Last night, I watched the latest episode of Elementary. I liked Elementary. It was a more than usual Sherlock Holmes homage, introducing sufficient touches of originality that I found it interesting and even sometimes entertaining. Lucy Liu is Joan Watson. The supporting cast includes some old familiar faces. The plots were sometimes original. I nearly booked out when the potentiality and promise of the character of Irene Adler was casually and invisibly killed off the show. But, give it a chance, I said to myself. Maybe it will not be like every other crime show on TV. Well, my hopes have been dashed and I am out of there. And here’s why.
This plot revolved around a dead CEO and the investigations into his death and his killer. It was not original stuff, as nothing on mainstream cable TV is anymore, but for me, one of the hooks were about sexual abuse and how survivors deal with it. This is a personal issue of mine.
In this story-line, one of the suspects turned out to have poisoned her step-father for having raped her, and then disappeared and changed her name. In the course of the episode, she is suspected because of the emergence of a confidential police report. This comes to light through the actions of a private detective hired by her employer for whom she works as a nanny. It used to be the butler who did it. That role of enforced domestic servitude and potential guilt is now almost entirely female. The apparent evils of TV nannies almost belies their suitability as child care workers.
Cutting to the chase, it turns out that one of the boys she is caring for has been raped by his father, the husband of her employer, who has also sexually harassed the nanny. He is a bad man. The boy, having read the detective’s report, kills his father the same way the nanny killed her step-father and frames the nanny as having killed his father. Excitable Boy, says Warren Zevon. The boy is played, as usual, as a wooden-faced, stolid, and unemotional scion of the empire. Since the heir to the throne cannot be convicted of murder, he walks.
The denouement ends with the nanny confessing to the murder of the CEO to save the poor boy from a life tainted by prison and the threat of the repercussions from a juvenile criminal record. The last scene shows Sherlock telling the boy that he will be watched to ensure that he never does it again. The boy has no visible reaction, just like most pathalogues incapable of feeling anything for the people they hurt and kill. Meanwhile, the nanny bravely but stupidly takes the rap and goes to decades of prison for a crime she didn’t commit. After a terror-filled and exhausting life of hiding after being raped and killing her rapist, the nanny takes the fall for a wealthy, privileged boy who gets to skate free, see shrinks and inherit millions from his father’s estate. The murdering boy’s freedom trumps that of the innocent nanny.
Her last scene is with Sherlock in an interrogation room where he tells her that he knows that she is innocent of the charges. She replies, with a smile and a rueful chuckle, that she is guilty, has always been guilty, she is a murderer, and that she has to be punished. Oh for Fuck’s Sake.
Why oh why oh why…?
From a mainstream TV point of view, she is the bad woman, her character stained with the unstated suspicion that, like all sexualised female victims, she is to blame for what happened and will always bear a scarlet letter. She is one of the two permissible female states, either whore or virgin. She cannot be an innocent because she has acted to take revenge on her oppressor and with his blood on her hands, she is wrong and deserving of only punishment. Had she not acted and been killed by her step-father, she might be an innocent victim, but then, mainstream media underscores and emphasizes that it is most often women’s inherent sexuality that makes good men go wrong, through no fault of their own. And, there is only one thing to be done with an “uppity” woman.
This is reflected in the real world, where women who defend themselves against the most obvious abuses and threats to them and their children are heavily punished for having fought back and either injured or killed men in the process. Violent women are terrifying to a world of men.
Women’s prisons are full of people charged and convicted of major crimes where the mitigating circumstances of violence, rape, and attempted murder are routinely brushed aside. They are being punished for being strong women who would not be dead victims. They also transgress the unwritten patriarchal laws which hold that it is wrong to the point of being unnatural, deranged, and evil for women to refuse to be beaten, raped, and killed. For women, it is judged to be better the innocent corpse than the guilty survivor.
There is, for no obvious reason, a side-plot of BDSM. This introduces the episode, and then completely ignored for the duration. This sensational titillation is used to show how the moral turpitude of the murdered CEO contributes to his own death, where he is discovered in a rubber kink suit in the home of a Dominatrix whom Sherlock seems to know in questionable and unresolved terms. This trope has been beaten to death, pun intended, in so many crime dramas that it seems impossible to include anything about alternate lifestyles, sexualities, genders, and sexual practices without making characters perpetually responsible for the consequences of twisted, perverted, immoral, and pathological existences that so completely and inexcusably transgress all of Society’s norms. Transfolk and Lesbians either die in the first ten minutes or are mercilessly punished in the final scenes. Kinksters are guilty of everything from raping children to drowning kittens. If I desire to be tied up and spanked, and I just might, it has no bearing at all on anything else I do or I am. And if you think it does, perhaps you might want to examine the motes in your own eyes before scoping out mine. What online pictures have YOU been looking at, hm? What is hidden underneath YOUR mattress?
In another unrelated departure from the plot, Sherlock is shown mercilessly beating the crap out of a sparring partner. This over demonstration of masculine violence is related to being beaten up at boarding school, another of his father’s unforgivable crimes against young Sherlock. He tells Watson that she should learn to do the same, which is extremely ironic, when we consider that the whole episode ends with a woman having defended herself against her rapist and losing so much of her self love, worth, and respect that she will accept the guilt and punishment for a crime committed by a young man who was setting her up to be framed. WTF? Would Joan Watson go to prison to protect a young male psychopath? Maybe, maybe not.
But even Watson has been punished for her crime of having slighted the medical profession and as a result having had her license to be a surgeon revoked. This reflects real life where medical men can be responsible for multiple abuses, mistakes and even deaths and be allowed to continue to be doctors where women in similar situations are ostracised, punished, and charged with criminal acts. Is it her penance to serve Sherlock? Why does Wason submit and sacrifice to a man who is deeply flawed, drug-addicted, violent, untrustworthy, unpredictable, and mentally ill? Why does she stay? Is her salvation trumped by Sherlock’s insatiable need to be nurtured, supported, agreed with, and excused?
Elementary has some interesting, even entertaining episodes. I’ve been watching it since last year. But, like the inevitability of Topsy dying of her sins (Svengali), Bambi’s mother getting shot (Bambi), and every action hero’s wife and children being slaughtered at the film’s beginning, Elementary moos along with the rest of the herd. There are rules which make programs acceptable to TV audiences and more specifically, their sponsors and studio production companies. To those ends, plots have and will continue to show how tough, strong, smart, capable, self-loving and assertive women must be suspected of evil and imprisoned, beaten, raped, and tortured to death, all to justify their existence in the script.
I know that I can turn off the TV or change the channel, but it is nowhere near enough to just sigh and change the channel to something more innocuous like the Knowledge Network. It is not right and no longer acceptable in a world where women are fighting and often dying to be people with important reasons for being free, independent, sexual, autonomous, smart, assertive, honoured, respected, exemplary, and held as worthy and deserving as anyone.
I don’t necessarily visibly cheer up when the first dead body in a crime show is a man. That would be inappropriate, and send the wrong message to men and women in the throes of dragging the world into a better century of hope and equality. It would lend support to the outrage of people who equate Feminism not as a life and death struggle for Women’s Equality, but a replacement of men as Society’s victims. This idea is a Big Lie.
It’s something to think about the next time you watch a crime drama. Think about what you are seeing, what the characters are saying and doing, and the unstated but implicit messages of how crime and punishment affects particular groups within Society. Look around at your friends and family. Consider the possible consequences of being in that situation you are watching. Think about whether you accept what you are watching to fit in to your chosen demographic or whether there is something going on which just doesn’t seem right to you.
The simple act of awareness is where growth starts. Growth can lead to change. Change can lead to the kind of a world where things are better for more people.
I’m just sayin’ is all…
Keep on hugging and loving; it couldn’t hurt.
P.S. For all you English Majors and spell checkers out there, I use Canadian word spelling. They are not errors. If you are offended by them, and feel the need to attack my grammar and spelling, why don’t you turn off your computer and go sniff some dandelions, instead? Listen to a cat purr. Have some chocolate and a nap. Use your phone to actually call someone up and talk to them with your mouth instead of your fingers. It couldn’t hurt.