Dr. Hinson Teaches Art: The Beauty of ‘Miss Holmes’

Dr. Hinson Teaches Art: The Beauty of ‘Miss Holmes’

Hello, dear readers! If you recall a few weeks’ back, I talked about the rather transformative experience of seeing the play ‘Miss Holmes’ while on holiday in Colorado. I wanted to take a bit more time to explain why this piece of art is so important, particularly for issues that we focus on here at Abbey Research – namely gender equity and gender-based violence and assault. As an art historian by trade, I believe we can learn a lot about people and history through studying art in all its forms. I’ll be doing this a bit more next year, but couldn’t pass up this opportunity to stretch my art critic muscles.

For this incarnation of the famous detective, Holmes’ works to help women whose problems are not solve-able by “conventional means,” which we learn rather early means women who have problems with men – problems where they are abused, stalked, mistreated, or assaulted on the basis of their gender and the limitations placed on that gender in Victorian England.

Time and again throughout the play, the playwright, Christopher M. Walsh, reminds us of the history of men having agency and control over women and their bodies. We are shown that women are at risk – both from those who are violent, either verbally or physically, but also at risk from social policing, especially if those women choose to behave outside prescribed gender norms.

Primary examples of this are Dr. Watson’s constant struggles to gain respect as a doctor, something that if you think has changed in the 100 years since the play was set, I would direct you to a recent happening on Twitter where a woman was called “immodest” for listing her PhD in her (professional) bio. Both Holmes and Watson, the plays protagonists, push back against the restrictions placed on their gender. They are inquisitive, intelligent, courageous, curious, and action-driven women, living in a world in which none of these qualities are considered desirable or appropriate for a woman.

For my purposes, Walsh provides an illustrative excerpt on his website. This brief interaction demonstrates the perception of women who behave outside their gender ‘norms’:

Mrs. Hudson enters.

MRS. HUDSON: Miss Sherlock, I do not think this is funny. 

SHERLOCK: Funny, Mrs. Hudson?

MRS. HUDSON: There is a person downstairs who claims to be a doctor.


MRS. HUDSON: This person claims to be your doctor.


MRS. HUDSON: And? This person is a woman, Miss Sherlock!

SHERLOCK: Yes, surely you’re aware that such things exist nowadays.

MRS. HUDSON: I refuse to believe it. Surely we have not become so uncivilized.

SHERLOCK: The barbarians are at the gate, Mrs. Hudson. Doctor Watson! Please come in. Thank you, Mrs. Hudson, that will do.

I could spend the rest of this blog sharing all my experiences of discrimination and disbelief that I am both a woman and a doctor. I could tell you all the stories from other women I know, colleagues and friends, who have experienced the same. But the reason I wanted to write this blog was to focus on the outcome of the play and the lessons we can take from it.

It follows the typical Holmesian pattern – there is a murderer to catch, a mystery to solve, the evolution of Holmes and Watson’s friendship and partnership to outline. The overarching lesson of the play is the perils of underestimating women, both in their capacity for good and evil. The “happy ending” is not resolved romantically for either female lead, and is instead the arrival of their next case. Which brings me to my final point. The power of this play is what it represents and as we often reiterate here at Abbey Research, representation matters. Showing young women and girls strong female leads, who are valuable for so much more than their appearance or like-ability, is a necessary function of art. Empowering the audience to imagine women as doctors, detectives, or any other profession, has incalculable value. As does presenting the risks women face for stepping outside the ‘bounds’ of their gender.

The story is about friendship, and women helping women, especially when there is no other recourse. When we still live in a society that so often pits women against each other, either in pursuit of professional goals or romantic partners, it was refreshing as it was empowering. Fighting for something which may be considered ‘uncivilized’ or perhaps even ‘immodest’ is the only way we’re going to effect change on the imbalance and inequity of gender dynamics. What a lesson for a delightful, witty, and energetic murder mystery to impart – the barbarians are at the gate, indeed!

*’Miss Holmes’ is at the Creede Repertory Theatre until September 15th (and hopefully in many other playhouses soon!)

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