May 07, 2012

Say goodnight, Irene.




Last time I was allowed onto this blog I rattled quite a few souls and was ordered to kvetch on my own blog. This time I’m here to make ripples about the depictions of Irene Adler in modern Sherlock Holmes Adaptations.  In the politest way, of course.

After A Scandal in Belgravia aired there was a lot of talk about Irene Adler, and whether or not her character was “feminist”, whether her portrayal was “feminist”, whether or not nudity, sex, rescue, romance, and whether etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. As you can see I didn’t actually find the discussion very stimulating.

What has confounded me not just about the BBC adaptation (in which Lara Pulvey was very good as Adler) but also about Guy Ritchie’s recent steam punk-inspired and anachronism-riddled films (where Rachel McAdams was at least the right nationality for the character), is the insistence on turning Irene Adler into a femme fatale –a woman who, by definition, is more prone to using her sexuality to dumbfound her opponent than solely her brain to outwit him.

This would be entirely acceptable to me as an archetype were it not for the fact that the original (and some of the later adaptations) had Irene Adler as intelligent and with a past, but not someone who was in any way interested in seducing Holmes or indeed on interacting with him much. She was looking to protect herself from a potentially vengeful and very powerful man (the crown prince of Bohemia) by using the only thing she had to hold over him: the evidence of their affair.
Holmes originally spoke of Irene Adler with admiration because she’d outwitted him, and because he places a high value on intelligence; he places rather less value on intelligence that places him in personal danger the way Ritchie’s Adler and the BBC Adler did!

There is the question, though, of whether the modern adaptations are aiming to shock or scandalise their audiences in the same way that Irene’s shady affair with European royalty might have scandalised readers of the original work; something salacious and enticing but similarly morally grey to the sensibilities of the time. Presumably then, just as now there are people saying “well if a woman wants to horsewhip royalty for money, why not? As long as the royalty in question want to be horsewhipped”, there would have been people saying, “So she had an affair, lots of people have affairs”.

The problem with using the femme fatale archetype to express the scandalous nature of the original and the shock value of a woman (a mere woman!) with the intelligence to outsmart Sherlock Holmes is that it also necessarily renders Irene highly morally ambiguous at best, and in the original she was not a criminal but someone trying to protect herself from the repercussions of a mistaken affair; in the Ritchie adaptation, for some reason, the element of fear of retribution for an affair was replaced with savvy conwomanship and some apparent debt to James Moriarty which left her in fear of him instead.

This is the primary objection I have to both the BBC and Ritchie adaptations’ use of Irene Adler; while the BBC version managed to retain a little of Irene’s vulnerability and response in “making my own way in the world”, they both trashed the idea of Irene as an independent agent at all by conflating her with Moriarty, and turning her into his pawn – either manipulated by him or ordered about by him.

Turning Irene, originally an ambiguously-moral woman with A Past, into a pawn of a character she has no connection to, is a necessary facet of the other problem with modernisations of Irene Adler; her transformation into Sherlock Holmes’s love interest. Maybe because it’s less believable to a modern audience to have a protagonist without a love interest (after who knows how many decades of a romantic subplot being shoehorned into every story), maybe because it helps allay “suspicions” about the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which you can no more stop than the rain, but making Irene Adler into a romantic interest as well as his foil in the story is sure to add a frisson of additional tension, right?

Well it would do if in both the BBC and the Ritchie version (more so the latter) she hadn’t been sidelined by the presence of Moriarty as her puppeteer, reducing her to “romantic interest: subtype potential villain”. And perhaps if the possibility of a sustained love interest threatening to ruin the character dynamic didn’t then mean that she had to be summarily disposed of in both, instead of allowed, as the original Irene was, a happy ending with a man she loved and an act of kindness bestowed on a Bohemian Prince who didn’t deserve it.

It wasn’t just the woman’s mind that Holmes originally admired; it was also the content of her character.
~ ~ ~ Ripples

23 comments:

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Food for thought. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is tiresome that today every fictional character needs to have a sex drive and that a woman and man can never have a professional relationship or friendship.
Or, perhaps, this is my view, because I enjoy friendships regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Anonymous said...

It’s fun 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.
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.

frenchtoast said...

"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....”
Moffat was determined NOT to give her that by the end of the episode. And thus, he managed to wipe out a rather spectacular character in ten minutes.

Karen (DB) said...

Dear Mona,
I have not seen the movie but I saw the BBC production and I didn’t read the episode that way; I read the ending, and the scene where he is going through their texts, as meaning that, from an early stage, she and Holmes have been in collusion to pwn Mycroft and Moriarty and her other enemies like the CIA. Retrospectively, the entire sequence where she humiliates him in front of his brother, and he breaks her, then becomes a major bluff. Setting up a way of convincing everyone that this time she really is dead.
The relationship is based on the fact that they are two of the smartest people on the planet and like each other enough at a purely intellectual level to take on the challenge of playing against the other two and winning as a team. The fact that she is gay and he is – presumably – asexual is something that enables them to outwit even the effete Mycroft who still thinks in conventional terms about sexual motivation.
Even if Moffat confirms your reading, and it turns out that he is being the same old sexist shit that he always is, I prefer mine. Because it is not an insult to my intelligence.

Mona said...

Oh, Karen, I adore you. I like your reading better, too, and I will treasure it in my heart so I can like this episode.

Anonymous said...

Touche! A woman who speaks her mind. Thank you, Madam.

Anja said...

I took the business (in the BBC episode) with the blog counter, and the very simple flirty texts, to mean that they are communicating at some more complicated level and that all of this is code either pre-arranged or embedded. Their relationship is not even a bit about sex – it is about mind.
Ms. Edna?

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

You read my avatar?

SvO said...

"Brainy is the new sexy." Purred the minxy Irene Adler.

Where the dickens did she leave hers?

Alistair said...

O dear, more typical modern pornvilization of La Belle Irene!

asterix said...

And yet there was but one man for her, and that man was Sherlock Holmes, of dubious and questionable memory.

Anonymous said...

I love this. The depiction of Irene Adler is my main problem with Guy Ritchie’s & the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and the reason I don’t like them.

Bill said...

Frankly my dear Mona, I don't give a fig. Let's talk elections!

Anonymous said...

Connecting emotionally is what it’s all about—at least with friends or with partners—and looking at smart phones will not cut it.
Get unconnected and start living!

yep a woman said...

Conan Doyle’s work can justly be accused of being a boys’ club, and there are plenty of young men in nice suits and posh accents in Sherlock. Indeed the show seems worryingly convinced that everything will be OK so long as such men are in charge. But it’s harder to stomach the other kind of boys’ club which peeps out of this show – the resentful postfeminist backlash which yearns to humiliate women and put them “back in their place”. If this is the Revenge of the Nerds I’ve heard so much about, it’s a lousy cause and it’s going to find a lot more angry women. And Sherlock needs to sort itself out in a hurry.

Anonymous said...

I’m not looking for role models or moral lessons.

a brit said...

I saw season 2 when it first aired in England, and I was irritated by this episode. Seeing it months later has not changed my perception. I have to agree with Mona. Instead of enjoying British wit and repartee (and I adore Cumberbatch) well, Sunday night I just found it petty and irritating.

found my answer said...

Thank you I finally puzzled-out the reason the hiker was distracted. He must have been watching Irene Adler on his IPhone!

Rocher said...

But most of all, I missed the moment at the end (in the original version) when Holmes pretends to sympathize with the arrogant Bohemian King (the client who feared blackmail in the original story) who expresses regret that Adler, his former lover, was not marriageable:
"Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.

Ms Edna's gaggle of fans said...

SORRY IRENE!

But from Tottenham to Taipei, we follow HIS every public move like a pride of leopards. And why not? Infectiously restless, Cumberbatch is the greatest Sherlock Holmes of all time, a feat that’s anything but elementary.

buddy2blogger said...

Excellent review and totally agree with you about the changes done to the character of Irene Adler.

I have voiced similar thoughts in my review as well.

Cheers!

un sherlocked said...

Imagine a modern version of Casablanca with Rick texting his faithful Dooley Wilson, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Or Rick writing to Ilsa, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It is as absurd as some of those ludicrous people I see texting in the park daily. Being online is being out of touch, and for the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would want to be on Facebook. It’s bad enough to be pursued by children and wives for acting like a normal man acts without posting it for all to see.
Connecting emotionally is what it’s all about—at least with friends or with women—and looking at smart phones will not cut it. Get unconnected and start living.