Johnlock meta and authorial intent in Sherlock fandom: Affirmational or transformational?

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Academic Commentary
Title: Johnlock meta and authorial intent in Sherlock fandom: Affirmational or transformational?
Commentator: Melissa A. Hofmann
Date(s): September 14, 2018
Medium: online
Fandom: BBC Sherlock
External Links: TWC Article
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Johnlock meta and authorial intent in Sherlock fandom: Affirmational or transformational? is a 2018 academic article written by Melissa A. Hofmann. It was published in Transformative Works and Cultures No. 28: The Future of Fandom, which was edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse and marked the ten-year anniversary of Transformative Works and Cultures.

I explore the educational and legitimizing functions of Johnlock meta—the interpretation of a romantic relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—in the BBC Sherlock (2010–) fandom. As a disputed queer reading of an open text, Johnlock meta has provided new, enriched, and repeated textual evidence for Sherlock and John's relationship, reinforcing it in the face of doubt caused by others' denials of Sherlock's queerness. Meta has thus served as a form of social activism by both attempting to establish the queer reading as the preferred (but secret) reading intended by the showrunners and by resisting the showrunners' extratextual heteronormative platonic stance on Sherlock and John's relationship. This contradiction of authorial intent/nonintent highlights the tension in the Johnlock (and academic) interpretative communities of where meaning lies between the author, the text, and the reader. Johnlock meta also challenges the binaries of the affirmational/transformational fan—those who are bounded by the text versus those who transform it. Queer interpretations of Sherlock have become particularly important in the wake of Sherlock series 4 (January 2017), as such interpretations have been used as evidence both for and against accusations that the show has queerbaited its audience.

- Abstract of "Johnlock meta and authorial intent in Sherlock fandom: Affirmational or transformational?"[1]

Some Topics Discussed


What I would argue is new—or at least more prominent—is fans' awareness of meta as a distinct, named genre, with conventions both similar to academic textual analysis (the need to provide evidence and sources, in-group language, and stylistic rhetoric and norms) and different (informal language, heavily multimedia-based posts, high interactivity and communality, and postpublication peer review). Authors on Tumblr consciously tag their posts as "meta" (as opposed to the untagged interpretative posts on, differentiating these posts from others tagged as "headcanon," "speculation," or "crack"; and fans submit their analyses to blogs devoted to meta, such as The Fan Meta Reader ( Meta's self-conscious visibility and fans' deliberate participation in critical dialogues with not only other fans but also with industry professionals warrants a closer look at the meta practices of specific fandoms. Further, I believe meta merits more attention for its creative and imaginative aspects, and deserves to be examined along with its fan fic and fan art kin for its subversive and transformative potential. BBC Sherlock meta is fruitful ground for exploration of this kind because the seeming disconnect between textual evidence for a Sherlock and John romance and stated authorial intent has produced a large body of analyses that both employ and reject authorial intent in the attempt to make meaning. What happens when the insight and creativity of the narratives generated by fans' meta outshines the actual canon in fans' eyes, and how is this engagement different than with fan fiction? When does meta go from being primarily analytic to creative, and how much is this influenced by professed showrunner (non)intent? The fact that fans want Johnlock meta to be seen as analytic, not creative, work—while either dismissing authorial intent in favor of the text itself or upholding it as harmonious with the text—is another example of Judith May Fathallah's "legitimization paradox," by which "legitimization and reevaluation of the Other—be it racial, sexual, or gendered—is enabled and enacted through the cultural capital of the White male" and "fan's writing is legitimated by the TV-auteur…Derivative writing that changes popular culture is legitimated and empowered—because and so far as the author says so" (2017, 9–10). While Fathallah applies this concept to fan fiction, she asks what other fan texts might "negotiate their reference to an authorized predecessor, and the points where, through deconstruction of that concept, they might compromise the paradox" (14). Johnlock meta, with its queer readings in spite of and/or because of the white male showrunners, exemplifies the tensions in this paradox and may challenge it to the degree to which meta is viewed as either challenging or affirming the author and source text.[2]

Fans' appeals to the evidence of the text and its paratexts in favor of Johnlock, in contrast to the writer-producers' denials, has led them to create copious amounts of multimedia textual analysis and for some to use these analyses to support their claim that the show has queerbaited its audience; that is, teased its viewers with a same-sex relationship it never intended to actualize (Anselmo 2018, Brennan 2016; Collier 2015; Fathallah 2015; Mueller 2015; Ng 2017; Nordin 2015). Charges of queerbaiting serve both to grant interpretive authority to fans and to hold the authors accountable for an explanation of intent. Not all Johnlockers agree with the accusation of queerbaiting, however. Some appreciate the continued ambiguity and queerness of the show, which may or may not have ended with series 4, which aired in January 2017, but whose final montage effectively functions as a narrative coda for the series. These fans believe such accusations are premature, since there is talk of a fifth series, and/or believe that the show is queer in that it challenges traditional expectations of romance, relationships, identity politics—and even narrative—serving as a metacommentary on Sherlock Holmes adaptations. A subset of fans continue to believe that the creators still intend for canon Johnlock to occur, that series 4 is fake or deliberately bad and thus should not be read on a surface level, and that new content is forthcoming. Others disagree with the direct "fan-tagonistic" approach (Johnson 2007), accusing any of the show's vocal critics of "fan entitlement," "hate," or harassment of the creators whose creative autonomy should be respected, and of sowing discord within the fandom itself (Romano 2016). So, depending on the fan and the meta, the author is either dead, vilified, or deified—or sometimes, paradoxically, a combination of these.

While many Johnlock fans would love to be declared the winners in this perceived interpretive game with—or war against—Moffat and Gatiss (and other fans), there is more at stake here than merely being right or wrong. Beyond the coveted prize of explicit and positive LGBTQ+ representation and the desire for a satisfying narrative are the spoils of legitimacy, of the acknowledgment—both by the showrunners and the general audience—of the possibility of being right, of presenting a valid reading. Armed with meta, Johnlock fans dispute caricatures of themselves as delusional fetishists co-opting gay relationships for their own desires or as ideologically driven social justice warriors demanding media representation, oppose extratextual authorial erasure of what is queer in the text, and contest the relegation of queer readings to fan fiction and fan spaces, vying for a share of authority in the arena of participatory interpretation.[3]

In resisting heteronormative narratives for Sherlock and John and illuminating the same-sex romance suggested by the text, the largely young, female, queer, and neurodivergent composition of the Johnlock community (Anselmo 2018) is simultaneously asserting its power of (sub)cultural creation and semiotic decoding and declaring the legitimacy of its subordinate identities and interpretive strategies. For those Johnlock fans who believe their interpretation aligns with that of Moffat and Gatiss despite the creators' public repudiation of a romantic reading, the pleasure comes from claiming producerly authority, as many posts on TJLCer's blogs can attest to, with their exclamations of delight in authoring meta that solves the mystery of the show's intent and reveals the writers' consummate cleverness.[4]

While Johnlock fans have varied in their degree of (non)identification with TJLC—either because of the divisive and reductive essentialist discourse and evangelistic speculation practiced by several of its vocal proponents that worked to suppress dissent over the diversity of queerness, and/or because of a lack of faith in Mofftiss and knowledge of industry conventions and restraints that might limit an explicit gay relationship—the belief in, or at least the desire for, Johnlock as narrative endgame has driven the majority of meta written by the fandom (note 12). TJLC meta has been advocating for and reaffirming the endgame point of view, which argues that the show's culmination in Johnlock is the only way in which the plot and character arcs make any narrative sense. Thus, close reading turned into a vocal predictive stance of where the show was going and, for some, where it needed to go, with such fans claiming not only authorial insight but prerogative: the text demands Johnlock.[5]

I propose that Johnlock meta functions in four non–mutually exclusive ways: revelation, elucidation, validation, and speculation. Revelatory meta exposes some hidden meaning or theme; elucidative meta clarifies or expands upon an already existing interpretation; validating meta reinforces another's reading with additional evidence or legitimizes the lens; and speculative meta makes narrative predictions. Meta takes as evidence various textual elements, such as characterization, cinematography, dialogue, mise-en-scène, music, narrative arcs, plot developments, acting choices, intertextuality, and script directives. As I will discuss further below, Johnlock meta also attempts to preserve the coherence of the fictional universe by attempting to reconcile the source text and its paratexts by either killing off or deifying the author, thereby providing fans with ontological and epistemological security in their reading of the show (figure 1). I consider meta broadly, including under the definition not only more traditional long-form text and/or multimedia analyses (text plus images/video/audio) but also shorter meme-like posts, from witty paraphrased snippets of dialogue that translate the connotations of the scene into denotation to photo sets and GIF sets (grouped still or animated screenshots, often with brief captions, with quotes from the text and its intertexts or paratexts). While these latter types of posts are usually not tagged as "meta" by their creators, they function as such, providing revelation, elucidation, and validation, even when fully multimediated with no explanatory text. Photo and GIF sets are visual shorthand, conveying richly layered meaning at a glance, immediately revealing dominant themes and parallel scenes, at least for those familiar enough with the canon and its referents to recognize and place them. For the initiated, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. (While fan videos can be similar to photo and GIF sets in this respect, the added level of creativity of many fan vids makes a discussion of them outside the scope of this current essay, as do certain photo and GIF sets) (note 13).[6]

Meta, rife with examples from the text, is the vehicle toward this objectivity, but fans' ontological security requires validation beyond the level of the text to that of the producers, who have consistently withheld such validation. While Moffat and Gatiss encourage fans to "have a great time extrapolating" Johnlock in fan fiction and on websites—that is, separate from the canon of the show—they deny it in their narrative: "There's nothing there" (Parker 2016). What fans object to, and what meta refutes, is the idea that Johnlock is a "meta-text"—"a tertiary, fan-made construction—a projection of the text's potential future, based on specific fan desires and interests" instead of being actual text or subtext (Johnson 2007, 286; Jenkins 1992). In other words, meta asserts that fans are not imagining a romantic relationship between Sherlock and John because they merely want to see it; they see it because it exists in the text. Or to put in another way, fans want to be seen as affirmational fans, bounded by and exploring the text as given by the author, instead of transformational, seen as manipulating the text to their own ends (Polasek 2012; obsession_inc 2009). In this way, meta wants to be seen ultimately as analytic, not creative, work, divining and championing textual, if not authorial, meaning. While meta writers' explanations and speculation for Johnlock might creatively differ, they are all anchored in the text, which they offer as ultimate evidence. Thus, the rhetorical move of TJLCers to make Johnlock an officially endorsed conspiracy is another method to control fan's ontological insecurity, as it gives the authors refuting their own text a logic and a purpose.[7]

The creative team's continual engagement with Johnlock, whether by design or out of necessity, demonstrates the power of an interpretation fully rooted in the text; one, I argue, that is stronger than a similar argument explored through fan fiction, which creators can more easily sequester as mere fiction not worthy of serious discussion. Depending on one's point of view as to authorial intent, Moffat and Gatiss's refusal to discuss fan meta is either part of the conspiracy to protect plot points for series 5 or is an attempt to hold on to their exclusive rights as author. Either way, by dismissing evidence as jokes and insights as imaginings, the showrunners' denials have the effect of limiting or negatively shaping Johnlock meta's paratextual power.[8]

In the wake of series 4, meta continues to assert the queer content of Sherlock, but to opposite ends, depending on how fans view the reliability and finality of the narrative and the intent of Moffat and Gatiss. Meta either provides support for fan accusations of queerbaiting, refuting Johnlock denials by extratextual authorial statements and new canon with evidence from new and old text, or it offers a strong rebuttal to those accusations by outlining how the text—and thus the showrunners—set up a Johnlock resolution for a possible series 5. Meta both aggravates and assuages the uncertain limbo with Sherlock. For the queerbaiting contingency, the amount of queer text and subtext in support of their claim both angers and legitimizes them; for the enduring TJLCers, the evidence in favor of their reading underscores not only their confidence in themselves but in the authors.

The accusations of queerbaiting that had largely died (or been tamped) down with the advent of TJLC ignited again immediately after the airing of 4.3 "The Final Problem" (TFP), the last episode of series 4. Fans who were hoping for explicit canon Johnlock, such as a love declaration or a kiss, were frustrated by the continued use of ambiguity and subtext, as well as the foregrounding of heterosexuality, such as dead Mary Watson triangulating and then narrating Sherlock and John's relationship, while pronouncing "if I'm gone, I know what you could become"; Sherlock's pronouncing "I love you" not to John but to Molly, who has been in unrequited love with him; and callbacks to the lesbian Irene Adler, with whom John thinks Sherlock should pursue a relationship. While technically the ending is left open to interpretation and thus does not foreclose Johnlock, especially as there is the possibility of a fifth series, viewers perceive a shift in tone and a sense of finality of character arcs that suggest the evolution of Sherlock and John's relationship is done. These fans have cried queerbaiting for reasons of narrative disappointment as well as for lack of positive and explicit LGBTQ+ representation, complaining also about the queer-coded villains.[9]

Fan Discussion & Reactions

Hofmann shared the article on Tumblr, where many fans reacted positively to the article's treatment of TJLC.

An excellently written, well-referenced and fair piece of work. The best exposition I have seen.[10]

Some fans offered an additional points of critical engagement with the article:

Very interesting article about authorial intent and the history of meta writing in the BBC Sherlock/johnlock fandom.

One aspect I missed in this analysis, however (if I may be so bold), is how the BBC Sherlock’s writers’ own rather limited set of ideas and jokes, which they reused again and again in slightly different variations throughout the series, was what seemed to imply intent where there was none. For instance, certain phrases or plotlines that were similar to those used earlier (both by themselves and by others, like in tPLoSH), and that therefore seemed to be subtextual mirrors with hidden meanings, did not actually mean there was a secret link, as the observant fans thought: it was just lazy writing.

So, in my view, Mofftiss’s lack of creativity is the core of the problem here: since they tricked us into thinking they were clever, we thought that all the parallels and mirrors and apparent foreshadowing meant something, that their repeated gay references meant something, when really they didn’t.

This became especially obvious when fans realised that the plot of TFP was just a combination of several existing horror movies.

Mofftiss probably (possibly) aren’t even aware that they’re continuously rehashing old stuff like that.

I personally think that’s where the core of this whole misunderstanding lies.[11]

This makes me wonder how important abstract symbols and references vs. acting, plot and actions of characters were for people’s belief in a Johnlock endgame.

While I’m a Johnlocker, I never believed in tjlc. There were several reasons for me not to. However, one aspect of tjlc that did not appeal to me was that it seemed very focused on finding cues in the style of the text, instead of focusing on plot and characterisation.

For me, it has always been important that John and Sherlock’s love for each other is apparent in the characters’ interactions. What they do for each other, how they look at each other, how they communicate with each other, and so on. In contrast, abstract subtextual hints were never important for me. I first and foremost need to be able to feel and experience Sherlock and John’s connectedness. Not analyze their connectedness. Without the “feeling” the appeal is gone for me.[12]

Fans also specifically situated this article within the context of a larger, ongoing conversation[13] about the portrayal of TJLC and fan activity in general within academic writing, citing Hofman's writing and methodology as a positive illustration of how to research fandom:

As someone aspiring to be in academia, I have to say that I love this. I think meta writing/reading is amazing. It is basically taking everyday things and looking at them from an academic point of view. It encourages methodological analyses of one’s world. It should be commended.

I cannot for the life of me think of a single valid reason to put down anyone for wanting to think about things in an intelligent and diligent manner. It makes me very upset and angry when people put down meta writers/readers.

The thing is academicians also study not-classically-academic things. Linguists dissect newspapers. Sociologists look into celebrity culture. Psychologists analyze tweets. How is writing meta so different from literary analysis?

Mainstream might not stand behind the intelligent, inquisitive and inspiring people who write and read meta BUT people in academia should.



  1. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28. Accessed on September 24, 2018.
  2. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  3. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  4. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  5. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  6. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  7. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  8. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  9. ^ Hofmann, Melissa A. 2018. "Johnlock Meta and Authorial Intent in Sherlock Fandom: Affirmational or Transformational?" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.
  10. ^ Comment by artemisastarte on myladylyssa's Tumblr post (September 15, 2018). Original post is viewable only by logged-in users with safe mode off.
  11. ^ Tumblr post by prettyrealisticjohnlockfanart. Posted on September 16, 2018. Accessed on September 22, 2018.
  12. ^ Tumblr post by adetectiveandadoctor. Posted on September 16, 2018. Accessed on September 24, 2018.
  13. ^ One recent antecedent: the extensive discussion surrounding The JohnLock Conspiracy, fandom eschatology, and longing to belong, published in the previous issue of Transformative Works and Cultures. Similar conversations surrounded the Decoder Ring episode on TJLC, which was also published in June 2018.
  14. ^ Tumblr post by not-all-those-who-wonder-r-lost. Posted on September 17, 2018. Accessed on September 24, 2018.