Legions of girls are obsessing over British Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch with a devotion typically reserved for boy bands and Biebers. What’s behind their intense devotion—and equally rabid backlash?
“Throw your boobs in the air if you want some cumberlovin.”
—@Cumberbitches, October 8, 2010
Do any of those words make sense to you? They might, if you’re among the almost 37,000 members of “the most glorious and elusive society for the appreciation of the high cheekboned, blue eyed sexbomb that is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch,” star of the BBC series Sherlock. That “society” is the legion of inordinately dedicated fans of Cumberbatch, a group whose adherents have labeled themselves the “Cumberbitches” and who have launched a Twitter profile, Facebook page, a Pinterest handle, and countless Tumblrs in honor their beloved star.
Their adoration is expressed as hyperbolically as it is earnestly. He’s “the biggest thing since Jesus. I mean, you know, since the Beatles,” writes Alexandra Sokoloff, author of the bestselling crime thriller Huntress Moon. One Tumblr user, who calls herself “Cumberqueen,” calls him “a chunk of raw ginger.” His most dashing smiles and candid moments are captured in .gif form on Tumblrs including “League of Cumberbitches” and “Cumberland.” But despite the plethora of Web shrines curated for the star, the question likely lingering among most of uninitiated is: who is this guy?
Benedict Cumberbatch is a 36-year-old British stage and screen actor. His star has been steadily rising across the pond over the past decade—thanks to his performances as Stephen Hawking in the BBC telefilm Hawking and as the leads in the hit miniseries To the Ends of the Earth and The Last Enemy—while supporting roles in films including Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, and War Horse began putting him on the radar stateside. But it’s his role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock, which began airing on PBS in 2010, that’s served as his American breakout.
In Sherlock, Cumberbatch reconceives Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s oft-portrayed sleuth icon as a modern-day technophile, supplementing his “elementary” skills of deduction with email, texting, GPS, and laptops. The role fits Cumberbatch like a herringbone deerstalker. The actor’s natural ability—with his tall, slight frame; distinct, crisp accent; piercing eyes; and unruly mop of curls—to play posh misfits lends itself to an adorably awkward, amusing, and almost Aspergian performance in the lead role. His Holmes is a “misanthropic genius who doesn’t gladly suffer fools,” The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob wrote when the series premiered in the United States two years ago.
It’s Sherlock, which has amassed a large cult following, that’s begun making Benedict Cumberbatch’s rather unusual name a household one. Its second season premiere on PBS was not just a boon when compared to the network’s typical numbers, but averaged more viewers than more widely known basic cable shows like Mad Men. Cumberbatch was nominated for an Emmy for his performance. As the series became more successful, the Cumberbitches—and their bevy of tongue-in-cheek memes—were born.
“I think the silliness is part of the phenomenon,” Sokoloff tells The Daily Beast. “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.”
Cumberbitches memes have even begun mating with past popular memes, spawning ostensible meme mash-ups. Take this riff on “First World Problems,” aptly titled “Cumberbitch Problems.” A sample grievance: “Cumberbitch Problem #99: “Having to rewind interviews because you always squeal when he first speaks.” Or Problem #50: “Not knowing what hair color you prefer on a man, because Benedict has had them all.”
Fans of Cumberbatch all have their own opinions on what it is about him that sparks such intense obsession, unusually intense for a British actor in America who doesn’t star in a film called Twilight or Harry Potter. “He very much comes across as a quintessential gentleman in the way that other actors don’t exactly,” Naomi Roper, owner and creator of the benedictcumberbatch.co.uk fan site, tells The Daily Beast. “His innate Britishness appeals to people.”
Sokoloff is less coy about what underlies the attraction. “It’s a true physiological reaction,” she says. “It’s very sexual. College kids are as loopy about him as women in their 60s.” His popularity is very of-the-moment, too. That he doesn’t share George Clooney’s rugged handsomeness or Brad Pitt’s chiseled features is exactly Cumberbatch’s modern appeal. “There’s a cachet to being a nerd these days,” Sokoloff says. And his most unusual of names? It only helps in that regard. “We know what he must’ve gone through with that nerdy name, and now that he’s come out of it, it’s Revenge of the Nerds and Revenge of the Geeks.”
Cumberbatch is fully aware of the tens of thousands of followers the @Cumberbitches Twitter handle has accrued, telling In Style, “I wish my 15-year-old had known about my allure to the opposite sex!” But exhibiting a shrewd concern for the cultural responsibility about the term, he clarified, “It’s flattering, though I worry about what it says for feminism. It’s quite a pejorative term … Cumberbabes might be better.” The thoughtful statement, naturally, caused some “Cumberbitches” to swoon, even as it disparaged their name. “I do love it when a man talks about feminism,” a poster on the site Celebitchy wrote after his statements leaked.
But not all fans agree. Though Roper dedicates hours each week to exhaustively keeping track of all things Cumberbatch for the fan site and considers herself one of the star’s most dedicated admirers, she dismisses the “Cumberbitch” label. “It’s not my favorite, I’m afraid,” she says. “I’m nobody’s bitch. There are other names I prefer, like Cumberbunnies or Benaddicts. There are people who like [Cumberbitches], and people who loathe it, like anyone over the age of 20.”
As befalls any proper Web movement and meme, the Cumberbitches—and their fantasy paramour—are the subject of their own Internet backlash. The chief purveyor of the anti-Cumberbatch movement is the widely read pop culture LiveJournal community Oh No They Didn’t. The actor makes the site’s list of “Most Controversially Attractive Celebs,” for one. Posts snarking about his following boast titles like “Benedict Has Himself a New Girlfriend, Somehow Tumblr Has Not Had a Meltdown Yet” and “Another Wafflecrisp Cumberc*nt Post.” The site published an item called “Bendydick Cumberslut Calls Friend and Former Castmate Jonny Lee Miller a Sellout” after Cumberbatch made disparaging comments against CBS’s new Sherlock Holmes drama, Elementary, which stars Miller. (Miller and Cumberbatch had just wrapped an intense, critically lauded run swapping roles as the Creature and Dr. Frankenstein in the Royal National Theatre production of Frankenstein.)
Hyper-enthusiastic fanbases of other actors have been launching Tumblrs, websites, and Twitter accounts of their own in honor of their beloveds. Oscar-nominated heartthrob Ryan Gosling inspired, for example, the “Hey Girl …” meme. Vaunted Mad Men star Jon Hamm is the debonair catalyst for “Emotions With Jon Hamm” and “Sad Don Draper.” There is a glaring difference, however, between the myriad Internet fan clubs devoted to Cumberbatch and those centered around hunky Hollywood A-listers like Gosling and Hamm: Cumberbatch isn’t really that famous.
The intensity of his fanbase can, in a large part, be attributed to its cult nature, with each person taking ownership of “discovering” him. Starring in a BBC series that airs on PBS hardly guarantees mainstream fame, after all. As such, Cumberbitches are territorial about their fandom. “People don’t like to share him, and they get in cat fights about it,” Sokoloff says, recalling the nasty responses she received after writing her own article praising Cumberbatch.
If this is true, Cumberbitches had better brace themselves. Cumberbatch’s pipeline is bursting with high-profile projects. He’ll play The Necromancer in the Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. He’ll star opposite Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the starry adaptation of the Tony-winning play August: Osage County, act with Brad Pitt in Twelve Years a Slave, and feature in the upcoming Star Trek sequel. His name is being bandied about as the villain in the next James Bond film and as Julian Assange in a planned biopic.
His fast-growing fame may be polarizing. But, as his surging career proves, may also have been inevitable.
“The Cumberbitches thing will go away,” Sokoloff says. “Sherlock will go away. But he will be astonishing on the level of Olivier and Maggie Smith. We’ll be enjoying his talents for a long time.”
This story was produced in partnership with Tumblr.