Apropos yesterday’s first episode of the second series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat’s reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories for the twenty-first century (a show I love and admire in many ways) — an episode entitled “A Scandal in Belgravia” — I felt it might be worthwhile to look back at Moffat’s main source, Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, first published in the Strand Magazine in 1891) and say a word about the show’s really quite stunning sexism, a sexism that’s even more stark when compared to its Victorian ancestor.

It’s a bit awkward to write about: I don’t want to give too much away about the episode, given how recently it aired in the UK and since it won’t be officially out in North America until March (I think). Still, there’s no way this can be spoiler-free, so stop reading now if you don’t want to be disappointed.

I should also say that I was initially predisposed to hate this show, having grown up as a near-fanatic Holmesian. In my early teens, I built a fake fireplace for my room, complete with tobacco-stuffed slipper; I still own a moth-eaten deerstalker bought on my first trip to London; and the first pieces of writing I ever published were articles in The Sherlock Holmes Journal. I’m clean these days, though not beyond suspicion of relapse: a few years ago, my partner made me sign a written declaration that I had no desire to be Holmes, personally. I fear she still doesn’t believe me, the affidavit notwithstanding. So any tinkering with the stories comes close to touching a nerve, and I had very low expectations for Sherlock. But I absolutely loved the first season — its inventiveness in bringing the characters into our own time, its visual quirkiness, its savvy in playing with the details Sherlockians obsess over (the Mrs Hudson / Mrs Turner conundrum, for instance). Even then, though, Moffat’s treatment of female characters left something to be desired (some spot-on analysis can be found here). The show re-imagined almost everything in Doyle’s stories in 21st-century terms — except for women. Three-pipe problems became three-patch problems; damsels in distress remained damsular.

That issue comes back to haunt the show with a vengeance in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” (Approaching spoiler-rich zone.) It’s not like Doyle is a great feminist — far from it. In almost every way, he was a fairly stereotypical representative of his time’s mainstream views (well — except for the fairies and spiritualism. And the combat helmets. And skiing). But “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a least a little different. Here’s how it starts:

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. 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. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

And what makes Irene Adler “the woman”? It’s that she unmasks and defeats Holmes’s own sexist assumptions. Holmes admires her because she kicks his ass.

First she confirms some of his prejudices. Holmes devises a plan (no details — read the story if you don’t know it) based on the premises that “women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting” (no pun intended, ACD?) and that “when a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.” Irene lives up to expectations: she has hidden the photograph Holmes is after in her house, and when he tricks her into thinking there’s a fire, she runs to save it, revealing its hiding place.

But Holmes then makes the mistake of thinking that, qua woman, Irene is incapable of grasping that she’s been played. And that mistake proves fatal: Irene turns the tables on him, uses disguise against Holmes as he used disguise against her earlier, escapes with the photograph before he can retrieve it, and earns his deep respect and admiration in the process:

And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.

That’s Doyle’s (or Watson’s!) version of the story, then: the great detective is made a fool because he fails to acknowledge that women can be clever, too.

In Moffat’s adaptation, the logic of the original is precisely reversed: Irene isn’t fooled at all by Holmes. She is prepared for his arrival and apparently in control. As events unfold, however, there is a degree of back-and-forth, with Holmes gaining the upper hand and Irene eluding his grasp (the object of desire here is not a photo, but a smart phone that Holmes can’t get into [it’s impenetrable: nudge, wink]); half-way through the episode it looks as if things are going to play out as in “Scandal in Bohemia,” with the detective unable to defeat the woman, despite a few minor victories along the way. But then Moffat takes Doyle’s story of the flawed genius who is tripped up by his own limitations and turns it into his customary tale of male genius vindicated.

I won’t go into details — there is much fairly ingenious plot-twisting in the second half — but, in brief, Holmes does gain access to the phone (either because Irene has fallen for him, or because she has pretended to, overplaying her flirtatious persona’s hand), reduces his female foe to tears, makes her beg for mercy, refuses her, and then, at last, when Irene, abducted, head-scarved, and tied up, is on her knees about to be decapitated by the scimitar of some Karachi-based terrorist thug, comes to the rescue to save her life as the soundtrack cranks up the strings. Moffat’s plot is not only a total reversal of what happens in Doyle’s original; structurally, it in fact celebrates the deconstruction of a triumphant female character — first raising our expectations that this Irene Adler is the Irene Adler we know, only to reveal that beneath all the superficial self-assuredness, the sexual playfulness, the apparent control, lies a weak little girl who can’t survive without a man’s help and who is only too happy to acknowledge that man’s arrival with a tearful face beaming gratitude.

So Moffat out-Victorians his Victorian source. And in the process, he completely empties out what makes Irene Adler “the woman” for Sherlock Holmes. As Mycroft puts it in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” only apparently echoing Doyle’s Watson, “the woman” is meant as “a salute — ‘one of a kind,’ the one woman who matters.” But why? Moffat’s answer is pretty unmistakable: romance. Watson responds, as if the only way a woman could matter to a man were sexually, “He’s not like that. He doesn’t feel things that way, I don’t think.” Neither man can figure out what to “deduce about [Sherlock’s] heart,” but his actions speak a clear language — he can’t let Irene die. She came too close to making him feel something.

What makes her “the” woman is not that she was the only one to ever outwit him (not at all; she didn’t). It’s that she captured, momentarily, his heart. This isn’t about a woman being the great genius’s equal — for Moffat, that’s clearly a ludicrous notion. It’s about a woman revealing that even the great Sherlock Holmes isn’t entirely numb from the waist down. Which seems to be Moffat’s idea of a strong female character: one who can kick some butt, and flirt really well. And for that, she will be rewarded with marriage or a male saviour, whichever suits best: angel at the hearth redux.

** EDIT **
Oh, yes. Forgot to mention the really not negligible aspect of Irene’s apparent queerness, which Holmes also straightens out. Here’s the summary from that blog post, as devastating as it is grimly hilarious: “This was so nearly a plot of my dreams: a queer female sex worker outwits one of our greatest minds, remains calm and collected throughout with a hint of exploring the performativity of sex work? But then Steven Moffat wrote it.”

** EDIT II **
Interesting. Apparently Moffat is “furious” about reviews that have attacked the sexism of the episode:

“I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings,” he said.

“I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act.

I’ve never met Steven Moffat. As far as I know, beyond the questionable evidence of a single newspaper interview years ago, he’s not on record expressing personal views I’d call clearly sexist, let alone misogynist. So what? He may be the nicest guy around. But as a writer, he appears incapable of conceiving of plot lines that show men and women as intellectually equally matched, and inordinately fond of stories that leave women dependent in one way or another on men. In this episode of Sherlock, he went out of his way to alter a source story to turn the woman into the weaker vessel. Perhaps he has a good reason for finding such story lines more compelling, but if he does, he hasn’t explained it. Still, I’m reluctant to draw conclusions about a writer’s personality from his or her works. I don’t know if Stephen Moffat is a sexist. But much of his writing is.

58 Responses to Steven Moffat, Sherlock, and Neo-Victorian Sexism

  1. […] He thinks, and I agree, that you have managed to be more backward then the Victorian example. Go read it here. Although I plan to expand on this in a future Moffatism, let me just mention some of this […]

  2. This kind of sexism is one of the many, many reasons I gave up on Doctor Who after Moffatt took over. Just google The Bechdel Test & see how spectacularly Moffatt’s writing fails, especially in relation to Russell T Davies. That, and in my opinion, Moffatt’s just a lazy writer. There are too many gaping plot holes throughout his writing & it’s infuriating!

  3. mom2kidsdog says:

    I’m inclined to agree with you, but only to a certain extent. In most healthy relationships, there is debate, sparring (even fights: gasp!), and there is always compromise, apology, making up, and further solidifying trust in each other to always be there. Is it possible you are making a huge assumption based on one episode?

  4. wendy says:

    This was a great read. I hope someone reads my comment because I would really love for peoplebto also give their views on how they feel about the rest of the characters and how they are written, especiall Sherlock and John and compare them to the canon. I have major issues that have festered on how Moffat&co have written some characters, again especially Sherlock, it would be interesting to hear about this from all sides.

  5. L. Walser says:

    I’m very late, but I can’t resist leaving a comment and heartfelt thanks for your article. I only saw this episode last night and I was appalled by what they did to the character and story of Irene Adler, so much so that I’m now looking for online responses, simply to ascertain that I’m not the only one. I hardly know where to begin with pointing out the various offenses and insults packed into those 90 minutes or so, We went from an independent professional woman (an opera singer), in 1895 (!), to a “sex worker”–in 2011. From a charming and loving person who gets happily married to a sadistic spy/thief/blackmailer who almost ends up beheaded. From the only person ever to outwit Sherlock Holmes to someone he humiliates and, of course, himself outwits (more than once). From a platonic and ultimately respectful rivalry to a repellent, unequal “romance”, through which Irene Adler loses not only her “game”, but dignity and heart as well. And as if this weren’t sufficiently awful, she’s supposedly “gay”–I mean, a gay woman who nevertheless falls for a man! If lesbianism matter so little, why introduce it in the first place? As a queer woman myself, I feel deeply insulted in this regard as well.

    Words can hardly express how I feel about this sorry mess. Mine at least, so I thank you again for offering yours.

    • Lillian says:

      If I may clear up a few things here… In the original stories Ms. Adler is described as an “adventuress.” This doesn’t mean that she went backpacking through the Amazon. That was actually a Victorian term for a high-end sex worker. Many of them at the time also had successful careers as actresses and opera singers, which is why women who performed on the stage were viewed as especially promiscuous. Irene Adler was always providing sex in return for money and fancy items. As a side note, something I personally liked about this episode was that Irene was trying to protect her own life, not her future marriage, unlike the stories. I personally thought this was a step in the right direction. But since I wasn’t there when the episode was actually written, I can’t really say for sure whether the portrayal of Irene was sexist or not. I can only go by what was actually featured in the episode, which I personally really liked.

  6. […] recently on how Steven Moffat, head writer of hit BBC dramas Doctor Who and Sherlock, can’t write female characters – to the point of out-and-out sexism. Like too many heterosexual men, Moffat thinks […]

  7. […] Detective novels. What does the term conjure up? Sub-par pulp-fiction? Men in macs?  Female presence limited to something like this? […]

  8. lifeonqueen says:

    Thank you. I thought I was the only one.

  9. Finally saw this episode last night and have very little to add beyond my conviction that nobody except Carole Nelson Douglas ever gets Irene Adler right. Shame.

  10. LiWarz says:

    In case people didn’t notice– in Moffat’s writings, everyone is dependent on someone else in some way or another, or if you flipped the genders around you could call it sexist.
    Female Watson? Oh look, he keeps her along because she’s astounded by everything that he does! She says nice things and so she’s around to be a supplementary character for Sherlock and clearly she has an emotional attachment, despite Sherlock’s foul treatment of her.
    Female Lestrade? Oh look, she only shows up on occasion and has her moments of holding out this belief and faith in a person who does nothing but mistreat her. Clearly this is a sexist portrayal, someone can only take so much abuse but clearly they WANT to see the best in someone, depicting how weak a woman is in Moffat’s sexist mind and how strongly he believes they cannot be independent.
    Female Sherlock? If you look at how Sherlock seems to have little to no problem here and there with actually spending money and she turns down money, she musn’t be in need of monetary assistance. So she invites a man to come live with her, because she needs a man’s company. Watson’s presence in her life is completely unnecessary, at least as a flatmate. She’s a strong, intelligent character but for some unknown reason she feels the need to have someone around, because they inspire brilliance? No. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t need someone to inspire brilliance. Sherlock Holmes is brilliant. I don’t see how being a woman should change that.

    If Sherlock was a woman and Irene a man?

    Look at that, he doesn’t win by outsmarting her– he wins on an emotional level, he dominates her by having her feel for a brief moment that there was this feeling of affection, of possible love and she can’t let him die because of that. She goes and saves him because she felt a ghost of something like that.

    How atrociously sexist.

    If you look for sexism, you will find it absolutely everywhere. Especially where it’s not present.

  11. […] this modern take I have also being doing the reading, notably here at this blog and also this one. It’s not to say I agree one way or another, or that it’s settled as there are still […]

  12. […] ping-pong dialogue that Moffat has made into his bread and butter but, as has been highlighted by others including several women (imagine!), he seemed to deliberately reverse that little gesture towards […]

  13. […] of the second season of BBC’s Sherlock. Wasn’t half as fun as the first one (though this also is true. Also, this and this, but bah, what will you do without a little […]

  14. […] auch: Stephen Moffat’s wanton women Steven Moffat, Sherlock, and Neo-Victorian Sexism Sexism in […]

  15. Cia says:

    See my blog for a Jewish woman’s perspective on Moffat’s misogynist interpretation. I have about 3 posts on this at http://cialuna.blogspot.com.
    For his time, I think Conan Doyle was very advanced and pro-feminist in a Victorian age. The story is very clever, and defeats many of the anti-feminist positions of the time. However, there is something very much like the story of Purim that is missed in Moffatt’s interpretation.

  16. Zu says:

    I just read all about the the sitcom ‘Joking Apart’, written by Moffat in the eariler stages of his career. He based it upon his divorce, (his wife had left him) and used much of the dialogue of his actual real-life wife in the show, which to me is a little… creepy?

    I just thought it might explain some of his, well recycled, female tropes.

    (Though you would like to think he’d be over that by now.)

  17. […] (Más detalles sobre el sexismo en el episodio se pueden encontrar en An Scandal in Belgravia y Steven Moffat, Sherlock, and Neo-Victorian Sexism). […]

  18. michaelmobius says:

    Maybe Moffat should have written that twist but the evidence that he did seems a bit spare. The idea that she – aside of her deductive skills – should be understood as a genius of “social problem solving” (sounds like a euphemism for eugenics) to balance the ‘deductive’ powers of Holmes seems spot on, the only problem being perhaps that she would in a sense be a kind of caricature of female genius to complement that of Holmes ‘extremely male brain’ (to paraphrase baron cohen’s notion that autism is an essentially masculine trait). If so then social manipulation and emotional intelligence (of which Holmes is proudly lacking) is pitted against Holmes’ visual spatial right brain in a rather stereotyped divide down the middle battle of the sexes. To which add a putative symmetry of gayness and you have a very modern take on male and female power play/romance.

    TI remain intrigued by the ending though. Its clear why the taliban would hate Adler, representing everything they would most despise in a woman. The more I think of it though Sherlock rescuing Adler from the Taliban doesn’t make literal sense. Its almost as though it was meant as an allegory for a meeting of minds (in the absence perhaps of hearts), that is of female left-brain male right brain intelligence, united against a more literal than metaphorical castration of “the woman” that the Taliban’s phallic sword is meant to symbolise. In other words I don’t think the final scene is a Holmes versus Adler thing. If she gets rescued, she consents to getting rescued, but this is no longer part of the plot. The manipulation is if not in abeyance then at least in perfect equilibrium. They are in a manner of speaking making love.

  19. Prankster says:

    I’ve been torn on this one for a while, and I can’t get past the fact that my initial interpretation of the final sequence shifts things substantially: I read the entire thing, terrorists and all, as having been staged by Adler to fake her death, but with the secondary purpose of seeing if Sherlock showed up to “save” her. The fact that he did so means *that she had won*, because she’d cracked his uncaring facade, a major theme of the episode, even in the portions that didn’t involve Adler. I admit that, after reading the various responses, I may be indulging in “fanwanking”, but I think my reading holds up nicely–after Holmes appears, she indulges in an impassive yet mischievious grin that unmistakably says “I win”, and the gunman who had a weapon trained on her somehow fails to open fire.

    It’s true that (in Moffat’s version–I’ve never read “A Scandal in Bohemia”, despite having read almost every other Holmes story) Adler plays on people’s emotions rather than outwitting them–but note that this is distinct from *sexuality*. I believe it’s a major aspect of Moffat’s interpretation of Holmes that he can be read as gay, though this aspect is left intentionally ambiguous, and nothing in “A Scandal in Belgravia” actively contradicts this. In fact it’s rather brilliant in presenting a scenario that could be read in a number of ways–Holmes being sexually attracted to Adler is one, yes, but feeling strong but *non-sexual* emotion for her, based partly on respect and partly on Adler’s mastery of emotional manipulation, is completely valid as well. And this is the point: Adler’s genius lies in another direction from Holmes, just as Mycroft’s does. She’s clearly a formidable intellect, as her solving the boomerang case shows, but she uses this intellect for “social problem solving” and manipulation rather than science and deductive reasoning. To the point where we might even be able to take her assertion of being gay at her word–her supposed attraction to Holmes could be just another bit of manipulation. This *might* be a bit of a stretch, but again, I’d argue Moffat’s left the door open, and it is, after all, what Adler does for a living, something she’s presumably very, very good at, given the lofty company she keeps. In this respect, even if the final sequence is exactly what it seems like–Holmes springing to Adler’s rescue–it still represents a triumph for her.

  20. michaelmobius says:

    Mmm, Dr Who + Sherlock might suggest a pattern but if we disregard Dr Who, then for Sherlock (the series) to be a genuine update then it makes sense to also update (for which read reverse) the gender relations that obtained at the time Conan Doyle was writing. Then Irene Adler was a concession of equality to the fairer but weaker sex. Today we are awash with media representations of hard-arsed, cool and cunning female role models for young women. Here Irene Adler’s last minute defeat at the hands of Holme’s masculine genius may well reproduce a traditional sexism but it does so relative to a self-consciously egalitarian culture that would negate the point of Irene Adler as an exception to a sex which – with a perhaps calculated cruelty on the part of Conan Doyle – cannot ordinarily interest our Sherlock. Here Adler is an exceptional woman, but cannot in the 21st Century distinguish herself on account of this from the rest of her gender. To have allowed her triumph would have been to perpetrate a modern stereotype.

  21. […] Meanwhile Dispositio, a blog which I haven’t linked before but you should all read if you’re interested in Elizabethan literature, goes away from its normal areas to target the sexism in last week’s episode of Sherlock […]

  22. Miriam says:

    Holger, thank you for this post. I love the idea of a younger you as a wannabe Sherlock, and I agree with your analysis. My thoughts on the appropriation of the story: I thought TV-Sherlock was initially attracted to TV-Irene mainly because the only thing that seems to intrigue him is pain, rather than affection. This seems to be echoed in his Morgue post-mortem with Mycroft: Moffat seems to want us to think that the brothers endured some sort of horrifying psychological trauma as children that has left them unable to relate to others. Honestly, I was terribly disappointed with this episode when viewed alongside the excellent three of the first season. Where, in the first season Sherlock’s sexuality became moot but was left open-ended, and his bromance with John was explored suggestively, this second season opener aimed to put all that to rest, showing us both Holmes and Watson experiencing safe heterosexual desire. And where the first season left Holmes’s aspergersish lack of warmth open-ended as well, here it seems to want us to imagine Sherlock and Mycroft having experienced some sort of Dickensian foster-home trauma as kids. I’ll keep watching, because I love Mr. Cumberbatch, but I really hoped for more from the writing. Please keep blogging! And no, I cannot divulge how or where I watched this episode.

  23. […] and the culture is not orientated to defend the subject of the abuse. Likewise with sexism, where the culture reinforces the narrative of male superiority. In this context, the ‘chav’ prejudice, so wonderfully described by Owen Jones, is […]

  24. Shteevie says:

    I just wanted to state that, on my viewing of ‘Belgravia’ last night, Both myself and my girlfriend were so impressed by Adler that she was the first topic of discussion when the episode was over.

    She was strong, clever, cool-headed, and able to gain advantage over Holmes several times throughout the episode. The final struggle, where Holmes figures out her passcode, didn’t read at all as sexist to either of us; the side that loses begs for mercy, and the side that wins refuses it.

    The comment she makes about being gay doesn’t pass the sniff test – she talks about having male and female clients, refers to having intimate knowledge of her assistants, and develops romantic feelings for a man in the episode; it’s clear that she doesn’t exclusively court a single gender. Additionally, with all of the lies and deliberately misleading statements made by the characters in the episode, how can you give any more weight of truth to this one line above all the rest?

    The ending’s cheesy, but also didn’t read as sexist to me. Wouldn’t anyone about to be killed be teary and grateful to their sudden savior?

    It may well be that you prefer Doyle’s original story, and I don;t think anyone is saying that you can’t have that preference. However, I don’t agree with any of the accusations you lay at Moffat for this episode.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Just a very quick response: there’s a bit of a confusion, I think, between talking about characters and their psychology and writers and their plots. I have my issues with the character, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly “sexist” or distorted in how Irene Adler was portrayed in the episode. People like her undoubtedly exist. Like you, I can come up with more or less coherent explanations for her choices, including the question of her queerness. As you say, most of us would be grateful and teary-eyed if someone saved us from certain death — nothing sexist or incoherent in that.

      But that’s not what I wrote about, and it’s not what I (and others) found objectionable. I find the plot offensive, not the character — what the script does with Irene, not who Irene is in the episode — and I am annoyed that this example falls right in line with how Moffat treats all his female characters, in all his shows. This is, after all, a made-up storyline: Sherlock didn’t save Irene. A writer decided to have Sherlock save Irene. Which is to say that unlike in a historical narrative (naively speaking), the events here are motivated — they happen because Steven Moffat wants them to happen that way. Which makes it possible, even necessary, to ask why that is — why is he so fixated on reducing woman after woman to male genius after male genius’s second fiddle (at best) or grateful damsel (at worst)? And why take this particular story, which is a story about an arrogant man being decisively put into his place by a woman who outwits him, and change it into its opposite? You may say you prefer this story over the original, but that preference itself isn’t neutral: why is “Scandal in Belgravia” a better story? Or even an equally good one? What would the episode have lost if Sherlock had been beaten the way that Holmes was, rather than, gently, inconsequentially, whipped?

      • Shteevie says:

        I can’t speak to the differences in the versions – I haven’t read the original CAD story. If this disqualifies me from this discussion, because you are focused on the distance between them, so be it.

        Irene Adler states several times in ‘Belgravia’ that she collects information because it keeps her safe. Her ‘misbehavings’ apparently generate danger for her, and she uses the information as a safeguard against retaliation. It doesn’t seems like a disconnect, then, that she would be unable to fend for herself in a life-threatening situation, which is what the ending of ‘Belgravia’ hashes together at the end.

        If the genders of all of the main characters of ‘Belgravia’ were reversed, would you find the characters to be more acceptable then? Would a male Adler stripping nude to baffle and tempt a female Sherlock play at all? I doubt it. Would we be able to accept, as an audience, the notion that a doe-eyed and wanting male Adler was able to think through the haze of desire to doublecross [again] the female Sherlock that had just accepted the role of caretaker? Unlikely.

        If you look at the positions Holmes and Adler are in when they manipulate each other, and when they must accept their defeats at the other’s hands, you might see what I did: each acts in a condescending way to the other when the other is helpless. Each plays up their strengths in an attempt to gain the upper hand when they are at equal footing. Each uses simple communication and lack thereof to lure the other into making the first move.

        I really do feel that they are portrayed as equals in Moffat’s version. The simple fact that the show isn’t titled ‘Irene’ tells you who is going to win at the end.

        • Holger Syme says:

          Thank you for the comments, Shteevie, but I’m afraid we’re talking past each other. I don’t quite follow the argument you’re making in the third paragraph — it seems to rely on pretty set ideas about how men and women behave that take a much more generalizing bent than I’m comfortable with, but that doesn’t really matter. You’re still talking psychology. I’m talking plot. None of the things you describe “happen” — they were invented that way, and didn’t need to be.

          The basic point remains: Moffat took a plot that had one structure and changed it to fit his needs, central among which appears to be the desire to always let the man come out on top. This is nowhere near as inevitable as you suggest in your last line: “Scandal in Bohemia” is the opening story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and Holmes is beaten. Doyle knew what Moffat doesn’t want to know: that an invincible genius is a horrible boring character. I can only see the negative consequences of making the story about Holmes’s triumph (with or without the sexism). Again: what’s gained by letting him win?

        • Rebecca says:

          Maybe I could have accepted that Moffat wants Sherlock to always win, thus making Irene lose (though why call her Irene Adler, then?)

          But even so: Why does the reason Irene loses has to be her falling in love with Sherlock? Why can’t she come up with the cunning plan on her own, without Moriarty’s help? Why the rescuing scene?

          • Atlas says:

            Answering to your questions: 1- Because in the previous scene Irene had won the upper hand to Sherlock with the cracked code for the same reason. 2- Because Moriarty’s role as a “consulting criminal” aiding Adler was the easiest way to make him fit the plot of the episode. 3- To make sure the episode doesn’t end in a down note and the audience gets depressed.

            • Shteevie says:

              I’ll go even one further. Adler’s statement about Moriarty was that ‘he didn’t even ask for anything’ – the implied ‘yet’ very plain. Later in the episode, Adler texts the plane data to Moriarty, thereby allowing him to abort the plan and avoid the government ploy and trap.

              It’s more of a balance of favors between two equals that Moriarty aiding a hapless opponent of Sherlock’s. Very balanced between genders – in fact, the Moriarty / Adler interactions don’t reference gender at all.

            • Rebecca says:

              Writing yourself into a corner is not an excuse for making questionable gender choices.

            • Rebecca says:

              (Meh, I replied to the wrong comment first.)

              Writing yourself into a corner is not an excuse for making questionable gender choices.

          • Rina says:

            I got the impression she did not ask Moriarty’s help at all. She contacted him from one criminal to another during the shoot out at the pool because she got some info he might be able to use. My impression was that in return, Moriarty asked her for help with the Holmes brothers. Had she declined, she’d be fine once Sherlock cracked that password but because she enjoys a challenge, she accepted.

            That’s how I saw it. *shrugs*

    • Rebecca says:

      While I was typing up my response someone else already replied eloquently, but still. :)

      This episode, standing on it’s own, is not on itself sexist, that much I agree. Sexism is rarely that overt these days. No-one would be complaining if the series had other strong and important female characters. The problem lies in the repetition of certain patterns over and over again, not only in Sherlock, but also in television and movies in general.

      If you write a male character who needs to be rescued, then you’re writing just that: a character that needs rescuing. If you write a female character that needs rescuing, you’re repating sexist patterns unless you have other femlale characters to provide a balance.

      It’s not Moffat’s fault that our society is still not free from sexism and that therefore every choice about writing female characters is politically charged, but he can’t just ignore it either. It’s a lose-lose situation, but looking away doesn’t make the problem go away.

      And I can imagine people would be less disappointed if Moffat hadn’t actually done worse than the 120 year old original.

      • Holger Syme says:

        And I can imagine people would be less disappointed if Moffat hadn’t actually done worse than the 120 year old original.


        • EA says:

          Holger, I completely agree with your original comment. The only sexist thing about this episode is the introduction of sexuality at all. It isn’t a part of the original story and it is unnecessary. Most TV writers nowadays seem to be of the opinion that there can’t be any relationship between a man and a woman other than a sexual one and Moffatt clearly isn’t any different.

          If we’re talking sexism in Sherlock, Irene Adler gets off lightly compared to Molly. She must be reasonably intelligent to do the job she does. Yet she is reduced to a simpering sap who continues to fawn over our “hero” in spite of the fact he treats her like dirt.

  25. Steven Paulson says:

    Holger, Holger, Holger. Somehow, I now picture you, restless and sleepless late at night, a hunger gnawing at your mind. “Just need to check one of my photostats of some Jacobean marginalia”, you lie to your partner, as you head down stairs to your office, where you quietly lock the door and retrieve, from its ingenious place of concealment in the light fixture, your battered, self-annotated copy of Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes. For the umpteenth time you turn to The Five Orange Pips and consider whether Watson really meant what it appears to mean when he wrote “the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney” and if so, why didn’t he write that one down. Feverishly, feverishly you once again fantasize about writing your own Holmes story – The Adventure of the Child in the Chimney – though you dimly realize it has probably been done before. Suddenly, you hear the squeak of a stair, and quickly replace the book in time to unlock the door and with assumed nonchalance admit your partner, hoping that the sweat on your brow is not TOO noticeable, just as a secret drinker hopes vodka really doesn’t smell on the breath.

  26. Robert says:

    Doyle’s Holmes admires her strength of character, her powerful intellect, and her ability to best him — if there is an erotics, it’s of the mind

    This is made explicit in Moffat’s retelling, too. “Thinking is the new sexy” or words to that effect. Holmes doesn’t fall for Irene because she flashes her naked body at him – he falls for her because she’s clever.

    A separate point: Did anyone feel that the epilogue might be a fantasy? Holmes knows that Irene has fallen foul of some terrorists, and he dreams that he might have saved her? The final scene seems particularly implausible, and Mycroft and Watson between them would have noticed Sherlock nipping off to Karachi for a few days.

    • Holger Syme says:

      That’s Irene’s line, I believe. The point is her efforts to seduce him are first and foremost sexual in nature: naked body, flirtation, titillation. Whether that is what tempts Holmes or not doesn’t matter. (Why make the relationship about attraction, temptation, or seduction at all?)

      The fantasy reading has come up in a couple of online comments. I don’t know. It wasn’t pitched that way in the show, and seems like a cop-out to me. In any case, it’s just the culmination of what happens earlier — the crying Irene begging Holmes not to ruin her life. That she winds up on her knees is just icing on the cake of male genius worship.

  27. Robert says:

    Erm, hold on, its not as one sided as implied here, I feel.

    Yes, Irene Adler did ultimately ‘lose’ because she fell for Holmes with her pesky feminine urges.

    But this would only imply that men were somehow superior to women if Holmes was able to resist his analagous masculine urges. But he doesn’t. He is clearly distracted when Adler appears naked in the first scene. He underestimates her in the bedroom, allowing her to stab him with sedative. She causes him emotional turmoil when she callously fakes her own death. And most of all, he falls into exactly the same trap as all the other men she manipulates, and unwittingly gives the game away about the Jumbo Jet because he is ‘showing off’.

    Nor does the fact that Holmes makes her pulse race actually put her off her game. Despite the fact she fancies him (evidence: pulse rate) she overcomes those ‘base’, physical emotions, and coldly plays Sherlock for her own enrichment and Moriarty’s benefit.

    The ‘dashing man saves damsel in distress from Scitimar’ scene was a bit silly, but takes place as a clear epilogue to the main storyline. On the matter of substance, the battle of wits between the two of them which takes up the bulk of the episode, I think Irene aquits herself with aplomb. Yes, Sherlock prevails, but he is the eponymous protagonist of the series, so that fact does not imply sexism. Instead, I would say that the fact she gave him a run for his money, that he almost lost, that she made him unsure of himself, means she is one of the few people Sherlock respects as an equal. Only Mycroft and Moriarty afre in the same league.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Except not. Never mind that it’s not really a battle of the wits — it’s a battle of feminine sexuality vs male rationality, an inherently sexist binary as old as the hills — the point of “A Scandal in Bohemia” isn’t that a woman gave Holmes a run for his money. It’s that a woman beats Holmes by exploiting his own prejudices — i.e., his own intellectual weakness. She outwits him. Sexuality has literally nothing at all to do with it in Doyle’s story.

      Moffat’s changes do two things: they make Irene’s allure dependent on an erotics of the body (Doyle’s Holmes admires her strength of character, her powerful intellect, and her ability to best him — if there is an erotics, it’s of the mind), and they turn her into the loser in the battle of body vs mind.

      The former is perhaps justifiable in principle. (The argument would go something like this: oh, the prudish Victorians couldn’t think of sexuality as anything other than bad and sinful, so of course Holmes couldn’t have the hots for Irene Adler; but it’s much truer to how humans, and especially men and women [never mind sexual orientation and pesky complications like that] interact if we let their relationship be dominated by desire; this is just a better, or at least a more modern, way of telling the story. It “feels” more real this way.) But that’s nonsense. Or at the very least, it’s an extremely reductive notion of human interactions: that they can only be highly charged if sexuality is in play. And as the episode portrays it, sexuality is something women use most effectively. Men may be affected by it, but they can, if they’re enough of a cold genius, make their loins subject to their brains.

      The latter — Irene as the loser of the episode — is the really unforgivable change. Who cares that she made Sherlock “unsure of himself”? That’s not the point of the character. She’s the only one who actually defeats him. Moriarty doesn’t (only Holmes comes back from Reichenbach). Holmes gets beaten by two things: his sexism in “Scandal” and a certain racial blinkeredness in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” (“Watson, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you”). That’s to say, Doyle was perfectly capable of conceiving of Holmes as a flawed and fallible character. “Scandal” is the opening story of Adventures: more or less right off the bat, we’re introduced to the idea that Holmes isn’t perfect, that he misjudges, that he holds to unjustifiable stereotypes. It’s a story of failure, and specifically a story of the failure of a male genius hampered by his sexist blind spots. Moffat turns it into a story of triumph — of the triumph of male mind over female body. No matter what he does to Irene, no matter how he changes her character (makes her more interesting, or whatever; YMMV), the plot transforms her from Holmes’s most formidable and ultimately unbeatable opponent into a strong challenger ultimately defeated by his intellectual powers. Get in line, Irene.

  28. […] second season of Sherlocke premiered on the BBC on New Year’s day and it was pretty good (despite apparently being kinda sexist). Good enough that you shouldn’t wait for it’s American release in March. Figure it […]

  29. Emma says:

    Spot on review – particularly your comment that “the only way a woman could matter to a man were sexually”. Presumably this is why Irene Adler has beoome a blackmailing dominatrix instead of the successful stage actress who turns the tables on her unfaithful lover. So the only way a woman can “beat” a man is (a) purely physical and (b)only if the man gives her permission to do it?

    I also don’t get why Adler is now almost always portrayed as a criminal. Is it because Sherlock=good guy therefore anyone who gets the better of him must = bad guy? It’s a very simplistic view.

  30. Rebecca says:

    I found this article because this episode’s solution irked me and I was wondering if maybe someone would write an analysis. So thanks for the write-up.

    There’s also the fact that Moffat’s Irene needed a man (Moriarty) to help with the cunning plan, which of course comes out the moment Mycroft realises he’s defeated. Up to that moment the episode is pretty much perfect, but from there it’s all downhill. :(

  31. James J Marino says:

    To be fair, this is how the story usually ends on the Holodeck.

  32. Mariana says:

    Thank you so much for writing this post.

  33. esther says:

    There seems to be a disconcerting similarity between Moffat’s Irene Adler and Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond. (Which on its own should be suspicious; Amy is Moffat’s original character, Irene was created by Doyle. Why would they be similar? Oh, Moffat, when will you learn women come in as many shapes and sizes as men do?) They are presented as independent and comfortable with their sexuality; they are characters who are very aware of their capabilities.

    And yet.

    They are ultimately dependent on the man who is presented as their superior, their protector. In Amy’s case this man is the Doctor, for Irene it’s Sherlock. Yet these men also continuously treat them with disdain (Sherlock), or at least carelessly(the Doctor).

    Both Irene and Amy have at least a physical (if not romantic) attraction to the Man, but alas! the Man is never really interested. The storyline is the same every time on Doctor Who and I dare say Sherlock will follow suit: he lets her down, she professes to be angry and disappointed but forgives him without a doubt when he just shows a bit of remorse. Rinse and repeat.

    If Sherlock weren’t so painfully brilliant in so many ways, I’d have stopped watching long ago. This is just ridiculous.

  34. […] Adler, who in this incarnation is a professional dominatrix. As has been skillfully pointed out elsewhere, the disparity between who Adler is and why Holmes respects her in the original story and where […]

  35. Rina says:

    Hang on… in the original story, Irene was prepared for Holmes as well. She had been warned for him – he only succeeded because he disguised himself. Sherlock tricked her into revealing where she hid the photo but when he came back for it – she *and* the photo were gone because Holmes was so cocky to think nobody could outsmart him. To me, there wasn’t any romance in this episode but there were challenges: Irene wanted to know if she could get a reaction out of the robotic detective and Sherlock in turn was curious about what it’s like to care. As he asks Mycroft in the morgue, “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?” and Mycroft replies with “Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock.” That to me, was what the episode was about: Just exactly how human is Sherlock Holmes?

    • Gote says:

      Define “care”, please? Doesn’t Sherlock care about John and Mrs. Hudson? Oh wait, you’re talking about heterosexual (or hetero-romantic) feelings, aren’t you!
      I though fondness was fondness. I guess it only counts when there is romance, never when there is other form of endearment and fascination.

      • Gote says:

        Ok, I was wasn’t much sense in my post. I therefore refer you more to a more eloquently formed criticism:

        I guess, in the end, I really want to like Irene’s portrayal, but there are far too many flaws (not with her, but in the entire episode) that makes me not. Her being in love with Sherlock was one of the top ones. Even if it were platonic, it doesn’t make sense. Sure, love may need no reason, but Irene was supposed to be Sherlock’s equal. He had a reason to love her, but what she showed was more playful flirting and infatuation. It was corny. If it was merely respect that eventually turned to love (like Sherlock), it would’ve made more sense, but the ‘Sher’locked was her password from the start. He said she revealed her heart to him and it was about love, not respect. Not lust. Not obsession, but love. Sherlock admitted that he knew about love, but it was a chemical process, and he bested her in the end because she couldn’t dissimulate her attraction for him. That’s what makes me so angry. That Irene wasn’t really Sherlock’s equal in the end because she had to feel those pesky feminine emotions of love for the main male character.


        • Rina says:

          I was writing a lengthy reply and suddenly realized that “Yeah, get your point and agree with it.” would suffice. *G*

          Both Irene and Sherlock crave challenges as they’re both cleverer than the average person. And they were challenges to each other: Sherlock had to get that camera from her while Irene had to get information from Mycroft via Sherlock. But where Sherlock can shut out any human emotion in order to win a challenge (or solve a puzzle), Irene could not. That’s what I meant with caring: as shown in The Greatest Game, Sherlock doesn’t allow himself to care for any possible victims because it blocks him from solving the puzzle.

          I got the impression that to Irene, Sherlock must be a super challenge: a man who’s smarter than anyone she knows, no woman ever got to him and there she is. Personally, I think she was excited that she managed to get to Sherlock rather than in love. I have to admit though that the final scene didn’t make sense to me at all. And after your reminder that Irene used that password from the start (and having rewatched the episode again), I agree that it was odd – unless she thought was a good joke: “Disguise is always a self-portrait”.

  36. Germaine Warkentin says:

    Saw it here in London last night (speaking of which, what Holmesian magic did you use to get it in Toronto — if you are in Toronto?). Anyway, agree totally. And the new and actually very Holmesian novel by Anthony Horowitz, “The House of Silk” is far from feminist, though Holmes does display sorrow and pity to an appealing degree, so Horowitz has attacked the problem of the relationship between emotion and reason.

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