Iphigenia in Aulis Redux

Thomas Jones

Last night's episode of Sherlock on BBC1 – spoiler alert – was the third piece of prestige TV I've watched in as many months to conclude with the self-sacrificial death of the superpowered lone female member of a gang of outsider heroes. (The other two – spoiler alert – were Showtime's Penny Dreadful and Stranger Things on Netflix.) In every case, the self-slaughtering heroine gives her life not only to save one or more of her (male) comrades but also to atone for her sins or crimes of the past, and in rejection of the 'normal' life that she wishes she could have with one or other of the nerds she's dying for, but realises she can't because of her superpowers and/or the crimes she committed, even if she can't really be blamed for those crimes, because the ultimate fault rests with the evil forces that wanted to exploit her superpowers.

To the extent that they've thought about it at all – none of them's Euripides – I imagine that the creators of these shows (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, Matt and Ross Duffer, John Logan) consider this a feminist move; at any rate it makes a change from one or more male heroes rescuing a damsel in distress. But it's lagging behind season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001), in which the heroine sacrificed herself to prevent her sister sacrificing herself to save the world. And it raises a few questions, such as: why are so many shows using this particular plot twist? Why are the male characters allowed to feel entitled to their normal lives, despite their superpowers and past crimes? Why does remorse have to come bound up with a desire for a 'normal' life? And why aren't there more women or girls in the gang?


  • 3 January 2017 at 6:35am
    Joe Morison says:
    Everything in popular culture lags behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it comes to these issues; and though Buffy does sacrifice herself for her sister, she also does it to save the world - which is more or less her day job. Then she comes back for two more series; and when the final ultimate sacrifice to save her and the world has to be made, it is Spike, one of the weirdest anti-hero/heroes ever, who makes it.

    The founding premise of Buffy is a reversal of gender stereotyping, and Whedon has stuck with it here - Spike sacrifices himself as an act of love for Buffy, but few have more past sins to atone for than he.

  • 3 January 2017 at 10:54am
    Simon Wood says:
    The girl gang in "To Walk Invisible" on BBC1 was composed entirely of three Bronte sisters, whilst their brother sacrificed himself to the strong, creative women theme. By contrast, Theresa May is sacrificing herself to the whims of the Eton Crew in that other bleak scenario.

    Shakespeare was right. He may have died last year, too, to say the least, but he never lost the plot in his 360-degree vision of gender and general bedlam.

  • 18 January 2017 at 11:33am
    patrick hutchinson says:
    "...Theresa May is sacrificing herself to the whims of the Eton Crew..." Brilliant! You can see it and hear it in everything she does or says in public, including her stumbling diction when announcing Hard Brexit was to be the UK's fatum yesterday - more like the captain of the Empress of Ireland's last announcement as the panicking passengers could no longer use the stairs...!