Saturday, January 2, 2016

Names in SFF #13: Benedict Cumberbatch

Spoilers for New Year special. Also don't get me wrong: despite having a go, I enjoyed the episode, and especially Cumberbatch's performance. See also Maureen K. Speller's post at Paper Knife.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the actor who has portrayed, among others, Martin from Cabin Pressure, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, Smaug and a young Sauron in The Hobbit, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, TS Eliot, Vincent van Gogh, the apprehensive young business manager 'Robin' in Nathan Barley, and himself. His Doctor Strange and Shere Khan are forthcoming. He does not play The Doctor, but you can be forgiven for forgetting that.

He also plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock. The 2016 New Year special episode was entitled "The Abominable Bride." There can be no doubt that the abominable bride must be Benedict Cumberbatch himself. Look at him: there stands the Abominable Bride. That is a truth you can drink up with your first glance. So you have the rest of the day to work out why the story has gone to such lengths to hide the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is the true Abominable Bride. Also: what actually is an Abominable Bride? (It is a kind of Benedict Cumberbatch, we know that much). And when you work that out, you may spare a thought for how you knew all along that Benedict Cumberbatch is the true Abominable Bride.

This is a post about Benedict Cumberbatch's name, his whiteness, and why he is the Abominable Bride. But first let's manage expectations. In case you have stumbled in looking for an "explanation" of the episode, puh-lease! This isn't some paltry explanation. An explanation would stoop to explaining things. An explanation would explain, oh, I don't know: It Was All A Dream. (See Note 1). This is not an explanation of the Sherlock Christmas special episode. It's about something hopefully more interesting.

Although it is significant, for a reason I'll mention in a moment, that there is a kind of dream logic at work in the episode, where two anxieties can be conflated, blended, run together into one complex anxiety. It's a poetic form of truth, as some idiots might put it. Or perhaps, there are two kinds of dream logic. It was all a dream, but it was a dream with two theories of dreaming struggling for mastery: from the Freudian side, things repressed by the unconscious are worked through via fantasies (the glitches); from a more cognitivist, bio-computational angle, there is important data mining, enriching, consolidating and so on going on, plus window dressing (the cold case solving).

But what's more interesting is: finally here is a Sherlock which admits that a Benedict Cumberbatch, like an Engelbert Humperdinck or a Cubbi Gummi Bear, is one of those fay presences which bounces comfortably through our mundane plane maintaining rich relationships here, while quite obviously never being anchored here in the long term. And a Benedict Cumberbatch steals different identities. It seems unfair to single out just one actor for the shapeshifting of the whole profession, but there you go.

If you felt you had a history of somewhat sexist writing and were determined to Do Better, one of the things you could do to make it a bit easier for yourself is set bits of your episode in Victorian England. That setting allows such easy equivocation. You can recruit a bit of internet-era snark into the service of some now uncontroversial struggle, like votes for women: it shouldn't be too hard to pitch these confrontations so that a contemporary liberal feminist feels a sense of triumph, and a contemporary radical feminist, a sense of trajectory. You can portray a Victorian woman outwitting a Victorian man, despite having the odds so stacked against her, and you can portray the Victorian man's mouth opening and closing and his moustaches flaring like a windsock in a big old flabber-gust.

This seemed to be where the episode was going, with some neatly polished banter from Mrs Hudson about how the handsomely walrused Watson was writing her out of history, and a sense of suffragist alacrity and activism bristling away beyond the blinkers of our supposedly ever-vigilant superman.

But oh no. That's not where it was going. It turns out that that stuff was, unfortunately, pertinent to the plot: because the Feminists Did It. The Feminists did it, and then they put on pointy hoods and chanted about it in Latin afterwards, because that's what Feminists do. The story concedes that they were "right" to do it, and Mycroft Holmes, spokesman for the patriarchy, very graciously consents to "lose" to them.

Abominable is not a common word. When it does come out in public, it is usually accompanied by one of its close friends. Abominable weather, abominable treatment, abominable service, abominable mess. It can just about slot in wherever atrocious can: I'm an abominable tennis player. Or perhaps it arrives in a Wodehouse-ish flourish, accompanied by some of term of comparable just-gone-over archaism: abominable perfidy. It's a word of bumbling, genteel apology, a bit like devastated. Occasionally it may be an intensifier: abominable cheat.

The strongest collocation, however, is abominable snowman, the elusive, apelike cryptid of the Himalayas. The God of the Hunt, perhaps. But also something to be hunted. "The game is a Bigfoot," as Sherlock might say, running together two distinct anxieties into one complex anxiety, and accessing a poetic form of truth.

Snowman, I hereby aver, connotes Cumberbatch. He is white af. Or more like: Abominable Snowman Bride connotes Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch. "White as death, mouth like a crimson wound," is the Bride's description. Cumberbatch is professionally pale. He is beyond the pale. He has blown the lid off pallid. He is a consummate pallid-an at the height of his powers. His skin is bridal silk. Perhaps Cumberbatch's lips aren't all that crimson, but he does have a hearty mouth. It is a Nirvana mouth: heart-shaped botox. The snowman's carrot admittedly is neither here nor there. Perhaps you could pull one from a cabbage patch or a cumber batch, but probably not. There is the pipe: Sherlock is as fond of his pipe as any two gigantic snow boulders piled in an 8.

A dual-wielding Victorian Bridezilla leans from a window

Pure as the driven snow. Sherlock: The Abominable Bride does bring up the question of Sherlock's virginity. Benedict may suggest Benedictine monasticism and perhaps a monk's chastity. It may also hint at St Bernard, lolloping through the snow all jowls and salvation. What is important here is the monstrous bride, hungry, shaggy, and almost indistinguishable from the ferocious nature -- a blizzard, it so happens -- which she inhabits. The other suppressed word, partly via snowman, is Bridezilla.

If the shadowy many-hooded dénouement was cringey, one contributing factor might be this: it replicated the logic and perhaps even rhetoric of anti-suffrage writers of the late Victorian era and early C20th. To be schematic: first-wave feminism concentrates on entry into the great mass of more-or-less rational humans, as reflected by formal, procedural equality of civil and political rights. That is, voting, owning property, speaking in town meetings, bearing witness, standing for election, and so on. A common strategy to undermine first-wave feminism was to insist that women already had their own sphere and forms of influence which, though subtle and discreet, potentially outweighed men's altogether. Women operated in the private sphere on sons and husbands, and through them, on the public sphere, the Empire, etc.

Of course, that antifeminist rhetoric hasn't gone away. We still see it in the stereotype of the ferocious woman who dominates (henpecks, pussywhips) her man, a stereotype which flourishes in part because it can sometimes blur into good faith celebration of a woman's power.

The cringey shadowy many-hooded dénouement of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride may or may not have been salvageable. Other contemporary anti-suffrage arguments swirled around the notion of women as constitutionally unfit for full citizenship, because they were constitutionally adverse to violence in defense of the realm. You know: tender. So maybe there is potentially a story to be told with these badass cowboy ninja warrior monk suffragettes. If only they had used their fists in a scientific fashion:

But if you were trying to salvage the premise, a good place to start would be refocusing the badass cowboy ninja warrior monk suffragettes' campaign away from cheating husbands and no-good sexual scoundrels, and toward the public sphere. Less emo vengeance, more assassinations. Less of this spooooky mode of influence which requires you to kiss goodbye to rationalism, more of the deliberate and considered violent uprising of the oppressed.

Which brings us back to Benedict Cumberbatch, the abominable bride. Why abominable? An abominable bride might mean someone who is truly terrible at being a bride. "Sorry everyone, I'm an abominable bride. I'm male, and I don't even get married." Though Sherlock goes around being-a-dick and encumbering everyone with his batcheloryness, it's clear that Sherlock: The Abominable Bride actually positions Benedict Cumberbatch as the sexist cliche of the Bridezilla, the ravenously demanding bride-to-be, stuck in a world of her own and making it everybody else's problem. He is at once, in a patriarchal paradox, the apotheosis of bridal, and pathologically, wrongly bridal: he's so brutally bridal he's bad at being a bride.

Mycroft, you might say, is bad at being a best man, the man who is primus inter pares. "The virus in the data." "Mycroft! This is not the time and place for such language!" He tackles the whole wedding spread solo. His instinct to eat, live and grow is pathologically hypertrophied into a death wish, so that both personally and as chief man dude -- "we must lose" -- the best man is the worst man, fit only to burst.

This is a story about perfection. Sherlock's Memory Palace cannot simulate a material totality to such a fine grain that it becomes empirically investigable, any more than a Bridezilla and her minions can foreshadowingly simulate, and then materially realize, a Perfect Day.  Wedding plans represent, rather than pre-create-in-ideality, wedding days. Wedding days instantiate, rather than transpose-to-materiality, wedding plans. Wedding days and wedding plans are not ontologically isomorphic. The myth of the Bridezilla is in part the myth of the woman who is calling the patriarchal bluff, unlocking and wielding some of the violence implicit in the translateability of ideality and materiality. Do you always cry at implicit violence? I always feel like I should.

This is a story, after all, mostly in Sherlock's head. It is entirely organized around the conceit that everything must be exactly how Sherlock envisions it, and yet things never are quite the way he envisions them, and that discrepancy is terrifying and threatening. Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is filled with the little slip-ups of the kind that can ruin a perfect day: the gauche and untimely choice of words, the label in the wrong place, the wrong person under the bridal veil. It all hints at the possibility of a wedding that isn't even a wedding: it's a weddingfail, it's the guests, the get-up, the bridal silk, but without the legal ink.

Benedict, by the way, may mean "a true and established bachelor who has recently married." Compare Shakespeare's Benedick.

Bridezilla. Think Godzilla with veil and train, of course. Where else in the episode's language do we find the superimposition of a furious, carious mythical creature with ostentatious formal ceremonial garb? There is this: CumberbatchCummerbund. Bandersnatch.

Sherlock, a bit like Who, is the kind of work that puts an enormous premium on being clever. Constantly slick, bantery, cozy, polished, expertly paced, and clever: if it fails to be those things, then it probably fails altogether. (Tom Stoppard might have a lot to answer for, for this premium on cleverness). What is Sherlock if he's not clever? Some sort of low-functioning sociopath?

And perhaps it is not really a style of writing that suits mass production, episode after episode, season after season. And I wonder if the Bridezilla, with a kind of dream logic, runs together two anxieties. First, the endlessly demanding character of Sherlock, who takes and takes and takes your one-liners, your ripostes, your detective fiction deductive conceits, churning through them at a breakneck pace without showing the least gratitude. Every episode is the Bridezilla's wedding day: it must be perfect or it is ruined. Second, the fans. The endlessly demanding fans, something Doyle knew about too. You've given them women being written out of history; you've celebrated women's suffrage; you've even had a woman Watson more-or-less crack the case, before whisking us off to a waterfall where bromance between two men wins out over a superman's insecurity psychically represented as a rivalry between two supermen. You've done feminist. What more do they want?

Where to even start.

SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

TL;DR: Making fun of people for their names isn't nice.

Note 1: Sherlock wanted to figure out if Moriarty could have shot himself in the head and still survived, right? So he absorbed all the data on a comparably patterned case, and withdrew to an inner simulation in which to solve it. Obviously that's the most straightforward way to solve a mystery: pick one that's a bit like it from a hundred years ago and then think about it while on drugs. How very algorithmic governance of you, Sherlock. That's what an explanation might say.

An explanation might even furthermore stoop to clarifying and revealing that Sherlock did indeed solve the cold case (yes, Lady Carmichael killed Sir Carmichael), only his simulation was beset by glitches. Mycroft's anachronism "the virus in the data" was one. The little tag saying "Miss me?" which magically appeared was another. And of course the unveiling of the Moriarty-bride was another. Why were these glitches there? Because even Sherlock isn't perfect. It all starts to crumble toward the end. Possibly Sherlock did "really" exhume Mrs Ricoletti, but I'm inclined to interpret that whole scene (not just the magic bit at the end) as a continuation of Sherlock's inner simulation. So's the bit at the waterfall.

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