Benedict Cumberbatch looks like a cross between an otter and a halibut. If you saw him walking down the street (and you didn’t know he was Benedict Cumberbatch) you probably wouldn’t look twice. And yet — and yet — he’s frequently included in lists of the “sexiest men alive.” His sex appeal has spawned a group of super-fangirls who call themselves the Cumberb*tches. I must confess that even I — who just called the man a cross between a small aquatic mammal and a sea creature — understand his appeal. So how is this possible? How can a man who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch wield the kind of sex appeal he does? The answer is something I like to call “The Sherlock Effect.”
Though the role of ‘Sherlock’ was by no means Benedict Cumberbatch’s first, it was certainly the role that made him a household name. And it was also the role that made him a sex symbol. Why? Because even though Benedict Cumberbatch looks like . . . well, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is all kinds of attractive. Wildly intelligent, unexpectedly vulnerable, maddeningly aloof, and adorably inept in the realm of the everyday, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is unquestionably swoon-worthy. And as we fell for who Sherlock was on the inside, we became attracted to the way he looked on the outside.
Cumberbatch himself was shocked by fans’ insistence that he had sex appeal. He called his newfound “sexy” status “preposterous,” and said, of the paparazzi, “How many times can you take a photo of a not particularly attractive profile?”
The profile might not be inherently attractive, but — for fans who fell in love with Sherlock — it’s the profile of the man they love. And so, it’s the most attractive profile of them all.
‘Sherlock’ creators clearly understood what had happened to their leading man in the eyes of women everywhere. By season 3 — which aired in 2014 — Cumberbatch’s Sherlock was swinging through windows, nonchalantly kissing swooning girls, and riding motorcycles down staircases. It was 007 meets Sherlock Holmes, and it was glorious. But it would have been totally laughable if not for the Sherlock Effect.
The Sherlock Effect happens in real life too. You might meet a guy who doesn’t seem particularly attractive. But, as you get to know him, and you come to find his inner attributes attractive, he starts to look attractive too. And even though you may remember that when you initially met him you didn’t think he was all that good-looking, when you look at him now all you see is the handsome face of the man you love. (This goes for girls too, obviously.)
Feminists like to complain about physical beauty. Just think about their insistence that fairy tale princes and princesses shouldn’t have to be attractive. Not all people who are beautiful on the inside are beautiful on the outside too, the critique goes. Shouldn’t all levels of attractiveness be represented in fairy tales, just like they are in real life? Is it so hard to believe that a woman might fall in love with an ugly man (or vice versa)?
It isn’t hard to believe at all! Just ask the cumberb*tches. When women who love Sherlock look at Benedict Cumberbatch they see a handsome prince. They’re not settling for an ugly exterior because he’s got a winning interior. They really see a handsome exterior even though he looks like . . . him. Just like someone who’s married to a fat hairy guy she loves a lot looks at her husband and sees her handsome prince.
Fairy tale princes and princesses are beautiful because their inner goodness makes it such that anyone who loved them would see them as beautiful. Sure, maybe in real life Prince Charming’s got nose hair and a spare tire, but when Cinderella looks at him she sees the man she loves. So we see him that way too. And maybe in real life Aurora’s got cellulite and buck teeth but when Prince Phillip looks at her he sees the woman he loves. So we see her that way too.
If you don’t love Sherlock, then Benedict Cumberbatch probably doesn’t do much for you in the looks department. There’s no accounting for taste. That’s why fairy tale princes or princesses have to be generically attractive. So we can all see them as if we knew their inner cores. Their outer beauty tells us that their inner selves are beautiful. So we see them as beautiful on the outside even if, in real life, they aren’t. That’s the beauty of the Sherlock Effect. It can turn a cross between an otter and a halibut into a handsome prince. If that’s not some fairy tale magic right there, I don’t know what is.