Irene Adler Is Always The Woman

So a few days ago I was fortunate enough to catch both Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game Of Shadows, and BBC's Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia. It occurred to me as I was watching the latter how Irene Adler is never depicted the way she is in the original story in which she is featured.

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler in BBC's modern-day Sherlock

Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler in the steampunk-inspired feature films by Guy Ritchie

A Scandal In Bohemia: A Truly Underrated Adler

In Scandal In Bohemia, Irene Adler is an opera singer whose leg up on Sherlock Holmes is having the good sense to skip town when she realizes the Great Detective is on her tail. She abandons her blackmail scheme, and goes to America with her new husband.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Irene Adler is not any of the following things:

-A career criminal
-A femme fatale
-A recurring presence in Holmes's life
-The only woman Holmes loves
-In league with Moriarty
-A Mary-Sue

That said, the 21rst century seems obsessed with Irene as a love interest or a smouldering femme fatale. Although she has ambition, she's perfectly willing to discard it if it means that she gets out of an undesirable situation while still holding a good hand, which in its own way is just as Machiavellian as the Adlers of film and television.

Another great thing about the original Adler is that though she does best Holmes in a rather anticlimactic manner, she does it without removing any clothing or any help from her male friends in higher places. I love this aspect of her, which unfortunately never shows up in her latter-day appearances.

The fact that she works independent of any sphere of influence (or web, as it were) is one of her most appealing characteristics; without answering to a suave male criminal mastermind higher up on the ladder, she nearly brings an entire kingdom to its knees and thoroughly embarrasses Sherlock Holmes, possibly fitting in a concert at Covent Gardens while she's at it.

That's the kind of badass, self-sufficient lady I love in fiction, and it was a Victorian gentleman, albeit a progressive one given the time, who created her.

And it appears that the 21rst century can't do any better.

A Scandal In Belgravia: Steven Moffat's Femme Fatale

As much as I loved the return of BBC's Sherlock, I really could have done without Irene Adler being a glorified toadie -- like the baddie in the very first episode -- or having serious feelings for the Great Detective. She held all the hallmarks, not of Conan Doyle's singer from New Jersey, but an heroine written by Steven Moffat.

Like Amy and River Song from Doctor Who, Sherlock's Irene is seemingly independent and happy to do as she pleases. Though she doesn't necessarily dislike the company of men, she makes it clear that she defines herself, and no matter how wonderful the protagonist thinks he is, she's going to remain this way.

Ah, but this is all an elaborately wrought fa├žade, because deep down inside, Amy/River/Irene has been waiting for a man who can tell her what to do and determine her fate on his own terms. And that's what a leading female written by Steven Moffat will do, regardless of how accomplished, independent, or altogether badass she appears at first blush.

She will wait.

Given how much this particular series is faithful to the stories, Sherlock's treatment of Adler was disappointing once the episode diverged from the idea of a woman who could work on her own terms. It's not even so much that Irene and Sherlock's relationship had a lot more to do with sex [and his ability to turn anybody regardless of sexuality or gender Sherlock-sexual] than it could have done with cold hard intellect, but:


But I still don't understand why Moriarty was necessary for the whole jumbo-jet sub plot. Yes, he appears for only three seconds within that arc, and yes I am whingeing, but it's still troubling. I'm not even going into the concept of every single major crime in the world having its genesis in one effeminate Irishman pushing thirty, which is ridiculous in its own right but no more so than the alternative of an elderly professor of mathematics.

What bothered me was that Irene could have just as easily done what she did with Sherlock regarding the code, sent the text to Mycroft herself, and then contacted the terrorist cells regarding the Flight of the Dead. Moriarty not needed. Instead, of course, he's the one who alerts the terrorists planning the bombing, who mocks Mycroft.

Are we meant to believe that Irene Adler is so helpless that she can't seduce a few more people, maybe while on her hiatus from Sherlock, and get the exact same outcome? Even if she needed Sherlock to decode the cypher, she could have carried out the rest of her plan by herself. And the part where she says something along the lines of Moriarty teaching her how to handle the Holmes brothers just feels forced and stretches the ludicrous puppetmaster aspect of Moriarty even thinner than it was in the beginning.


That said, Steven Moffat has always lacked a certain insight when it comes to female agency, especially in series that are about men's stories and men's struggles (oh, right, that's all of them). He almost always resorts to tropes of film noir that are very satisfying for movie buffs and fans of Alex Kingston's cleavage, but not so much for fans of progressive story-telling.

So this pre-Women's Lib style of narrative is not a unique one tailored for The Woman. Moffat just seems ill at ease writing females whose characterization isn't defined by a) the male protagonist they want to sleep with or b) the people they're sleeping with who aren't the male protagonist.

And that's not to say that he didn't write a cracking version of Irene Adler who was witty, sexy, and fun. Lara Pulver fully embodied a woman who is ruthless and flawed, but just as interesting as Sherlock Holmes himself. The moments where she wears nought but Sherlock's iconic woollen coat are really quite telling of just how much of an equal her intellect was to his for most of the glorious ninety minutes.

Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2: Helpless, Even By Victorian Standards

Quite honestly, I'm too much of a Sherlock Holmes fan not to be at least a little amused by the last two movies, if not for the visuals and Jude Law's excellent Watson. But sometimes, watching the first entry into Guy Ritchie's bombastic franchise, I can't help but wonder at how regressive the attitude was towards Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler.

When we see them for the first time, Irene has already pulled off whatever crime it was that she got away with. In this universe, I would tentatively say that instead of withholding a few incriminating photographs, Irene most probably broke into the Duke of Bohemia's castle disguised as the future Duchess of Bohemia, retrieved a clockwork device looking suspiciously like a jetpack from the dungeons, then, stripping to her trousers-and-waistcoat get-up, strapped the thing to her back and flew off to the Austrian border to her anxious employer.

Jetpack aside, Irene Adler would do all of these things in the paragraph above. She does most of them in the first movie. And so we have here, ladies and gentlemen, a very cavalier hybrid of Irene Adler and the 'empowered woman' which populates Hollywood's action films these days.

Ms Adler of the Guy Ritchie films is romantically involved with Sherlock Holmes. She's Moriarty's lackie too, a career criminal who seems to be more along the lines of Jenny Everdeane from Gangs of New York than Arthur Conan Doyle's common-sense contralto: She's a very pretty and witty pickpocket who has gotten in too deep with the big boys. All of her actions are defined by the desires of Moriarty or her romance with Sherlock.

She then puts on trousers, for no good reason as, even unfettered by the skirts she usually wears, she gets captured by the baddies and needs to be saved by Holmes and Watson, although earlier she proves herself to be well-prepared and wary of assaults on her person.

And in the second film, she's easily disposed of early in the narrative with little repercussion or mention afterwards. Even Arthur Conan Doyle's Adler was remembered, fondly or not, in other stories. It's unlikely that the Adler of these films will be engrained in any of the protagonists' memory now that she is gone. That is, unless she is remembered as a kind of martyr or only love on Holmes's part, which is just as disgusting.

As far as I can see, this wretched treatment of Irene Adler is not just a result of being the token female in another white-male-centric Hollywood film, but also symptomatic of a lack of understanding of the text and the character. This is an adaptation of an adaptation of Irene Adler, with new and superficial characteristics thrown in to pander to audiences.

She Must Always Be The Woman

So why is Irene Adler constantly sexualised in film and television? Isn't it enough that she's clever, gorgeous, and American? What more could Hollywood ask for?

The first thing that may come to mind is the nature of character expansion. Take another character from Holmes canon who only appears in one story but is dreadfully popular; Moriarty. In all the depictions of this august gentleman, he has warped age, occupation, motive, sexuality, and God knows what else. This is because he started out as villain of the week, albeit more sinister and powerful so Holmes's death at his hands seemed justified.

Villain of the week is hardly the kind of material you want a baddie for a major motion picture to be made out of, though. So Moriarty's character and mythos has expanded over the century of his existence, and now not only is he the Napoleon of Crime, we're pretty sure he literally is crime, as well. So he's just as variable. From a pretty two-dimensional character, Moriarty becomes anything the writers want him to be.

Irene Adler started out as a villain of the week as well, and so steps are made to expand her character for the small or large screen, because some people might find a lukewarm blackmailer slightly boring after an hour or two. But where Moriarty becomes a brilliant character, Irene Adler morphs into a proto-Mata Hari, and is defined by gender and sexuality. Writers who've brought Irene to screen do not imprint anything more to her character than more sex and a couple of witty one-liners.

To be brief, close your eyes and imagine Moriarty as a woman.

Now imagine, if you will, Aaron Adler.

Which one could you visualise more clearly? I'm going to bet my nonexistent shekels that it was Professor Jill Moriarty.

And this is the problem that I have with post-Canon Irene Adlers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined that maybe a woman could act with the same level of logic and reason as a man, and wrote a cracking story about it. Twenty-first century writers shake their heads at his repressive attitude towards gender and sex, and lower the neckline on Ms Adler's corset just a couple of inches more.

I suppose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in ghosts too. Silly Victorian.


  1. Superb post about the modern version of Irene Adler.

    I have voiced similar thoughts in my review .


  2. Thanks very much for the praise! It means a lot coming from someone who is clearly devoted to all Holmesiana!