There’s no one in the world I’ve ever wanted to be more than Sherlock Holmes.
Say what you will about the BBC rendition of Holmes and his faithful Watson, but this character, in all his forms, has been with me through thick and thin since I first picked up “The Hound of the Baskervilles” almost a decade ago. My affinity for mystery stories was born before that, however, when I was 8 years old and devouring Nancy Drew’s adventures. To adult eyes, it must have just looked like I — in similar fashion to other bookish children — merely had fantastical dreams about being a wonderfully famous and intelligent detective.
Yet I only wanted to be Sherlock. What was different? Why did I see myself in him more than I ever saw myself in Nancy?
Now, at 19, I’ve been thinking about the characters I relate to and why I relate to them. Most awkward has been the realization that I almost exclusively relate to male characters.
But I am decidedly not a man — I am a gay woman, and a woman of color.
As contradictory — and perhaps even counterintuitive — as this all may seem, I’m not alone. This has been the experience of many other women who have taken to the internet in search of an answer for their connection to male characters.
For me, the reason for this isn’t difficult to discern: It’s because I’m generally disinterested in the performance of my femininity. It’s a “queer girl thing” to undergo a period of enhanced feminine performance, and that period has come and gone for me. At 15, I wore dresses and bright red lipstick every day. Four years later, I’m lucky if I have time to do eyeliner before going to class in my favorite gray hoodie and nondescript pants. Nancy Drew, for all her feminist merits, is more or less the “ideal” woman, complete with neatly ironed skirts and a loving boyfriend — both things that I could not see myself ever being interested in, although I did have eyes for her.
Sherlock, on the other hand, has a story and character unreliant on his masculinity. He is, in fact, more or less asexual in his original rendition. Aside from the fact that his maleness gives him access to basic human rights in historic London, he would be the same person if his gender identity happened to be different. And here’s the part that really gets me — he is, for all his talents, messy, vindictive and neurotic. I saw my own faults in Sherlock as much as I saw the traits I desired, and that’s what had me hooked.
This isn’t exclusive to the contrast between Nancy and Sherlock — it’s the contrast between many female and male leads. Male characters are more likely to have realistic, relatable faults, whereas female characters — in my experience — tend to have faults, conflicts and storylines directly related to the fact that they are women. Simply put, male characters get to put their masculinity aside sometimes. Female characters don’t have that luxury. They are forced to carry their femininity around wherever they go.
As someone who has never once been (ignorantly) chastised for being “too girly,” it isn’t possible for me to see myself in female characters who are overtly interested in performing their femininity, and furthermore in female characters who are heterosexual — which is, unfortunately, most of them.
As desperately as I want to see myself in Dana Scully, Clarice Starling and Emily Prentiss — amazing female characters whom I love dearly and who are actually quite well-written — I still find myself relating to Fox Mulder, Will Graham and Spencer Reid. Faced with a lack of relatable, flawed, messy and complex queer female characters to idolize in mainstream media, I find myself relating to men instead. Gender happens to simply be an unfortunate side effect of what writers think makes for a more interesting character.
I don’t fault female characters for this. It’s not their fault — it’s the fault of those who fall victim to the misogynistic demands of mainstream media. Letting women be women without reminding the audience that they are women means reshaping the narrative’s social landscape to be void of gender norms. Maybe this is too much for period dramas and stories set in our time — but then what’s the excuse in speculative fiction, fantasy, horror and other experimental genres?
After all this, I remain comforted by two things. One, that mainstream media is slowly changing for the better, and as we move into a more progressive time, we will start seeing more complex queer women on pages and on the screen.
Two is more personal. In all my discussions with other aspiring female writers, a common theme has emerged: a desire to tell more stories about dynamic women.