To all others, she had a name. But to Sherlock Holmes, she was simply “The Woman.”
In A Scandal in Bohemia, the first story about the great Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we meet the only woman ever to outsmart him. The King of Bohemia comes to ask Holmes’ assistance in recovering a portrait of him and Irene Adler, to avoid a scandal on the eve of his impending engagement. Holmes gladly undertakes the case but is stunned to later discover she saw through his ruse and escaped with the portrait. She leaves instead in her hiding place a picture of herself. Holmes keeps it on his mantle as a reminder of women’s cleverness.
Since its inception, the story has been interpreted in many different ways in books and on film. There is a series of novels about Irene Adler; there are novels about the child she had with Sherlock Holmes (what the…?); and in the movies and on television the many faces of Irene Adler and the nature of her relationship with Sherlock Holmes is explored in unique ways.
Sadly, few of them have ever gotten the story right. Most make the fatal error of having Irene in love with Holmes, or Holmes in love with Irene. Never mind that lovely Irene has found love with a lawyer and married him in secret. And never mind that Holmes is as asexual as men come. You simply cannot have two such clever minds cross one another’s path without a crush being involved… right?
It all, of course, hinges on the fact that Holmes keeps her portrait… not out of unrequited affection, but in honor of the one person who ever outsmarted him… a woman, no less!
The adventures of Mr. Holmes were written in the 1880’s/1890’s, at the height of the Victorian era. It was a time of propriety and bustles, of chivalry and a completely different attitude toward women. They could not vote and were subject to the whims of their husbands. Into a society that by modern standards could be considered chauvinist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought to life a woman more clever than his brilliant detective. Irene may reveal her hiding place in a moment of panic but is smart enough to see through Holmes’ disguise, and has the last laugh. It is not Professor Moriarty, his arch-nemesis and the lord of the underworld, that out-smarts Holmes, but an American opera singer.
Imagine a time when women were regarded with affection but little respect for their intellect and Irene Adler becomes a feminist icon. She may also be the reason for Holmes’ distrust of women in later stories; he admires their intellect too much to trust them.
But it is not enough that it is her mind that captures the fascination of Holmes. The irresistible urge in cinema insists on it being her sexuality as well, which undoes the full impact of the original story. I suffered through watching Holmes besotted with Irene in a ghastly Hallmark film. I grimaced my way through the big-screen Sherlock Holmes where it is implied he and Irene once had an affair. But it wasn’t until Moffat’s Irene in Sherlock that I wondered why such a modern woman is less impressive than the original.
If one trap is in writing in a love story between Holmes and Irene, another is in putting her in league with Professor Moriarty, who pulls the strings both in the big screen film and in the television series. Rather than a woman of considerable talent, Irene in Sherlock is a lesbian dominatrix to the wealthy upper class, particularly the royal family. Instead of outsmarting Sherlock, she gives him a whipping, but in the end is outdone when he reveals that she has fallen for him. Not only that, she’s been taking all her orders from Moriarty rather than using her own smarts. And in the last thirty seconds, Holmes has to save her because she cannot do it herself.
Once again strength is confused with sexuality. Making Irene a dominatrix is the fulfillment of male fantasy, in which a beautiful woman inflicts sadistic punishment. It is pandering to men. If the idea in making her a lesbian was to appeal to the gay community, Moffat failed by making her fall for a man. (So she is a lesbian only because she hadn’t met Holmes yet?) If Moffat wanted to please feminists, he shouldn’t have had Holmes rush in there at the last minute to save her life. If he wanted to stay true to the asexuality of Sherlock Holmes, he shouldn’t have had Sherlock so interested in her. It’s ambiguous whether or not he “loves” her or is just intrigued by her, but either way you look at it, no one wins. If Moffat thought he was making her stronger by being sexually dominate, he was wrong. Instead, he degraded Irene into the sex object she never was in the original, which means his story has less respect for Irene than Doyle’s, written in the 1891.
The real Irene Adler was clever on her own terms. She did not need to use her feminine charm on Sherlock Holmes to outsmart him. She did not need the help of Moriarty to pull it off. She had no romantic interest in Holmes, and he had none in her. She is the ideal feminist icon for the Victorian era, a woman who outsmarts the cleverest man in England, and makes off with the one thing that a powerful man, a monarch, wants taken away from her… off she goes, now married to another man she loves, with no interest in anything other than self-preservation. Her portrait winds up on the mantle at 221B Baker Street, and to the most famous detective of all time, she is known as “The Woman.”
Irene does not need to flash Sherlock Holmes or the audience. She does not need to give Holmes a whipping, or to rely on Moriarty to help her execute her clever plan. She doesn’t need to be in love with the great detective, and doesn’t deserve to be degraded into an object of lust. It is not because Irene is a woman that she succeeded in earning the respect of the cynical Holmes; it is because of her mind. To make her anything else is disrespectful of the very thing Doyle wanted us to admire about her.
If true feminism is about equality, and learning to respect women for their intelligence rather than their sexuality, it seems tragic that our society has it less right in modern times than Doyle did in an age before women could vote. He understood strength and cunning, and that a woman could be more and use more than just her sexuality to accomplish great things. Modern writers clearly don’t understand this, or they would not keep making Irene Adler into a woman she was never intended to be. ♥