Sherlock: A scandal in sexism?

4 Jan

The Woman - Irene Adler

UPDATE: The idea for this post came from a brilliantly argued piece I read here.

Originally, this post was meant to be a review of Sherlock Series 2, Episode 1. However, something far more interesting has come up. I submit to you, dear reader, is there a sexist undercurrent in the 2012 series opener of Sherlock?

Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes“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 ever seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of softer passions, save with a give and a sneer… And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”

When Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, who you may have seen in Spooks) and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) first meet, we are presented with a sight that baffles even the world’s greatest detective himself: Adler emerges completely naked. Having been prepared for his arrival, knowing exactly who he is and why he has come, Adler turns Sherlock’s deduction technique against him and gives him nothing from which to deduce. For the first time in the show’s history, Sherlock can’t seem to glean anything from observation. Interestingly, to justify her choice, Adler comments that any disguise will always end up being a self portrait – and so it is better to wear no disguise at all. Right at the beginning of their relationship, Adler already displays her cunning. Worth noting, is that in the original story, the two characters never meet under anything but pretence – both approach and fool each other while in disguise, but they never talk openly and on even footing. It’s this kind of game that the two engage in for the rest of the episode: with Adler winning over and over right until the end. And that’s the interesting part: Steven Moffat changed the end.

For those who haven’t read the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (in which A Scandal in Bohemia is the first story), Irene Adler actually wins in the original story. Faced with a cunning plan by Holmes, she sees through his ruse and flies the coop, so to speak, never to be seen again save to deliver a note in person under (the aforementioned) disguise. So why did he change the ending? Surely, changing the end result of the plot strips the character Irene Adler of what makes her unique in the original story and earns her Holmes’ respect? Perhaps. But you have to remember something: the original story doesn’t actually continue after their first confrontation and, in that encounter, Adler does (in fact) win.

After obtaining the “camera phone”, Sherlock confidently strides around her apartment but fails to observe her retrieving the drug from her drawers which ultimately leads to his humiliating defeat. Stunned into submission and unable to speak he is taken through the steps of the boomerang thrower’s death by the brilliant Adler who has also deduced its true cause. She is, in cunning and brains, more than a match for him. We are then treated to a mesmerising scene in which Holmes can do nothing but fall into bed and clumsily stumble around upon waking – like someone who fell asleep and missed the party. Round 1 goes to Miss Adler, who has even returned his coat and changed the text tone on his phone as a final boast.

SherlockAdler continues to play games with Sherlock for the rest of the story, until he finally (at the episodes climax) turns the tables on her. What I believe happens in this scene may be different to what many assumed to be the case. Remember that while updated, and modernised, these stories echo the hearts of the originals they are pastiches of. I do not believe that Adler’s eventual defeat exposes her love for Sherlock. Rather, I believe that it is a moment of epiphany for Sherlock, in which, after struggling with his new feelings for the entire story, he finally understands.

Sherlock realises he does in fact not feel love for her, but instead a mutual admiration – they are mesmerized by each other and while Adler can accept that, it is a concept entirely new to Sherlock: to revere someone else in the way he reveres himself. In their very first encounter, Adler notes that Sherlock is wearing a clerical collar and says he “believe[s] in a higher power”, citing it as himself. She is not wrong. Sherlock Holmes is, of all literary characters, the man most sure of himself. This is partly justified, but also – as proved in the original story – a fatal flaw (and one that in A Scandal In Belgravia Adler takes great advantage of). Adler loses out because she no longer holds the advantage she had, which was Sherlock’s lack of understanding of his own feelings for her. Realising she has gambled and lost, Adler is forced to beg for her life – something just as demeaning as the beating Sherlock received at her hands that led to him helplessly jerking on the floor as he floated into temporary paralysis – both characters get their moment of triumph over the other.

To those who say Moriarty’s help in the scheme undermines Adler’s brilliance, I say this: Did Moriarty drug Sherlock? Did Moriarty booby trap that safe? Did Moriarty tell Adler to store secrets for protection on her phone? No, no and no once more. Moriarty may have given her hints on how to play the Holmes brothers, but Adler contacted him and gained the upper hand through her own intellect. Surely it is more sexist to take that away from her and give credit to the men?

Is Sherlock’s claim that the final proof of love’s weakness has been delivered true? I don’t think so. Going back (again) to the first discussion he and Adler have in the episode, specifically Adler’s aforementioned remark that no matter what disguise one puts on, it always ends up being a self-portrait. Sherlock states, in front of the “ice man” brother Mycroft that sentiment (or love) is a weakness. But is this still part of his disguise? Pretending to hold in disdain something that he is actually just scared of? “Sentiment is a chemical defect of the losing side” is perhaps not a statement Sherlock can entirely justify, given his actions in the final scenes. Saving Adler but not being sad that he will not see her again is not a display of love, but rather coming to terms with the reality that he has found another human being he can see as an equal. If anything, his actions betray his real disposition toward Adler that he has hidden from both John Watson and his brother Mycroft: a secret that only he and Adler share. I don’t think that Sherlock is willing to let anybody else see the chink in his armour that has been exposed except the one person (besides perhaps good old Jim) who understands it (and him): Irene Adler… the woman.

Sally Sparrow: the woman who beat the weeping angels and saved the Doctor.

Just a final point – I don’t think Steven Moffat is a sexist writer. Can we really say that the man who gave us brilliant, tenacious, strong female characters like Nancy (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), Madame De Pompadour (The Girl in The Fireplace – granted she isn’t his invention but she is characterised by him excellently), Sally Sparrow (Blink), River Song (you know who she is), Amy Pond and Madame Vastra and Jenny (A Good Man Goes To War) is a sexist? Really? To cast aside those characters as female “tropes” is a great disservice to Moffat’s quality of writing and the quality of the actors who portrayed them.

I hugely enjoyed A Scandal in Belgravia. It was drama at it’s best: gripping, intelligent and oozing with style. Roll on Sherlock series 2!

“And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”
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