critical discursive performativity
As discussed in the previous chapter, Butlers notion of performativity will be understood in a
uniquely queer context. The most important epistemological reading of Butler relates to her
conceptualisation of gender as a constructed social norm through means of repetition and
performance:
Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit
collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete polar genders as

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cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions (Butler,


1991, pp. 190)
The idea that gender identity is a social construct, reinforced by textual and para-textual
representations, has been the driving force behind this research project. In its initial stages,
the analysis was set on exploring performativity and performative gender identities in an
empirical context with the use of focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Pilot studies
proved that the difficulties presenting themselves in this method were insurmountable. The
barrier that exists between academic knowledge and lived experiences manifested as the
closeness of the word performativity with performance brought about a feeling of
alienation and unwillingness for discussion from the pilot study participants. Furthermore,
research into queer spaces and queer bodies brings with itself the fractured, uncertain nature
of identities, (Rooke, 2010) which in turn can lead to complex ethical issues and misgivings
on the part of the unexperienced researcher.
As a result, it emerged that performativity could be studied in media texts and textual
representations through examining textual and subtextual coding. In other words, the
discursive reading of a media text with the epistemological foundation of performativity
would not only be beneficial to this research project but will also provide a solid framework
for discussing other queer media texts. This framework is, from this point forward, referred to
as critical discursive performativity, a performative analysis of queer subtextual codes,
conducted with the solid grounding of critical discourse analysis theory.
The need to explore the effect of performativity as a theory of gender as a social construct fits
with the methodological framework of CDA, which adopts an approach to language
constituted practice that shapes, challenges and changes cultural ideologies. (Remlinger,
2005, pp. 116) This needs to be taken into consideration when exploring both the visual and
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verbal language in which media representations create discourses of gender, queer gender and
queer performative masculinity. Performance and performativity in media discourses, as
Matheson (2005) points out, are essential for constructing the identities of the subjective self.
As seen when discussing the problematic notion of a queer method, its the subjective and
highly changeable nature of the self that prevents an adequate analysis of queer identities.
CDA will ground the otherwise fleeting conceptualisation of Butlers performativity and
provide a secure ground to stand on in the qualitative analysis on queer masculine bodies.
With this concept of critical discursive performativity, the analysis will explore how
representational subjects such as Sherlock Holmes discursively construct their gendered
bodies through subtextual performativity. It will not only rely on the characters lines and
behaviour but also consider the metanarratives that have resulted in this construction the
other characters, that enforce this subtext, the sceneries, and the (queer) literary devices in
place of defining those characters.
The chosen research sample consists of two post-2009 Sherlock Holmes movies, Sherlock
Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), directed by Guy Ritchie,
and an episode of critically acclaimed BBC show Sherlock called The Abominable Bride.
(2016) Even though they represent two different incarnations of Sherlock Holmes in the
Victorian era, the analysis proves that there is a running theme of queer masculinity,
encompassing the character of Sherlock Holmes in both of them. Critical discursive
performativity explores how this is achieved in both sets of media texts, through different
textual and subtextual codes. This provides a unique, innovative look into not only the everchanging and intriguing character of Sherlock Holmes but also the means in which queerness
and issues of unfulfilled desires can be discursively intertwined in contemporary media texts.

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As a self-defined analytical method, critical discursive performativity will have a lot of


analytical drawbacks. These will be briefly discussed in the rest of this chapter, as well as
exploring the ethical difficulties, associated with queering masculinity, and my own personal
subjectivities as a queer researcher that may affect this study.
Ethical considerations
In any research on queer subjects, there are ultimately issues of power that arise. As Foucault
argues in The History of Sexuality (2009), power breeds knowledge and the two bear a unique
link, insofar as the possession of power exercises knowledge, and knowledge is functions on
the conditions of its governing power. Therefore, as a queer researcher, I will be producing a
unique kind of queer knowledge. I will need to consider the drawbacks of my method of
critical discursive performativity and my own subjectivities that might affect my analysis of
queer coding and subtextual gender performativity.
As it is deeply situated in the ground theory of critical discourse analysis, critical discursive
performativity shares some of its drawbacks. As a qualitative research method, any type of
discourse analysis is highly subjective and it relies on the researchers specific ideological
bias. When applied to media texts, as it is in this occasion, also fails to provide any insight
into lived queer experiences and performative acts of gender-bending in an ethnographic
contexts. It is worth noting that in discursive representations reality is not simply reflected,
but discourses have a life of their own in relation to reality, although they impact, shape, and
even enable societal reality. (Wodak and Meyer, 2001, pp. 36) While the methods
detachment from lived experiences may be a criticism, it is also important to analyse because
it directly affects public perceptions and representative realities of a post-queer society.

22

My personal perspective and subjectivity as a queer media and cultural studies researcher will
also heavily influence this analysis. As a queer woman, I find extremely important to analyse
how and why popular media chooses to (not) represent queer identities.
Finally, I have approached this project with the idea to establish this method of analysis as a
cornerstone term when it comes to analysing queer subtextual performativity in media texts.
As queer researchers, we need to work on a spectrum of theory, including feminist theory,
queer theory, theories of power, ideology, knowledge, and disciplines and move towards an
inclusive social approach to establish discursive queer identities in media. (Hammers and
Brown, 2004) Therefore, while this research project focuses on the specific case study of the
Sherlock Holmes character, its method and theoretical foundation can be an important basis
for studying subtextual queer discourses in popular media in the future.

23

CHAPTER 4: Queer masculinity in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes:


A Game of Shadows
Theres nothing more elusive than an obvious fact.
Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (2009) and A Game of Shadows (2011), both directed by Guy Ritchie,
present a fascinating semiotic exercise in creating gender-bending subtext in the thematic
constructs of the Victorian-era Holmes. Both films temporal constraints impose
a Foucauldian disciplinary view towards sexuality while simultaneously destroying that
discipline from within. This idea falls in line with the of hidden longings and desires in
Victorian literature that often remain unexplored prior to their reimagining in a contemporary
context. (Pietrzak-Franger, 2012) The pressure to keep those longings secretive was
particularly high, in the late 19th century (when the Guy Ritchie films are set) due to the
rising cultural influence of women in society. As Morgan (1999) points out, this shift made
differentiation among the manly, feminine, and the effeminate both increasingly necessary
and increasingly difficult. (pp. 113)
We observe this phenomenon in the image of Holmes diminishing masculinity in both
Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. As the analysis will show,
Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) expresses gender anxiety towards reaffirming his own bodily
masculinity, yet simultaneously rejects this with a performance of drag and the inclusion of
queer-heavy imagery with his sidekick John Watson (Jude Law). The textual coding of the
female protagonist in the film Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) as a phallic woman and her
relationship with Holmes confirms his elusive relationship with his own masculinity and
define him as a faux-male subject thrown into Guy Ritchies post-queer, reimagined Victorian
London.

24

Master of disguise
Despite his subtextual defiance of gender norms, Holmes exhibits Freudian anxiety and fear
of diminishing the physical gender disciplines and structures that confine the Victorian era. In
the beginning of Sherlock Holmes (2009), he avoids any situation that may infer that his body
is in any way effeminateto the extent of hyperbolizing its performative masculinity.
This is especially evident in the boxing scene, where Holmes clearly expresses a discursive
desire to conform to the pervading hypermasculinity of the Victorian era. In the fight, Holmes
is half naked and covered in sweat and blooda classic, near-pastiche image of the hyperman. (Image 1) He oozes in butch masculinity, wrestling another half-naked man under the
gaze of a male audience.

Image 1: Holmes performance of butch masculinity

This scene places the entire film firmly within the quintessential Victorian male experience,
whilst also falling in line with masculine-centric stories that Ritchie has developed in earlier
films. (Thomas, 2012) It also takes the first step towards exposing Sherlock Holmes
character as a discursive Other in this reimagined post-queer Victorian society. In
Foucauldian texts discussing surveillance (1977), power is constructed through considering

25

who is observing and who is being observed or, if we are to take the example Foucault most
often engages in, who is positioned where within the Panopticon. However, this scene
showcases more of a synoptic mode of observation the many watching the few, or in this
case, the male audience watching (and discursively Othering) Sherlock Holmes. Under this
scrutiny, Holmes body is observed through a discursive synopticon. As Mathiesen (1997)
points out, there exists an intimate interaction, even fusion (pp. 223) between panopticism
and synopticism. According to Mathiesens theory, the synopticon reveals a much more
intricate and complicated positioning of discursive power, resulting in a viewer society.
(ibid.) The emergence of this hegemonic power and its manifestation in this contemporary
Victorian society affects how Holmes chooses to present his own (queerly) gendered body. It
creates a Freudian-like obsession with self-representation and furthers the discursive
gendered closet that the character is preemptively placed in within the cinematic
metanarrative.
The preoccupation with his own body and how it is presented to society reveals Holmes
queer performance. He basks in the victory and the strength of his physical form, yet the
relative anonymity of the wrestling ring poses the question as to why he strives to present this
(in many ways highly sexualized) image of himself grappling with another man to an
exclusively male audience. Holmes desire is to prove his own masculinity to himself, hence
why his wrestling performance morphs into a queer experience of two grappling men being
observed by more men. It reflects the inner state of Holmes being and his identity as a
performative queer subject in Sedgwicks (1990) discursive closet. Holmes closet is partly
self-constructed and partly socially constructed. While we do not see him escape this closet in
either film, he figuratively challenges it on multiple occasions, which will be gradually
addressed throughout my analysis.

26

His masculine performance is challenged by the appearance of Irene Adler among the crowd,
a mysterious, fleeting image that Holmes claims he will not register on an emotional level.
Irene Adler challenging Holmes masculinity is a running theme throughout both Sherlock
Holmes and A Game of Shadows. Her appearance in this scene is direct proof that Holmes
masculinity is self-constructed and that he is afraid of its inevitable collapse.
This collapse reaches a peak point in an A Game of Shadows scene, where Holmes, as the
master of disguise that we have seen him be throughout Sherlock Holmes, opts for the, at a
first glance, simplistic disguise of drag. (Image 2)

Image 2: Holmes in drag is used for both advancing the plot and comedy effect

Holmes thinking here is dubious. Why has he chosen the far more pastiche and,
simultaneously, more complex to recreate image of a woman, rather than that of a beggar or
an old manboth roles that we have seen him effortlessly dive into before? The drag
performance transports the film into a contemporary context, engaging the audience in the
slapstick humour of the scene and glossing over the subtextual meaning of Holmes act. It
acts as a direct juxtaposition of his hyperbolized masculine performance; if anyone ever
failed to see Holmes as an effeminate and gender-defying subject until now, this scene seals
the deal on it.
27

The scene cleverly hints at the contemporary rising popularity of drag artists and transgender
women in pornographic contexts, which has intensely diversified the historic polymorphic
character of sexual economy. (Escoffier, 2011) As the scene progresses, Holmes loses more
and more clothes, until he is caught in a faux fight with Watson, the good doctors head
between his garter-clad knees. The blatant queerness throughout this entire sequence not only
inspires laughter but also offers a deeper insight into the ways the contemporary genderbending Holmes meets the sexually repressed Victorian Holmes. Through this clash, Holmes
physical body is queerly constructed as far as the sexual limitations imposed by the time
period of this particular cinematic universe would allow.
Lie down with me, Watson: use of phallic imagery
The phallus is an omnipresent symbol used to define multiple textual and subtextual cues in
both heterosexual and homosexual contexts. Readings of Freud suggest that he defines the
homosexual problem as the source and the scale of the estimate of value a boy places on
the universal, erotogenic phallus. (Davis, 2010, pp. 203) In Lacanian psychoanalysis, we
find the phallus again, this time as a pronounced signifier for the patriarchal state he who
possesses the phallus holds symbolic power in society and generates signification. (Butler,
2011) Butler discusses the phallus in detail (Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter
(2011)), delving into Freuds definition and Lacans conceptualization before concluding that
many things can stand in for a phallus and bear the same significance.
This signifier is by no means absent in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of
Shadows. In the former, Robert Downey Jr.s character adheres to the literary Sherlock
Holmes pipe addiction. This is significant in the following scene when Holmes speaks to
queer-coded villain Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) as his last wish. The main shot focuses
strongly on both Holmes and on Blackwoods menacing face behind bars in the background.
(Image 3) This deliberate placement of (and focus on) the pipe in Holmes mouth and his

28

decision to light up only when walking away from Blackwood can be resolved and
understood through subtextual queer readings.

Image 3: Holmes pipe as the semiotic performative phallus

Holmes pipe is his semiotic performative phallus; Blackwood is his symbolically caged
demon. This scene (and Blackwoods entire narrative arc) is a subtextual reference to the
Victorian sentencing of gay men for indecency, most notably in the Oscar Wilde trial.
Wildes sentencing was one of the first instances when injustice towards subversive
sexualities became visible, inspiring fear and despair amongst gay men which lasted until
well after the 1980s AIDS crisis. (see Dellamora, 1994) Holmes chooses to keep the pipe (a
subtextual phallus) both visible and in his mouth. With this action, he simultaneously
reaffirms and rejects his own performative masculinity and perceived hegemonic position. As
Holmes walks away from his queer foil (Blackwood), he rejects the prevailing discourse of
fear and gay shame (Halperin, 2009) and reestablishes himself as an unabashedly queer
subject living within a performative gender closet.
Sherlocks drag appearance in A Game of Shadows helps confirm the pipes role as a
symbolic phallus. Disguised as comic relief, Guy Ritchie presents viewers with an

29

undoubtedly homosexual image: two men lie side-by-side, one of them naked with the
symbolic phallus in his mouth. (Image 4)

Image 4: Unabashedly queer imagery

The semiotic phallus in this situation does not necessarily refer to the biological organ. Lacan
makes such a distinction clearly (see iek, 2006; Gallop, 1986), and thus we see the phallic
pipe as a semiotic signifier of Holmes performative masculinity.
Such gender bending or gender fucking performative acts (Whittle, 1996) are employed for
comic relief, more so in A Game of Shadows than in Sherlock Holmes. This has provoked
criticisms of queerbaiting (Mueller, 2015), especially since Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law
themselves played on this theme during the films promotion. (Thomas, 2012) Nevertheless,
the presence of a Lacanian symbolic phallus transcends existing metanarratives and paratexts;
the subtext is transported to the subconscious realm of unattainable desire.
Phallic women as queer foils
The signified meaning of Lacanian phalluses (or lack thereof) is carried through the text into
representations of Victorian women around Holmes. With her presence in Sherlock Holmes
and A Game of Shadows, Irene Adler reaffirms Sherlocks queered performative masculinity.
In these contemporary takes on the Victorian era, Adler takes on male roles, language and
attire. Through this, she both reclaims the symbolic Lacanian phallus and outlines its lack in

30

the figure of Holmes. Adler effectively acts as a foil (a term mainly used in Shakespearean
literature (Sedgwick, 1989), denoting a character who exposes the protagonists hidden
traits), both in a literary and a queer sense: she exhibits and displays Holmes performative
queerness.
Irene Adler is the embodied deconstruction of Victorian values. She is a divorced femme
fatale who instills fear and anxiety in male protagonists, and she even wears male clothing in
one scene. (Image 5) Adler dominates her submissive subject (Holmes), a fact Watson points
out when she first appears:

Image 1: Irene Adlers subtextual drag performance


: LOOK AT YOU! WHY IS THE ONLY WOMAN YOUVE EVER CARED ABOUT A WORLD CLASS CRIMINAL? ARE
YOU A MASOCHIST?

ALLOW ME TO EXPLAIN.

WATSON: ALLOW ME. SHES THE ONLY ADVERSARY WHO HAS EVER OUTSMARTED YOU TWICE. MADE A
PROPER IDIOT OUT OF YOU.

HOLMES: RIGHT, YOUVE HAD YOUR FUN.


WATSON: WHATS SHE AFTER ANYWAY?
HOLMES: ITS TIME TO PRESS ON.
WATSON: WHAT COULD SHE POSSIBLY NEED?
HOLMES: DOESNT MATTER.
31

WATSON: AN ALIBI? A BEARD. A HUMAN CANOE. SHE COULD SIT ON YOUR BACK AND PADDLE YOU ACROSS
THE

THAMES.

(as quoted in Mueller, 2015, pp. 180)


In the context of Victorian adaptation, this places Holmes in a decidedly non-phallic position.
Adlers decisive female masculinity borders on butchness, emasculating Holmes and placing
him (as Watson rather explicitly spells out) in a potentially sexual submissive role. (Mueller,
2015) Her drag performance is decisively queer, yet it is never discussed during the movie.
Despite that, this performance discursively reflects Holmes own queer performativity. Adler
is his adversary, outwitting Holmes in ways which almost always end badly for him. This is a
subtextual representation of Holmes internal struggle with his own queerness and gender
subjectivity Irene Adler embodies Holmes repressed desires and identities. She is his foil, a
discursive Other that simultaneously exposes and represses Holmes queerness by
embodying it in her own subjective representation. The pastiche implications of her male
drag performance are too intricate to be analysed here, however it proves Halberstams
argument that the theatricality of performed and queer gender is most clearly seen in the
practice of drag. (Halberstam, 1990) Adler can therefore be redefined as a queer foil for
Holmes - her narrative can be seen as subtextually loaded in terms of the unconscious objects
of his desire. This corresponds to yet another Lacanian psychoanalytic notion, a recurring
theme in the analysis of these texts.
The practice of queer foiling Holmes identity also emerges when analysing The
Abominable Bride. Adler (as a discursively defined queer foil) meets her end, mourned only
briefly and insincerely by Holmes. Her presence (as Taylor (2015) argues) makes Holmes
choose between his constructed heterosexuality and his profession: Holmes chooses the latter.
When mourning Adler, Holmes is really mourning her actions as a queer foil which was (in
his eyes) the only outward representation of his inner, unconscious queerness.
Conclusion

32

There is more scope yet to analyse both Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows as
discursive representations of Holmes queerness. My chosen segments outline the running
themes of Holmes discursive performativity, providing groundwork for future analysis of
The Abominable Bride. The themes of Lacanian unconscious desires, phallic symbolism, and
queer foils will develop further still as Victorian Holmes continues to emerge from his
discursive gender closet. Analysing Guy Ritchies films projects subtextual cues in light of
Butlers performativity and firmly places Holmes discursive queerness in the spotlight.

33

CHAPTER 5: The creation and (de)coding of subconscious desires in


BBCs Sherlock
But then, Ive always known I was a man out of his time.
Sherlock Holmes, The Abominable Bride
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss daring contemporary adaptation first aired in 2009,
presenting audiences with a Sherlock Holmes who is comfortably situated in the 21 st century.
Often described as the first legitimate updating of Sherlock Holmes since (..) Basil Rathbone
and Nigel Bruce (Polasek, 2013, pp. 390), the BBC show (starring Benedict Cumberbatch
(Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson)) follows in the movies footsteps
when discursively defining the performative nature of Sherlocks identity. However, there is
also another representational level to consider. The presence of the queer foil, as defined in
the previous chapter, is even more pronounced in this text. Its presence subtextually enforces
Sherlocks performative masculinity and creates the basis for a sound psychoanalytical
conceptualisation of the embodiment of forbidden desires and urges.
The analysis will only consider the series Christmas special episode, aired on 1 January 2016
The Abominable Bride. Firstly, this chapter will outline the significance and textual power
of drug use as a metaphor for a suppressed (queer) desire (Sedgwick, 1990) and interpret the
presence and absence of the closet in the dream sequence. It will also rely on literature of
queer Otherness and homospectrality (see Hoeveler, 2011; Fletcher, 2000) in Victorian gothic
stories, discussing both how the ghost storyline communicates with Holmes queer closet and
what the ghosts fakeness means for Holmes queer desires. Finally, the analysis will consider
another queer foil used to construct Holmes performative masculine body and presented as
an abject through Holmes embodied unconscious: Moriarty.

34

A seven percent solution


The Abominable Bride directly addresses Sherlocks drug addiction in both 19th and 21st
century settings. In the previous episodes, Sherlock is revealed to be a rehabilitated drug
addict who sometimes relapses. In the Victorian special, Sherlock reaches for a syringe of
cocaine at a pivotal moment (when he is stuck on a case and John Watson is not there to help
him). (Image 6)

Image 6: Sherlocks drug use in both a Victorian and contemporary context is a textual sign for repressed
queerness

The trope of drug use as a metaphor for prohibition and forbidden (queer) desires has already
been explored, especially in the context of Victorian and gothic literature. However, the
concept of drug-taking concealing a performative identity is more of a means of escape that
overcomes a storyline of concealed queer romance. (Sedgwick, 1990) As Haggerty (2005)
points out, rather than just considering the metaphor of substance abuse it is helpful to
consider the drug dynamic as a means for addressing questions of identity for which an
alternative vocabulary was just beginning to emerge (pp. 125) Victorian stories with a
subtextual queer storyline thus often leave the queer subject hopelessly addicted. As
Sedgwick (1990) notes, Oscar Wildes Dorian Grey illustrates this perfectly.

35

Taking inspiration from Dorian Grey, Sherlock relapses into addiction when there is no other
way to escape his performative queer identity. As revealed later in the episode, the entire
Victorian scene is actually a dream reality constructed under the influence of drugs.
Considering the psychoanalytical definition of dreams as a form of wish fulfillment (Freud,
2005), Sherlocks dream presents the undisclosed desires he harbours as a queer subject. His
Victorian self reflects the closet that his 21st century self is trapped in - he attempts to escape
this closet through drug abuse.
Shortly afterwards, John Watson directly confronts Sherlock about his addictive behaviour,
urging him to stop:
JOHN: NOW TELL ME. MORPHINE OR COCAINE?
SHERLOCK: COCAINE. A SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION. WOULD YOU CARE TO TRY IT?
JOHN: NO. BUT I WOULD QUITE LIKE TO FIND EVERY OUNCE OF THE STUFF IN YOUR
POSSESSION AND POUR IT OUT OF THE WINDOW.

SHERLOCK: I SHOULD BE INCLINED TO STOP YOU.


JOHN: THEN YOU WOULD BE REMINDED, QUITE FORCIBLY, WHICH ONE OF US IS A SOLDIER
AND WHICH OF US

A DRUG ADDICT.

(MacKinnon, 2016)
After this encounter, neither Victorian Holmes nor contemporary Sherlock reach for the
syringe again. Sherlock even outright rejects further drug use, claiming he has no need for
[drugs] now, Ive got the real thing (MacKinnon, 2016) at the very end of the episode. This
rejection of Sedgwicks queer Victorian addict metaphor reveals personal development and
realization of performative identity throughout the dream sequence. Sherlocks closet (like
Holmes closet in Guy Ritchies films) is partially self-constructed, and within the self is
where the closets destruction must begin. Victorian Holmes is more than a foil for
contemporary Sherlock he is the embodiment of his suppressed desire and performative
queerness, expressed through drug use. The Victorian dream is the means through which

36

Sherlock fights the masculine gender closet of masculinity he has constructed for himself. By
rejecting his own drug use both metaphorically and literally, he is trying to reveal his own
repressed desires.
Monstrous queers and the ghosts of phallic women
Gothic settings and stories have in a way, always been queer (Hughes and Smith, 2011).
Many theorists have explored this intricate discursive connectivity between queer identities
and monstrous narratives. (see Palmer, 2012; Hanson, 2007; Sedgwick, 1989) This is a
problematic notion, presenting queer identities as monstrous, near-abject Others and exposing
them to discursive tensions of villainy in narrative constructs. The Abominable Bride plays on
this motif with the image of Sherlocks queer foils: Moriarty (who I discuss later) and the
Bride herself.
From the very beginning, Bride Emelia Ricoletti (Natasha OKeeffe) is described and
portrayed as a classic monster, white as death [with a] mouth like a crimson wound,
(MacKinnon, 2016); she brings havoc and terror to Holmes Victorian world. (Image 7) As is
later revealed, the Bride is not one character but instead a group of disenfranchised women
who take revenge on the men who have dishonoured them.

Image 7: The ghost of the Bride is not a singular person she is a deconstructive symbol of Victorian
patriarchy

37

With these symbolic acts, the Bride represents the phallic woman in this gothic ghost story the mere idea of her deconstructs myths of chastity and purity. The Bride signifies the
downfall of Victorian patriarchy and a semiotic manifestation of Creeds (1993) abject
monstrous feminine.
With this act of deconstruction, she becomes a monstrous feminine who simultaneously acts
as a queer foil for Sherlock. Since the entire storyline takes place within his unconscious, the
presence of monstrous phallic women is no coincidence. By giving them a symbolic phallus
in his fantasy yet still representing them as something to be feared, Sherlock enhances the
subtext around his own queer performative closet. The monstrous Bride chases his
performative identity as a group of women fighting the Victorian patriarchal ideal. This
elaborate fantasy again reveals the unattainable object of queer desire. The 21st century
Sherlock believes that this patriarchal standard is still a reality reinforcing his queer closet.
By unmasking the ghost and dealing with its abjection, he destroys one part of his socially
constructed closet of performative masculinity. The other part of this discursive closet is
Sherlocks ultimate queer foil, his adversary and narrative mirror character Moriarty (played
by Andrew Scott).
The return of the queer foil
Sherlocks fear of his own performative masculinity and queer closet manifests itself in the
appearance of supposedly dead Moriarty. In contrast, Moriarty is unabashedly queer. His
language, actions and flamboyance are noted earlier in the series (McKinnon, 2010) and
Moriarty himself reiterates his obsession with Sherlock in The Abominable Bride :
MORIARTY: I LIKE YOUR ROOMS. THEY SMELL SO MANLY.
SHERLOCK: IM SURE YOU ACQUAINTED YOURSELF WITH THEM BEFORE.
()

38

SHERLOCK: IM AWARE OF ALL SIX OCCASIONS YOU HAVE VISITED THESE APARTMENTS
DURING MY ABSENCE.

MORIARTY: I KNOW YOU ARE. BY THE WAY, YOU HAVE A SURPRISINGLY COMFORTABLE BED.
(MacKinnon, 2016)
Sherlock is visibly distressed by this scene taking part in what can be understood as the
depths of his subconscious. This leads us to believe that Moriarty is more than just a queer
foil. He is the ultimate foil, an unattainable queer desire that Sherlock desperately wants to
suppress. Unlike Holmes and Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock does not fight his
queer foil in The Abominable Bride: he does not try to escape or outwit Moriarty. Instead, he
struggles with his own object of unattainable desire. As the sequence progresses, Sherlock
attempts to turn this object into an abject (Kristeva, 1982) but fails, as Moriarty re-manifests
himself in drag at the focal point of the ghost story. (Image 8)

Image 8: Moriarty re-manifests in drag, so he remains an object rather than an abject

This scene conclusively proves that Moriarty is the ultimate queer foil for Sherlocks
performative masculinity. While Sherlocks queer desire may not be directed at Moriarty per
se, Moriarty is the desire, personalized in a form Sherlock fears and loathes but still tries to

39

understand and absorb. Moriarty is Sherlocks embodied objet petit a, Lacans psychoanalytic
concept at the heart of his theory of desire. (Lacan, 1994; Kirshner, 2005) The objet petit a is
a highly metaphorical signifier of the unattainable object of desire. In the context of
subconscious queer masculinity and the Freudian unconscious, it proves to be the ideal
definition of Sherlocks psyche and discursive existence in his queer closet. Moriartys
narrative function as this psychoanalytic metaphor situates the final discursive definition of
Sherlocks closet, revealing an unattainable object of (queer) desire in the core of his
performative masculinity. As Sherlock moves to dispose of Moriarty (both metaphorically
and literally) at the end of the episode, he accepts and begins to live within his performative
identity construction.
Conclusion
This analysis of The Abominable Bride has demonstrated other subtextual techniques used to
outline the inherent performativity in Holmes masculine identity. By analysing both the
internal and social constructions of Sherlocks gender closet, the motif of Lacanian desire and
the objet petit a has emerged. This subtextual metaphor also appears in the Guy Ritchie
movies, and I will explore the significance of this in the following, final chapter.

40

CHAPTER 6: When you have eliminated the impossible


Conclusion
The aim of this research project was to explore and analyse how queer gendered bodies are
subtextually constructed in media texts. Using an approach of critical discursive
performativity, informed by the work of Judith Butler, the dissertation has taken a critical
look at two contemporary Victorian representations of Sherlock Holmes and discovered
several recurring themes regarding his queer(ed) gender identity throughout.
The most prominent of these has been the motif of suppressed desire as embodied through
another character or object, i.e. the presence of an objet petit a. Defined as the concept that
wrests the libido from its allegedly forced canalisation towards privileged and normative
bodily organs (Penney, 2013, pp. 120) the objet petit a has emerged as a textual signifier for
the disciplinary restrictions over desire in the Victorian era. Embodied by Irene Adler (in the
Guy Ritchie movies) and Moriarty (in The Abominable Bride), the presence of the objet petit
a is demonstrably related to the queer foil. Adler and Moriarty are not the only instances of
queer foils in those texts examples of others include the Bride (The Abominable Bride),
Lord Blackwood (Sherlock Holmes) and Sherlocks brother Mycroft (A Game of Shadows
and The Abominable Bride). Although not as explicitly related to his performative
masculinity, those foil characters also make a strong statement of Holmes suppressed queer
desires and their subtextual coding as objet petit a is of significant interest for future research.
Furthermore, another emerging topic around the contemporary Sherlock Holmes narratives is
the presence/absence of the phallus and phallic women. Female masculinity has been
redefined as a display of power over the hegemonic patriarchal state and is an independent
and original gender that does not imitate an authentic male masculinity. (Gardiner, 2012, pp.
608) Therefore, by reading phallic women with the self-coined framework of critical
discursive performativity, this research project has proved that they directly challenge

41

Sherlock Holmes performative masculinity and create his discursive gender closet. A more
in-depth analysis can be conducted into the specifics of the phallic womens gender itself and
how it manifests, especially in the case of the Bride in Sherlock, in their vigilantism towards
men. This analytical strand can also translate to other contemporary readings of the stories,
with US-produced Elementary posing a considerable interest by its genderbending practices
of John/Joan.
To conclude, gender and masculinity, as Butler and Halberstam suggest, remains a
multifaceted social construct, created through and dependent on various discursive and
literary practices. Representation of that ambiguity in popular media, though, remains
decisively scarce and, when present, heavily subtextually coded through means of complex
literary and psychoanalytic devices. The case of Sherlock Holmes in his post-2009 Victorian
adaptations is very singular and specific, however the defined theoretical framework in this
research project can be adapted to critically disseminate any media texts in terms of postqueer discursive notions of performative gender. The curious case of Sherlocks questionable
masculinity and hidden queer desires is still open and open it shall most likely remain
until the discursive gender closet exists in society and is therefore mirrored in popular media
discourses.

42

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