The slash is not the putrefaction

The Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie, I’d heard reported, is full of slash. Then I’d heard panicked retractions that it wasn’t. Then I heard bloggers say, "Oh, it is." Then I heard other bloggers say, sometimes testily, "No, it isn’t." I’d seen the trailers, and there’s enough in those teasers to promise some decent undertones, which was what made me so determined to get to the theater. I’d hoped for a slash gold mine, but I got something else, too.

Yes, there is slash in Sherlock Holmes. There are buckets and buckets if you want to look for it. Yes, you can read very easily another layer to the story, where the men get engaged to or flirt with women like beards they need to don while always being loyal to each other. You can read Watson’s impending marriage and departure (which of course never quite manages to happen) as his need to be socially acceptable, and Holmes’s chaotic lifestyle as the homosexual playground Watson secretly longs to return to, no matter how exhausting and difficult it can be. Yes, you can read all of that in without much work and have yourself a Slash Field Day.

But what there also is in this film is something deeper, more intricate, and far more beautiful than simple slash, fun as that is, and now that I’ve seen it, when I hear that the studio is backpedaling and freaking out over all the slash hints, I’m disappointed. Because what this movie is even more than the slash is the beautiful portrayal of a deep, affectionate partnership: without sex. Whether or not you want to imagine them having sex offscreen is not the point. These to men are partners to the core, working together in a synchrony few of us can know or understand. They know each other’s minds, they know each other’s weaknesses and strengths, and they accept them all because they are part of the partner. You can read the slash there because usually only in such parings do you get to see this kind of union, at least in men. I don’t think it used to be this way, but it certainly is now. If two men are emotionally intimate in any way, eyebrows rise. The only exception to this is if they are soldiers, but if they’re contemporary at all they must be emotionally constipated, holding their breath and clutching awkwardly at shoulders as they declare their love. 

What does it say about a society whose males have become so stiff they cannot bend to one another in affection, sexual or otherwise? Why is male sexuality a threat? More importantly, why is male intimacy a threat? Ritchie has given us a story of two men who love one another deeply, who are strong and blisteringly intelligent and beautifully fallible and above all are one of the best on-screen couples I’ve seen in awhile. The relationship between Holmes and Watson reminds me that true love is not about sex, that it can happen between men and women and women and women and men and men and any combination of any orientation. There is nothing to backpedal about here and nothing to deny.

Where our concern should be instead is in the putrefaction of a society so afraid of its males it cannot stand them. What we should fear is a decay of a society which cannot allow males to love, which cannot let strength blend with weakness, which cannot let men blossom and bloom and shift and expand into whatever it is they need and want to be. Holmes and Watson are men. They are strong, they are sharp, they are grace and wit and fire. They may or may not be sleeping with one another, too. But they are better models for all of us than the cardboard offerings of masculinity Hollywood pumps out for us, safe and sanitized from any emotion except for when their plastic girlfriends die and need avenging. 

There is nothing rotten about Holmes and Watson’s relationship, and there is nothing constipated, either. Go and see it at once, with or without your slash goggles. You’ll be in love with a charming couple no matter how you want to view them.

15 Comments on “The slash is not the putrefaction

  1. The trouble is that the free and unashamed affection they have for one another – which I agree is lovely, and not dependent on them being lovers – arises out of a society where that free and unashamed affection is only available between men. Where men can only be at their most real and most human with other men, because women are for sex and marriage and babies, but not for friendship or equality or anything to do with personalities. The passionate friendship Holmes and Watson share is an offshoot of a society that doesn’t consider women fully human.
    Maybe we have to pass through a stage of realizing that this passionate affection is what sexual love should look like before we can extrapolate from that to the realisation that this – this intense friendship and liking for one another – is what ought to be possible between men and women who are lovers, as well as between men and men or women and women.

    • While I understand the point you’re making (which is valid as it applies to the period piece that is Sherlock Holmes), I would argue that what you witness in the movie is more the exception to the rule nowadays. How many men are comfortable showing non-sexual affection toward their close male friends? How many men simply do not even so much as hug each other upon meeting or departing because the social rules of our day do not allow it? And why do those that do insist on participating in the ridiculous “gay panic” that is seen in so many Judd Apatow movies? These are the questions I’d like to see answered.
      It’s been my experience that most married men have exactly one close friend: their wife. Thankfully the rules have changed and we no longer look upon our wives as property or vessels for children. But I think that in our zeal to rightfully rebalance the scales when it comes to gender relations, we’ve lost sight of the value that same-gender friendships can provide.
      I saw Sherlock Holmes with Heidi, and yeah, the slash was pretty thick, but I live with her. I give her grief that she is to slash as the little kid in The Sixth Sense was to dead people. But I also noticed that intense closeness between Holmes & Watson that could have been sexual but most likely wasn’t. Most men should take a lesson from that and unbunge just a little bit and dare to show some of that free and unashamed affection in 2010.

      • Yes, I agree with you that in our modern society men are not allowed to express themselves as openly emotionally, and particularly not towards their male friends. I suppose what I was trying to say was that this might not be a case of putrefaction, so much as a transitory phase which was necessary to allow society as a whole to realize that men could find friendship with women. Once that’s firmly established, maybe they’ll realize they don’t need to be ashamed about being the friends or lovers of other men either. I suppose I see it as a transition period which is necessary to teach society something good, rather than a decline.
        And really it hasn’t been that long since The Professionals were on TV and any number of buddy movies were on at the cinema, where the relationship between the men was infinitely more important than their relationships with women. The mere fact that people are beginning to read such close friendships as having something potentially sexual about them shows that our understanding of what constitutes a good sexual relationship has improved.
        Now all we have to achieve is to eliminate the gay panic by making the men go “so what?” if it’s suggested that this friendship might be sexual. I don’t think it ought to really matter if it’s friendship with sex or friendship without, except to the two people involved and their friends or spouses, of course.

        • What I find so curious is just what you say: that this is NOT the first contemporary showing of intense buddy-buddy. I suspect it comes from the trailers, which do seem to be broadcasting SLASH HERE, COME & GET IT. I’m starting to think that the mucky-mucks didn’t realize this was happening until too late.
          It reminds me of the difference between Georgian England and Regency and Victorian and then Edwardian. Logic seems to dictate that the older time period would be the more stuffy, when in fact it is exactly the opposite. I overstate the point, because of course it’s more complicated, but I do think there’s a a truth to that prudery can run backwards. An unmarried genteel woman could run much more freely in earlier times than in later. Male friendships could be more open easier than later. It’s not that cut and dried in either case, but I will argue there’s a thread there. And now that I’ve said all this, I’ve lost something of my own point. Hmm.
          Well, perhaps I’ll turn this over to you and try again in the morning….

          • I do agree that prudery can run backwards, in that the Georgian period was much more uninhibited than the Victorian one, but I’m not sure that that’s what’s happening here. I think the difference is that our modern age is the first period in Western history that anyone could seriously raise the possibility that two men who were so close ought to be lovers.
            Straight men who don’t want to have that possibility raised will necessarily have to express friendship differently now in order to avoid giving the wrong signals to potentially gay friends. In the olden days, they didn’t have to worry about that, because those terrible homosexuals were safely locked away or hanged, so they could safely assume their friend was as straight as they were, and would not take a stray gesture of affection the wrong way.
            To a certain extent that’s why it’s necessary to have the two female characters in this film – they are there to establish that both Holmes and Watson are sexually interested in women, and therefore to reassure the general public that there’s nothing homoerotic going on.

  2. I’m looking forward to the movie. I’ve heard arguments on both sides, just like you. Mostly, I want to see it for the fun. ๐Ÿ˜€
    Also, I just redeemed my B&N Christmas gift cards for a bunch of books I’ve been wanting and got Hero! So excited! Except I was hoping to pick up SD at the same time and the site said it wasn’t available. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ
    Still… can’t wait for the UPS man. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Heidi, I love your blog, it’s always thought provoking. Plus, I always learn something. So, “slash” means male relationship. Huh. Thought it meant lots and lots of blood. Which meant I walked away from the movie last night thinking, eh, not so much, really. And the whole sexual relationship between the two? LOL, never saw it! I mean I got that Holmes didn’t want Watson to leave, but I did think it was a socially awkward thing on Holmes’s part. That he wasn’t able to make friends easily, so he wasn’t giving this one up. But, sexually? Nope, didn’t see it until I read your blog this morning. LOL. How Blonde am I!?
    Now, I just hope I don’t get into trouble with my nephews parents and step-parents for taking him to see it! Which is a sad commentary, but, oh, so true.
    And what Alex said was lovely. Truly lovely.

    • To chellewrites: I was really confused when I first read Heidi’s initial blog and thought….well, yeah, there was *some* blood but by no means would I ever consider this a slasher movie??!!! It wasn’t just you! But it’s good to know what “slash” means.
      I thought the movie was okay to good. I knew it wouldn’t happen but seriously wouldn’t have been surprised if Holmes and Watson had shared a quick kiss. The shy glances and double entendres could be interpreted either way…… but I’m sure my take on it stems from the M/M stories I read. Because usually I completely and totally miss any and all symbolism in moview as well as books……(can’t leaves dropping from trees simply mean that it’s Fall???) A kiss between the two would’ve been a nice touch, though. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Sherry F (from the Midwest)

  4. Excellent article on Sherlock Holmes. You are right, we shouldn’t be intimidated but a male/male friendship but you know what, as a straight female I always tend to enjoy slash ships. I like the non-slash one too. Example, I ship Harry/Ron from the Potter series but I do it because I think the male relationships are so much more sweeter and interesting than the female ones. However I do accept and love the relationship of two male friends without the sex and I loved this film. I agree Downey and Law had such amazing chemistry and played the friendship perfectly!!! I think that is why I couldn’t help but look more into it. But my idea was that there was no sexual relationship but Sherlock did have some feelings and Watson knew it but they never talked about it and never confessed or went there. I just see that tension on the surface. Sometimes its hotter that way anyway!

    • I saw the show again last night, and what I really love about it is how you can read whatever you want into it. No slash at all, or tons of overtones. Just a great show.
      Love your comment about the male relationships being sweeter & totally agree.

  5. I saw it just after Christmas and really enjoyed it; the relationship between Holmes and Watson was perfect, a true friendship with neither afraid or ashamed of expressing emotion. The characterisation reminded me a bit of the Hart/Roxburgh pairing in the Hound of the Baskervilles – again, the relationship was good; the characters were more equal than in earlier versions because Watson was portrayed as an intelligent man (as he was in Sherlock Holmes) so their friendship was more believable.
    Great post, Heidi!
    Merry =^..^=

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