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.
- Berlin, Day 17: Coriolanus (Shakespeare / Sanchez), Deutsches Theater Kammerspiele
- Berlin, Day 16: Hedda Gabler (Ibsen / Pucher), Deutsches Theater
- Brecht, Baumgarten, Blackface
- Berlin, Day 14: Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare / Eidinger), Schaubuehne
- Berlin, Days 10 to 12: Too much to say, too little time…
Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Images may be reused as long as their source is properly attributed in accordance with the Creative Commons License detailed above. Many of the photos here were taken at the Folger Shakespeare Library; please consult their policy on digital images as well.