SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses the plot of Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia and the original source material, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia.
It’s pretty ghastly when a story written over 120 years ago has better gender politics than its modern reimagining. With BBC’s Sherlock, this is exactly what happened. The most recent episode, A Scandal in Belgravia puts a modern spin on the Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia, and manages to engage in a horrifying mess of feminism-fail by the end.
The feminism-fail is hardly surprising when the series is written by Stephen Moffat, whose previous works include heteronormative, binary-obsessed Coupling and episodes of Doctor Who which include womb-magic resurrecting the dead and saving some trees among other horrors. For much of Sherlock, I was actually pretty impressed with Moff. Maybe, just maybe, he had finally managed to write a female character who was awesome.
And this is the thing. For at least 80 minutes, the character Irene Adler was really awesome. Irene Adler was updated from a controversial opera singer who had affairs with the nobility to a dominatrix to the rich and famous. As with the original, Adler was portrayed as incredibly smart–an intellectual match for Holmes himself.
In the original story, Adler is clever enough to fool Holmes himself and escape, not allowing a scandalous photograph of a Bohemian royal to fall into Holmes’s hands and sneaking herself out of the country. All in all, she is fierce, resourceful and clever. Holmes himself is impressed and learns that women can be clever. Given the story was written rather some time ago, this is progressive in a way which seems thoroughly sexist these days.
In Sherlock, for the first 80 minutes, the character of Adler is much the same. She is an intellectual foil to Sherlock, anticipating his every move in order to stop him getting hold of an iPhone containing scandalous photographs of what we can only assume is Kate Middleton in a ball gag. In the first scene in which she and Sherlock meet, Adler is completely naked. I read this scene as Adler being intelligent enough to know that Holmes has a nasty habit of reading all sorts of details about a person’s life from their clothes, and therefore gave him little to go on, although given the sexism towards the end, I may be optimistic in this assessment.
Everything goes horribly wrong at the end. Out of nowhere, Adler reveals that much of her security arrangements and her outfoxing of Holmes is down to advice received from Moriarty. That’s right. Irene Adler goes from being the fierce, resourceful, clever woman to being somebody who had to ask a man for help in order to succeed. She is not allowed to be brilliant in her own right, only through the advice from a dude who has some tension with the main dude in the show. In the space of a few lines, Adler is reduced from an active force to a passive pawn in Moriarty and Holmes’s ongoing cock-duelling.
It gets worse. We are shown what had appeared to be moments of affection between her and Holmes that we had been shown previously in the episode, and Holmes informs us that he was actually checking her pulse and pupil dilation, and he has concluded that she loves him. This is in spite of the fact that Adler has previously pointed out to Watson that she is gay. Holmes being Holmes, he is right. Holmes is such an uber-dude that a lesbian has fallen in love with him and thoroughly fucked up all of her security arrangements by the password to the only thing keeping her safe being an allusion to her crush.
Adler is left friendless due to her fluttery lady-emotions being her downfall, and we are solemnly informed that she has been beheaded by terrorists. Fortunately for Adler, in the last few moments of the show we are informed what actually happened: she was rescued from certain by Holmes. In the course of the episode, Adler goes from being a genuinely awesome female character to a damsel in distress who is propped up entirely by men.
While the original story was written over a century ago, none of this bullshit happened. Adler is consistently portrayed as strong and bright. Yes, she does what she does so she can get married, but here’s the crucial point: she does it all herself.
Not so for the recent adaptation. In this, we are shown that as women, we’re always going to need a man to rescue us. We just can’t do it on our own: were we to try, we’d end up losing vital documents and on the headless end of a jihadi-beheading. Once again, Moff has managed to put women in the place he want them.
I would gladly keep the sparkling, sexy, sharp Irene Adler of most of the episode, and cut off the end entirely. And if the BBC need to fill up the full 90 minutes, why not extend the scene where she is beating Sherlock Holmes with a cane? And perhaps, let’s see him beg for mercy. Twice.