A Brief Guide to Benedict Cumberbatch Hysteria

Benedict Cumberbatch holds a strange sway over certain parts of the Internet. Just what is his power?

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Benedict Cumberbatch holds a strange sway over certain parts of the Internet. Just what is his power? Yesterday, a certain contingent of online fandom went nuts when it was revealed that Cumberbatch would be on the cover of Time's international editions. There were those who rejoiced and those who bemoaned the fact that the U.S. edition didn't feature their beloved's mug. The commotion was a small sampling of the deep devotion of this low-voiced, strange-faced, British heartthrob's cult of worshipers.

With Cumberbatch gracing movie theaters this weekend in both The Fifth Estate and 12 Years a Slave, and with turns in The Hobbit and August: Osage County due out later this year, he's not likely to drop out of the cultural conversation any time soon. So we thought it might be best to give you a brief rundown of the Cumberbatch craze.

The Origin

It's hard to locate the exact origins of a fandom, but in a 2013 profile in The Times of London, Caitlin Moran explains that it took off somewhere around when Sherlock started broadcasting on the BBC in 2010. "Sherlock began broadcasting at 9pm," Moran wrote. "By 9.20pm, his name was trending worldwide on Twitter. A trending fuelled by a mass outbreak of spontaneous hysteria – the fandom was instant and visceral."  The speed of Cumbarbatch's rise is truly startling, she wrote. "The Guinness Book of World Records does not yet carry this category, but Benedict Cumberbatch is in the running for the 'Fastest Ascent to Fame Ever Recorded'." It's easy to see why Sherlock inspired such mania. It's a taut, clever take on the Arthur Conan Doyle story that happens to feature a wily, spirited performance from the actor in question. It's worth a look regardless of your level of Cumberbatch fanaticism.

So, yes, the Cumberbatch fandom—now extending beyond the reach of Sherlock—is closely intertwined with love of the show, which has its own distinct lexicon. The Badger of Baskerville Tumblr has a good primer on the various inside jokes. For example: "The Purple shirt of Sex - Is a seductively deep purple shirt that made it’s [sic] first appearance in “The Great Game”. It’s not hard to understand why it became a sensation. Just look how hot Benedict/Sherlock looks in it ;) (Link to a photo here)" (See photo at right.) Another Tumblr has a FAQ to read up on.

And then of course there's the fact that Cumberbatch is, well, attractive. In a weird way. His face is leonine and oddly smooth, but somehow it works. Here is a helpful essay explaining his sex appeal. Whatever the exact point of attraction is, it's powerful. "You also should know that Benedict Cumberbatch isn't a man," one Meghan O'Keefe wrote for the Huffington Post in 2012. "He's a situation that me and most of my friends are all having."

The Name

If you hadn't realized, Benedict Cumberbatch has a funny name. Thus, the Internet enjoys playing with it. (Out of love, for the most part.) Baritone Gingerbatch is a popular morph. Some mad fan has even created a Benedict Cumberbatch Name Generator, which comes up with names like Wellington Charizard. (Now is not the time to get into Pokémon fandom, but that's a thing too. A big thing.) Despite how genuinely devoted Cumberbatch's fans are, "silliness" is accepted. Alexandra Sokoloff told the Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon, who wrote about the fan community, that "it’s part of Sherlock, too. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. To be a Cumberbitch you want to have that level of self-awareness about how ridiculous you’re being."

The Fans' Name

Oh, yeah, as you may have just noticed, the fandom name that initially stuck was "Cumberbitches." Alas, Cumberbatch has expressed disappointment in the name. In August 2012 he told InStyle that he has concerns "about what it says for feminism, it’s quite a pejorative term." He told Moran: "I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are… Cumberpeople." Hence, other names have been floated, including Cumberbabes and Cumberbunnies. The Cumber Collective is what Cumberbatch himself seems to be currently supporting. When Jimmy Fallon brought up the Cumberbitches during a recent Cumberbatch appearance, Cumberbatch said they are "slowly turning it" into "something a little more PC."

The Slash Fic

This is the Internet, so of course there's sexy fan fiction. Reddit even has an entire subreddit dedicated to "Johnlock," the shipping of Cumberbatch's Holmes and Martin Freeman's Watson. Hence, GIFs like this arrive.

One conscientious Cumber Tumblr person has curated a list of their favorite stories, should you be interested in delving into the Cumberbatch fan fiction realm. This, for instance, is a passage from a story about Cumberbatch and Freeman (the real guys, not Sherlock and Watson) taking on the zombie apocalypse: "There were drinks (a few too many) and laughs (countless laughs, and still there were never enough). Benedict was well-practiced in ignoring the things he adored about Martin and there was plenty to ignore that night: the way Martin liked to lick his lips and the way he idly twirled the cocktail straw with his tongue or the way his entire face seemed to glow with mirth every time Benedict said anything even remotely amusing."

The Backlash

It hasn't always been happy times in the Cumberbatch fandom. The British press at one point had a field day over his reported "poshness," and reports started to circulate about him leaving the UK for America over "posh-bashing." Meanwhile, Fallon pointed out that the celeb blog Oh No They Didn’t is "the chief purveyor of the anti-Cumberbatch movement." But it's not just members of the press—or press-like entities—that have sometimes revolted against Cumberbatch.

One Tumblr is dedicated to Cumberbatch hate. "If you haven’t noticed, the Sherlock/Benedict Cumberbatch fandom is the most insane, downright appalling, self righteous fandoms I’ve ever come into contact with," one post read. "And I’m. not. overreacting. While I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a bastard, I still don’t think anyone desreves [sic] to see racy artwork of themselves littered all over the internet. I know fans of the show who are embarrassed,  embarrassed by the absolute shit that goes on in the fandom."

What's Next

Well, the third season of Sherlock is coming soon, so that should reignite the fan base. And his plethora of roles in high-profile American productions should win him acclaim and more widespread recognition. So, either batten down the hatches and hope to ride this thing out or start a Tumblr and join the gang. Because either way, the Cumberbatch craze looks to be here to stay.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.