So I think we all have read or written our own opinions on the portrayal of woman characters in media. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s ugly. How many times have I seen discussions about how while Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Buffy as a hero is excellent and progressive on so many levels, there are other places in which it completely fails?
And then, of course, there is the controversy around how Steven Moffat portrays characters in the shows he has written for. From what I have seen–which consists of much of Coupling, a few episodes of Dr. Who, and all six episodes of Sherlock so far–it is very hit or miss. Sometimes he does really well, and sometimes he just outright fails. And unfortunately, when it comes to the portrayal of Irene Adler in the Sherlock episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” he more often misses the target than hits it.
Just for reference, here’s a little background on Irene Adler: She first appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Holmes refers to her only as “the woman.” Really, she was the only woman to ever outwit Sherlock Holmes, and she used her own faculties to do it. Now here comes the part that connects the dots from then to now: In his biography of Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring-Gould adds that Holmes and Irene did, in fact, become lovers during the “Great Hiatus,” the three years during which Holmes was presumed dead after ostensibly plummeting with his nemesis Moriarty to the bottom of Reichenbach Falls. And since then some have taken the idea of Irene Adler as a love interest for Holmes and run with it, as we have seen most recently in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. Here, Irene, as portrayed by Rachel McAdams, is the adventuress Doyle imagined, a sexy little scamp with a shadowy past and at least one divorce (quite a shock in the Victorian era) behind her. We already know that she is a scandalous woman, and that any association with her is guaranteed to lead into trouble, yet she must also take the actions she does because she has somehow been forced into Moriarty’s employ. So instead of simply being a clever, resourceful woman who outwits Sherlock Holmes, Irene is transformed into a sort of femme fatale and quasi-damsel in distress.
But Moffat himself insists that his portrayal of Irene is quite progressive. Instead of being an opera singer, Irene is transformed into a dominatrix. This does make sense, as the occupation choice of dominatrix carries the same dubiousness today that a career as an opera singer did in the late Victorian era. Yet instead of simply outwitting Sherlock, she is, according to The Guardian’s Jane Clare Jones, “saved only from a certain death by the dramatic intervention of our hero.” She is reduced from a “woman of great intellect and agency” with a “soul of steel” to a woman who “simply knows what men like and how to give it to them,” whose clever plan is not of her own devising, “but dependent on the advice of Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty.” (Jones)
Moffat vehemently disagrees with Jones’s insistence that Irene looks worse in 2012 than she did in 1891. “In the original, Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes was to move house and run away with her husband. That’s not a feminist victory,” he says.
Let’s take another look at this again.
Irene Adler made her own way in the world as an opera singer in the original short story, and she was very much a mistress of her own fate. When the romance with her lover, a Bohemian prince, ended because of his impending marriage to a Scandinavian princess, Irene went on her own way. But the prince was frightened that Irene would be vindictive enough to reveal a compromising picture of the two of them. He had tried everything to retrieve the picture from Irene, and he finally resorted to hiring Sherlock Holmes for the task. Yet while investigating, Holmes found out that Irene was not set on blackmailing the prince at all; as a matter of fact, she was moving on with her own life and marrying a man whom she loved and who loved her in return, Godfrey Norton. Irene scopes out the situation and is able to outwit Holmes at his own game, and she assures the detective in a letter that she is happy with her new husband and does harbor any ill will toward the prince.
Irene’s victory was very much a feminist victory. She left a relationship that wasn’t working for her, and she moved on with her life. It was the prince who, in his paranoia that Irene would stoop so low to get back at him, hired people to follow her, to intimidate her, and to even break into her home to try and retrieve the picture. The prince was more or less hiring people to stalk Irene and to bully her into capitulating and giving him the photograph. Sherlock Holmes was intelligent enough to see this, and his understanding of Irene’s situation led to a mutual respect because she proved herself his equal. Not only this, but Irene had the guts to leave a dysfunctional relationship for a healthy one and, while she had no real ill will toward the Bohemian prince, she had no problem calling him out on his horrible behavior and not giving him what he wanted. In the end, she did win, because she took care of herself first, made her own choices, and stuck to her guns and did not bend to anyone’s will but her own.
And that is what’s called a feminist victory.
Mr. Moffat, I think you need to eat your words.
So good night, Irene Adler Norton, wherever you are, and may you celebrate your feminist victory!