“People Might Talk”: Queerbaiting and Fan Culture in the BBC’s Sherlock

The fan culture that proliferates around the BBC’s Sherlock’s demonstrates unprecedented fan involvement in the Internet era, but it is far from new. Since the Sherlock Holmes canon’s inception in the late nineteenth century, its fans have participated in “The Sherlockian Game”—an ongoing attempt to resolve the inconsistencies within Arthur Conan Doyle’s original texts through the pretense that the characters are real individuals. For instance, Frank Sidgwick’s 1902 essay from the Cambridge Review appears as an open letter addressed to “Dear Dr. Watson.” In this essay, Sidgwick refers to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as Watson’s story and accuses him with “charges of inconsistency” (Sidgwick). Although some contemporary Sherlock fan clubs, such as the Baker Street Irregulars and the Speckled Band, scrutinize the texts and their adaptations like Sidgwick, other fans have adopted different values. Two particular elements that motivate the alternative fan reactions towards the BBC’s Sherlock include the show’s metafictional references to its fans and the queerbaiting phenomenon.

Queerbaiting in Sherlock creates a discrepancy that occurs when the show’s writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, dismiss the potential for queer relationships while simultaneously permeating the series with metafictional references to homoeroticism. Examples of queerbaiting include affectionate moments of physical contact between Sherlock and Watson:

Figure 1. Watson puts his hand on Sherlock’s knee in a drunken moment.

Jacquelyn. “In Which I Review Sherlock (3x2).” The (TV) Revolution Will Be Analyzed, Blogger, 6 Jan. 2016, http://punkbunny87.blogspot.ca/2014/01/in-which-i-review-sherlock-3x2.html

Figure 2. Sherlock and Watson hold hands.

Me, Mary. “Finally: The Sherlock/John Picture Thread.” BBC Sherlock Fan Forum, Boardhost, 4 Jun. 2014, http://sherlock.boardhost.com/viewtopic.php?id=3180&p=7.

This contradiction leaves fans who desire the explicit acknowledgement of queer relationships unfulfilled, leading them to compile video evidence or “clues” for queer subtext in Sherlock as a contemporary form of the Sherlockian Game. This act of gathering evidence resembles the original Sherlockian Game, in which fans examined the intricate details of Conan Doyle’s texts for inconsistencies. However, the main difference between the original Sherlockians and the contemporary ones is that the former rank the adaptations along a hierarchy of fidelity, valuing Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” while the latter prioritize imagination over a strict adherence to the original stories. Ashley Polasek refers to the original Sherlockian Game as the fans’ formation of “pseudo-scholarship,” noting that “The Game is the cornerstone of these essays, and manifests itself as aficionados, familiar with the Canon down to the last detail, seek to generate a single cohesive narrative that slots flawlessly into historical reality” (44). In their attempts to historicize the Sherlock Holmes tales, Sherlockians imagined an idealized “aura” that is unblemished with inconsistency and is entirely based on a Victorian reality. However, current Sherlock fans instead seek to rewrite the original stories to validate queerness in the heteronormative realms of popular television and literature that perpetually deny the potential for queer relationships.

The BBC’s Sherlock is a text that has sparked debates surrounding queerbaiting because of its relatively unique status as a metafictional work that includes references to its fandoms. Besides John Watson’s constant refrain of “people might talk,” which implies a self-conscious awareness of an audience, Sherlock’s writers actually insert characters into the series that represent its two main fan cultures: the contemporary Internet-based Sherlockian fans who produce fanart and fanfiction that fetishizes homoeroticism and the fandom that mimics the Sherlockian Game’s traditional ideals of accuracy over imagination. In “The Empty Hearse,” contemporary fangirl character, Laura, and the more traditional fan, Anderson, discuss their differing theories on how Sherlock fakes his death. In Laura’s proposed scenario, she imagines Moriarty and Sherlock sharing a kiss.

Figure 3. Laura, the contemporary Sherlock fangirl character archetype.

“Holmes Alive Explanation.” Sherlock: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Expect to See in Episode One of the Third Season, News18, 5 Jan. 2014, http://www.news18.com/news/india/sherlock-10-things-you-probably-didnt-expect-to-see-in-episode-one-of-the-third-season-659958.html

Figure 4. Moriarty and Sherlock lock lips in Laura’s imagination.

“Sherlock Moriarty Kiss.” Sherlock: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Expect to See in Episode One of the Third Season, News18, 5 Jan. 2014, http://www.news18.com/news/india/sherlock-10-things-you-probably-didnt-expect-to-see-in-episode-one-of-the-third-season-659958.html

Anderson shuts down Laura’s idea with charges of implausibility while she attempts to defend her invocation of queerness. This exchange mimics the conflict between Sherlockians who are, like Anderson, invested in accuracy and the contemporary fans who, like Laura, abandon authenticity for imaginative homoeroticism. Anderson’s denial of the possibility of queerness metafictionally illustrates the queerbaiting scenario. The interaction between these two archetypical fan characters exposes how Sherlock teases its fans with the fetishized fantasy of queerness while simultaneously denouncing homoerotic possibilities. These metafictional references to Sherlockians along with the queer subtext in the series suggest that the show itself partakes in the queerbaiting phenomenon. Contemporary pedagogy can critically examine adaptations like the BBC’s Sherlock for fan culture references and queerbaiting to create the space for queer representation within remakes across multiple media forms, such as literature, “pseudo-scholarship,” and popular television.

Works Cited

“Baker Street Irregulars (Organization: U.S.) Archive, 1923-2007.” Houghton Library. Harvard University, 8 June 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Selected Writings, vols. 1-3. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996-2002. Print.

Lellenberg. “Disputation, Confrontation, and Dialectical Hullabaloo.” BSI Archival History. Baker Street Irregulars, 8 Sept. 2010. Web.

Moffat, Steven, and Mark Gatiss. “The Empty Hearse.” Sherlock. BBC One. United Kingdom, 1 January 2014. Television.

Polasek, Ashley D. “Winning ‘The Grand Game’: Sherlock and the Fragmentation of Fan Discourse.” Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Ed. Louisa E. Stein and Kristina Busse. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 41-55. Print.

Sidgwick, Frank. “Frank Sidgwick’s 1902 Essay.” BSI Archival History. Baker Street Irregulars, 23 Jan. 1902. Web.


My favorite black hole of the internet, is where you find the different names that fans have created for these type of relationships. For example, JohnLock or Wincest. Fans create these "ships" (or relationships), and will defend it at all means, they may even go down with their ship. So I find it totally believable that there are fans who will continue to read into the subtext of the show, even when told by many that it is not possible. I do find it interesting that the creator of Sherlock are toying with their emotions, could it be their way for engaging their audience and forcing them to come back for more?

I wouldn't say they are "forcing" them; fans will sometimes abandon a disappointing text for their own imaginings. But yes, it definitely makes it more appealing. I find it to be clever. 

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