I don’t know what the secret is, just that the fanbase happens to be very female. I don’t know why.
A lot of women like Sherlock, Steven Moffat tells us in his interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. And he has no idea why (or, he might, but he doesn’t want to get in trouble with all those crazy girls). The reporter has an answer along the lines of, well DUH Benedict Cumberbatch is pretty. And so, having determined within the space of a few lines that: girls like Sherlock, it’s a complete mystery why, except it’s not but girls are scary, and they like pretty men, Moffat and his interlocutor are free to move on to other, more important topics.
But my attention snags on “I don’t know why.”
Because… is this rocket science? Are women so unbelievably mysterious and incomprehensible that one simply cannot begin to fathom their strange little desires, leaving the bewildered observer with little recourse but to sweep the whole lot of them into a box labeled “boys are pretty,” to be shelved forever? Or, could we perhaps look at one of the many facets of the cut crystal light catcher that is female fandom and maybe come up with something a little less… simplistic?
Because of course it’s (partly) because men are pretty. Like it’s (apparently) partly because women are pretty that commercial after commercial after commercial for men’s aftershave and deodorant, beer, gum, whatever are wall-to-wall scantily clad girls writhing in soapsuds on one or another symbol of intensifying midlife crisis. And perhaps it’s because this satisfies men that men assume it’s the same for women – I don’t know.
What I do know is that media is chock full of pretty men. All kinds of pretty men. ALL the pretty men. And, funnily enough, I do not like ALL the media in which I find pretty men. I like some of it, but if the thing that brought women to Sherlock was only pretty men, you’d think we’d be fans of a whole lot more things.
And I can’t speak for all the women. We’re actually all pretty different, with our own idiosyncratic interests and preferences – who knew? But I can pull out one thing that seems, for at least some female fans of Sherlock, fairly consistent; namely, the Puppy Postulate, which basically goes like this: if, at any point in your show’s narrative, there comes a moment when a (female) viewer might conceivably think (or blurt out) “You poor puppy!” [or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby’ or even just ‘AWWWW’] there’s one of your hooks.
And it works for other shows, too.
If you can combine “aw, puppy” with an actual puppy
If you can make visual connection between the character and the puppy
If you can get puppy & puppy man & biceps into the same scene
THEN we’re in the realm of the very pretty man.
This also works for the (often, but not always, ostensible) bad guys.
Some of these aren’t even objectively pretty, ffs. Which is to say, they become pretty in part because you feel for them – there’s more there than just a cartoonish villain.
Which is what the Puppy Postulate is all about. Yes, on the surface it’s about men and their puppy moments, but what these moments overlay is hints of something more below – something softer and human and complex. And when the narrative of the stories mirrors this – when they’re as much about an emotional trajectory as something more plot-driven – this is when (some) women become fans. When the characters are multi-faceted – when it’s not all about being a poor puppy, but also, say, about being uniquely interesting in some way, maybe with a dark side (maybe mostly dark side) – then there’s even more incentive to become a fan. But it hinges on a range of things that go beyond “pretty men.” Which – not coincidentally – is why some fandoms flourish and some falter; if the material doesn’t hold up, all the puppies (and pretty men) in the world will not save you.
Yeah, it’s about the pretty, but for a far more complex understanding of ‘pretty’ than is often imagined by producers and the press alike. Apparently. I don’t know why.
*This has been an extended exercise in trying to get as many gifs of pathetic Sherlock and Will Graham into a single post as possible.