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A Scandal in Belgravia

2 Jan

No worries. I’m not going to spoil anything. I’ll leave the details of “A Scandal in Belgravia” to your speculation, but I will say I seriously lost my cool. My friend G. later described my outburst towards the end of Sherlock as a “primal scream.”


I’ve been on sabbatical here at 2000Irises for a while, but it’s alright because only one of my posts draws much attention. You may have read it. Last February I debuted my little blog with a rant about the way the character of Irene Adler is portrayed in film. If you haven’t read it, I can easily sum it up: Dear Mr. Gatiss, Dear Mr. Moffat, when you recreate “A Scandal in Bohemia” for Season Two of Sherlock, please do a better job than Guy Ritchie did in Sherlock Holmes. Please stay faithful to the Irene Adler as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Please don’t turn her into a romantic sap who can’t resist Sherlock, or worse, needs rescuing. Please don’t have her on her knees, weeping.

Guess what?

Yeah, that’s exactly what they did.

There is lots to love about Season Two’s first episode: it’s as sharply styled as Season One with excellent character development, humor, snappy dialogue, sexiness, coy nods to ACD’s original stories, and Benedict Cumberbatch sans pants. I even liked Irene for a while. Then the tear. The tear. Oh Jesus, not again.

So there you have it. Discuss. But have pity on most Americans and keep it spoiler-free, please. PBS still isn’t planning to air it until May.

Addendum: If you’d like a far more thorough and very beautifully expressed discussion of some of the more frustrating and offensive elements of Sherlock’s Irene, Vida S. dishes it at Buckish Eloquence and Pick-pocketed Wit. Spoilers aplenty, be warned.

Check out Another Angry Woman‘s thoughts on Irene as well. Feminism-fail. Perfectly said.

The Second Lull

7 Jul

It’s been too long since I posted, and for that I apologize. It actually took me a week or two to work the bad taste out of my mouth after my last entry. It can be hard to keep up a positive vibe in the face of relentless ickiness, but I’m committed to trying. Nonetheless, no recent pop culture happenings have inspired me to wax rhapsodic. I haven’t even seen Bridesmaids yet. I know, bad feminist blogger.

I do have a couple of interesting projects in the pipeline, though. One is a piece on women who love Sherlock Holmes – not just the pretty, pretty actors who portray the character, but the Arthur Conan Doyle books and stories, the countless pastiches, and the many filmed versions of all those stories. Female Sherlockians have traditionally been thin on the ground, but thanks to the Internet a whole new force is blooming.

I also have a piece on the legacy of Harry Potter. By way of foreshadowing, I give you an image from Barnes & Noble’s midnight release party for Deathly Hallows: a young girl, about ten, holding a freshly-purchased, 759-page, hardcover book aloft like a trophy, shouting “Yes!” *English teacher swoon* Let’s talk about the girls, shall we? (Once I finish sobbing over the final film.)

See you next week.

Two things…

2 Jun

First, Midwestern Gothic has revealed the cover of its summer issue, which will include my poem “Severed Tail,” so you can peek at that and say “Oooh yes…her name is on the cover, along with all those other writers.”

Also Holmes fans, Wessex Press has opened registration for the From Gillette to Brett III conference. They have really exciting speakers lined up, including Nicholas Meyer — author of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and all-knowing Sherlock scholar Leslie S. Klinger. Parties, screenings, so much more. It fills up quick and there’s not much room at the inn, so to speak, so hurry hurry.

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One

18 Feb

2000irises: A Defense of Irene Adler, Part One

It turns out I’ve worked up quite a froth about Irene Adler. I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while and it turned out l o n g. (Could I edit it down? Sure. But why? It’s the bloody Internet.) So I’ve broken it into two pieces. Pace yourself. Take stretch breaks. Drink water.

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One
The Rant

Irene Adler is a woman with a reputation. Even though she appears in just one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixty Holmes stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia,”) readers and filmgoers can never get enough of her. Countless pastiches have expanded on her story – some rather creatively. (Notably, see Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series. )

Most recently, Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes casts Adler (Rachel McAdams) as Sherlock’s former lover and capricious sidekick.

(She’s the wily one who tied a naked Robert Downey, Jr. to a headboard, for which many men and women offer their gratitude.)

Thank you again, Irene.

For Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie modernizes the classic characters, styling them edgier, sexier, scruffy and slick. This makes for exciting movie watching, but as many others have noted, his explosive vision dispenses with all of Conan Doyle’s subtlety. The characters lose dimension for sensation’s sake. Unfortunately, Irene Adler’s character suffers the worst betrayal.

Conan Doyle’s Adler is actually a fascinating and nuanced female character, but she’s often only remembered as the one woman who ever impressed Sherlock Holmes, the only woman he might have loved. Thus, Ritchie’s version of Irene is neither original nor surprising, but still it misses the mark. She’s only a supporting character in the film, so naturally we don’t get much of her backstory, and her history with Holmes is merely implied. But for Adler enthusiasts, the final shot of her handcuffed on a scaffold, weeping and love-sick, sitting passively while Holmes steals her necklace – honestly, it’s just revolting. I’d hardly consider myself a purist, but really, this departs so completely from the character of Irene Adler as written by Conan Doyle, I was insulted. She’s not stronger for Ritchie’s revamp. He keeps Irene’s sauciness, sneakiness, and self-interest, but he loses everything that makes Irene cool.

Long before strutting through Richie’s steampunk London in a shockingly fuchsia silk gown, Irene Adler made a name for herself by accomplishing the impossible. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler goes head to head with Sherlock Holmes and she wins. Of the four people who ever best Holmes, Irene is the only woman to do so, and she’s the only one who merits a whole story.

But beyond outwitting Holmes, Irene Adler is a compelling character in her own right. She is fearless, fiercely independent, and for a proper Victorian lady, unusually forthright about her ambitions – both professional and romantic. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes describes Adler as a spinster because she’s an unmarried woman of thirty, but she’s hardly been home embroidering cushions. She’s traveled the world. She’s enjoyed a wildly successful career as an opera singer, and carried on scandalous love affairs with prominent men. She hasn’t had babies. She hasn’t settled down into dull domestic bliss. She’s smart and ambitious and rejects the dull social demands of polite society, choosing not to trouble herself with the common concerns of ordinary women. Irene Adler makes her own rules, and unlike Conan Doyle’s other female characters, she doesn’t allow herself to be manipulated by repressive families or greedy men. (Adler is blackmailing the King of Bohemia, after all.) She matches Sherlock Holmes’ intellect and cunning, but also his stubborn independence.

Many women appear in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but of them, only Irene Adler is a developed character. Many have questioned Conan Doyle’s attitude toward women, but in context, he isn’t any more misogynous than any writer of his time. In fact, his villains were often nasty men bent on taking advantage of women. Conan Doyle was at least sympathetic to some of the grizzlier struggles women faced: assault, theft, and forced marriage. Conan Doyle is not sensationalistic about these abuses; he doesn’t linger over the damage, but quickly moves toward retribution. More than once, Sherlock Holmes releases men who have committed crimes in the service of oppressed women. (See “The Abbey Grange” and “The Devil’s Foot”, for example.)

Sherlock Holmes the character often scoffs at women’s intellectual abilities, not because he dislikes women exactly, but rather because they confound him. He mistrusts women based entirely on his affinity for precision and logic and his impatience with sentiment and emotion. In “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” Holmes tells Watson, “the motives of women are so inscrutable. … How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tong.”

Obviously, this view of women is unrealistic, and Conan Doyle knows it. He undermines Holmes’s prejudices almost immediately by pitting him against Irene Adler in the first short story. She may be beautiful and her actions mercurial, but she is also observant, clever, intuitive and calculating. She also has a sense of humor, and clearly enjoys rubbing Holmes’s nose in his arrogant ignorance. Ultimately, even Moriarty can’t elude Holmes, but Adler can, because she takes advantage of his sexism.

At least he has the good grace to be impressed. Watson explains that forever after Irene Adler is “The Woman” to Sherlock Holmes: a hard won title which ironically dooms her to be largely remembered not as a creative, exciting example of emancipated Victorian womanhood, but rather as the sole object of Holmes’ repressed sexuality.

Watson clarifies Holmes’s relationship with Adler in the very first paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes admires her, we are told, but “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.”

Thus, Watson practically trips over himself to assure readers that despite Holmes’s appreciation of Adler, he does not love her. Nonetheless, in the 120 years since this story first appeared, countless pastiches and films have found ways to hook them up. This wishful thinking does a disservice to Holmes’s extraordinary, almost inhuman, detachment, but honestly, it does a disservice to Adler as well. Just as Holmes doesn’t love Adler, she doesn’t love him either.

Furthermore, not only does Irene not love Sherlock Holmes, she outright mocks him. She thumbs her nose at him right on his very doorstep. Her “Goodnight, Mister Sherlock Holmes” isn’t meant to seduce, it’s meant to humble.

She doesn’t pine for Holmes. She doesn’t offer to stick around and keep house for him. She doesn’t stay to spawn little mini-detectives with him. She packs her bags in the dead of night and skips town. Her parting gifts – a short, sarcastic letter and formal photograph – only serve to remind her gobsmacked pursuers that even though she admires Sherlock’s “formidable” talents, she is mistress of her own fate.

All this makes it difficult to swallow stories of Holmes and Adler in which they overcome their singular incompatibly and find romance. Honestly, would the vivacious, confident Adler put up with a cold, dispassionate Holmes just because she admires his great mind? Can we really imagine a love-struck Holmes becoming a father? How would that work, exactly? Would there be test tubes?

So my further question is, if Sherlock Holmes is enjoying a modern revival of interest and if Irene Adler is accompanying him back into the spotlight, will we see a modern version of Adler that adequately captures her spirit and independence without turning her into a shrew?

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part Two

18 Feb

2000irises: A Defense of Irene Adler, Part Two

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part Two
The Plea (and Maybe a Just a Smidge More Rant)

With Guy Ritchie’s RDJ vehicle behind us (and its sequel looming,) we turn our hopes for Irene Adler to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the co-producers and writers of BBC’s Sherlock. Both have hinted that Adler may appear in their show’s second season. I remain reservedly optimistic about Sherlock‘s Irene. If anyone can do her justice, it’ll be Gatiss and Moffat. Thus far, their 21st Century versions of the Holmes stories and characters add sparkle and dash while remaining impressively true to the spirit of the originals. But how will they update Irene? Are the qualities that made her an exceptional Victorian woman still relevant?

I wonder all the time if there’s room in popular entertainment for sexy, brainy women, and by that I don’t just mean librarians in heat.

Irene is beautiful, that’s not surprising for film or television, and easy to manage – look at the gorgeous McAdams. Beautiful is not difficult to write. Even sassy isn’t hard to write. Everyone likes a sassy girl, as long as she’s properly tamed by the end of the movie (McAdams in handcuffs.) But beauty and sass mixed with self-determination and empowerment, that’s another matter entirely. That’s fairly rare.

Is it because filmmakers don’t think modern audiences can handle strong women? Is it because it isn’t satisfying narratively if the girl gets away? Is it harder to identify with Adler if she isn’t Holmes’s feisty second sidekick or saucy love interest? Maybe it just isn’t sexy enough for the infallible Holmes to be upstaged by a cunning woman. We love Holmes, shouldn’t she?

It seems that Ritchie, at least, believes that as far as Sherlock and Irene go, she may win the match, but she can’t win the game. Robert Downey Jr. can be tied to a bed, but only so long as it’s comic, and only so long as we know he’ll eventually show her who’s really in charge. (Again, the handcuffs, the pitiful silent tear.)

Certainly wherever Adler meets Holmes there will be sexual tension – that tension is present in the story as well. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need Watson to explain their relationship right out of the gate, nor would so many pastiches attempt to resolve that tension. Sexual frustration is fun, we love to see it, bring it on. But can’t that tension remain unresolved? Honestly, isn’t that hotter? Do we really need to declaw Irene in order to affirm Holmes’s superiority? Can’t Sherlock come away from his dealings with Irene with a tiny crack in his invulnerability? After all, many argue that Irene Adler is important to the Sherlock Holmes mythology because she does more than compromise Holmes’s view of women: she humanizes him.

So please Mr. Gatiss, please Mr. Moffat, I beg you. I can’t bear to see another Irene dangling prostrate above the Thames. If you do write Adler into the next season of Sherlock, let Irene Adler show Holmes up, and then let her celebrate by hopping a redeye on the arm of gorgeous man, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

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