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Feb 23 2012

So Amy Pond Is Cool… But What About Irene Adler?

You know I can’t resist a good Doctor Who / Steven Moffat discussion. Especially when feminism is involved.

Yesterday, the extraordinary Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds posted a response to some less-than-great criticisms levied against Mr. Moffat and the storyline he had written for Amy Pond in the most recent series of Doctor Who. Stephanie did a really great job of indicating how some of these feminist critiques of Pond’s character and arc are actually more reductive and sexist than anything Moffat himself had done.

Now, a couple weeks ago, I would have simply cheered and been on-side with Stephanie regarding this, because I really didn’t understand why people seemed to regard Moffat as being sexist. None of his work on Doctor Who really leapt out at me as such, he seemed to be doing a better job with his female characters and exploring female experiences than Russell Davies had, and he was easily head and shoulders above the vast majority sci-fi writers’ handling of women. I’m looking at you, Lost.

But then I watched Sherlock. In particular, I watched the second series premier, “A Scandal In Belgravia”. And what I saw was one of the most misogynistic stories I’d ever seen on television.

Spoilers ahead.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sherlock, and think Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer. And believe it or not, my reasons for liking this particular show go above and beyond my absolute infatuation with Benedict Cumberbatch and his gorgeous, glacially blue eyes. But there’s only so much “bitches be crazy, amirite?” I can handle before I start getting a bit upset.

In the source material, Irene Adler is an incredibly clever antagonist, whose power is firmly intellectual in nature. She’s so clever, in fact, that she manages to crack Sherlock Holmes’ entrenched Victorian misogyny and disregard for the mental abilities of the fairer sex, and he ultimately concedes that she’s his intellectual equal.

This is NOT what happens in “Scandal In Belgravia”.

Instead, Irene Adler is a dominatrix. She’s clever and confident, yes, but her power is purely sexual in nature. Most of her tactical advantage doesn’t lie in her being particularly resourceful or perceptive or intelligent, but mostly in the fact that she’s fucked a lot of powerful men. Her catch phrase throughout the episode is that she “knows what (insert powerful man here) likes”. She’s just a woman, as this story presents things: she doesn’t need to have any resources, she just relies on attracting men who do.

Over the course of the episode, she gradually seduces Holmes and creates for him a fantasy that he can’t resist. This allows her to exploit and use him, the way she uses other powerful men. At the climax, she reveals that her love for him wasn’t real, and that she was merely using him. But Holmes gets the better of her in having noticed that she did indeed have feelings for him. Then in the final shot he ultimately completes the sexist fantasy by saving her once she’s finally been reduced to damsel-in-distress.

It is the ultimate misogynistic fantasy, playing upon all the most prevalent fears and negative attitudes towards women.

The idea that women are merely deceptive whores who can’t do anything for themselves and use their sexual position to exploit men into doing everything for them. The idea that despite their duplicitous nature, no matter what they say, they secretly really do love you. No doesn’t necessarily mean no. And finally, even if the bitch fucked you over, she’ll still ultimately need you to come save her in the end. It is the consummation of every arrogant male power-trip I’ve ever been exposed to.

What makes this particularly insulting is that Moffat constructs this out of a literary character that really did represent a huge step forward in being able to perceive women as being able to be equal to men… equal even to superhumanly great men like Sherlock Holmes himself. A character who represented the capacity of women to be intelligent and capable on their own. But Moffat’s Adler? She’s nothing without the body she uses to attract men. Her nudity, and status as sexual object, is even referred to as her “battle dress”. She has no power but sexual power, and ultimately even that is taken away from her, and she becomes just a silly girl who needs to be rescued from her own bad decisions.

As icing on the cake, Moffat decides in this episode to dismantle the wonderfully charming and progressive portrayal of Holmes in this adaptation as asexual. Where in the first series this was an all but entirely explicit character trait, he suddenly reverses Holmes character and makes him just another heterosexual man, with traditional, normative heterosexual desires. Not even interesting heterosexual desires. This version of Sherlock Holmes could have been the most fascinating and positive portrayal of asexuality to have ever been done in pop culture. But instead Moffat chickened out just so as to create this easy, silly, cheap and sexist fantasy.

Now, I’m not going to agree with every feminist criticism of Steven Moffat, and I don’t think Amy Pond is a poorly written character, nor do I find her offensive or insulting or demeaning. I think as a whole, Moffat does a pretty good job. But if he’s capable of appalling teenage-boy-daydreams like “Scandal In Belgravia”, I really start having my doubts about the guy. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, this will turn out to be just a fluke; an isolated misstep in an otherwise brilliant career… but I definitely worry now, and definitely start wondering whether there are problems I’ve been missing. And I’m definitely not going to be as ready to give him the benefit of the doubt as I have been in the past.

If he kills Amy Pond, though, I am done.

44 comments

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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    In the Conan Doyle books there are only three people whose intellects Holmes respects: his brother Mycroft, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. Holmes is impressed by Adler’s intelligence because (a) he doesn’t expect such intelligence in a woman and (2) Adler stays at least one step ahead of Holmes throughout the story.

    The opening paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia” describes the high regard with which Holmes held Adler:

    To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

  2. 2
    Jadehawk

    I have no problem with Moffat’s portrayal of Amy Pond, especially because of the way her and Rory’s relationship is written (meaning, it’s both a conventional heterosexual marriage and an upending of the patriarchal script (man as boss) that’s still portrayed positively (i.e. Amy is not a “castrating bitch”, and Rory is not considered unmanly)). But there are occasional sexist jokes in the series (the “omg I’m a girl” from the first episode, and the “i need to find a scale” from the hitler epiode), and there’s something problematic about River’s entire life and personality revolving around the doctor (even if it is masked by extreme badassitude)

  3. 3
    Jadehawk

    oh, and a feminism-unrelated criticism of Moffat is that he can’t even stick to the continuity he himself created. Granted, we are talking about Dr. Who, where continuity is allowed to shift, but still. River’s background has undergone quite a number of retcons, and she’s only been around for what, 2 seasons + 1 episode?

  4. 4
    pentatomid

    I love Amy Pond. I’ve never seen any real sexism in Moffat’s writing for this character. Yes, there are occasional jokes which might be considered a bit sexist, but certainly not more than just about any other thing on television (actually, rather the opposite!).
    Now ‘A scandal in Belgravia’ was somewhat problematic. I think this was a huge mistake by Moffat and I hope that it was exactly that: a single, isolated mistake. The rest of the series is still awesome, though.

  5. 5
    Ing

    Ing, there very well maybe a case made if she has been paying all the upkeep and property taxes for 30 years. And while the defaulting on the child support may have passed the time frame, it doesn’t mean it can’t be considered by the court. I wish you the best of luck with this horrible situation.

    Example? Something that’s firm retcon and not reveal?

  6. 6
    secha

    I may be having some lapse in memory here, but I didn’t think the episode ruined Holmes as an asexual character. I sort of read his admiration of Adler to mean he is portrayed as a hetero-romantic asexual. I can’t think of an explicit mention of Holmes being attracted to her in a sexual way. it seemed more like it was purely down to her being the one to ‘win’ against him.

    I’m probably going to have to watch that one again.

    1. 6.1
      Natalie Reed

      That’s an interesting point, in that of course asexual people can have romantic attractions (or even occasional sexual attractions; the line between asexual and demi-sexual is a blurry one), but I still felt that thread to Sherlock’s character would have been more compelling and positive if they had stuck to the original characteriziation of Holmes/Adler’s relationship: he doesn’t love her and isn’t attracted to her, but he respects her as an equal.

      1. joek

        I may have been entirely oblivious here (it has been known to happen) but I didn’t read Sherlock as romantically interested in Irene at all, in the same way that Holmes in the books was never interested in Miss Adler except as an intellectual challenge and a case.
        Certainly I didn’t think he was attracted to her in a sexual way, I interpreted his interest as purely intellectual rather than romantic…

        I never thought of the portrayal of Irene as sexist, and I read it as her ‘winning’ rather than Sherlock beating her: she, after all, managed to use Sherlock’s need to show off to everyone (one of his few weaknesses) in order to get the information she needed; and her being less intelligent than Sherlock is hardly indicative of anything: she was still above average intelligence, and Sherlock is clearly a genius in Moffat’s adaptation, more intelligent than *anyone* else. Howeever, I do agree that his rescue of her at the end did somewhat detract from this…

        1. SoF

          Two points:

          I read the sexual tension as queer because it revealed a masochistic streak in Holmes that I found very fitting for the character. Like in the books, he is not sexual in the genital sense, and he certainly isn’t straight. But he is able of chemistry, with Watson and with Irene, and tries to suppress or hide that, because of his fear of loosing control. I found that pretty sexy.

          I agree about the sexist deconstruction of the Irene character from the books though. In both the 2. Sherlock Holmes movie and the series, Irene gets killed off, which is *not* canon. In the books she bests Holmes and lives on. She is also an ftm cross dresser.

          While I at first felt some relief that they disposed of her as a coventional straight love interest for Holmes, there was some sadism or aggression in the way her deaths were pulled off thay nearly destroyed the fandom for me.
          I don’t have to list the numberous female/queer/dominant characters who have been killed off in so-called progressive shows during the last 20 years:
          Dax from DS9, Xena, Tara from Buffy, Anya from Buffy, etc etc. There are no comparable death rates of beloved male characters in “progressive” shows.

          So, Moffat’s sexy Irene would have been acceptable (the book Irene was some sort of a courtesan cum blackmailer), and her transformation from passing cross dresser to dominatrix would have been interesting (as passing wouldn’t have worked very well in today’s setting), if she would have bested Holmes and gone off to freedom and life, like in the books.

          1. Sammka

            I’m a radical feminist and I actually LOVED Irene Adler.

            First, I don’t think she’s too much of a thematic departure from the original books. In the book, the entire reason Irene Adler was relevant was that she seduced a king and had a comprimising picture of herself with him, which she was using to attempt to prevent his marriage to another woman. She’s extremely smart, but her motivations were more or less petty (at least at first) and her power over the king, as in the BBC series, came from the fact that she’d seduced him and she could prove it. She only drops it because she marries someone else, under sufficiently bizarre circumstances that the reader is left to believe that something odd is going on. She’s not a cross-dresser because she’s genderqueer – she cross-dressed because in Victorian England she otherwise couldn’t walk down the street alone. Irene Adler of the show would probably do the same thing, but fortunately she didn’t have to. And Holmes has the same sentimental fascination with her that he does in the BBC series; although they have fewer direct interactions with each other, he keeps a photograph of her and a coin she gave him as mementos and calls her “the woman.”

            The main changes that Moffat made to Irene is that the new Irene’s choice to use sexually incriminating photos to

          2. Sammka

            Irene doesn’t die in the show. The last scene is of her escaping beheading (with the help of Sherlock, as Natalie noted). And in the book, Irene died only a few years after meeting Holmes: Watson writes that the “late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory,” met Holmes in 1888. A Scandal in Bohemia was published in 1891. You’re left to speculate as to how she died (childbirth? another pseudo-criminal misadventure? killed by her husband whom she married under questionable circumstances?), but it certainly would have been considered an untimely end.

            Incidentally, at the time, women who cross-dressed were typically perceived as more heterosexually degenerate than queer. Cross-dressing was a way for women to escape supervision by male family members and go on to do stuff that they weren’t supposed to do, including carry on affairs with men. Irene doesn’t describe her cross-dressing as any more than a practical means to an end; she’s either not genderqueer or her genderqueerness is not part of the story.

            The original Irene was also a retired actress and opera singer; most women in performing arts at that time carried a stigma of having been (most likely) “patronized” over the course of their career by numerous wealthy men who expected sexual favors in return. This is a large part of why her romantic relationship with the king would have been so shocking that it would have derailed his marriage plans; an affair with a dominatrix is a reasonably good analogue.

  7. 7
    pentatomid

    Secha,

    Actually… Hmmm… Possibly… I’m going to have to rewatch the episode. I sure hope you’re right, as Holmes as an asexual character was interesting (not to mention it’s nice to have a positive portrayal of someone who’s asexual).

  8. 8
    Japheree

    I totally agree with this.

    The Irene Adler character was pretty awful. Awful from the perspective of how she was different from in the original and didn’t end up ‘winning’ for a start.

    To me though the fact that there was a sexualizing of the relationship between the protagonists grated more. I don’t know whether this is just a modern re-working of what Conan-Doyle would have /wanted/ to write but to me it was a missed opportunity to show genuine admiration between a man and a woman on a basis that didn’t involve sex.

    I’m not anti-sex (far from it) but when are we going to get to the point where we can portray intellectual affinity like this in drama?

    1. 8.1
      Natalie Reed

      Yes, that’s an excellent point! I guess I was so miffed by the missed opportunity to explore asexuality in a compelling and non-patronizing way that I totally missed how it ends up perpetuating the concept that a man can’t admire a woman without it becoming a sexual thing. Which, again, is made more annoying by the fact that Conan Doyle DID write it that way, that Holmes’ respect for Adler was just purely respect, divorced from sexuality and love. It’s thinking like this, that we need to sexualize / romanticize ANY meaningful relationship between a man and a woman, that we end up with all kinds of annoying sexist idioms like “the friend zone” and so forth, and we’re unable to move forward to a point where men and women can simply be peers, colleagues or friends.

  9. 9
    VeritasKnight

    THIS.

    Something has bothered me about this episode since watching it. And I couldn’t put my finger on it, other than it bothered me that Irene Adler was a dominatrix. Assuredly, she is portrayed as a brilliant woman, but the basics of her power exchange is rooted in exploiting her sexuality, not her brilliance.

    It’s completely different to the character from the novels, and it really did bother me.

    Thank you for writing this, Natalie. It’s perfect.

    1. 9.1
      Japheree

      I think perhaps that the dominatrix role was introduced in order to make us think of her in similar terms to how a late Victorian audience may have though of Actresses?

      Actresses did have a much less acceptable role in 19th century England. Whether it would be equivalent to a modern sex worker though, I am not sure.

    2. 9.2
      Ing

      I THINK the idea was to present someone who was smart like Holmes but understood the emotional side of people

      I don’t think that succeeded well.

      Surprised no one mentioned the fact that she’s a lesbian…except for Sherlock going into the male fantasy!

  10. 10
    moblues

    This is quickly becoming the best blog ever. So sad that the new series is off to a disappointing start. I’ve been excited about it since last spring. I think that you’ll be getting Doctor Who season 7 before me as well, then spoilers will just be cruel…(I heard River Song in my head just then)

  11. 11
    Jackson

    Have you ever watched Coupling, also by Moffat? There’s a lot in there that I think is sexist. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the funniest sitcoms I’ve ever seen, but it would have been a lot funnier without all of the “the difference between men and women is…” jokes.

  12. 12
    pentatomid

    Why are my comments awaiting moderation?

    1. 12.1
      Natalie Reed

      First time posters always need to be approved first. It helps regulate spam and trolling. Nothing personal. :)

      1. pentatomid

        Oh, OK… I didn’t even realize this was the first time I commented. After all, I’m quite a regular reader.

  13. 13
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    I totally agree on Irene Adler, I was quite upset by what they did to her. Also they messed her up in the second Robert Downey Jr Sherlock film.

    I’m not sold on the defense of Amy Pond, either. What’s so great about her? She waits. And keeps her eyes closed. And waits and waits and waits. And needs rescuing and doesn’t get it, until she waits a lot more, or doesn’t get it ever. And for variety, sometimes she waits while she’s frozen. And let’s not even discuss the Kiss-o-gram thing. OK, she’s a mother who isn’t solely defined by her motherhood, but that seems to be about it. Give me Donna Noble any day. Or Leela or Ace or Romana.

    1. 13.1
      StarStuff, a soulless cunt

      I completely agree with you about Amy. Seriously, she couldn’t have had a career? Or interests that didn’t involve the Doctor and Rory? Nope. She just kisses people while wearing costumes and waits for the Doctor or Rory.

      Even if the character wasn’t sexist, she’d still be pretty damned boring.

      I do love the Doctor and Rory, but the Amy (and River) thing is starting to get to me.

  14. 14
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I don’t know about this particular episode, but from what I’ve seen, Holmes is pretty much an asshole. So I’d say this behavior fits his character as done in Sherlock wonderfully.

    1. 14.1
      ladydreamgirl

      No, it’s not in character for him.

  15. 15
    Kara

    Hmm, I’ll have to rewatch it, but I don’t remember Adler’s portrayal being quite that way. There was a lot I didn’t like about that episode in particular, and a lot I agree with in this post, but I differ on a few points.

    For example, her “battle dress” nudity. My interpretation was that her decision to present herself nude had more to do with anticipating that Holmes would be able to read details about her from her clothing; this was emphasized by the superimposed question marks which surrounded her when Holmes looked at her nude body, in contrast with the superimposed inferences that popped up onscreen when he examined Watson in that same scene. Thus, her decision to forego clothing was a calculated, intelligent act, designed to thwart Holmes’ profiling skills, rather than an attempt to outright seduce him. If we recall, we saw her trying on several different outfits during their respective “preparation” scenes; presumably she decided on the inference-impervious nude attire after reflecting on the decision for some time.

    On the other hand, she still showed up with gobs of makeup on, and I felt slightly irritated that Holmes wasn’t able to infer anything from that, her hair style, or any small indicators of personal grooming. (For instance, armpit hair slightly less skillfully shaved on the right side: she must be right handed.) So maybe that indicates that he was being dazzled by her body. Or was conveniently ignorant about those mysterious “feminine” beauty and hygiene practices.

    That aside, I don’t think Adler’s character come across as “nothing” without her body–she’s also shown to be incredibly skilled at manipulating others in a non-sexual ways, and she predicts Holmes’ behavior about as well as Moriarti does. (Well, for the first part of the episode, anyway.) Now, the trope of the conniving, duplicitous, manipulative woman isn’t that much better than the seductress, and is indeed often paired with it. But I’m just saying, her abilities weren’t limited SOLELY to sexual attraction.

    If we’re a little charitable to Moffatt (which may not be warranted: like I said, I don’t think this is a problem-free episode) we can also look at the entire seduction thing as an update for modern times. In Victorian England, Holmes held a low opinion of women, I assume mostly because of the prevailing attitudes of the time. The contemporary Holmes isn’t, let us suppose, a misogynist from the start; but he is completely uninterested in sex and in women as sexual/romantic partners. Thus, Adler’s challenge is not to improve modern Holmes’ view of women, because he is not looking down on them the way turn-of-the-century Holmes did; but rather, she is to be so intelligent, skillful, and, yes, sexy that she can arouse passion even from him.

    He definitely still rescues a helpless damsel-in-distress-whose-scheming-has-landed-her-in-bigger-trouble-than-she-can-handle at the end, though.

    1. 15.1
      Emburii

      But the story was also interesting in that Holmes expected her to be more interested in blackmailing the Prince that actually pursuing a law-abiding life than the man she loved; he expected the worst and he was proven wrong in the story by both her motivations AND capabilities. Instead, in Moffat’s version, it sounds like she’s every bit the duplicitous, manipulative sleeparound that Holmes takes her to be. So it sounds less like an update and more of a (tired) twist on the old story.

  16. 16
    Tenebras

    Just one more reason for me to prefer Grenada’s version of the stories, and Jeremy Brett’s Holmes. ;)

  17. 17
    ladydreamgirl

    Scandal in Belgravia made me so MASSIVELY angry. Then I got to Scandal in Bohemia in my reading of the original stories and I got even madder. What’s even worse, in my mind, is that it has many funny witty moments, it’s got great writing if you look at pieces of it, but when you look at the whole, if you are even vaguely progressive in terms of gender and sexuality the writing becomes rather… slimy. It twists the characters uncomfortably away from their previously established character as well as veering disgustingly away from the spirit of the original Conan Doyle.

  18. 18
    embertine

    I thought the portrayal of Irene was hugely problematic, but I disagree about Sherlock being romantically or sexually attracted to her. I perceived it as him admiring her on the intellectual level but not in any other way.

    Other than that I agree completely; I enjoyed the episode and will watch it again but it would be refreshing to have a female character who wasn’t a hopeless doormat (Molly), an unwilling domestic servant (Mrs Hudson), or a horrible cow who by the way is actually mostly right about Sherlock (Sally).

    1. 18.1
      Natalie Reed

      You know, I actually think Molly is a pretty great character. I think of her as being more a deconstruction of the “doormat” than actually being a doormat. Instead, she’s very intelligent, very capable, and ultimately in The Reichenbach Fall she matters in a very meaningful and important way. I think she’s a hero, really. And she’s also one of the most human characters in the entire show. I can actually relate to Molly, and feel for her. She’s almost like the Watson for the female viewers. :P

      1. embertine

        But I think Watson is a doormat too! But then I’ve got it mixed up in my head with book!canon, where Watson is so pathetically grateful for every scrap of attention Holmes throws his way that I frequently want to slap him. BBC John is not really like that.

        I love Molly too, but what I hope to see in future series is her standing up to Sherlock a lot more. I think we’ve already seen in The Reichenbach Fall that Sherlock is starting to appreciate that her emotional insights are actually useful in a way he can understand. I want to see her development as a person.

        By the way, does anyone else read John’ blog? BRILLIANT.

        1. Ing

          Sherlock self identifies as a sociopath in this version.

          He uses people.

          Both Watson and Molly are being used. The ambiguous degree to which he has (if any) actual feelings for them is what makes that interaction interesting.

          1. Natalie Reed

            Identifying as a sociopath doesn’t mean you actually ARE a sociopath. It’s entirely, completely clear in this adaptation that he does have genuine feelings for Johny, Molly, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade. It’s indicated repeatedly. Entire plot points hinge on it.

            I’ve been noticing lately that although you can make a protagonist emotionally disconnected, it’s pretty much impossible to have them be a genuine sociopath. Otherwise it becomes pretty much impossible to maintain conflict. See Dexter Morgan and Lt. Data for more on “thinks he’s a sociopath but totally obviously isn’t”/

          2. lauraburchard

            I think it’s very questionable how much Sherlock cares about Molly; he’s pretty contemptuous of her up until he needs her to run some huge risks for him, and suddenly he’s all “you always mattered!”. Smacks more of manipulation then real feeling.

            Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and John, yes, but again there’s a question… he cares about preserving them in regards to them continuing to exist, but in the sense of having empathy and imagining what *they* want, not necessarily so much. Certainly not John, given Sherlock arranged his backup plan in a way that caused John maximum pain. You can arrange a plan to such detail that you have a bicyclist on call to run into him to slow him down and daze him, but you can’t come up with a plan that doesn’t involve your supposed best friend (who has already had one bout of serious depression) speaking to you as he watches you commit suicide, and explicitly demanding that he abandon even the small comfort of being able to defend you?

  19. 19
    Alecthar

    It’s very interesting to see this perspective on Moffat’s Irene Adler. However, I have to disagree somewhat on your interpretation of Adler’s character in the original story. I would agree that, in matching wits with Holmes, she proves herself to be quite brilliant, but do keep in mind that the reason Holmes is hired to begin with is to put an end to her blackmailing of a Bohemian duke with evidence of their former liaison. Adler’s ability to evade Holmes is certainly due to her intellectual gifts, but the power she wields over the duke is closer to being “purely sexual in nature.”

    And while I certainly agree that the ending (Holmes defeating Adler) certainly reeks of a mysoginistic power fantasy, one also has to acknowledge that Irene Adler is more genuinely villainous in Moffat’s adaptation. Not because she manipulates men (and women!) with sex, but because her aims are rather more grand and damaging, and (unlike her Victorian counterpart) she never backs away from her commitment to using the information she possesses towards villainous ends. Holmes achieving victory over her in such a situation was essentially demanded by the narrative (I’m rarely satisfied with the bad guy walking off into the sunset with everyone else’s money), though I agree that the ending over-emphasized her being a “damsel in distress” (so to speak).

    I’m not defending the entirety of the characterization or plot of the episode, but I think it’s at least worth noting that Doyle’s Adler isn’t necessarily worlds better.

    1. 19.1
      ladydreamgirl

      I just went to re-read a bit of Scandal in Bohemia because I thought that you were wrong about Adler blackmailing the prince. It actually seems a bit more complicated than just blackmail given that she won’t sell the picture and in the end goes off without compromising the king’s marriage, holding on to the picture as a form of insurance. In fact the only evidence the readers are given that she has threatened to send it to the king’s fiancee is the king’s own word, something which, following the resolution, I am not entirely sure I wish to trust unquestioningly. Looking back over the story I think a case could be made that Irene did not in fact threaten the king but he knew of the existence of the picture and though that it being in her hands was sufficient of a threat to attempt to gain possession of and by illegal means no less. He seems to me perfectly capable of lying about the matter, or at least stretching the truth about it.

      1. embertine

        ldg, that’s exactly my interpretation of the original story as well. There is no indication that Irene ever threatened blackmail at all. And at the end when Holmes sneers that Irene certainly was not on the same level as the King, I took that to mean that the King has only ever had base desires and feelings and so has imparted motives to Irene that she didn’t have, being above that sort of thing.

        In summation: she rocks.

  20. 20
    benedictalina

    An extremely well written piece regarding Irene Adler. I’m not a feminist by any means but I do agree with you. I would have enjoyed the episode much more if they had stuck more closely to the source material instead of relying on sex. It rather degraded the whole thing.

  21. 21
    Cipher

    I can’t read most of the post because I just started watching Sherlock yesterday and haven’t even finished the first episode yet, but I’ll just say this at this point: I trust your assessment, and as such I’m really, really disappointed and kinda don’t want to continue :(
    P.S. This:

    And believe it or not, my reasons for liking this particular show go above and beyond my absolute infatuation with Benedict Cumberbatch and his gorgeous, glacially blue eyes.

    It’s really awesome so far, yeah. I like Watson, I like how Cumberbatch plays Sherlock. I’m undecided as yet on the use of text. But ye gods those eyes. Omg.

  22. 22
    Sgaile-beairt

    It’s even worse, since Original!Irene successfully fools the Master of Disguise by cross-dressing boldly in a time when lawmakers openly called for new laws to make it as illegal to do so in England as it already was in much of the United States since the 1840s:

    http://www.timeout.com/london/gay-lesbian/article/3171/cross-dressing-in-victorian-london

    http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/sinks-manwoman.htm

    Her attractiveness to Sherlock is explicitly NOT based on conventional sexuality (yes, Bad Girl With A Whip is very conventional, why so many conservative men patronize dominatrices according to the latter) and may even be a hint by ACD that Holmes was just more careful than Oscar Wilde, not asexual after all. Vive la difference!

  23. 23
    Cara

    I just saw the episode, and I’m surprised that in all this discussion, no one mentioned one of its other sexist aspects: Irene Adler doesn’t know what to do with all the secrets she’s seduced out of powerful men until *another* man, Moriarty, tells her. I’m sorry, this episode is sexist through and through. Irene’s power is primarily sexual, she’s used as a pawn by Moriarty in his conflict with two other men, Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock beats her, and Sherlock rescues her at the end. Moffat took the source material and made it *more* sexist. How wrong is that?

  24. 24
    Sammka

    (Bah, please ignore the incomplete comment that I inadvertently submitted)

    I identify as a radical feminist and I actually LOVED Irene Adler.

    First, I don’t think she’s too much of a thematic departure from the original books. In the book, the entire reason Irene Adler was relevant was that she seduced a king and had a comprimising picture of herself with him, which she was using to attempt to prevent his marriage to another woman. She’s extremely smart, but her motivations were more or less petty (at least at first) and her power over the king, as in the BBC series, came from the fact that she’d seduced him and she could prove it. She only drops it because she marries someone else, under sufficiently bizarre circumstances that the reader is left to believe that something odd is going on. She’s not a cross-dresser because she’s genderqueer – she cross-dressed because in Victorian England she otherwise couldn’t walk down the street alone. Irene Adler of the show would probably do the same thing, but fortunately she didn’t have to. And Holmes has the same sentimental fascination with her that he does in the BBC series; although they have fewer direct interactions with each other, he keeps a photograph of her and a coin she gave him as mementos and calls her “the woman.”

    The main changes that Moffat made to Irene is that the new Irene’s choice to use sexually incriminating photos to control powerful people is no longer incidental, and she’s now a criminal mastermind. I’m not sure I mind the latter; honestly I’d rather she be a criminal mastermind than just some woman trying to prevent an ex-lover from moving on.

    As to the former, I don’t think that her choice to gain power through sexual manipulation and blackmail is portrayed in a particularly sexist way. It’s not inherently sexist to have a character who does this; it happens in real life. The danger is in falling into one of the two primary misogynist responses to the threat of a sexually exploitative woman: portray her as stupid and the ‘exploitation’ as actually a great deal for the people (particularly men) that she seduces, or portray the woman as the ultimate evil, deserving of extreme violence (often sexual violence) to put her back in her place (unless she voluntarily returns there by falling in love by the hero).

    It’s pretty clear that Adler’s exploitation of others isn’t actually a great deal for the people she exploits. She’s not any less intelligent in the show than in the books: In fact Moffatt makes a point of demonstrating that she’s on a level with Holmes: she solves one of his crimes and easily sees through many of his tricks that would fool most people.

    But she’s also not portrayed as deserving any greater punishment beyond what another criminal mastermind on her level would deserve. When Mycroft tells Sherlock that she’s exploited Sherlock’s deep-seated need to impress others (which Mycroft implies is based on sexual attraction, but it probably isn’t; Sherlock is such a show-off that he’d take a 50% chance at dying just to impress a serial killer, and he really appreciates good adversaries), Sherlock’s response isn’t one of anger but rather admiration. And Sherlock’s use of Irene’s admiration of him against her at the end of the episode is simply fair turnaround for that (I’m not sure that her admiration is sexual either; she tells Watson that she’s gay, mostly seems to admire Sherlock’s intelligence, and the only physical giveaways of her affection for Sherlock are her pupils and pulse – neither of which particularly single out romantic attraction).

    And yes, Sherlock saves her at the end. The reason she’s in trouble isn’t because she’s helpless but rather because she’s a criminal mastermind who just lost her main form of protection. It’s not misogynist to portray her as vulnerable in that situation; it’d be unrealistic not to. Sherlock cares about her and doesn’t want her to die as a result of his actions, so he saves her. It also gave the camera another opportunity to show that she’s a woman of intense dignity; she had been prepared to face her death with only a moderate amount of distress and you certainly didn’t see her trying to beg or plead her way out of it using her feminine wiles.

    Overall I thought it was a particularly favorable portrayal of a particular kind of person. I would be more offended if the original Irene Adler hadn’t been primarily (in the context of the story) about seducing powerful people, or if this was the only way that female criminals in Sherlock went about their business. But it’s important to acknowledge that (especially in this society) at least some female criminals are likely to rely heavily on social/sexual manipulation, and I’m glad that they managed to portray such a character without falling into any of the more obvious misogynist traps.

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