Softly, Softly: The BBC's LGB Research Commission and The Johnlock Conspiracy

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Title: Softly, Softly: The BBC's LGB Research Commission and The Johnlock Conspiracy
Creator: loudest-subtext-in-television
Date(s): June 9, 2014
Medium: online
Fandom: BBC Sherlock
Topic: The Johnlock Conspiracy
External Links: archive link
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Softly, Softly: The BBC's LGB Research Commission and The Johnlock Conspiracy is a meta essay by loudest-subtext-in-television, focusing on how the BBC's comissioned study of "the portrayal of LGB[note 1] people [in media]" supported The Johnlock Conspiracy (TJLC), given that it was led by some of the people prominently involved with Sherlock.[1] It heavily centers around a quote from Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss:

It never occurred to me that [the representation of gay characters] was too on the nose; what he did brilliantly was introduce incidentally gay characters—obviously as well as some more in-your-face ones.

One of my favourite stories is [the Doctor Who episode] Gridlock: there’s an elderly couple of ladies who are together, and it just sort of passes by, and that’s the way—softly, softly.[2]

The essay then uses that quote, in conjunction with copious quotation from the BBC's LGB portrayals study, to promote the idea that after the study was commissioned Sherlock was exactly what the BBC wanted in terms of a gay portrayal that wasn't stereotyped or otherwise harmful. This meta is one of the foundational pieces of TJLC, since loudest-subtext-in-television was a prolific Sherlock meta writer - and before the discovery of the BBC's report on portrayal of LGB people, TJLCers had very little ground to stand on with regard to whether or not the subtext in Sherlock was queerbaiting or slowburn.[3] With the discovery of the BBC's report, TJLCers gained a legitimacy and grounding that they didn't have before.

It also coined the usage of the phrase softly, softly to mean "the approach of slowly developing romance between same sex couples so that a) sexuality is an incidental trait of a character in an otherwise differently themed show, for example drama about a female lawyer who also happens to be a lesbian with a wife etc; b) it draws heterosexual people in by the virtue of them being hooked on the plot and drama of the show, and getting attached to the characters, so that when sexuality and same sex couples come into it they’ve been eased into the idea so slowly they accept them."[4]

Some Topics Discussed

  • The BBC's commissioned report on the portrayal of LGB people and how it shows that TJLC is "exactly what the BBC ordered."[5]
  • The BBC's status as a public broadcaster, meaning that they aren't beholden to advertisers and how this differs from the American public broadcasting institutions of PBS and NPR.
  • How Sherlock did not aim to attract an international audience and, therefore, was definitely going to make Johnlock canon.
  • Why the fact that the BBC's study saying they need to have more LGB content means Johnlock is endgame.
  • The BBC has dedicated itself to authentic LGB portrayals, so if TJLC is true, ipso facto the BBC are going to make Johnlock canon.
  • The fact that Mark Gatiss revealed a character as gay halfway through a novel so that it wouldn't be labelled as a "gay story."

Table of Contents

Reference: what the study evaluated, in its own words.

  1. The BBC is not funded like other broadcasters: it is not beholden to advertisers and thus can afford to have moral convictions and take risks. And it knows this.
  2. Specifically, the BBC does not directly aim to please an international audience, nor do Moffat and Gatiss.
  3. The BBC feels its Royal Charter not only requires that the BBC deliver LGB portrayals, but that the BBC celebrate them and work to fight homophobia.
  4. BBC research states that the majority of their audience is not only comfortable with LBG portrayal, but wants more and better LGB portrayals.
  5. The BBC was already perceived as fairly LGB-friendly even prior to 2009’s research commission.
  6. The BBC has officially dedicated itself to authentic LGB portrayals.
  7. The BBC has consciously chosen to portray LGB intimacy despite the reaction of uncomfortable heterosexuals. It intends to make comfortable those it can make comfortable, and acknowledges it cannot reach all of them.
  8. The BBC wants to air “landmark” or “watercooler” LGB content that becomes “culturally iconic.” They are pressed that Channel 4 is perceived as more LGB-friendly than the BBC, and they want to out-gay them.
  9. BBC LGB research indicates that in their dramas specifically, LGB “watercooler moments” must be given “sufficient depth and time to unfold.”
  10. The BBC understands that LGB people are sick of tragic endings.
  11. The BBC understands that “landmark content” entails visuals of LGB intimacy.
  12. BBC LGB research lead it to resolve not to queerbait before Sherlock was ever accused of queerbaiting.
  13. The BBC is not messing around. They are taking steps to ensure they are progressing in terms of their LGB content.
  14. The BBC has explicitly stated its intent to work with LGB writers to ensure authentic LGB portrayals.
  15. Mark Gatiss has stated that the BBC has never kept him from doing something he wants to do.
  16. In his novels, Gatiss revealed a protagonist to be queer halfway through the story just so it wouldn’t be labeled a “gay” story from the outset.[note 2]
  17. Gatiss and Moffat have stated they never disagree on Sherlock, and Moffat has written two other homosexual AU versions of Holmes and Watson.
  18. Ben Stephenson, the man who commissioned Sherlock, would absolutely have commissioned TJLC along with it. In fact, TJLC would have been a huge positive factor in his decision.

Conclusion

Postscript: What about transgender people?

Acknowledgments

Excerpts

If I could summarize the research in one sentence, it would be this: “We’re doing pretty gay, but we could do gayer.” In fact, it seems the BBC aims to be the gayest. But we’ll get there.
What this means in practice is that LGB people are split among those who are likely to perceive that the BBC cares about its LGB portrayals, and those who are likely to perceive the BBC doesn’t care about its LGB portrayals. Since this research group is clear evidence that the BBC cares about its LGB portrayals, those who have been skeptical may find it easier to take heart from here forward. I am not saying that anyone who has believed otherwise didn’t have good reasons to dislike certain portrayals, or that the BBC’s LGB portrayals have been above reproach. But I am saying that the perception of a sketchy portrayal here and there doesn’t translate to an overall homophobic attitude on the part of the BBC.
If Sherlock is what we TJLCers say it is, it fits the bill perfectly. Sherlock has all the following characters:
  • a genius consulting detective with very few gay mannerisms who’s still a virgin in his mid-30s, suffers from depression and a drug addiction, and is also quite possibly demisexual
  • a closeted bisexual army doctor with PTSD who exhibits zero gay mannerisms and is a romantic serial monogamist who’s going to come out late in life instead of going through an early bisexual “phase”
  • a criminal mastermind who’s camp in some ways but much more three-dimensional, and isn’t obviously gay despite a number of stereotypical hints (plenty of people still deny Moriarty is gay)
  • a brilliant Kinsey 3-5 dominatrix who can’t be confined to any one box (although she’ll gladly confine you however you’d like), isn’t the typical serial monogamist lesbian, and didn’t let her attraction to someone keep her from trying to fuck him over for her own benefit
  • an alcoholic lesbian we’ve yet to meet (Harry Watson) but will probably be very different from Irene;
  • incidental gay characters — some of whom exhibit some stereotypes because it’s okay to be that way (the gay couple in TGG) and some of whom don’t (the gay couple in THoB)
And we don’t even (yet?) know about characters like Mycroft, who may be asexual and aromantic, or straight, or gay, or bisexual, or whatever.
The report doesn’t outright state a battle plan. It only says the content will be presented to them, and that they’ve learned something about how to do that. Softly, softly perhaps? Uncomfortable heterosexuals grow to love a show and its characters, and then it turns out some of the characters are gay? Seems like a great way of changing people’s minds, really. The potential of TJLC to make people question the heteronormative mindset is something I talked about in that first Operation Johnlock post. That kind of strategy has probably occurred to any queer person who has thought seriously about television for a minute.
See? There is an upside to living in a world where people find a sexual relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson to be a challenging concept: the BBC would totally air that, for precisely that reason. In the interest of being helpful, I feel the BBC should also know it would be particularly challenging if John were wearing a soldier’s uniform and Sherlock were a bottom. It would really shatter stereotypes and make people think, thus fulfilling the BBC’s noble aim of educating the British citizenry. God save the Queen, or whatever.
Now let’s look at the context for the stereotypical traits, because this is where the marginalization of other LGB people crops up. For one, plenty of us know someone in real life who is more of a camp stereotype than Moriarty is, and we don’t find anything inherently wrong with someone being camp. To the contrary, it’s nice to see it celebrated and padded out with other traits. And while Jim-from-IT looks a bit twink-y, he doesn’t look that twink-y either; Molly and John believed Jim to be straight, and it’s plausible that they would. Even when you get into Sherlock’s deductions — hair product, visible underwear — Moriarty can hardly be called stereotypically gay. In fact, Jim-from-IT tracks VERY closely to one of my best friends in real life. (A funny side note: my friend’s name IS ACTUALLY JAMES and HE EVEN WORKS IN IT. He’s a ginger, though, and doesn’t go by Jim.) I go underwear shopping with him and he takes FOREVER picking out underwear precisely because he has to show it off at gay clubs. That’s an authentic part of gay culture in some parts of the world. Why should people like my friend not be represented? And like Jim from IT, my friend doesn’t read as obviously gay so he’s always lamenting all the things he has to do to seem gayer. He bought a shirt that says CATCHER on it because even at gay clubs, everyone assumes he’s a top when he’s not. And that’s the thing about stereotypes: almost every reasonable LGB person is willing to acknowledge that we purposely play up whatever stereotypes we personally possess when we want to tease out the sexuality of another person or clue to them that we may be interested. This is how LGB people have survived for centuries when we couldn’t just proclaim such things, and that’s still the case in many places. It’s disingenuous and revisionist to pretend otherwise, not to mention loathing of an entire culture and its history.
But as far as uncomfortable heterosexual people go, put yourself in the shoes of the BBC. This is what you know: you have to get them familiar with a show and its characters before letting them know the characters are LGB, because otherwise uncomfortable heterosexual people will not watch it; they are more comfortable with characters that conform to their preconceived notions of what LGB people are; and they do not understand a character is LGB without stereotypes. What is the only logical conclusion? You can’t portray an outright stereotypical character or it won’t be authentic, but you can ease people into it as best you can by including a stereotypical trait here and there. And thankfully, in so doing, you’ll actually be representing subsets of the LGB audience that share this trait or that trait with the character.

One final note on stereotypes: the fact that so many people still perceive these characters to be heterosexual is rather empirical proof that the writers do not go overboard or reduce any character down to an LGB stereotype. That goes a long way to explaining why the research shows the majority of LGB people have a high tolerance for some stereotyping: if you know what you’re doing, you can include rather a lot of stereotyping without being at all offensive to most LGB people.

Reception & Comments

Many proponents of TJLC cited this meta in particular in responses to Jay Pendragon's Sherlock Fandom Survey, saying that it was part of the reason they became a TJLCer,[6] but the Tumblr NSFW Content Purge means that many of the reblogs and comments on this piece of meta are lost. It was, however, widely linked in TJLC meta roundups, such as this one by inevitably-johnlocked and Jay Pendragon's Johnlock 101 – An Introduction to The Johnlock Conspiracy.

Not all comments about what this meta meant to fans have been lost, and this one by gloriascott93 is particularly interesting.

I see many comments in fandom that speak from an ahistorical position - that is, with no reference to the historic broadcasting & media context that a show like Sherlock sits inside. The history that people like Moffat, or indeed Martin Freeman, and especially Mark Gatiss have lived through. I, like they, can remember when there were indeed LGB characters and storylines but they were few and far between and relegated to post-watershed late night viewing on BBC 2, with few if any positive stories or heroes to speak of. When anything that seemed “queer” in popular culture was met with tabloid headlines screaming horrified reaction unless it was the unthreatening, weak kind of high camp of primetime “light family entertainment” of the likes of Larry Grayson. And keep in mind, there was no tumblr. No internet at all to come to. No place to find other perspectives beyond what you saw in your parents’ copy of the The Daily Mail. Talk about layered and confusing messages.

One would do well to keep in mind that there is a remit and a necessity to make programming that speaks to multigenerational audiences.

One of the frustrating aspects of the idea of “conspiracy” - a perhaps unfortunate choice of word, I fear, because it suggests malevolent concealment rather than wanting to allow a story to unfold and be told in its own good time. It also risks seeing a romantic relationship as the sole story being told. It risks reducing the characters to avatars. Sherlock as a flagship show on the BBC is designed to reach a broad audience, who represent competing perspectives.

The aspects of the report on stereotypes got me to thinking about Jim-from-IT. Moriarty says later he was “playing gay.” That speaks to an intentional playing with the concept of queer stereotypes themselves. Jim-from-IT is almost a commentary on stereotypes in himself… of their use and their limitations. They can hide the truth as much as they reveal.

If you want to get a glimpse of the cultural context the creators of this show grew up with, check out this 1997 documentary on camp in mainstream tv, The ‘Queens’ of Camp Comedy. When the creators have characters say “Larry Grayson” that is what they are referencing.

Now remember that Mr & Mrs Holmes had this conversation with their son, who’s response is to abruptly stand up, button his jacket and both physically and verbally interrupt his parent’s exchange and rushes them on to the end of their story.

The uttering of that one name speaks volumes as a highly coded and layered cultural reference point that any older viewer will instantly recognize. But it’s important to remember that how one receives that reference will vary.

Talk about overtly queer subtext. It’s a brilliant bit of writing.

ETA: Post-script content note — towards the end, the documentary features a short piece of footage of Kenny Everett in “black-face”.[7]

The reblogs on gloriascott93's version of the post show that the original post had nearly four thousand reblogs[7] which is a fairly significant number, given that the original essay is quite long and many Tumblr users don't reblog long posts for the sake of preventing their followers from having to scroll past them. Due to the nature of Tumblr, many of the reblogs don't provide much, if any, commentary but the general response to the meta was positive and enthusiastic.[8] At least one person on Twitter referred to it as being "like the holy bible."[9]

[mallamun[10]]

You look at all this, and you ask yourself: was that very first dinner in ASiP really written to elicit uncomfortable chuckles from homophobes who think that gayness is a punchline?

OR,

[season-one-alana[10]]

READ THIS IN FULL

[deducingbbcsherlock]
Massive, massive love and appreciation to skulls-and-tea and loudest-subtext-in-television. This is so incredible, so well written, so well-researched. You’re both amazing, thank you for doing this.

I needed no convincing that Sherlock is not queerbaiting (by my definitions), but this…this is more than the nail in the coffin. The show aside, my respect for the BBC has just increased tenfold. It’s so wonderful to know that they’re so passionately, actively invested in not just representing the LGB community on their shows, but doing it authentically, with great thought behind how both LGB and heterosexual viewers might perceive LGB characters. And to know that they’re also hyperaware of how they present LGB characters to “uncomfortable” heterosexual viewers, that they aim to do soin a way that encourages compassion, invokes discussion, raises awareness – softly, softly – well, that’s just beautiful.[11]

westernredcedar wrote the following about the essay on the lgbtq-recs LiveJournal community as part of LGBTQ Recs Month:

This is a bit of an odd rec for me today, because in the past I have steered clear of fandom-related recs for this list. However, I feel like anyone interested in queer representation in the media might be interested in the following meta, so I'm taking a chance and giving it a rec...I found it fascinating far above and beyond any implications for the specific show it was written for: Sherlock.

Just two weeks ago, Sherlock fandom's meta-author extraordinaire, loudest-subtext-in-television, posted this fascinating meta based on a research study conducted by the BBC about LGB representation in their shows. The meta is titled Softly, Softly: The BBC’s 2009 LGB Research Commission and The Johnlock Conspiracy and is available on L-S-i-T's tumblr. She links to the original study data, so I will too if you'd rather skip all of her Sherlock/John analysis and just see what the BBC thinks, but it is really fun to read her joyous fandom thoughts along with the data and research.

Of the many elements of the study I found intriguing, one I keep thinking about is the idea that the BBC is intentionally trying to help heterosexuals who are uncomfortable with portrayals of LGB characters feel more comfortable and become more open minded by the way they introduce queer characters in their shows. It's actually a part of their research and plan. Fascinating.

I found this meta and this research study to be full of hope for positive, interesting, and complex representation of LGB characters in the media, with the BBC leading the way...fingers crossed.


NOTE: For anyone who tries this meta and is not at all involved in Sherlock fandom- TJLC is the acronym for The Johnlock Conspiracy, which is a fan theory that an on-screen romantic relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson has been planned since the beginning of the series and will actually happen on the show. L-S-i-T is one of the chief meta writers in this area. If you are intrigued by the idea of TJLC, the rest of her meta list is amazing reading as well, full of detailed subtextual queer readings of the entire series that are truly impressive, thought-provoking, and fun to ponder.[12]

However, not everyone was necessarily convinced by the meta that Johnlock would become canon. Those on the fence or indifferent to TJLC found the BBC report that the meta centered around more interesting than the implication that the report "proved" TJLC, wishing that someone would do an analysis of how the BBC had implemented their report across all shows, instead of merely speculating about what the report means in regard to Sherlock, specifically.

[magnetic_pole[12]]

I have to admit, C, I'm left unmoved by conspiracy theories on this front, despite my general desire to see Sherlock and John together in every possible iteration, but I'm *fascinated* by the BBC report! I can't even imagine living somewhere where The Powers That Be have an acknowledged, public, legal commitment to representation. Thanks for pointing it out, C. M.

[westernredcedar[12]]

I hear you, Maggie! I LOVE reading all the subtextual theorizing and such born out of the idea that the show runners have a slow burn romance planned from the start...however, I am completely ready to be disappointed/not surprised if it all turns out platonic. I've never read so much meta in my life though, since series 3 aired. On the BBC front, isn't that report amazing? I love that they don't talk around anything, but just state solid opinions, mandates, plans, and reasons. How refreshing! What I really wish for is someone who obsessively watches all sorts of BBC shows to do a breakdown of how it seems this report has been implemented across shows, rather than this focus on only one. The whole thing just gives me hope that some leaders are out there trying to make positive change in the world. Now if only a few of them could not be white men...sigh.

Notes and References

Notes

  1. The referral of LGBT+ people here as "LGB" within this article is consistent with the initial report from the BBC, who were advised by Equality and Human Right Commission to study sexual orientation and gender identity separately. It is not an attempt to erase trans people from the narrative of media.
  2. According to the archived version of this essay, the entirety of part 16 was added to the original post in an update on 19 June 2014 and wasn't part of the original table of contents. Unfortunately, the earliest version of the meta wasn't archived so there's nothing to compare with to see what other, more minor changes may have been made to the meta. This was the only update, at least according to the last available version of the meta before the deletion of loudest-subtext-in-television's blog.

References

  1. Report on the Portrayal of LGB People via BBC. Accessed 18 September 2019.
  2. Mark Gatiss quote about Doctor Who via skulls-and-tea on Tumblr. Posted 27 May 2014. Accessed 18 September 2019.
  3. vanetti in response to an anon via weeesi's Tumblr. Posted 24 July 2019. Accessed 18 September 2019.
  4. nondeducible in response to an anon via inevitably-johnlocked on Tumblr. Accessed 18 September 2019.
  5. Softly, Softly: The BBC’s 2009 LGB Research Commission and The Johnlock Conspiracy via Archived Link. Posted 9 June 2014. Accessed 18 September 2019.
  6. Conversion Stories – or: TJLC and the Sherlock Fandom. Posted 7 Oct 2014. Accessed 23 Sept 2019.
  7. 7.0 7.1 gloriascott93 in response to "Softly, Softly". Accessed 23 Sept 2019.
  8. Reblog from cupiford. Posted 8 Jan 2015. Accessed 18 Oct 2019.
  9. @Francivusk. Posted 12 Dec 2016. Accessed 23 Sept 2019.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Reblog from season-one-alana. Accessed 23 Sept 2019.
  11. Reblog by deducingbbcsherlock via the-7-percent-solution. Posted 3 Jun 2016. Accessed 18 Oct 2019.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Meta: Softly, Softly: The BBC's LGB Research Commission and Sherlock via Livejournal. Posted 24 June 2014. Accessed 18 September 2019.