Sherlock Holmes and Elliot Alderson have more in common than you’d think—both are exceptionally introverted, both are protagonists of acclaimed TV series and both are men.
Whether it’s in the role of the antisocial detective or the awkward hacker, the trope of the reclusive male genius is now deeply ingrained in our TV consciousness. Mirroring certain introverts’ actual traits, including withdrawnness and discomfort around large groups of people, characters such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, in Sherlock and Rami Malek’s Elliot, in Mr. Robot, succeed on television where they would most likely fail in real life—coming off as smart and sympathetic for large audiences of people.
But women on TV rarely get the same permission to be reclusive, antisocial geniuses. For one thing, they’re much harder to find.
On New Year’s Day, more than 8 million people tuned in to watch the premiere of Sherlock’s fourth season. In the modern retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic series, the British detective is a classic introvert—he even panics and screams at a ringing doorbell in Season One’s “A Scandal in Belgravia.” (Not to be confused with total recluses, introverts form social connections, but prefer to spend long periods of time alone and feel uncomfortable at large social gatherings.) With the exception of his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), and a very small number of others, most people only stand in Sherlock’s crime-solving way.
And yet, captivated viewers are willing to forgive Sherlock for talking about Watson’s “barely used” brain in “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” or saying that Philip Anderson (Jonathan Aris) lowers “the IQ of the entire room” in “A Study in Pink.” In fact, they often view the caustic remarks as a sign of his razor-sharp acumen and boredom with ordinary ways of thinking.
Characters such as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), from Orange Is The New Black, do display certain introverted characteristics, but each grows increasingly social as their respective series progress. In Mad Men’s early seasons, Peggy has trouble connecting with other people at the office; when other women rush to try on lipstick samples in Season One’s “Babylon,” she sits by herself and watches. Later, though, Peggy loses many of her introverted characteristics—she starts going to beatnik parties with her friend, Joyce (Zosia Mamet) in Season Four’s “The Rejected” and makes advances at a stranger in a movie theater in Season Five’s “Far Away Places.”
In OITNB’s Season Two entry, “Hugs Can Be Deceiving,” we find out that Suzanne was once run off stage while singing a solo at her high school graduation—a precursor, perhaps, to her preference for mopping Litchfield’s bathrooms by herself in the middle of the night. After Suzanne finds a core group of friends among inmates like Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), however, she starts participating in the prison’s drama classes to get over her social anxiety.
While one could convincingly argue that such changes reflect introverts’ tendency to adapt to a highly social society, the first episode of Sherlock’s fourth season has scenes of the detective distractedly texting on his phone during the christening of Watson’s daughter, Rosie. Both in TV and in life, there’s a double standard that leads to introversion being romanticized in one gender and viewed as a character flaw in the other.
Even with multiple studies indicating that introverts make up one third to one half of the U.S. population, the quiet and antisocial personality type has often been poorly understood as either unfriendly or unstable on TV—the character who is content but still prefers to stay away from others did not take off until the success of series like House, which debuted in 2004, and Dexter, which first aired in 2006.
As shows with introverted male leads became more popular and common, audiences also started to appreciate men who were not outwardly social—without necessarily extending that same understanding to quieter women. The societal expectation that both female TV characters and real-life women will be bubbly and likable remains intransigent. Anyone who does not smile or make small talk at parties is immediately seen as unfriendly.
For example, Sherlock’s introversion is never something that he tries to hide or outgrow—if anything, it endears him to the viewer, who gets to be inside his world—while Peggy and Suzanne, who also become overwhelmed in larger groups of people, witness these traits work against them. A large part of Suzanne’s “crazy” persona comes from a similar tendency to self-isolation—and to outbursts when she’s forced into uncomfortable social situations. (See Suzanne’s anger at Kukudio in Season Three’s “Where’s My Dreidel At?” after the latter tries to help her overcome writer’s block.)
While all introverts struggle to live in a world that is highly dependent on social interaction, female introverts face the additional pressure of a society that still wants women to be pleasant and friendly. Because we want our female TV characters to be social, we have a harder time accepting female introverts.
A cybersecurity engineer and secret hacker, Mr. Robot’s Elliot suffers from an extreme form of social anxiety disorder—to cite one example, he stays home from his friend Angela’s (Portia Doubleday) birthday party because of his fear of encountering other people. While a woman who did that would be seen as unlikable, Alderson earns critical acclaim (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) as a troubled genius who’s trying to save the world.
In one of modern TV’s few representations of the female introvert, private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), in Netflix’s eponymous collaboration with Marvel, uses her superhuman abilities to solve crime and fight evil like Sherlock or Elliot. Even though she shares many personality traits with Alderson (both live as recluses due to childhood traumas), Jones’ introversion is clearly outlined as post-traumatic stress disorder rather than a personality type—thereby implying that female introverts are ultimately unstable or “broken.”
Even so, Jones is an exception. As male introverts on TV are given increased space to wallow in their silent genius, women are required to learn to put on a social persona like Peggy Olson or be dismissed as outright insane like “Crazy Eyes” Warren. When the vast majority of female introverts we see on TV are either trying to hide or “outgrow” their personality, we risk perpetuating the real-world expectation for women to be perpetually likable. Even worse, others can start to view what is a perfectly normal—and fascinating—personality detail as a flaw.
With time, viewers have slowly started to display a strong interest in the complex personalities of withdrawn male characters. It’s time we do the same for introverted women.
Veronika Bondarenko is a Canadian journalist who likes writing about culture and recently received her master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter, where she regularly rants about those who spread fake news and subways that do not come on time.