Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sherlock Goes Sexist: Arthur Conan Doyle is Very Disappointed

This piece was originally composed for SPARK.

Sometimes when I’m watching a movie or television show, or reading a book and I really dig the narrative, I come to a moment where I can suddenly, vividly picture the story going in a direction that would ruin the whole darn thing. As someone who tends to have feminism on the brain, this imagined turn for the worse involves doing something pointless and stereotypical with a previously well done female character. Luckily, I rarely see my fear realized, not because TV, movies and books aren’t often sexist, but because I’m pretty picky about what I view/read in the first place and most well constructed narratives don’t suddenly spring sexism on you. So I found myself feeling particularly betrayed when a TV show that I trusted recently went all out ridiculously sexist on me, and that it dared to do so via an “adaptation” of one of my favorite proto-feminist narratives of all time.

The show in question is the BBC’s Sherlock, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, re-set in 21st-century London. It’s a miracle that I was actually a loyal viewer of the show in the first place, because I am a huge fan of the original books, and I tend to be the pickiest of super fans. I have never liked an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and that is saying something, because they are the most frequently adapted stories in Western media.  I initially bristled at what seemed like a gimmicky re-boot, but when I actually watched the first season, I loved it. This was 90% due to the brilliant casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective. He looked the proper age for the actually quite young detective, he had the height and the hair, and he played the role perfectly. The show also hit on the thematic/character arcs present in the books but lacking in most adaptations, and the mysteries seemed written by Doyle, with just the right balance of mood, action and intrigue. I was hooked, and when I heard that series creator Steven Moffat would be moving the show in a new direction in the second season, forgoing original mysteries for more direct, albeit expanded adaptations of actual Doyle mysteries, I was cautiously optimistic. Overall, I was looking forward to what they would do with the season two premiere, an adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia, Doyle’s wonderfully feminist short story. After all, with the show’s solid record, I could trust them with the amazing Irene Adler, right?

Wrong. It seems that with “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock decided that it couldn’t continue that whole faithfulness and respect for the source material thing, because that would just be boring. After all, what does A Scandal in Bohemia have to offer but a brilliant, competent, and aloof heroine in Irene Adler? And we all know that women who are simply smart and powerful just don’t fit in on television. They need to be incredibly sexy too. Let’s make Irene Adler a dominatrix! What a great idea! This is of course, my imagined writing room dialogue as season two was being put together. I have a feeling it’s pretty accurate.

Okay, some background. 1891’s A Scandal in Bohemia had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson trying to retrieve a photograph from a Miss Irene Adler. Adler, an American adventuress and acclaimed opera singer, is using the photo to blackmail the King of Bohemia, who is by all evidence a jerk, and probably deserves it. Holmes, prior to the story, harbored some pretty sexist ideas regarding the intelligence, or in his opinion, lack thereof, of women. He thinks the case is open and shut and comes up with a foolproof plan to get the photos back. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t account for Miss Adler being brilliant; smarter than him, actually. With some clever gender bending undercover work, she beats Holmes at his own game and wins the day. Holmes is impressed, relinquishes himself of his sexist assumptions, and ends up as close to in love as his personality could ever allow. It’s pretty awesome.

Sherlock, upon being outsmarted, mentally transitioning from shock to appreciation. 

Now, let’s examine the way Moffat & Co. have adapted the story. Ms. Adler is no longer American, which I’m okay with, but she has also gone from an adventuress and the toast of La Scala to a dominatrix. Now, before anyone jumps on me for being anti-sex/sex work, let me assure you that I have no problem with a real woman choosing to be a dominatrix or anything else for that matter. But this is a work of fiction. And the person or people who decided to make Irene Adler a dominatrix may hide behind the excuse that she is an “empowered woman using her sexuality to her own advantage,” but they honestly chose to do it because it means leather and lace and the chance to sexualize Irene. Also, the chance for her to introduce herself to Sherlock in the nude. That was a nice touch.

"But, she was just trying to distract Sherlock! He reads things from people's clothes." Yes, Holmes gathers information based on a person's clothes, but he also reads the rest of them to. The show was clearly trying to go for that tired cliche of a woman gaining power by flabbergasting a man with her sexuality. The original Irene easily defeated Holmes with her clothes on.

So, once the show takes Irene Adler and has her wear nothing or next to nothing and make awkward sex noises, how much worse could things get? Much worse. Irene seems smart, but it turns out she is mostly dependent on her employer, Moriaty, for her success. (What is with this trend, also seen in the recent Sherlock Holmes film, of making Miss Adler an agent of Moriaty? Why can’t she be an independent force?) Furthermore, Irene doesn’t in fact win in the end, because all her delicate lady emotions get in the way. She’s just too in love with Sherlock! There is also a very damsel in distress rescue at the very end that is just all around terrible. Let’s not forget that while she is flirtatious in the original story, Irene never falls for Holmes. She goes off to America and gets married, and the detective is the one with the swoony disposition and her portrait on his mantelpiece.

I understand that sexualized female characters on television are a dime a dozen, and for a viewer not familiar with the original source material, the amount of character assassination at work in A Scandal in Belgravia might just go over their heads. It’s a shame, because the fact that the series chose to take its first major departure from Doyle’s characters with Irene says a lot about what our current media expects of women. Yes, women can be powerful, but that power must be expressed in an inherently sexual way. Yes, women can be smart, but they are also more emotional than men and therefore not equally brilliant. And they usually need some rescuing. It’s pretty ironic that these antiquated messages are actually a revision of a text from the 19th century! I gather from his treatment of Irene Adler, as well as the many other smart, capable, and badass women who appear throughout the Holmes stories, that Doyle had progressive ideas regarding gender. What does it say about our current media, that our narratives are taking a step back?

If this is such a pervasive problem, why am I signaling out Sherlock? My being an SH fangirl is a contributing factor, but I find that this instance of sexualization is a particularly helpful example of where the problem lies. As an adaptation, one can compare both narratives side by side and see exactly what the writers thought needed to be changed about Irene. She had to be sexier, more emotional, and she had to lose. That’s our current culture’s expectations of women and girls in a nutshell. 

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