The Woman

Sherlock returned to the television this weekend, and is available on iPlayer until 22nd January if you haven’t seen it. It adapted the story of A Scandal in Bohemia, which I haven’t read, but which features Irene Adler, the woman who out foxed Sherlock Holmes. And, as is the raison d’être of the show, it updated her for the 21st century. Personally, I enjoyed the beginning of the episode, which resolved the cliffhanger at the end of the first series (although I was very annoyed by that cliffhanger in August 2010, how could you have a cliffhanger after three episodes?!) and went on to show Sherlock and John gain notoriety, ultimately ending with a trip to Buckingham Palace and employment by someone, no idea who lives there. I also enjoyed the end of the episode, when Sherlock figured out one of the mysteries running through the episode. But the middle I felt dragged a little – the overall plot lacked structure, and ran like a series of encounters between two characters which, to have the proper effect, really needed either different events or a voiceover to bridge them. The banter between Sherlock and Irene and John and Mycroft was good, there were enjoyable things about the episode, but from a narrative perspective I wonder if this story wouldn’t have been better cut up and distributed across a longer series, or even (heaven forbid) structured around advertising breaks which might have given an element of structure to proceedings.

A more series complaint about the episode was raised by this commentator on the Guardian website. I’m not sure how far I agreed with the article, then a quick glance at the comments revealed that I didn’t want to agree with those people, which meant I probably agreed with the article. However a few notes jarred with me. Firstly, and perhaps understandably, my adoration of the Doctor/Amy/Rory period of Doctor Who means that I haven’t noticed Steven Moffat’s “failure to sketch a compelling central dynamic between the lead and his companion”, although I accept that I might be blinkered on this front. I would agree that, while I adore Amy, I wouldn’t be confident in describing her as a good female role model the way I would Buffy Summers, for example. However, bringing the Doctor, or rather Matt Smith’s Doctor, into the equation does show off a deficiency in arguing about the tendencies of a writer from a limited selection of their works: how do the characters from Coupling,  or Sally Sparrow, or any other women Moffat has written in Doctor Who fit into this equation? I would imagine the parallel to Irene Adler in the mind of the commentator, although this is not explicitly stated, is River Song. I the dynamic between the sexually repressed but incredibly intelligent Doctor and the more expressive and freely sexual (as well as incredibly intelligent) River is perhaps the PG version of Sherlock and Irene’s relationship in “A Scandal in Belgravia”; there is in turn the casual flirtation between the male lead and his companion, which is ruled out for one reason or another but continues to provide a note of humour in any episode written by Moffat.

The rest of the argument goes on to suggest that the portrayal of Irene Adler is sexist for various reasons, which I initially found convincing. The first counter argument I would suggest, however, is that there is any intention of sexism of Moffat’s part. In fact, I would suggest that the most fertile ground for inadvertent sexism in the modern world is when a man attempts to create a strong female character. If it goes wrong, it begins to look like a male fantasy (and the comments about the final scene of that episode of Sherlock are perhaps the most accurate accusation) – but then again that’s what this is, fiction written by a man. Sherlock is the hero, of course he will eventually outwit Irene (even if that’s not the point of the original story). If an Irene Adler is to appear who is a good, strong, female role model then perhaps the best way to do that would be to have a woman write her – but this amounts to saying that if you don’t like what we’re doing do it yourself.* In a Skype conversation with a friend about this article earlier I blamed “an industry which fails to properly serve its female writing talent, and a society which remains unequal”. Perhaps this is the case, I feel less confident about it now.

A further counter, which is focused more on the episode of Sherlock itself (and contains spoilers, so look away now if you haven’t watched it), would be that Irene’s sentiment is not the weakness which Sherlock states that it is. Or rather, it is not a weakness in her, but in him – throughout the episode we have seen how she manages to outwit him through manipulation of his feelings towards her. In fact, one might be tempted to argue that in presenting Sherlock (and the Doctor) as an incredibly intelligent man whose weakness is his sexual inexperience that, as an intelligent man, I could be offended by the presumption that this would be MY weakness (if I had any evidence to the contrary. . .). But I wouldn’t press the point. It is the realisation that he has been beaten because of how he feels about Irene that allows Sherlock to figure out the final clue to that last puzzle – her weakness is sentiment, but so was his. The point, I would suggest, is that these two have more in common than they realise.

Then there are the two points which hold most sway (and there are still spoilers here, by the way): that Irene Adler is reduced to bit-player in the squabble between Moriarty and Holmes (to which I have no counter but narrative, and personally I think the narrative would have been better without it); and the final scene, in which Sherlock saves her from being executed in the miscellaneous east: “a double-bill of two of patriarchy’s top-10 fantasies. All those troubled by female sexual power – or the persistent punctuation of orgasmic text alerts – were treated to the sight of the vamp laid low, down on her knees, about to have her block knocked off by a great big sword. And, at the same time, our hero miraculously appeared to save his damsel in distress.” This one is awkward. Firstly, I would suggest that this was obvious from the moment Mycroft said that Sherlock couldn’t have been involved (of course he was you idiot!). And perhaps it was intended to indicate that Sherlock’s spiel about sentimentality was just talk – he’ll still turn up to help her when she’s in trouble. He needed to show sentiment, and this was how they did it. Sexist, yes, but I would still suggest inadvertent.

I hope that this doesn’t make me sound like too much of an apologist – while I’ve exploited some weaknesses in the argument I appreciated that the article from which the blog has been extrapolated makes some very good points and highlights some of the sexism in what I would say is the second best modernisation of the Sherlock Holmes story on television in the early twentieth century. To discuss the best for a moment, Irene Adler is referenced twice explicitly in House M.D., firstly in the surname of the first patient we see House and his team take, and second in the fifth series, when Watson Wilson creates a fictional patient with her name. But she is perhaps updated in the form of Stacy Warner, the woman who defeats Gregory House, and perhaps that is the good modernisation of the character for which we are looking.

I posted that article on facebook to gauge people’s reactions, and my sister commented that she didn’t know why people obsessed so much over such a minor character. This is interesting to me too, but I understand that a lot of this goes on in Sherlock Holmes, who has developed so much as a character beyond the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle to the extent that “Elementary” really could be his catchphrase, and the deer stalker hat his icon, despite never appearing in the original works. Not that I’ve read any of them. I will perhaps write more on this when I have.

* The most efficient immediate counter-argument of which I can think for this is that if the aforementioned Buffy Summers (created by a man, Joss Whedon) is accepted as a strong female role model, then her female-created parallel would be Bella Swann. I haven’t read the Twilight books, and I expect I will read A Scandal in Bohemia long before I get around to them. But perhaps there is enough insinuation here to allow anyone who reads this to come to their own conclusions about what I mean.


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