On Irene Adler and outrage (and influences and Charoleia)

I’ve very much enjoyed both the movie A Game of Shadows and the series opener to the BBC’s updated Sherlock. Despite – and please do not underestimate the strength of my feelings here – the truly appalling way both stories ripped up (and worse) the character of Irene Adler as depicted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

NB: If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read on until you’ve seen the film/programme.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, she is beautiful, a supremely talented singer and – this is the crucial bit – she outwits Holmes and departs to live her own life on her own terms. Now she is a pawn of Moriarty, to be killed off in the first instance, and in the second facing death only to be saved by Holmes’ melodramatic intervention. Yes, in the original story, she is ‘an adventuress’ in her youth, but at this point, she is devoted to the husband of her own choosing. Not some dominatrix whose power over men and women apparently begins and ends with her naked body.

This really pisses me off and I am not the only one. See here for CE Murphy’s reaction – and please do read the comments as well . Also this from Another Angry Woman and from The Guardian, Jane Clare Jones on ‘Is Sherlock Sexist?’.

These are only the pieces that have caught my eye, I imagine there are more. What I’d be very interested to know is if there are any similar expressions of outrage from men. Because it’s women I see getting really incensed by this, online and in person.

Why is that? Why am I so thoroughly and lastingly annoyed, tarnishing all my other enjoyment of both film and TV programme? I’ve been giving that some thought. Well, I first read the Holmes books in my early teens. Looking back I don’t think I consciously noticed the lack of female characters with any authority and agency; the realisation of such absences in ‘classic’ fiction and the misogynist implications when such patterns are followed unthinkingly by contemporary writers came later. But I’ll bet I noted it subconsciously, because I really loved those stories. The classic teen response to beloved fiction is to identify with the particular character whom one imagines is most like oneself, maybe even imagining oneself into the milieu in fan-fiction fashion. That’s really hard to do for girls reading Holmes – until we encounter Irene Adler. The Woman. A Woman we can all aspire to be, even if we don’t yet realise it.

Not in these two recent stories. Not any more. And for no compelling reason in either case. Not for plot purposes that couldn’t have been achieved in some other way. Thus betraying the enduring and infuriating blind spots when it comes to male film makers and script writers writing women characters – the way in which even the strongest so often end up defined by their relationship to men. Grrrrrr.

And I’ve realised something else that reflects back on just what a lasting impact this one character, only appearing in one early Holmes short story, had on me and ultimately, on my writing.

I’ve been doing one of those email interviews where we swap questions and answers (and I’ll post a link when it’s available for reading). One of the questions is about influences and I’ve said how I always find them impossible to identify. For instance, a good while ago, when conversation turned to the works of Alan Moore, someone, I forget who, remarked on the clear influence of Halo Jones on my first female protagonist Livak. I looked at them in astonishment. Not because they were wrong. Because they were so right – and I would never have seen that for myself.

With that in mind, and thinking about Irene Adler this morning, I’ve just realised what a major element she is in Charoleia’s character-DNA. For those of you who haven’t yet encountered Charoleia, she’s an ‘information broker’; which is to say, she gathers and trades information about the rich and powerful, profiting handsomely in mostly unspecified ways, thanks to her extensive network of contacts from highest to lowest in political and criminal circles (especially where those overlap) across all the countries that once made up the Old Tormalin Empire – and beyond. And here’s something crucial; she isn’t a kiss-and-tell, pillow-talk merchant. Yes, she’s strikingly beautiful and will use her allure as and when that’s the most effective tool to hand. But she’s no whore, nor even a courtesan. When Charoleia takes a man to her bed, it’s on her own terms, of her own choosing and not for coin.

She and Irene Adler have a lot in common, in my writerly subconscious at least. So that’s definitely one element in why I am quite so cross – though by no means the only one.


8 Comments on “On Irene Adler and outrage (and influences and Charoleia)”

  1. Michele says:

    Women viewers keep telling me Irene Adler still won (in Sherlock- not likely to see the movie till it comes out on DVD but I already knew the spoiler). And one earnest female on my LJ informed me that Adler was playing both the Mycroft boys so won twice over. Um, no…

    I’m not a huge fan of ACD – mainly because I came to his stories as an adult woman who likes strong female characters – but A Scandal in Bohemia is my favourite of the few of his stories I’ve read purely because of Irene Adler. So I was looking forward to Moffat’s take – and ended up being thoroughly pissed off by it. WHY did she have to be a dominatrix – what possible point did it have in the plot? Zero, that’s what.

    (And yes, Moffat, who started out writing River REALLY well, then had to go and reduce her to a character who is defined solely in terms of her relationship with the Eleventh Doctor. *headdesk*)

  2. Andrew M says:

    Next Moffat will be creating a Doctor Who companion who works as a stripper.

  3. Adrian Tchaikovsky says:

    Would be refreshing to see a Moriarty who was a pawn of Irene Adler perhaps? 🙂

    • jemckenna says:

      One reason why I enjoy Laurie R King’s ‘Mary Russell’ books – when I normally find Sherlock-continuation stories thoroughly unsatisfying – is the presence of Prof. J Moriarty’s daughter…

  4. “What I’d be very interested to know is if there are any similar expressions of outrage from men.”

    Yes, me for a start. On one hand, for their having taken a good and interesting character and taking most of that away from her, and on the other for doing such terrible things to the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a better writer than any of us could ever hope to be. Irene Adler goes from being her own woman, and making her own way in the world – for all that she was what might have been known as an ‘adventuress’ – to essentially being some sort of high-class hooker, who refers to her nakedness as ‘battle dress’, and who must get her ideas from one man, and in the end be rescued by another. I could go on at length about this, but I think you already know what most of the arguments here are.

    Mind you, I’m no happier with the portrayal of Holmes himself this time round. He fails to recognise a body – or rather misidentifies it – and we’re never given any sort of explanation. He repeatedly takes stabs in the dark as to what her phone code is. And he’s apparently in the habit of having a non-silenced mobile phone, even on secret missions in the desert – where the phone signal is fine, by the way.

    And don’t even get me started on Mycroft and Moriarty, both hideously miscast, and both playing far more of a prominent that they have any right to.

    • Yargh!

      ‘…far more of a prominent that they have any right to…’ should of course read ‘…far more of a prominent role than they have any right to…’

    • Michele says:

      Gatiss has yet to impress me as either an actor or a writer in anything I’ve seen him in or read that he’s written. And it’s clearly just vanity casting that has him as Mycroft – he can’t convince me that he’s secretly running the Empire, sorry country (Commonwealthy in this version) behind the scenes.

      Even a non-fan like me knows Mycroft’s slothful and rarely moves from his rooms except to go to his club or his office, so what’s he doing wandering all over London?

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