"Mad About Sherlock," declares the cover of Entertainment Weekly above the face of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the BBC's latest version of the character. The show returned to the U.S. last weekend, drawing 4 million to PBS.
One of our most enduring literary characters and beloved imports from Great Britain, Sherlock Holmes currently headlines a successful movie franchise, CBS show, and hit BBC import … some 126 years after his first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887.
The U.K. premiere earlier this month broke a Twitter record, thanks mostly to feverish tweets sent by women. Show-runner Steven Moffat acknowledges the "huge female following," and claims the trend dates back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian fanbase. Moffat attributes it to Sherlock's good looks, and Cumberbatch brings to the role his own weird but compelling features.
But it's more than looks that keep Sherlock's fanbase swooning. Perhaps, much like John Watson (Martin Freeman on BBC), we recognize the complex character behind the well-known investigative methods. Sherlock's intelligence, ability to read between the lines, and choice of companions date back to Doyle's original character, and the BBC's version also gets at the beating heart of what makes him a great man.
The show highlights a male hero who breaks our hypermasculine stereotypes while demonstrating qualities we also find in a mature Christian life: Sensitivity to those around us, friendships that support growth, investment into community, and a discerning focus on truth. No wonder he gets our attention.
Brainy Is the New Sexy
Whenever I share my love of Sherlock with other female fans, I wait for their knowing smiles; the ones that say, Yeah. He's hot. Isn't he?
I fight every instinct to defend my life-long love of mysteries. To say that I watched Murder, She Wrote on primetime in high school—just like my grandma. That I loved Monk and Scooby Doo. And that, with the exception of a certain Hardy Boy when I was 5, I've managed to enjoy mysteries without the aid of a character crush.
But alas, their knowing smiles get something right. Though Sherlock can yield a fine sword and though we probably all nearly fell off the sofa during that kiss in the Season 3 opening moments, it's not any machismo we appreciate with Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock. His sex appeal falls outside from what culture generally says women should find sexy (far from the Mark Driscolls of the world who claim women want and need tough guys).
What makes this Sherlock attractive isn't his "cheekbones and turning up your coat collar" as Dr. Watson says or his sword-wielding or that dreamy swashbuckling kiss. We agree with the stunning dominatrix Irene Adler: "Brainy's the new sexy." And, we agree with Sherlock, who falls for Irene as much as Sherlock can fall, not because she stood nude before him, but because her intellect matches his. He tells Irene, "You cater to the whims of the pathetic and take your clothes off to make an impression. Stop boring me and think. It's the new sexy."
For those of us who find our husbands sexy for their amazing minds, for the ways they think and deduce what others don't, Sherlock offers an often-unseen picture of this appeal. And it gives us an even more compelling picture of a man who finds women sexy for brains instead of boobs. Of course, we're drawn to this character.
This dynamic isn't restricted to romance; Sherlock's "brainy" sex appeal may in fact be regular old appeal. It's hard not to think of Jesus, given the show's parallels: the Season 2 finale, when the "crowd" turned on Sherlock, when he was falsely arrested and later sacrificially "died," or the hair and the beating of Season 3's opening. While the women around Jesus surely loved him for his insight and his heart, Jesus celebrated women's minds, with Mary sitting at his feet, theologically sparring with the Woman at the Well. Jesus deduced things that no else did. His willingness to challenge our thought processes and reconsider the world around us remains part of his appeal.
Halee Gray Scott
Every hit show has its 'shippers—people who insist two characters belong in a relationship. In Sherlock, the Shirene shippers match Sherlock with Irene, the sharp-witted dominatrix, and the Sherlollys, "ship" Sherlock and Molly, a pathology assistant at the morgue. But a major portion of us—the Johnlocks—root for a relationship between Sherlock and John, the crime-solving duo.
Creator Steven Moffat says that Sherlock is "definitely a love story" between John and Sherlock, but he questions why that means they need to have sex. "What a weirdly sexualized world we live in where you insist they must be having sex … you can love someone without fancying them." I appreciate Moffat's sentiments and applaud the courageous creativity it took to write about non-sexual love between two men. It's a difficult theme to present in a hypersexualized world that equates almost all love with romantic, sexual love.
In contrast, ancient Greek culture had four words to describe love: eros, which is sexual, romantic love; agape, selfless, spiritual love; storge, the affectionate love of parents towards children; and phillia, the dispassionate, mental, reciprocal love between friends. Aristotle believed that phillia, not eros, was the highest form of love because it involved "wishing for anyone the things we believe to be good, for his sake but not for our own." C.S. Lewis believed phillia was the least common and least natural of all loves—unlike storge and eros, there is no biological reason for phillia love. In phillia, we love someone for their own sake, and not just the pleasure they bring to us. It's phillia love we see between David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, Paul and Timothy.
Some say phillia is dead, fully consumed by eros. In a day when you can "friend" anyone, we've lost our understanding of what real friendship is. Sherlock addresses this poverty by modeling the power of phillia love. As Sherlock says in his best man's speech at John's wedding, "John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship."
Role Model to an Inattentive World
Sherlock Holmes's "superpower" is his ability to tune into details and people around him that most would overlook.
Most of us have to tune things out, as a defense mechanism of sorts. I ride public transportation to work every day and have mastered ignoring the nearness of strangers. We can become so accustomed to this filtering process we end up not even noticing the occasional friend sharing our train car. That would never happen to Sherlock.
As Sherlock proves, this Art of Observation can be a big job. In the BBC version, though, his power comes with a trade-off. It's impossible for one man to see everything and still deduce meaning, so their Sherlock Holmes tunes out feelings. In his pursuit of pure observable facts, he hurts friends and makes foes. His gift of seeing everything blinds him to relationships within easy view.
Ask yourself how often you do the same. Certainly most of us, unlike Sherlock, recognize our close relationships. But how often do we tune into those people, even as we often presume they should read our own signals to know our state of mind, mood, or desires?
Most humans have limited attention. Fortunately, we also have an omnipotent Source of daily guidance. I might not solve crime, but I aspire to be more Sherlockian by becoming better tuned in — not all the time, and not to everything, but to who and where I need to be paying attention — and more responsive when called upon to meet unknown needs.
If He Only Had a Heart
"Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day—if we're very, very lucky—he might even be a good one."
Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade made this remark in the first episode of Sherlock. At the time, it raised my hackles a little bit. Okay, so Sherlock is a little anti-social; a little brusque, even. But he's Sherlock Holmes, for heaven's sake. You can't just go around saying things like that about Sherlock Holmes, in any incarnation. The man uses his considerable powers to fight crime and help bring killers to justice. If that isn't good, what is?
Since then, I've come to understand the remark a little better, through watching Sherlock start to grow in the direction that Lestrade was hoping for. That doesn't mean Sherlock has become a people person. Fine. It's not as if an introvert is an immoral thing to be. (Besides, we introverts need all the role models we can get!)
Though still abrupt and introverted, Sherlock has learned to live in community with others. He may not always pick up on social cues, but he has started genuinely caring about other people. Through his developing friendship with John and his continued work with Lestrade and company, he's even at times put others' needs before his own. In last season's finale, for example, Sherlock may not have actually died for his friends, but he was willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to protect them from a team of assassins.
Sherlock's mental powers will always exceed those around him, and he will always be annoyingly aware of that fact. But at the same time, he's begun to develop a great heart to go with that great brain. I don't know if Lestrade is satisfied yet, but it's something I've been glad to watch.