Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler: where’s the scandal?

As well as critical praise and great viewing figures, the return of Sherlock has picked up one or two controversies along the way...



This article contains spoilers.

Of all the charges of wrongdoing Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss could have imagined being levelled at them when they dared to update Conan Doyle’s revered Sherlock Holmes stories, not being modern enough must have been pretty low down on their list.

Sherlock’s wit, exemplary cast, and grounding in the Holmes canon allowed it to dodge accusations of heresy come broadcast date. The show’s first three episodes were welcomed both with praise from critics and not a small amount of feverish fandom. 

Ad – content continues below

Yes, a few people were disgruntled by the appearance of a young, playful Moriarty (Andrew Scott), preferring a statelier, more stick-up-the-bum version of the villain, but on balance the series came out on top. 

So far, series two has had more or less the same reception. A Scandal in Belgravia garnered rapturous write-ups (including our own) and stonking viewing figures, but one aspect of it has angered a pocket of viewers. Not Moriarty this time, but the show’s treatment of women, and in particular, the woman. 

Firstly, The Daily Mail managed to whip up a thimbleful of controversy over Lara Pulver’s pre-watershed sauciness, (“Legs and shoulders! In my living room at half past eight! Pass the smelling salts!”), but that fire was extinguished easily enough.

Handily, for anyone who hadn’t managed to have their sense of propriety assaulted by Sherlock’s sexual content at the time of broadcast, the paper provided screen grabs to be enjoyed with its readers’ cornflakes.

Next came a more robust complaint which saw A Scandal in Belgravia being dragged into a scuffle over sexism. The accusation is that while the blogging, texting Sherlock Holmes has been brought into the twenty first century, the show’s portrayal of its female characters is mouldering somewhere in the dark ages.

The gist of the argument – which popped up in a few places but was best expressed in an articulate piece from The Guardian’s blog section by Jane Clare Jones – is that the Irene Adler of Conan Doyle’s story, “something of a proto-feminist” and a woman “of formidable agency”, is stripped not just of her clothes, but of her power in A Scandal in Belgravia

Ad – content continues below

The episode’s coda especially, in which we see Holmes rescue Adler rather than her fly solo out of her own scrape (as she does in the original story), was described as a patriarchal fantasy treat for anyone “troubled by female power”. According to Jones, A Scandal in Belgravia disenfranchises and undermines Adler, who’s reduced to being a pawn of Moriarty and who ends up “ultimately undone by her great big girly crush on Sherlock”. 

Blimey. And there I was enjoying every minute. Makes you feel like a traitor to feminism doesn’t it? Except no, it doesn’t, not really.

I’ll set my stall out on some stuff before we move on by saying that we should absolutely hold to account the stories we tell and are told for the messages they contain. 

Insidious caricatures masquerading as entertainment should be exposed, paraded around and prodded with sticks until we’ve all laughed at their expense enough to defuse any lopsided power they might once have held (what’s the internet for if not that?). 

But to use one character from one episode (and when it comes down to it, one plot point) to daub a series and a writer with the kind of mud that’s been slung at Steven Moffat this week is either wilful blindness or Tall Poppy Syndrome. The criticisms of Sherlock’s sexism, however entitled their makers are to make them – and they are absolutely entitled- merit some stick-prodding of their own.

The trouble with taking such a magnifying glass approach to criticism is that it blurs the context of whatever’s under investigation. You could end up swearing blind Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is green for instance, if you choose to focus only on the stems. 

Ad – content continues below

Holmes undeniably rescues Adler at the end of A Scandal in Belgravia, but if you’re counting, you may as well note that he does it only after she’s rescued him and Watson twice, once with the phone call to the swimming pool, and once with the safe code. In Karachi, he returns the favour (and reveals himself to be as susceptible to her charms as she is to his by doing so).

While we’re at it, who comes off as steelier in the encounter between Mrs Hudson and the CIA agents? The gun-totin’ trained numpties, or the woman who withstands mistreatment at their hands to keep Sherlock’s evidence from them? As Adler might say, we could get tied up playing this game for hours.

Just as she does in Conan Doyle’s story, Irene Adler runs intellectual rings around Sherlock throughout the episode. When Holmes finally deduces her weakness it’s not because she’s a woman, but because he’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s what he does.

Whatsoever tests he undergoes, whatsoever obstacles are placed in front of him, Holmes wins in the end. He wins against women, against men, against massive hell hounds and criminal masterminds. We wouldn’t still be watching a version of him 120 years after he first popped up if he didn’t. Holmes prospering at the end is what serves story and character, both of which have to be any writer’s master.  

It’s only fair that A Scandal in Belgravia restores balance by allowing Holmes that moment of heroism at the end, seeing as he’s scarcely allowed much use of his legendary superiority in the rest of the episode. When he’s not being condescended to and told off by Mycroft, Sherlock is being bested and toyed with by a woman using her brains – and yes, the sexuality which she is more than master of – to disarm him.

If you don’t see where the power lies in that relationship, then you must be doing a fair bit of squinting to see things your way.

Ad – content continues below

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here. And be our Facebook chum here.