Why fans are outraged at Sherlock and Watson reading sexy fanfic
Yesterday, the long two-year wait for more of the BBC’s hit series Sherlock officially came to an end as a select group of London fans and journalists were treated to a special sneak preview of the first episode, which airs on New Year’s Day in the U.K.
But for many of the fans attending, and countless more online on Tumblr, the euphoria gave way to hurt and embarrassment thanks to the event’s preceding Q&A, in which controversial U.K. writer Caitlin Moran humiliated the show’s largest audience—the huge subset of slash fans who read and write “Johnlock” fanfiction.
It may seem odd that mocking fanfic was on the menu for a screening of a show that is, itself, literally fanfiction, albeit of the critically acclaimed sort. But in the middle of a Q&A that many onlookers found awkward and uncomfortable, Moran reportedly tricked stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman into reading aloud an explicit work of erotic Johnlock fanfic that Moran had gleaned from the fan-run Archive of Our Own. Moran assured the two actors that the excerpt she wanted them to read was purely innocent. But as the actors read the scene aloud, as london-reviews reported, “it was clear it wasn’t as innocent as she kept making out:”
Caitlin decided that it would be funny to focus on the same thing all boring interviewers focus on when interviewing actors with huge fandoms—fan fiction. It’s been done to death, usually by Graham Norton, but in general it’s brought up a lot. I have never seen two actors being asked to read slash fanfic together though. And there’s a good reason for that—they don’t like it.
The excerpt Moran asked the actors to read is taken from a fairly popular AO3 fic called “Tea,” by author Mildredandbobbin. The actors apparently stopped right before the scene in question becomes pornographic, whether because the excerpt Moran provided ended, or because they were too embarrassed to continue reading such tidbits as:
Sherlock studied John. John, with his nicest button down shirt, plain cardigan, grey-shot hair, bags under his eyes and lines on his face. John who was standing, tense and agitated. John, who cared about Sherlock and was more important than comfort or reputation. John, who right now needed caring too. Sherlock felt something unfurling within him, something he’d kept ruthlessly tucked away for a very long time. Hope was the least of it.
He closed the space between them and leaned his forehead down to John’s. John’s eyes remained shut but his breath quickened.
“John,” Sherlock murmured and he grazed his fingertips over the buttons of his cardigan.
Given that this fic is far from being bad writing, it’s possible Moran genuinely thought the large contingent of slash fans in the audience would thrill at hearing the actors themselves reading it and giving voice to the homoerotic subtext in the show.
But that subtext has always been a controversial subject both within the Sherlock creative team and within the fandom. In addition to the issue of preserving the “fourth wall” that divides fans and creators, both Cumberbatch and creator Steven Moffat have gone on record as saying that the idea of John and Sherlock having a romantic relationship on the show is more or less absurd. Their protests come despite the fact that in the show itself, the idea of their being a couple is a recurring theme that gets brought up jokingly at various points and seriously at several others. This contradiction has led many fans to accuse the show of “queerbaiting,” using the popularity of the ship on the show to draw in viewers while treating queer identity as a joke and refusing to acknowledge queer relationships as a valid possibility for the characters.
Even more incendiary is the fact that it wasn’t just any woman being handed the microphone to discuss fandom with Cumberbatch, who frequently seems uncomfortable with the zeal of his fandom. Moran herself is a polarizing figure within the feminist community whose greatest hits include calling people "retards," using the slur "tranny," and famously declaring she "literally couldn't give a shit" about the lack of minority representation on the tv show Girls.
What many consider to be Moran’s brand of self-centered feminism lies in sharp contrast to the predominantly female spaces of fandom, where women regularly debate privilege, embrace transgender and genderqueer characters, and genderflip and ‘racebend’ media like Sherlock so that the shows they love will, at least on some level, be more representative, diverse, and empowering for women and minorities. And for all that trotting out slash is the go-to gimmick when entertainment reporters want to discomfit their celebrity guests, slash fanfiction is very often smart, subversive, and transformative. At the very least it is one of the most interesting kinds of online writing in existence.
Sherlockians essentially took to the Tumblr streets in rage. Slashfic writer Wendy Fries unmasked herself in a passionate declaration of pride in her work:
I’m tired of people shaming us for what we write and I’m tired of us acting as if we have to hide. I know some of us do—just as some actors and others feel they must hide being gay.
But those of us that don’t have to do that? I think it’d be awfully nice if we just came the fuck out, if we’d stand tall and represent for everyone else because we can.
As for mildredandbobbin, the author of the now-famous fanfic, she was mortified. As condolences and support from horrified fans poured in, mildredandbobbin reacted in a heartfelt post on her Tumblr. “I hope Caitlin Moran understands that she was hurtful and unprofessional, that in fact she used her position of privilege to belittle and humiliate,” she wrote. “[T]he one bit of contact I have with them, and it’s about humiliation and mockery.” She also deleted her fanart Tumblr out of fear that it would be more widely seen.
Mildredandbobbin told the Daily Dot via Tumblr that she was “appalled” that Moran had used her work “for cheap laughs.”
It was a highly inappropriate thing to do to them, it was extremely hurtful to me and it was terrifying for a lot of other writers in fandom to think it could have been their work being paraded around for ridicule and criticism. Fandom is supposed to be a safe space for women and we would appreciate it if journalists could respect the fourth wall and stop using our work to get a laugh during interviews.
She added that she’d been “absolutely blown away by the amazing outpouring of love and support from fandom.”
Some Sherlockians couldn’t help notice the silence from on high following the uproar. “[I]’m starting to come down from the ‘what the fuck did caitlin moran do??’ high and hitting the ‘why are the BBC and the Sherlock crew not saying anything about it?’ rock bottom,” blogged a morose johnwatso on Tumblr. “[W]hy don’t they care almost the whole fandom is upset? [H]ow am I supposed to believe they care about us outside of consumer capacity?”
As rumors flew that the BBC was furiously attempting to wipe all footage of the incident, london-reviews concluded the proof would be found in the BBC’s future responses to Moran: “Caitlin Moran has essentially uninvited herself to any Sherlock events again."
That might not be enough to mend the wounds of hurt Sherlock fans. But hopefully, when series 3 finally airs, it will appease them in the best way possible: By giving them a wealth of new material to write slashfic about.
Photo by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw