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Good Night, Irene: On Moffat’s Portrayal of Irene Adler in Sherlock

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?

Gayle Hunnicutt as Irene Adler and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s/1990s Granada TV series. Irene appears to be a confident, intelligent woman who is mistress of her own fate, not a femme fatale.

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.

Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes movies.

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.

Oh, Moffat!

Let’s take another look at this again.

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler in Sherlock. As you can see, she even looks the part of a femme fatale.

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.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Lara Pulver as Irene Adler in Sherlock


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!

17 replies on “Good Night, Irene: On Moffat’s Portrayal of Irene Adler in Sherlock”

Moffat’s treatment of women is definitely iffy. Look at what happened to Doctor Who after it transferred from RTD to him. We went from having MARTHA EFFIN’ JONES and DONNA EFFIN’ NOBLE (hopefully how I feel about them is put across in how I wrote their names) to Amelia Pond (who, don’t get me wrong, I love because she’s funny and snarky and as we’ve seen is perfectly capable of kicking ass on her own, but also has a strong tendency to be the damsel in distress). Sorry, I haven’t actually seen A Scandal in Belgravia yet, so my only reference point for Moffat/Women is Doctor Who.

Dear Lord, how I hated what he did to Irene Adler.

(My twelve-year-old Sherlock nerd self has been complaining all throughout the second season of Sherlock – I loved the first, did not like the second AT ALL)

I read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories over and over as a preteen/teenager and even then I felt like Sherlock was either gay or asexual (even if I didn’t know what asexual was at the time, to me he was just utterly uninterested in romance/sex). I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this whole “Sherlock lurves Irene” nonsense, and her being a lesbian who falls for him utterly enraged me.Especially when corrective rape is still a thing in this world – I can’t help it, it’s the first thing I thought of. I mean, she seems bisexual more than anything else, so why have her identify as gay? Because Sherlock has a magic cock and they needed to emphasize on how special he is?

Irene WINS. She outwits the great Sherlock Holmes and he is left there going “huh, maybe women aren’t as dumb as I thought”. Here, he makes her BEG, and saves her life. How is that more progressive than the original? It’s the same goddamn damsel in distress trope. Frankly, she should have run off to marry her girlfriend or something along those lines.

It’s really a shame, because I liked the idea of her being a dominatrix – it has a nice whiff of scndal to it – and this could have been really good.

This whole season has been very trying on my nerves. Probably because I thought the first was so well-done.

I have mixed feelings about Moffat’s version of Irene. While I was watching the episode, I was fascinated: she was charismatic, mysterious, very very smart. But afterwards, after the glamour had worn off, I had questions: why was she so, so sexualised? Why did she need Sherlock’s totally out-of-character and implausible rescue at the end? And why did Moffat give Sherlock the ‘magic lesbian-curing dick’ that really wasn’t necessary, either?

Yes, this exactly.  It was almost like Moffat was using that James Bond lesbian-curing dick fantasy and turning it on Irene.  But then he has always poked fun at sexuality, so maybe he was using the episode to do so.

I did find the extent to which Irene was sexualized to be problematic.  As a character she was brilliant, but the sexualization was an issue.  A woman doesn’t need to be a smoldering temptress or femme fatale to be able to kick some ass or outwit an adversary.  Look at the women in the cast of “Spooks;” they are all intelligent and the best of the best and have something of their own to bring to the team effort of ass-kicking.  And they are all different, but they don’t fit very neatly into the pigeonholes of female character tropes.  I think that in Sherlock, Moffat has overly relied on certain tropes of female characters–the femme fatale, the scold, the smart but slightly awkward forever singleton, the flaky mother type, for example.  He has neglected to remember that his female characters are just as complex and just as much of individuals as his male characters are.  Every writer is going to rely on some tropes to help flesh out their characters, but when you flesh out your male characters as complex individuals and rely on tropes and stereotypes in the creation of your female characters, that is a problem.

Unpopular opinion is unpopular, but I loved Moffat’s take on Irene Adler.

I have not read the book character of Adler, but just comparing Moffat’s version to the cinema version, she is so much more of a presence in the tv series. The raw power she exudes in the tv series, combined with the strong brains and strong sexuality has made her one of my role models, and someone I’d like to emulate. She’s not nice, and she’s not going to admit weakness. Yes, Sherlock saves her, but does anyone remember her bringing him to the floor during her escape? She can manage on her own, and even if he hadn’t been shown saving her, nothing in her previous actions led me to believe that she was ever planning to die under that sword. Weakness or vulnerability never constituted part of her character during that episode, in my eyes. In a way Moffat was making her more dangerous to Sherlock than Moriarty, because while Sherlock can get into Moriarty’s head, Adler is still an enigma. The pulse trick was simply that, a trick. He still doesn’t really know what makes her tick.

Yes, she did all of those things, yet it’s more of the whole trope of a female character being portrayed as a love interest (albeit a very complicated one) for the main male character.  I will write on more of this when the series premieres in the United States, but there is so much more to Irene.  However, this also may have been a nod to Baring-Gould’s idea of Sherlock and Irene eventually hooking up.

yes, I loved it too. She owned herself in a way that I want to be able to do someday, and she made no apologies. Strong – sexy, yes, but I didn’t feel like that was her defining characteristic – and damn, I just wanted to whip my hair back after watching her. Loved her

Oh ho! I’ve been kicking around a “Is Moffat Bad For Women” post in my head for quite some time now, but as I haven’t seen Coupling or his version of Jeckyll and Hyde, I’ve been putting it off.

So I’m thrilled to see this here. I absolutely love Sherlock, and was super disappointed by Irene Adler. (I have yet to find someone who thinks Moffat did a good job with her?)

I haven’t seen this episode yet, but when I heard Moffat was going to do Irene Adler, I was afraid of this type of outcome. I really enjoyed the first series of Sherlock, too. I want to see a strong portrayal of Irene Adler on TV or in a movie. She’s a great character with so much potential. And, now I want to re-read Carole Nelson Douglas’s wonderful Irene Adler series.

This is a great article. Moffat’s comments on the original story are very enlightening. He really didn’t get it.

His Adler disappointed me. I have nothing against sexy ladies, God knows, but when so many female characters are sexualized, it feels like people believe that’s the only way a female character could possibly be of any interest.

Moffat did such a good job of translating Sherlock and Watson to the 21st century, but when it came to Adler, he clearly didn’t feel obligated to be true to the character’s spirit. The original Adler was much more multi-faceted and more impressive.

I tried watching a few episodes of the BBC Sherlock, but I couldn’t get past the CSI-ification, even though I liked the actors who play Sherlock and Watson. I’ve also never really been on board with Irene Adler as a love interest for Sherlock Holmes. Sounds like it’s just as well that I bailed on the series before I hit this episode.

I absolutely love this adaptation of Sherlock — it works far better than a modernization has any right to — but yeah, I was not crazy about the portrayal of Irene Adler this season. (I was also not crazy about the weirdly racist second episode last season). On the other hand, Sherlock, Watson, Moriarty, and Mycroft are all just great.

Irene could have been a lot of things, like an actress turned a CIA agent or something, a Jane of All Trades.  If Moffat had included Godfrey Norton there would have been a lot of opportunities for screwball-comedy-type situations, which the whole pattern of the show is already open to.  Moffat is great when he is on his A-game.  He really wasted the whole thing.

I want to see an ep based on The Copper Beeches and The Priory School and maybe The Musgrave Ritual myself.


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