Johnlocked: Sherlock, Slash Fiction and the Shaming of Female Fans

by Bethan Jones

Portrayals of female fans in the media and elsewhere have always erred towards the sensational, drawing on women’s sexuality - whether too much or too little - and our apparent inability to differentiate between reality and fiction.

First published: 18 February, 2014 | Category: Culture, Gender equality, Media

Women cannot be fans of cult media. Women cannot be gamers. Women cannot really be geeks. Everyone knows this, apparently, and when women do try to discuss cult media, or talk about sexism in computer games, or cosplay at scifi conventions, they are routinely derided. Portrayals of female fans in the media and elsewhere have always erred towards the sensational, drawing on women’s sexuality (whether that’s too much or too little) and our apparent inability to differentiate between reality and fiction. What I want to focus on in this article is how female fans of BBC Sherlock, particularly those who write fan fiction, are treated within the text and in discourse around it, and how Caitlin Moran’s behaviour at the recent Sherlock Q&A perpetuates the shaming of female fans and female fan behaviour.

Media and music fandom seems to have dominated the press in the last 12 months. At the end of 2013 the boy band One Direction were crowned the most influential celebrities on Twitter, with 3 of the 4 most re-tweeted tweets of the year belonging to them, and a combined follower count of over 29 million. One Direction had also been the focus of a documentary aired on Channel 4 earlier that year, with the director following 1D fans through their infatuation with the band. The documentary’s producers and the network, however, were accused of hunting down the band’s craziest fans and exploiting them.Elsewhere, Justin Bieber announced his retirement, to the apparent glee of scores of male journalists (the Metro called it a Christmas miracle), and his arrest for drink driving drew further media outrage. Female fans were criticised for posting messages of support for the singer on Twitter, including the hashtag #staystrongjustin.Finally, Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of programmes, including a simulcast special episode airing in 94 countries, a drama-documentary on the genesis of the programme and several academic conferences. In all but one of these examples, media coverage of the ‘crazy female fan’ took centre stage – the Doctor Who anniversary special was the exception (although you could argue the crazy female fan became part of the cast – see, for example, Whovian Feminism’s perspective on the character of Osgood).

The shaming of female fans is nothing new, as those of us in fandom know.  In the last month or so, however, things seem to have come to a head. BBC Sherlock fandom in particular has been on the receiving end of much media coverage, not helped by the journalist Caitlin Moran inviting the show's actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read an extract from a piece of fanfiction on stage. On 29 November 2013, the BBC announced that the third series of Sherlock would be airing on January 1 2014, after a two-year break from the screen. This announcement was followed by a premiere of the series's first episode at the BFI, attended predominantly by journalists and fans, all of whom were subject to a no-spoiler clause. The screening was eagerly awaited by fans, many of whom followed the premiere on Twitter through the BBC-approved #Sherlocklives hashtag. Although some fans criticised the screening on the grounds that the ones lucky enough to attend constituted an 'elite', thus further distancing the fandom from the show's producers, many fans were looking forward to Moran's Q&A.

Many female fans of Sherlock felt that Moran was a ‘safe’ choice for moderator. She has long positioned herself as a Sherlock/Cumberbatch 'fangirl', and her interviews with him have been as squeeful as they are serious. For a lot of white female fans, then, she seemed like 'one of us'. Moran, however, brought a piece of slash fanfiction[1] onstage and asked Cumberbatch and Freeman to read from it. Not only that, but she also presented the fic as clumsily written, and mocked both the specific story and fanfic writers in general. Female fans reacted with shock and anger at this, at least in part because Moran had seemed to sell them out in the same way other journalists do – simply to get a cheap laugh at their expense. Indeed, Moran seems to have thought that asking the actors to read slash would be something funny, apparently not realizing that Sherlock’s cast and crew have historically distanced themselves from fanfiction and female fandom. Moran’s stunt, unsurprisingly, generated much comment in fannish circles, ranging from debates over the ethics of taking someone’s work to what the appropriate response from fans should be, and from the over-sexualisation of the actors and characters by fans to the ludicrousness of Sherlock and John ever being in love. And Moran’s behaviour, however unintentional, perpetuates the shaming of female fans and female fan practices.

The gendered stereotyping of female fans has a long history: Horton and Wohl, in 1956, described fandom as a surrogate relationship and focused on "para-social interactions": the illusory relationships fans form with celebrities[2]. Joli Jenson noted that literature on fandom argues that fans "suffer from psychological inadequacy, and [...] seek contact with famous people in order to compensate for their own inadequate lives"[3]. More recently Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz note that public commentary on Twilight "positions girls and women as unexpected and unwelcome media fans, and denies the long and rich history of the relationships female fans have had with media texts and personalities"[4], and the publication of E L James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy in 2012 resulted in hundreds of articles about the emergence of female sexuality and erotica – their authors apparently unaware that women have been consuming porn for years.

That the language of twenty, thirty, and even sixty years ago is still being used to discuss female fans – and only very rarely to discuss male fans – points to the continuing way in which female responses to texts are dismissed. Steven Moffat himself has argued on more than one occasion that women only watch Sherlock because of their attraction to Benedict Cumberbatch. Female fans are held to be unable to appreciate a show’s intellectual prowess, rather they are in it for the men. That is, incidentally, one of the criticisms aimed at slash writers. Jacqueline M. Pinkowitz[5] notes how the activities of Twilight fans are still seen as culturally dismissible, and how, even with the recent publication of books like Anne Jamison’s Fic making fanfiction and slash more mainstream, slash writers are still met with suspicion.

I would suggest that the depiction of fans in Sherlock, particularly in series 3, follows a similar gendered divide. The kinds of fans shown fall into one of two camps: the ‘nerdy’ fanboy and the ‘hysterical’ fangirl. Former forensic scientist Philip Anderson, for example, despised Sherlock in the first two series of the show but by the third series appears to have become wracked with guilt at potentially driving Sherlock to suicide. He spends his time coming up with complex theories about how Sherlock faked his own death, suggesting that he used Derren Brown to hypnotise John and later on that he killed Moriarty and disguised him with a mask. However the teenage girl in Sherlock’s fanclub details a far more fanfiction version of events – in which Sherlock and Moriarty sit giggling on the rooftop at John’s distress before almost sharing a kiss. “It’s just as possible as your scenario,” she says as the scene cuts back to a room of incredulous fans, but given Moffat and co.’s extratextual remarks, it’s not.

In many ways this betrayal mirrors that of Moran. Many fans have read the scene as a way of acknowledging that their theories really aren't more outlandish: Anderson is painted as the ‘crazed’ fan far more than she is, and she seems more 'normal' than him in that moment. But others have read it more negatively, particularly when set against the context of comments made about slash and excessive fan behaviour from not only Moffat and Gatiss, but also actors Ian Hallard and Amanda Abbington. If the scene was intended as a nod to fans, which it could be argued the cinematography and mise en scene support, it fell flat; but because the scene can be read in so many contrasting ways it becomes more like a Caitlin-esque betrayal: female fans are firstly unsure of whether the scene is a nod to them or a criticism, and secondly because they want to be left alone in peace to enjoy the series, and instead are constantly dragged out to be laughed at.

In the BFI Q&A with which I started this piece, Benedict Cumberbatch, after reading the fic extract, says that the scenario would be ridiculous, impossible in the world of BBC Sherlock. Slash fic, written predominantly (but by no means purely) by female writers is thus derided by cast and creators. While fan speculation over how Sherlock survived becomes part of the series text, fan reappropriation of the characters is ridiculed. As Laurie Penny notes in her recent New Statesman article, "The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans - women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity".

Sherlock is, both textually and paratextually, a show about white, middle class, middle aged men. Female characters, as in the case of Mary and Janine in the third episode, are devices to move the plot along or mysteries to be solved. Mary, before she is revealed to be a CIA assassin, is a far more interesting character. She likes Sherlock, can manipulate both him and John, and refuses to stand in the way of their friendship. When she is revealed to be a CIA agent, however, the plot revolves around whether John will still accept her. “You don’t even know my name,” she says. “Is Mary Watson good enough?” is John’s response. Mary is relegated to being Mrs Watson, rather than her own person.

Similarly, queer characters and people of colour are also written out of the series. Sally Donovan, the only recurring black character did not appear in the third series opener and was replaced by Anderson, who gets given a more sympathetic role, and the series itself – taking place in 21st century London, is remarkably empty of people of colour. A homosexual relationship between Sherlock and John is referred to textually, simply to become the punch line to a joke (or rather the same joke, over and over again). Moffat has argued in several interviews that Sherlock would, could, never be gay, but the number of hints dropped within the BBC text make it  hardly surprising that fanfiction writers are taking it upon themselves to write slash.

Slash, in the Sherlock universe, is not simply written because female fans find the lead characters attractive (although I do not mean to imply that attraction is not an important or acceptable part of fan practice). It is also written as a way of reclaiming the text from writers who refuse to engage with queer culture. To have that work then read out by actors who are complicit in this process, in a room full of cast and crew who have already ridiculed slash writers, perpetuates the idea that slash fiction, and female fan culture, is something to be ashamed of. Moran could have chosen a piece of work she thought full of literary merit; she could have chosen to question the straight, whitewashing of Sherlock. By picking on an – apparently fellow – fangirl she became complicit in the culture that perpetuates the shaming of female fans.


Bethan Jones is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University, writing about fan fiction, transformative works and gender. She blogs at @memories_child

[1] Fanfiction is the term for stories written by fans about the texts they are fans of. ‘Slash’ fanfiction posits homoerotic relationships between two male characters who appear to identify as straight in the text.

[2] Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. 1956. "Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observation on Intimacy at a Distance." Psychiatry 19 (3): 15–29.

[3] Jensen, Joli. 1992. "Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization." In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 9–29. London: Routledge.

[4] Click, Melissa  A., Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. 2010. Introduction to Bitten by Twilight, edited by Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, 1–17. New York: Peter Lang.

[5] Pinkowitz, Jacqueline M., "'The rabid fans that take [Twilight] much too seriously': The Construction and Rejection of Excess in Twilight Antifandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7 (2011).


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