Irene Adler: how to *not* butcher a brilliant woman character

Spoiler warning: this post contains MASSIVE HONKING SPOILERS FOR ELEMENTARY. If you haven’t watched season 1 to the end yet, turn back now, because it’s actually really good and I don’t want to ruin it for you. You have been warned. 

A year and a half ago, I wrote a little blog about how badly Stephen Moffat had fucked up the character of Irene Adler in his Sherlock. I complained that he had stripped Irene of everything that made her cool, removing all of her agency and turning her into a mere piece in a game between two men. I ejaculated with despair when this woman had to be rescued (by a man, obviously). I expressed dismay about how a story over a century old had better gender politics than something that was on the telly recently.

So when I started watching Elementary, I was slightly worried about how Irene Adler might be fucked up and fucked over by a writer, yet again. I probably needn’t have, as Elementary had managed, with a great deal of success, to not piss me off. It had a very strong female character who wasn’t a Strong Female Character™, and portrayed a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman in a really touching way.

When Irene Adler finally emerged as a victim needing rescue, I had my palm ready to apply to my face. And fuck me, I didn’t need to.

See, as an audience, we’re conditioned to be surprised at a twist, even a twist that was pretty obviously foreshadowed. Dramatically, we needed a twist. And my goodness, it was a brilliant one.

Having Irene Adler as Moriarty was a delight. This Irene is not a passive pawn, but an agent. It goes beyond placing Irene Adler as the woman who outsmarted Sherlock once and elevates her to the status of Sherlock’s equal, a more than worthy adversary. While Moffat’s Adler ended her story with needing to be rescued by Sherlock, Elementary’s began this way, using her apparent rescue as a manipulation.

This Irene holds the cards at all times. This Irene Adler very nearly wins.

Dramatically, she can’t win, because Sherlock always wins. However, Sherlock’s victory was on points this time, atop a trail of bodies.

And yes, we might say something about her weakness being her love for Sherlock, but let us not forget that the only reason Sherlock fell for her gambit was that she was his weakness. Even here, they are equals. Even here, they have both used it as leverage.

And I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of this rather brilliant villain.

(apologies for all the squee, this is what happens on the rare occasion I actually like something. Fully concede that Elementary isn’t perfect, particularly in their fuck-ups on Miss Hudson, but Irene Adler is kind of a pet favourite character of mine)

Poly means many: Challenging assumptions

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at This month, our topic is “assumptions”.

I was thinking recently about the overlap between negative assumptions made about poly people, and those made about bisexuals. In some places, these assumptions are nigh-on indistinguishable.

A fairly common stereotype of bisexuals and poly folk alike is that we’re promiscuous. It’s assumed that we are thoroughly unable to hold down a relationship, that our lives are a non-stop disco of wild orgies, a parade of disconnected genitalia flailed around willy-nilly. Sometimes this is couched in a concern for our health (or, more likely, the health of the community, because if a proper person accidentally has sex with one of us sinful sluts then it’s game over for them and their nice normal life). Other times it’s just a massive moral outcry. But it’s rooted in the thing: we have a lot of sex and we kind of suck at relationships.

Now, I could write a passionate screed about how this is categorically untrue about me, and how this whole assumption is a vicious smear on our communities, except I’d be lying if I did.

do have a lot of sex. And I am not interested in having a domestic partnership relationship. I kind of suck at those sort of relationships, because they’re really not for me.

Now, it’s all too easy for the poly and bisexual communities to denounce people like me, those who live up to the negative stereotypes that people hold about us, except this is throwing us under the bus. It’s saying “oh, don’t be silly, we’re as normal and nice as you, let’s forget about those aberrant hussies over there”. In doing this, it’s easy to perpetuate exactly the same negative assumptions.

Instead of taking the easy route, what we need to do is examine exactly where the negativity in these assumptions comes from and then smash all of that. Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of smashing to do.

Some of the negativity comes from biphobia, a general societal negative attitude towards bisexuals. This is simply plain bigotry, dressed up as a number of other readily-available prejudices ingrained in society. Biphobia is grindingly present from both heterosexuals and gay people, and both groups need to stop doing it.

Some of it comes from the dominant “relationship escalator” model of relationships, wherein relationships that do not follow a prescribed course are devalued. The relationship escalator in turn is likely rooted to some extent in ownership of property–marriage is, after all, historically a legal arrangement to help sort out who owns what. While we are no longer necessarily expected to marry, it’s no coincidence that a relationship isn’t considered meaningful until you’re both sharing possessions and a house, which is a patent nonsense.

Some of it comes from slut-shaming. Our society does not like it when people are having a lot of sex. There is nothing more threatening to a misogynist than a woman who is mistress of her own sexuality (and, likewise, anyone who is not a heterosexual man).

All of this leads to an environment wherein if we do not conform to a fairly rigid set of behavioural expectations, we are hung out to dry. We are punished for not marching to a beat that never sounded right to us.

The fact is, I’m happy. I’ve found what works for me and I am living and loving. I know full well that negative assumptions are made about what I do, even by people within my community, but do you know what? Fuck that shit. In failing to challenge the negativity inherent in these assumptions, we will find ourselves stuck at merely being tolerated rather than liberated and being truly able to love freely. Even when one does not experience it, the constraints that lead to negativity bind us all, pointing many of us in a direction which we see as the only choice there really is.

So let us smash the negativity and challenge these assumptions right from their root. It’s a hell of a lot more work, but it is work that is ultimately worth doing.