So I mentioned in my video on shipping that Sherlock utilises a lot of the conventions of the romance genre in such a way that subliminally encourages the audience to view the relationship between Sherlock & John in a romantic light, which is one of the reasons I thought it rather unfair that certain people involved acted as if they were shocked that anyone thought Johnlock might ever have become canon. For those of you who haven’t studied media, I thought I’d put this together, illustrating what these conventions are and the effect they have on audiences.
Romantic & sexual iconography
Iconography, for those of you who don’t know, is the use of images with genre associations. For instance, if you see a broken doll, you think ‘horror’. Sherlock utilises a lot of romantic and sexual iconography in relation to the Holmes/Watson relationship.
The candle. As Angelo says himself, ‘nice and romantic’. Although John protests that he’s ‘not [Sherlock’s] date’, the inclusion of the candle subliminally suggests romantic undertones, and affects the lighting of the scene, making it soft and rose-tinted (which is also seen in A Study in Pink), which is perhaps the lighting most associated with the romance genre.
The wink. An excellent example of a cultural code, i.e. something that holds a particular meaning within a particular society. In the Western world, the wink has heavy sexual undertones.
The glass of wine. Another example of cultural coding, a glass of wine with dinner is frequently used to suggest romantic feelings or intentions.
A trope is (amongst other things), something that arises again and again within a genre, and hence comes to signify it.
The moonlit silhouette. One of the oldest tropes of the romance genre, this has been used for hundreds of years in books before being introduced to film and TV. For more on this trope, see the section entitled ‘The Male Gaze & homoeroticism’.
The damsel in distress. Even older than the moonlit silhouette, the damsel in distress was, until the rise of feminism, a staple feature of almost every romance story. Even today, this trope is still utilised, and, we can see here, our modern damsels aren’t always women.The trope is strengthened in this instance by music intended to build tension, and the evident fear that Benedict Cumberbatch portrays through a shaking hand and clearly nervous expression. And of course, the damsel in distress is saved by…
The knight in shining armour. Ideas surrounding heroism and what it is to be a hero are a running theme throughout Sherlock, and John is strongly characterised as a war hero, far more than he was in the original stories. His characterisation as such really begins with how Sherlock describes his saviour prior to realising that it was John, noting his ‘nerves of steel’ and ‘strong moral principles’. John is the perfect example of a modern day knight in shining armour (or in his case, knitted jumpers).
The love triangle. While these examples of the love triangle are rather atypical, they both contain definite elements of it: a third party being introduced to a partnership in such a way that causes disruption and jealousy. And on that note…
The jealous lover. I think this shot is really the best example of romantic undertones in the entire programme. The cut aways between a slow motion shot of Irene kissing Sherlock’s cheek and of John slamming his mug onto the table spells one thing: jealousy. In fact, the entire episode was littered with instances of John behaving like a jealous lover, such as counting how many texts Sherlock received from Irene.
The exception. A common trope in romance stories that involve ‘the icicle’ - a character who behaves in a cold and emotionless manner - is a declaration of exception - that the other half of the primary romantic couple is exempt from their cold outlook on the world. Sherlock’s little speech in The Hounds of Baskerville - ‘I don’t have friends. I’ve just got one.’ - is very similar to this.
The dying request. Few romantic tragedies are without one of these.
The mutual death. Whether two characters literally die together or, in this case, figuratively, with the living partner shown to be left empty and, in the second shot, framed in such a way that includes them in the death of the other, this is again very frequently seen in romantic tragedies.
As anyone who has lived on this planet for a moderate amount of time will know that certain activities are associated with dating, one of the most common is eating out together. This is commonly seen in Sherlock.
What is particularly significant about this is that the term ‘date’ and the concept of dating is frequently used in verbal instances of homoromantic suggestion within Sherlock - ‘I’m not his date!’; ‘I’ve got a date.’ ‘What?’ ‘It’s where two people who like each other go out and have fun.’ ‘That’s what I was suggesting.’
Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me!
Something that I’ve discussed a lot in the past is that while it is perfectly socially acceptable for heterosexual women to display physical affection for their friends, such is not the case with men, and men touching one another is, strangely, considered far more intimate. With that in mind, Sherlock and John touch one another with surprising frequency for a programme that features two male leads who are not explicitly written as homosexual or bisexual.
The Male Gaze & homoeroticism
The Male Gaze theory is one described by feminist media critic Laura Mulvey, and refers to the fact that in almost every film and television show, we view the world through the eyes of a man, regardless of our actual gender. This often leads to women being objectified, forcing a heterosexual male perspective on the audience. However, in some cases, it also leads to homoerotic shots, which is often the case with Sherlock.
Here we have the reaction shot following the one of Sherlock silhouetted by the moon. The rose-tinted lighting and slightly curled lip, frequently used to suggest sexual attraction, is an excellent example of the homoerotic Male Gaze. Interestingly, Steven Moffat said in an interview said that he was the only person who liked the sequence, hence why it was cut from A Study in Pink.
The homoerotic Male Gaze is particularly prevalent in this shot, as the shot quite literally involves two men looking at one another. Their proximity and the fact that John very briefly looks at Sherlock’s lips (an action which carries heavy sexual undertones) adds to the homoeroticism.
This is the moment in which Sherlock realises that it was John who saved his life, and their eyes meet across the carpark. Another common romantic trope in which something positively alters the dynamic between the protagonists, Sherlock’s parted lips also add to homoerotic undertones.
If you’re not convinced yet, this is all you need. A male character scrutinizing another male character’s crotch in order to determine whether or not he is wearing underwear is practically the definition of the homoerotic Male Gaze.
Again, excellent examples of the homoerotic Male Gaze: a male character being brought to a state of near-nakedness in the presence of three other men (all of which are included, if only partially, in both shots). I don’t see you averting your eyes, either, Dr. Watson.
And with that, I draw this to a close. I must note that I am not trying to prove that Johnlock is canon, because it isn’t. What I am trying to prove is that it is heavily suggested, not only through verbal references but also through the technical construction of the programme and the utilisation of romantic conventions, and while some of these may be accidental, that is rarely the case with something as carefully constructed as a TV drama. So can we stop with the whole ‘Johnlock shippers are just delusional fangirls’ argument now, please?
This is brilliant actually and extremely insightful, thank you.