Irene Adler. The Woman. The only woman to ever beat Sherlock Holmes. It was with trepidation that many fans waited for A Scandal in Belgravia. Some were ecstatic when it came out; many others horribly disappointed. Before the episode aired, there were many people who were worried that Irene would be a love interest for Sherlock, whether it be because they are die-hard shippers who didn’t want a woman getting in the way of ~their ship~ or the idea that Irene and Holmes being in love is nothing new. The latter is based off of many, many years of fandom pairing Irene with Holmes, despite the fact the first paragraph in A Scandal in Bohemia states:
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.
As you can see, there wasn’t any love between Holmes and Irene. Admiration, respect, possible scorn, yes, but never love. Though Irene and Holmes met face to face several times, they never did so without the use of disguises. Holmes dressed up as a workman the first time and acted as an impromptu witness to Irene Adler’s marriage to Godfrey Norton. The second time, he was dressed as a clergyman in order to find where she hid the photograph of her and the King of Bohemia. The third, and last, time they met, she was dressed in men’s clothing and followed Holmes after he found where the photograph was located, and said ‘Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.’ Holmes could not pinpoint who she was, and therefore she managed to beat him at his own game.
Why then, do many scholars like to create a romance between the two? Even though there was no love between them, and even though she married the man she desired and went away with in order to escape harassment? William Baring-Gould, one of the leading scholars of Sherlock Holmes and editor of the Annotated Volumes of Sherlock Holmes, even continued the theory that Nero Wolfe (an American detective) was the child of Holmes and Irene conceived during the Hiatus. In more recent times, Irene Adler was the love interest to Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes. It’s also particular how many pastiches, adaptations, and stories like to play up the idea that Irene Adler was a thief and a femme fatale. She was an adventuress, yes, but only in the sense that she travelled abroad, acted outside of the familiar female norm, and was courted by men outside of her class. The entirety of her criminal exploits was rudimentary blackmail which she was using as a means to keep the King of Bohemia from invading her life even further. He had sent many teams to try and steal the photograph, ransacking her house and breaching her privacy. It’s no wonder she went to such extremes to keep something sentimental to her kept under lock and key.
Given Moffat’s history with female characters, many were concerned that he was the one to try and tackle the episode with such a prominent female character. Some people think Moffat is a ‘feminist writer’ because he writes ~strong female characters~. This article has a lot of quotes that pretty much proves Moffat’s views of feminism.
Moffat, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree. “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 he found Jones’s argument “deeply offensive”. “Everyone else gets it that Irene wins. When Sherlock turns up to save her at the end it’s like Eliza Dolittle coming back to Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: ‘OK, I like you, now let me hack up these terrorists with a big sword.’
Moffat has bizarre views on what is feminist or unfeminist. Irene Adler in the book was a very independent woman who chose a lawyer over a king out of love rather than spite: 'I love and am loved by a better man than he. The King may do what he will without hindrance from one whom he has cruelly wronged. I keep it only to safeguard myself, and to preserve a weapon which will always secure me from any steps which he might take in the future.' How is this not a feminist victory? She made all the choices and moves herself and while she may have been ‘warned’ against Sherlock Holmes, she concocted her own plans, managed her own life, and escaped using her own wits. She won, on her own. Sure, she may have used a bit of help from her coachman and her husband (who she discussed the decision over with rather than him making the decision for her - or the other way around. Relationships that include changes such as the one they made should be equal), but they were acting on her prerogative. It’s also rather ironic that Moffat says Irene ‘run[ning] away with her husband’ is not very feminist when he later states:
It’s not the first time Moffat has been accused of sexism in his writing. He wrote a storyline recently about Doctor Who’s mother. “I was called a misogynist because I was reducing women to mothers. ‘Reducing women to mothers’ – now there is possibly the most anti-women statement I’ve heard.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how getting married is less feminist than constantly having female characters becoming mothers. As Hallor pointed out, not every woman can or wants to be a mother! Childbirth can be scary and dangerous and is not something everyone wants. Also, not every woman has a uterus or can bear children, so why is motherhood necessary to his female characters? I get flak from the people around me for even daring to say I’ll never have children. I get/see statements saying ‘You will when you find the right man!’ or ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ or even ‘Do you hate kids?’ Again, the stereotype that women are the ‘gentle ones’, ‘the homemakers’, ‘the childbearers’, and ‘the emotional ones’ is being perpetuated here. There’s a lot more of this stigma in Doctor Who, so I’ll continue on with another stereotype that Moffat promotes in Sherlock instead.
On Sherlock, Irene Adler is a lesbian Dominatrix. That’s basically the first description that comes to mind when you think about her. In the warehouse with John, she states that she’s homosexual with this conversation:
JOHN (quietly): Who … who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes, but – for the record – if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.
IRENE: Well, I am. Look at us both.
Irene has several relationships with other women that were seen onscreen (presumably Kate Middleton, and her assistant who was also (either coincidentally or intentionally) named Kate), however, she also alludes to relationships with men. Most likely these were all because of her work, where she held power over anyone regardless of their sex. The entire time, she made constant sexual innuendos and passes at Sherlock who made it clear he had no desire for any relationship of the sort.
Throughout the episode, Irene was at a disadvantage. She used information she obtained from Moriarty on how to play Sherlock and Mycroft, she used her occupation to cause conflict between other people and for her own personal gain (something which a Dom/me should not do). She tried to ‘out-Dom’ Sherlock himself, but it was obvious that there was no way he would back down. She ‘beat’ him, not in a game of wits, but rather in a physical sense; a point that was emphasised in the very show. Moffat had done that before in A Study in Pink, where he had Sherlock mock Anderson’s intellect, but slut-shamed Sally in an attempt to point out their weaknesses. Again, even though Irene came in hard and initially baffled Sherlock, he managed to be three steps ahead until Irene had to use physical force to take him down. He broke the code to her safe, took the phone from under her nose, and managed to deal a blow to Irene’s unshakeable confidence in the matter of minutes. It was only with luck that she managed to get that phone back - if he decided to leave after shooting the gun to summon the police, she wouldn’t have beat him at all.
Back to the relationships - the whole point of the episode was, according to Moffat, ‘Sherlock and love’. Or, as what was seen from the show, ‘Sherlock and how women fall in love with him for no reason whatsoever’. Irene was a self-identified lesbian and yet she fell in love with a man. Yes yes, romantic love and sexual lust are completely different things. But let’s take a roll call: how many lesbian/bisexual/non-heterosexual women have been told ‘You just need to find the right guy!’ or ‘You’re into chicks? That’s so hot!’? The only significant relationship Irene had in the episode was with Sherlock who she was constantly flirting with. If she hadn’t explicitly stated that she was gay, how would any of us know? It would appear as if it was another female character falling in love with the main male character. It comes back to the queer visibility that Moffat refuses to show. River Song was never explicitly said to be non-heterosexual in Doctor Who and her only significant romantic relationship was with the Doctor. This is stepping into a rather dangerous ground where sexualities are meant to make these women ‘sexier’, especially to men. They’re both strongly sexual characters and by making them non-heterosexual, it gives way to easily fetishising women who can be associated with them.
That’s not even getting into the way Irene was introduced to Sherlock. Yes, it appeared clever to have her completely nude when they first met in order to hide every bit of evidence from him. However, he can read people by more than just their clothing. Her hairstyle, her lipstick, house-decorations, her accessories even, could make it possible for the great Sherlock Holmes to pinpoint facts about her. In fact, he did so in the show! ‘Can’t be your birthday – no disrespect but clearly you were born in the eighties; the eight’s barely used, so…' for instance, or even how he managed to figure out her measurements were the password. He managed to make inferences from John's physical features in the same scene, so why not Irene's? (Also, it begs the question on how Irene managed to fake her death. Even modifying a body double would leave scarring before the death, and I would hope Sherlock could tell the difference after being in her naked presence for so long. Also, she wouldn't have been able to pretend to be dead the entire time under the scrutiny of three people. Plot hole, anyone?) Moffat used Irene's sexual confidence in an attempt to be clever, but it was more than likely an attempt to generate controversy, comments, and ratings.
'But Sherlock was naked too!' I hear fans shout out against this argument. Yes, he was. Mostly. And it was used more for comedic effect rather than an attempt to be racy. But the fact of the matter is, women are often exposed on screen to show off their body, to show how 'sexy' they are. I raise a questioning eyebrow to the scenes of male characters working out without their shirts on or taking a shower. It seems pointless, but if you compare those scenes to women taking showers, the difference is clear. Men are shown to display their masculinity, their muscles, and (depending on the story) their anguish with life. Women are nude to show their femininity, and sexiness, to be the goddess of your fantasies. It enforces the idea that men are people and women are objects. It makes the entirety of Irene being a lesbian Dominatrix rather disturbing rather than enlightening.
Also, what are Irene’s flaws? This article wasn’t lying when it said we don’t want male writers’ ideas of ~strong female characters~, we want well-rounded characters who are female. Irene came off as the Sherlock version of River Song to me. She was smart, sexy, physically capable, witty, sneaky, and had a vast amount of resources. But, like River, her only flaw seems to be her emotions - her emotions for the Main Male Character to be exact. She tried to be clever, but exposed ~her heart~ to Sherlock by making it obvious she was in love with him. Those pesky womanly emotions! Sherlock took her pulse (which, excuse me, but I wasn’t aware Moffat was reading fanfictions…) and found she was attracted to him and thus realised the password to her phone, crushing Irene’s entire plans to dust. She did not win, and thus does the same to Moffat’s argument of this being a more ‘feminist victory’. Irene Adler beat Holmes in canon in a battle of wits. Sherlock defeats Irene in the show by exposing her attraction to him and he leaves her to her fate. If she was indeed just ‘playing the game’ as she claimed rather than him discovering it by realising she ~liked him~, it would’ve been a better ending. ‘I AM SHERLOCKED’ had the chance to be an amusing password, but the way it was pulled off seemed shallow and conceited.
To finish off the tropes Moffat added onto Irene Adler, from Femme Fatale to Girl on Girl is Hot, she was made into a Damsel in Distress at the very end. Going back to the article about ~strong female characters~, it points out that no matter how capable these female characters are, no matter how strong or how smart, they will need to be saved by a male character. People may argue that Sherlock was returning the favour since it is assumed that Irene was the one to call Moriarty at the beginning of the episode, ending the pool scene on a light note. However, that was months before Irene and Sherlock met, and I highly doubt Irene knew Moriarty’s plans to kill the boys at that point in time. Others may try and say that Irene triumphed in the end since she now knew Sherlock was sentimental towards her, but that’s a moot point. Again, it makes her only flaw her emotions and femininity. Besides the race fail (in choosing Karachi of all places to instigate racism, especially when Islamophobia is so high, and the fact that Karachi was formerly part of the British Empire and is now a financial boon to the Middle East and Asia), look at the scene in context. Irene Adler was dressed in Middle Eastern garb (with perfect makeup and hair) on her knees with men surrounding her with guns. Another man comes up behind her with a sword in order to behead her. She is given one last chance to send a message with the phone she’s somehow managed to keep the entire time, and she sends her last text to Sherlock as a goodbye before he reveals he’s her ‘executioner’ come to save her. For no reason that can be determined, she decided that a country that may want her dead is the best place to hide only to be captured and sentenced to death… Then in the nick of time, the Main Male Character she happened to Fall in Love With comes out of nowhere to save her from impending doom all on his own. This reeks of an action film that has no continuity or consistency and falls into the male fantasy of saving the hot female character from danger.
Because that’s all this episode was with Irene Adler really. A male fantasy in the form of an action film starring Sherlock Holmes and another disappointing adaptation of Irene Adler.