To modern filmmakers, she is always the love interest. I have seldom seen them adapt her in any other way. In their eyes she is an archetypal femme fatale who is smart, and usually nefarious, but mostly sexy, and always powerless to Sherlock Holmes’s superior brain and also because she’s feemail, and as we all know, feemails are weak and can’t help but fall in love with the hero.
And yet there is but one woman to them, and that woman is the eternal Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable, but always sexy, memory.
“A Scandal In Bohemia” was the very first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read. She’s immediately introduced as the woman (The Woman) who utterly defeats Sherlock Holmes, the only one he respects and sees as an equal. As a burgeoning young feminist (and lesbian), I was so excited about this powerful woman who managed to gain the respect of Sherlock Holmes of all people.
I was subsequently disappointed with her many adaptations…
Irene Adler was an opera singer who has an affair with the King of Bohemia. They apparently had a compromising photo taken together, because all these years later, when the King is getting married to some other lady of nobility, Adler informs him that she has the photo of them, and that she will absolutely send it to his future in-laws. It’s not really clear why she wants to ruin the King’s reputation. It’s clearly not out of jealousy because she doesn’t care about the King. She doesn’t want money. She just wants the truth about the King to be known for what he really is.
This leads the King to hire Sherlock Holmes to steal the photo from her, since all his other attempts to get the photo have failed. Holmes manages to trick Adler into revealing where the photograph is hidden, but when he goes back for it, she and the photograph are gone, because she’s outsmarted Holmes. She’s no longer interested in ruining the King because she’s in love and she and her new husband have run off to America together. The end.
Arthur Conan Doyle was pretty liberal for a white, middle class man of the Victorian Age. He was friendly with Oscar Wilde and didn’t believe that homosexuality was deviance, but rather like a mental illness (and that was actually a progressive point of view for that time); he wrote a story about an interracial relationship (that produced a biracial child) in one of his stories–and it was actually sympathetic to the white woman who loved a black man; and for the most part he seemed to respect women as people. Doyle is like Star Trek: The Original Series–definitely suffers from the social prejudices and attitudes of the time, but still forward thinking in historical context.
It’s important to note that this is a story about the sexism of the Victorian age. The only two reoccurring women in the Holmes serial is Holmes’s landlady and Watson’s wife (or possibly wives because Doyle was shit at continuity). Women in Victorian literature didn’t have much agency. Even in Jane Austen novels, the female protagonists’ arcs often revolved around finding a husband. This is why Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House was such a scandalous piece of literature. The main character, Nora, forges her father’s name in order to borrow money (because women weren’t allowed to own property or take out loans), and ends up leaving her shitty husband at the end. In most places, the play was banned from being performed at the time. Compare characterless homebodies like Mrs. Watson or Mrs. Hudson/Turner to a strong female character like Irene Adler, who has her own career, has affairs out of wedlock, and never once loses her power to a man. She outsmarts the smartest man in London, and leaves behind a letter that essentially says, “Suck it, Your Majesty, I do what I want.”
But why is this a feminist narrative? Well, I’ll explain, but first I have to explain the concept of…
The Unreliable Narrator
What’s important to remember as that this story is framed as a personal account from Watson, who doesn’t know what really happened between Adler and the King apart from the King’s own telling of it. We’ve already established Watson as an unreliable narrator (he can’t even remember if he’s married half the time), and so what we’re really getting is a tenuous third-hand account of the story of Irene Adler and her affair with the King. We never hear Adler’s side of it, so we have only the King’s point of view to go on–and of course that view is going to be biased toward the King. “Boo hoo, I’m just trying to get married for political gains and that mean old slut Irene Adler is trying to ruin it for me.”
When you really get down to examining the narrative beyond Watson and the King’s opinion of it, Irene Adler is the antagonist of SCAN–but not the villain. This is one of the rare instances where Holmes finds himself on the side of wrong. The King is trying to cover up a past affair before he marries somebody else so he doesn’t look bad, and Adler is trying to expose a powerful man as the jerkass he really is before he becomes even more powerful by marrying someone we get the sense he really doesn’t care about or love.
Why It’s About Sexism
At the beginning, Watson explains that Holmes calls Adler The Woman because she’s apparently the only female opponent that’s ever bested him. Before Adler, Holmes was actually pretty chauvinistic toward the intellect of women, and it isn’t until Adler knocks him down a sexist peg that Holmes realizes the error of both the King’s and his own ways. Holmes is humbled by the experience and realizes that she’s the real hero, and he admires her for her cleverness. He keeps her photo as a means of reminding him not be such a sexist dick.
For some reason, this always gets mistranslated two ways: 1) a smart, sexually liberated woman is inherently villainous, thus we get adaptions like Guy Ritchie’s movies and BBC Sherlock where Adler ends up working for bad guys (and it’s almost always Moriarty). Notice that she is almost never the one in charge; she’s always Moriarty’s stooge. Because God forbid a woman just be clever and do things on her own. And 2), a man can’t POSSIBLY admire a woman without wanting to have sex with her. Irene Adler spoke to Sherlock Holmes maybe twice in canon, and once was to ask him to be a witness to her wedding—to someone else! They were never interested in each other, and yet, in nearly every adaptation, she’s Holmes’s paramour.
Also, you’ll notice that Adler is always portrayed as very, very smart, but NEVER smarter than Holmes. She’s usually a damsel Holmes has to save. Because again, nothing is more threatening to a man than a woman who doesn’t need him. It drives me absolutely insane that modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes take one of the few proto-feminist characters of Victorian literature and diminish her into a sexy bad girl. I guess they just didn’t get the point of the story. Either that or modern filmmakers are scared of the gay subtext in Holmes and Watson’s friendship and decided to disparage that way of thinking by giving Holmes a girlfriend and Adler was the obvious choice she’s feemail and on Holmes’s level. Of course, we can’t have her be smarter than him! That would be like saying that men aren’t the best! Because women always have to be less good than men and fall in love with them and hey wouldn’t it be great if she were a dominatrix who prances around naked and also punches people but needs to be rescued by Sherlock Holmes because he’s just soooooooo irresistable even though you said you were a fucking lesbian FUCK YOU STEVEN MOFFAT-
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah.
And when they speak of Irene Adler, it is always under the dishonorable title…of Sherlock Holmes’s girlfriend. ~TRL