Obsessions, “special interests”, and BBC Sherlock

When you are neurotypical, people call the things you love “obsessions” and they think it’s cute.  When you are Autistic, people medicalize your passions and call them “special interests”.  And when you talk about your special interests, you are “infodumping”.  I know plenty of neurotypical people who do this, who infodump about their favorite character on TV and why they love them.  But somehow, it’s a problem when I do it.  When I infodump, it’s a “symptom” of my autism, not just me sharing something I love.  I suppose the difference lies in the fact that oftentimes, I can’t read when someone is disinterested, so I keep talking and talking until they’re frustrated with me and downright bored.  I’m sorry for that, but unless you tell me, I don’t automatically pick up on it most of the time.

So I’m going to talk about a few of my favorites – characters, TV shows, etc. in media and why I find them amazing. I was planning on this being just one post, but well, I infodumped and this became quite longer than I meant it to be.

Sherlock Holmes.  This particularly relates to the BBC version of Sherlock (which, hint, hint, is on Netflix, and you should watch if you haven’t already).  I am also enjoying Elementary, the CBS drama with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu and think it’s fabulous in a way that other adaptations are not.  But Sherlock is what drew me in to Sherlock Holmes — a love that had been pretty stagnant for a good decade and a half, when I last picked up the books.  But Sherlock was a new, modern day adaptation and you know what? Even though it was easy to see myself and the non-neurotypical ways of Sherlock Holmes’ brain in every adaptation, even from the original stories, this was positively glaring. There was absolutely no way for me to watch BBC Sherlock and not see myself reflected. Later, when I read articles about how Benedict Cumberbatch deliberately played Sherlock as  “slightly autistic, perhaps a bit sociopathic” (the latter a hugely problematic term, but a redeeming one when the term is used somewhat sarcastically in the show itself), I could not contain my glee.

(A side note: Benedict himself is not immune to being ableist, which I want to lay out here at the outset so no one thinks that I’ve idolized any of the actors here.  Please read here for more information regarding Benedict’s foot in mouth/ableist commentary, and be warned that profanity is abundant at the link, if that sort of thing bothers you.)  

I saw myself on screen, in Sherlock’s movements, his social gaffes (oh, poor Molly Hooper; I hurt for her, but know that I’ve been exactly that oblivious more than once), his sharp, too-blunt tongue, and simply, how his brain works.  I still regard the second episode of the second season, The Hounds of Baskerville, to be by far my favorite episode for a number of reasons.  First, though this segment of his acting was highly criticized (by mostly NT fans, I’m sure), Sherlock has a meltdown when he isn’t sure how to deal with what he’s seeing vs. what he knows to be true.  Fans criticized him for being too emotional for Sherlock, and I think if you view him from an NT perspective, I can see where they’re coming from. But this was every bit a panic attack or a meltdown (I see it as the latter, but if you see him as differently neuroatypical, as in not autistic but still not NT, it could be classified as a panic attack), and I think it’s very important to note that it’s a very good representation of how non-autistic people sometimes react to us when we are in the middle of a meltdown.  Sherlock sets boundaries, and John Watson tramples all over them. I have gone as far as to call him a “bad ally” and have been fairly demonized in the Sherlock fandom because of that.  But I digress.  In addition to that instance, this episode brought us as close to a canonical diagnosis as I think we’ll ever get.  Sherlock reacts rather oddly to seeing Lestrade at Baskerville, and to me, that seems as close to face blindness as we’re going to get.  I don’t think Sherlock is face blind by any means, but seeing someone out of context could be somewhat startling regardless.  Sherlock reacts by calling Lestrade his “handler” (which could certainly be code for “caretaker” or someone that is sent to watch over him). A few moments later, the following dialogue (transcript source here) occurs between John and Lestrade when they believe Sherlock to be out of earshot.

JOHN: You know he’s actually pleased you’re here?
(Greg throws him a disbelieving look.)
JOHN: Secretly pleased.
LESTRADE: Is he? That’s nice(!) I suppose he likes having all the same faces back together. Appeals to his … his …
(He stops and searches for the right word. John provides an appropriate suggestion.)
JOHN: … Asperger’s?

There were mixed reactions to this particular revelation.  I myself positively screeched in excitement when the word was first uttered. Later, when I thought back on it, I sort of felt a little sick to my stomach.  Not because of the word.  There is nothing to be feared about the word Asperger’s or autism for that matter.  It isn’t even that the media seems to get things wrong regarding the diagnosis.  The problem lies in who said the word.  That character was John Watson.

John Watson should know better.  John Watson is a doctor, and should understand to respect his friend’s privacy.  He refers to Sherlock as his friend several times throughout the series, and Sherlock eventually in this particular episode, confirms that John is his only friend.  John and Lestrade are literally talking about Sherlock behind his back.  Everyone knows he’s different.  Sally Donovan, as much as I like her and thinks she has potential as a character (though we will unfortunately probably not see her character receive the treatment she deserves, which is not to be villainized) from the first moment we’re introduced to her calls Sherlock “freak”.  He knows he’s different, and so does everyone else.  When I thought about the conversation between John and Lestrade, my heart sunk.  Because it felt like being outed.  It felt like someone saying, “oh by the way, he has this diagnosis”, which shouldn’t be revealed to other people by someone else, but by the person who is most affected.

I would also like to talk about how Sherlock is treated by the other characters at large.  There’s Mycroft, who is his older brother, but who, to me, acts more like a parent.  We don’t know their backstory, but I suspect he behaved as more of a parent than either of their actual parents.  And as someone who is only seven years older than Sherlock, I can’t imagine their childhood was at all very pretty.  I believe that Sherlock probably was forced to behave in a neurotypical way, even though he was clearly anything but.  Privileged, of course, and wealthy, yes, but certainly that doesn’t erase the way he was likely treated.  Lestrade, I think, is more of a father than any of the characters, and behaves in a guiding Sherlock onto the right path sort of way.  I dislike the following line, but I think it paints a good picture of how Lestrade sees him:

“Sherlock Holmes is a great man.  And one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.”‘

John treats him alternately like he is brilliant and perfect and like he is terrible for some of the things he says.  I think as their friendship progresses by the end of season 2, he is much more understanding and even guides him socially (which can definitely be seen at the beginning of The Reichenbach Fall, when he says things like “say thank you” and the like, when Sherlock is bemused by a gift by the fact that he doesn’t, in fact, wear cufflinks). But we have the fireplace scene in Hounds, where John oversteps his boundaries.  Sherlock repeats “leave me alone” several times, and John blatantly ignores him, and ignores all the signs that Sherlock is afraid, and on the verge of a panic attack (or meltdown, whichever you prefer).  He’s shaking, sweating,eyes watering, lip quivering, breathing hard, trying to calm himself in any way possible.  His hand trembles with a glass of something (we’re meant to assume alcohol, I believe) in his hand, And John tells him to “take it easy”, calls him “Spock”, and eventually, when Sherlock says “I don’t have friends”, John says, “I wonder why”.  And the next morning, when Sherlock apologizes, we’re supposed to accept that as some sort of good thing? Instead of being called on his slut shaming behavior toward Sally in the first episode, or his blatant disregard for police procedures, or the cruel things he says intentionally, we’re supposed to think it’s a victory that Sherlock apologizes for lashing out in the middle of a meltdown.  Well, all right then.

There is talk in fandom that John Watson makes Sherlock Holmes “more human”.  The final words that John Watson says to Sherlock Holmes before his faceoff with Moriarty on the rooftop is “You machine”.  There are graphics about how Sherlock Holmes is the mind and John Watson is the heart.  And I get how it’s easy to do.  John Watson is quasi-neurotypical.  The only mention of his PTSD is in episode one, and then it’s never spoken of again.  John is understanding, and though he’s strong, he is also fairly good with social graces.  He smooths things over, makes things easier for Sherlock.  He speaks to Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade about Sherlock, trying to make sure things are okay for him.  I understand what it means to have a friend like that, one who is as much on your side as a non-autistic friend can be.  I don’t expect John Watson to be perfect.  I really don’t.  But I want the fandom at large to recognize its treatment of John Watson as some beacon of light who makes Sherlock more human, because that phrase is so, so damaging to autistic individuals.  Sherlock is expected to apologize for being himself.  Not for horrible actions – no, that’s not what he’s criticized for by the other characters.  No one has, thus far, talked about how horrible what he did to John in another scene from Hounds was.  It was horrible, and sneaky and abusive, and no one is talking about it.  But everyone focuses on “I don’t have friends” and how much he hurt John’s feelings.  Funny, no one seems to be so reactive when Sebastian Wilkes says “We hated him” to John in The Blind Banker, referencing how he and his classmates regarded Sherlock.  This is said in Sherlock’s presence, as though he’s not even there.  Here is a good post about legitimate criticism vs. criticism for neurology.

Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is human.  He does not need to prove it by acting neurotypical.  He doesn’t need John to help soften his heart and make him more emotional, and have emotional = more human.  And let me be frank – Sherlock is plenty emotional.  I wonder when people say that he’s entirely cold and emotionless what show they’re watching, because the one I’m watching, and have watched dozens of times, depicts Sherlock as quite emotional, but someone who hides it well.

I relate to Sherlock Holmes.

I can relate to the mind palace idea, and have done something like it myself.

I have an eidetic memory to some extent, and on bad days, my cognitive function is at least intact enough that if I can’t remember what I’m trying to remember, at the very least, I know where to find the information.  I know what the page looked like where I read it.  I remember some association to where it is, even if it’s not something I’ll immediately be able to find.

Sherlock (or perhaps, just Benedict) stims just the way I do.

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I often ask what Sherlock asks his brother in A Scandal in Belgravia:  “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”

It is difficult to be an Autistic fan of Sherlock.  That isn’t because it’s difficult to relate to him, but it is difficult to hear some of the things fans say.  And then we have things like this, where a non-autistic panel of Sherlock fans, and a psychologist proclaim the following:

And he doesn’t have Asperger’s by the way, he can read people better than anyone else, and–

People who have Asperger’s can’t read social cues and have trouble reading people’s emotions. When Holmes comes into a room he can tell you who’s sleeping with whom for how long, and who likes whom and who doesn’t like whom and who’s lying and who’s not, I mean, who is a better reader of faces and of people than Sherlock Holmes? I don’t know of any.

Reading people is far different from deducing facts from someone’s appearance.

Melinda: People on that spectrum wouldn’t be able to see Helen Stoner [Speckled Band] and just be immediately calm her down, they would exude this sort of like, “I am sympathetic to your cause I’m gonna take care of this.”

Maria: Yes! And, I mean, also note how kind he is, he never takes payment from people who can’t afford it, he’s really, even though he says he only takes the cases that challenge him, he’ll take a case when people appeal to him on a human level. And he’s the first one to give people a second chance and to be more sympathetic when Watson’s like “whoa, that guy’s a bastard, did you hear how he talked about her?” and Holmes is like “cut him some slack, Watson.”

So, there you have it. Autistic people can’t be kind.  We can’t be sympathetic.  Because a psychologist said so.  Because one of the Baker Street Babes said so.  The owners of said podcast and I exchanged some inbox messages on Tumblr, and in the end, I ended up not posting or responding to most of them, in part, because they did just what they criticized in their Hounds of Baskerville podcast – they outed one of the people associated with them as being “on the spectrum”.  It seemed a bit too convenient for me, and really really crappy, as I’ve said before.  It also reminds me of Kassiane’s post here. IDing as autistic or on the spectrum is not a get out of jail free card, and I find it far too convenient that the opinions of Autistic folks, in this case, Autistic fans of Sherlock, are dismissed so easily by just one phrase: “well, I’m autistic too”, as though that somehow erases the way that folks treat the character of Sherlock, as though he’s some “problem” to be handled.  As though there’s no way he can be autistic because he’s “too kind” and “has emotions”.  This is damaging to real life people.

When you talk about Sherlock not being human, or being a machine, or any variation thereof, you are dehumanizing people who possess a similar neurology.  Who are abused.  Told that we have no emotions and it’s okay to do x, y, and z therapy to us because we can’t feel anything anyways.  Here are some more thoughts on dehumanization of Autistic people.  Here, here, here (Trigger warnings on all three links for dehumanization, institutionalization, abuse, murder of disabled people).  People often say “it’s just fiction.”  Nothing is “just fiction.”  Representation matters, and when we talk about a character who many many Autistic people identify with a character as being just like them,especially when there are very few just like them characters on television, dismissing that is harmful.  Here is a really good post (dissecting The Baker Street Babes issue far better than I did) about just that.

I will write another post about Elementary because it is very different from Sherlock and I don’t think that the two should be compared.  But I did want to touch on one thing.  There are many people who call Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock “more human” or “more relatable” and that’s not cool.  There have been a few posts on Tumblr about that.  Here, here and here.  Thankfully, it seems like the Elementary fandom is far more understanding and their responses to “hey, that’s not cool” tend to be “I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize how harmful that is” rather than the reactions of the Sherlock fandom.

I think that might be enough infodumping for one day.  I leave you with what I consider to be by far the best series regarding Sherlock on the internet, and that’s The Slumber of Feelings: A study of autism and BBC Sherlock, which was written mostly before series 2 even aired, but hits every point about how I feel about BBC Sherlock and the fact that he is, indeed, very much Autistic.

 

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