Spot the Sexuality Erasure in Sherlock and Doctor Who

So, I had actually written this for someone else, but I don’t think it was really for them because they said they’d publish it and they haven’t yet, months later. Rude. I was actually quite happy with it so I’m gonna publish it here, for your beautiful faces instead.

It’s not news that the representation of LGBT+ relationships on television is scarce. In a society where gay is still a dirty word, it’s important to let children and adults know that LGBT+ relationships are not unusual, and nothing to be wary of- and television is one of the best way for us to take that next big step. So, it’s a little frustrating that TV doesn’t always do the ‘brave’ thing and use its power to promote equality.

Doctor Who is one of the longest running shows on British Television, loved by millions within and outside the UK. Sherlock may still be a relatively new show, but as an immensely popular adaptation of one of the most famous series of books ever written, it has a rather heavy responsibility to please its fans- 9.7 million of whom tuned in to see how Sherlock survived the alleged suicide at the end of series 2.

Admittedly, with so many viewers, Stephen Moffat and his co-writers must walk a dangerously high tight-rope to avoid disappointing too many of the millions of Doctor Who and Sherlock fans- and that means not doing anything too out of the ordinary. But popular shows like these also have the power to publically encourage social progression and endorse the representation of LGBT+ characters by recognising that there are sexualities that exist beyond straight and gay.

So, the question is whether Doctor Who and Sherlock do this adequately.

Doctor Who brought some great diversity to television with the outrageously flamboyant and blatantly pansexual Captain Jack Harkness. The introduction of Jenny and Vastra as an inter-species lesbian relationship was a breath of fresh air. Sherlock also implied Irene Adler’s attraction to women in A Scandal In Belgravia. Other than that though, any romance outside of the typical heterosexual staple has only really been alluded to.


That’s the problem; any reference to a character’s sexual orientation outside of being straight is never directly named. While plenty of people don’t like naming their own sexuality because they find it confining, popular TV shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock have the responsibility to define the sexuality of their characters, rather than to tactically avoid it to prevent controversy. Defining a character’s sexuality helps people come to terms with the fact that sexuality isn’t black and white, straight or gay- rather its huge spectrum. There’s a reason why people don’t know bisexuality and asexuality exist, after all- the people who have the power to discuss and represent the queer spectrum are scared of talking about it properly.

So, while Doctor Who and Sherlock have had LGBT+ characters make appearances, the two shows have never approached it quite right.

Jenny and Vastra’s relationship is revolutionary in terms of the show’s social progression, but then again, the writers haven’t always dealt with their relationship well. In The Crimson Horror, Jenny cartwheeled in to save the day, showing off her usual bad-ass, Victorian attitude. But when the Doctor swept her off her feet with a non-consensual kiss, it came as a rather nasty shock to many viewers. Not only was that kiss blatant harassment on the Doctor’s part, it made the only non-heterosexual couple in the show seem irrelevant. If the writers wanted Jenny to be attracted men too, the writers should have made that clear- instead, they let the Doctor force a kiss on her, which says a lot about how much the writers respect the lesbian community.


When Jenny and Vastra finally share a kiss (the first lesbian kiss in the all the 51 years of the show), it’s so steamy and hyper-sexualised that it’s hard to be too happy about it. Then again, you take what you can get.

The fact that the in the past Doctor has managed to snog every woman on the show since 2005 is also interesting. Before Paul McGann’s brief but brilliant role, the Doctor didn’t really show any interest in being in a relationship with others- giving off the impression that he’s aromantic, or asexual, or both. But when the show returned in 2005, it seemed like no woman on the show stood a chance, and they all started falling in love with him left, right, and centre.

Since Capaldi’s strict rule of no flirting, the Doctor’s hormones seem to have settled down a bit again. In which case, maybe the writers will properly direct the possibility of the Doctor being asexual or aromantic. Not many people know these sexual orientations even exist, part of the reason being because television has a habit of giving every character a romantic sub-plot. In reality, some people don’t look for a relationship or the things it entails, but Doctor Who and the rest of world wide media has decided to ignore this. It’s the responsibility of popular TV shows to change that and make all audiences feel included.

But then again, Stephen Moffat has made his opinion on asexuality clear, seemingly acknowledging that it exists when responding to a fan’s question’s about Sherlock’s sexual orientation- but then replying that he wouldn’t write Sherlock as asexual because there’s “no fun in that”. You could argue that romantic sub-plot after romantic sub-plot is actually more boring…

So then, the idea of Sherlock being asexual or aromantic is apparently out of the question when it comes to Moffat’s interpretation, even though for many Sherlock and Conan Doyle fans, an asexual or aromantic Sherlock makes the most sense. But then, of course, it’s also been debated that Sherlock and John have a bond that goes beyond friendship. The two men are certainly inseparable.

Perhaps John Watson and Sherlock are gay, or bisexual, or maybe pansexual. With John marrying Mary, it looks like whatever their sexuality the two of them probably won’t be a couple- even so, the writers like to throw in the odd joke or two about John and Sherlock seeming like a gay couple. Before Mary was introduced to the show, some members of the audience naturally interpreted these jokes mixed with the strength of John and Sherlock’s friendship as hints that they actually had feelings for each other.

Obviously, the characters of Sherlock don’t need to be gay, or asexual, or anything within the queer spectrum- straight people do exist too. However what needs to change is the fact that the writers have, at times, made John, Sherlock, and Irene’s sexual orientations ambiguous without giving the subject any proper closure. When writers of popular shows stick their tails between their legs and fail to address LGBT+ issues like this, it encourages people to continue ignoring that there is actually a spectrum beyond heterosexuality. The fact that writers even think that this spectrum is boring and “no fun” makes queer members of the audience feel rejected, like they shouldn’t exist.

Doctor Who and Sherlock are not the only shows to do this. CW’s Supernatural is guilty of ‘queer-bating’; for around four or five seasons, the writers have built upon the “profound bond” between Dean Winchester and Castiel, making them seem close enough that viewers could interpret their relationship as a romantic one, but never making their relationship anything more, instead making the concept of them being a couple a joke. Whether or not the two characters should or shouldn’t be together, the truth is that if one of them were a girl, they would have been seasons ago. Like Sherlock, Supernatural implies a strong relationship between two same sex characters, but the writers promptly assert that they’re straight even though there aren’t actually as many straight people in real life as some people like to think. Apparently, having queer main characters is just far too controversial.


With all that said, it’s important to recognise that television is making steps forward elsewhere- the recent BBC series In The Flesh offered some refreshing LGBT+ representation (although it’s been cancelled now. *sigh*), Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black portray transgender and transsexual characters, and Greys Anatomy has been addressing bisexuality.

But when the writers of Sherlock and Doctor Who avoid fully addressing the queer spectrum, they consequently erase a variety of sexualities from their shows and exclude a huge sector of their audiences. So, it seems like the writers know less about their viewers than they think.

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