Sherlock Holmes is an enigma. In the BBC version he is a genius, a brother, a friend, sexually ambiguous, and above all an anti hero. His popularity, which cannot be separated from the fact that he is played by the delightfully charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch, is surprising if only because it heralds a new kind of accepted masculinity.
In popular culture, especially in tv and film, the male protagonist is closely tied to traditional masculine traits like strength, sexual prowess, intelligence, and wealth, among others. He is very confident in his social role as the sexually aggressive social butterfly. His masculinity depends on his ability to attract members of the opposite sex while being surrounded by other males who covet his skillfull mastery of the social domain.
BBC’s Sherlock goes against many of these established tropes of masculinity to create a new more complicated masculinity. Sherlock is smart but his genius, while helpful in solving crime, is actually a hindrance to him in the real world. It isolates him from other people, making him an outcast. He is rich but he rarely uses this to get an upper hand on anyone. He is physically strong but his biggest strength comes from using his mind for deduction, thus signalling the power of the brain over brawn.
The treatment of his sexuality has been one of the most interesting parts of the show. He is by all accounts sexually ambiguous. He never says whether he prefers men or women and the two times we do see him getting involved with women are extraordinary situations. In the case of Irene Adler, one could make the argument that he is attracted to her power and intelligence and not in a sexual way. Conversely with Janine, he uses his sexuality only as a tool to solve a case; it is clear he never had any sexual feelings towards her. In fact, besides John Watson, Molly Hooper, and Mrs. Hudson he doesn’t much care for people in general. He is not a social butterfly, instead treating people as a liability.
His strong relationship with John, which has sparked the debate of are they or aren’t they, is one of the most interesting elements in establishing this new masculinity. Traditional masculinity in pop culture revolves around groups of men banding together to share tips on how to pick up women. Their friendships are superficial at best centering around sports, activities, and women, certainly not feelings. Sherlock and John’s relationship is deep to the point where they are both willing to kill for each other. Sherlock’s love (platonic or otherwise) for John pushes him out of his comfort zone to develop closer bonds with people, to care about them, and to risk himself for them.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s anti hero is a step in the right direction for depictions of masculinity in popular culture. Sherlock eschews the constraints of an aggressive, hypersexualized male creating a nuanced, layered man. And at the end of the day that’s a win for everyone.