I like Irene Adler. She is one of my favourite characters in the original Sherlock Holmes canon. A Scandal in Bohemia is one of my favourite of the Arthur Conan Doyle short stories. It is funny and slightly whimsical in a way the stories dealing with serious crimes can’t be. Reading A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventure of the Yellow Face as an adult showed me just how far ahead of his time Arthur Conan Doyle was on social issues. Irene Adler gets the better of Sherlock Holmes in Doyle’s world because in Doyle’s eyes she is Holmes’s equal. It is a strong feminist statement that was made at a time when women having the right to vote was considered preposterous.
I think all of the more recent Holmes adaptations (Sherlock, Elementary, and the Guy Ritchie films) botch the Irene Adler character because they explain away her beating Holmes through some psychosexual obsession he has with her, or, more precisely, that they have with each other. Minus the sexual attraction, he would have seen right through her, is the implication. It is one thing for them to have made her the object of Holmes’s fascination – the original story supports that a bit (he holds on to her picture and gives it what may be construed as admiring, wistful looks from time to time), but even that is a stretch. On the other hand, for Irene Adler, her entanglement with Holmes was about maintaining her leverage over the prince and embarking on her marriage free of scandal. Sherlock Holmes was an annoyance she dealt with along the way. I’m not saying Miss Adler wouldn’t have admired Holmes’s strategising, but she had a strapping heir to a throne wailing, “What a Queen she would have made!” and another suitor (who was quite successful in his own right) about to put a ring on it. I just don’t think Holmes made that much of an impression on her (certainly not in a romantic sense), and nothing in the canon suggests that he did.
I understand the impetus behind making the new iterations of Sherlock Holmes “sexy”. All the fervid fangirling and the dollars it generates demonstrate that it was absolutely the right decision from a business stand-point. I also think it was the right decision to make narratively. Holmes-as-a-sexual-being allows for more exploration of the character and interesting discussion of what is going on “in that funny old head of his”. I also understand the temptation to slot Irene Adler in as the love interest, but Conan Doyle’s avoidance of that trope is essential in making her “The Woman”. Not to mention, if there was any character Holmes was psychologically entangled with to the point of obsession, it was Moriarty. In that sense, Elementary’s “Irene Adler is Moriarty” formulation gets closest to the right answer, but one should note that it’s not the ruthless criminal mastermind Sherlock falls for; it’s the sensitive artist. Adler’s (traditionally expressed) femininity always seems to be the wedge that pries Holmes loose from his reason and sends him floundering. There is something about Irene Adler trouncing him then going about her merry way that I find infinitely more satisfying.
Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler doesn’t shake her bits at Sherlock Holmes and use her feminine wiles to muddle his thoughts. She is dressed as a boy when she susses him out. Holmes’s sexist worldview made him underestimate Irene Adler, and he got spectacularly clowned for his misapprehension. I can’t quite figure out why the creative minds behind the current Holmes renaissance consistently undermine that narrative. And don’t get me started on the various iterations of Holmes riding to the rescue to White Knight for her, or we’ll be here all day. The whole point of Irene Adler is that she handles her own business better than any of the men she encounters ever could. Although A Scandal in Bohemia is told, like nearly all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, from Watson’s point of view and focusses on Holmes’s actions, Irene Adler is the one with all the information, the one running the show.
In summation: Irene Adler is not Delilah to Sherlock Holmes Samson. She is the protagonist in her own life, a life in which Sherlock Holmes was a minor supporting character.
This missive has been about protesting the transformation of “a strong female character” into the stereotypical “temptress” or “damsel”, but I also don’t like the way “Adler as The Love Interest Who Addles Sherlock Holmes’s Mind” portrays our hero. The manner in which Conan Doyle’s Holmes reacts to her besting him – taking it on the chin with a wry smile and admitting to himself that he gravely underestimated her – is one of the things that made me like him, not admire the acuity of his mind or the elegance of his reasoning but like him. It’s one of the things that made him a person to me. By shoving Irene Adler into worn-out tropes, we’re doing the same to Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle (a Victorian who believed in fairies!) managed to get this right, and I don’t understand why that bar he set is constantly being lowered.
(All that being said, the “I’M SHERLOCKED” smartphone moment was gold, because as soon as it came up on the screen we all realised that’s what had happened to us. I just wish they’d chosen a different fangirl surrogate than Irene Adler.)
*I know this topic has been flogged like a dead horse, but something on Twitter (I can't remember what) put my nose out of joint about this, hence this rant.