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Monday, 30 January 2012

Vaguely Disorganised Thoughts on Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes (an edited maierskovski repost)

By Flick Myerscough

Following the first episode of the second series of Sherlock on the BBC, the-other-seventh-doctor launched an interesting discussion on my facebook wall with ‘Irene Adler as prostitute who's merely acting under orders of Moriarty (a man) and who gets outwitted and beaten by Sherlock (a man). Discuss.’ Reference was made to the programme, to this blog on the ‘feminism-fail’ of the episode - here. Also mentioned were Adler’s place in the Conan-Doyle stories, and later intertexts or, as Wildthyme calls them ‘fanfics’, describing Holmes as possibly the most fanfic-ed character ever. I borrowed Wildthyme’s copy of the stories, and have now read the one in which Adler features, so feel less underqualified to write up some thoughts.

Stavvers’ approach, and most of the comments I’ve heard from other people, have been quite plot-based, so I’m going for what is possibly a more character-based approach (in quite a wide sense).
To summarise, I feel that much of the change in Sherlock was due to the transformation of Adler into a character defined by "possible romantic interest", but this is a transformation which has already taken place in lots of texts. I also feel like attention has been given to how this affects the character of Adler, but not others, e.g. Holmes. What I’ve written aims to provide an opportunity for a more inclusive and contextualised reading.

Irene Adler features as an active character in Conan-Doyles stories only in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. She is mentioned, more or less explicitly (or arguably) in some other stories, such as ‘A Case of Identity’, where Watson, as narrator, states ‘Once only had I known him to fail, in the case of the King of Bohemia and of the Irene Adler photograph’. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ opens as follows:
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.

Adler's wider significance to Holmes is an idea found in secondary texts - The Baring-Gould Biography, spin off novel series, television and film. Many of the older secondary texts maintain and/or expand upon her career as an opera singer, but more recent texts have moved away from this. So we see her as a con-artist/criminal type in the recent films, for example. The move away from opera-singer may be due to a feeling that questionable morals are no longer something the audience so clearly associates with an opera singer. Class issues might come into this as well, I think, and there may be a feeling that opera singers are _not sexy_.

Irene Adler has, I feel, been the most developed female character in the Sherlock series. From what I remember, she was also so in the first Sherlock Holmes film of the series currently running, although consideration in the recent release is complicated by... the mystic who's name I've forgotten.

Adler gets married at the end of A Scandal in Bohemia. She expresses her happiness at this and promises not to expose the notable she has pictures of unless they attempt something against her. So, in a way, from the start, it was a story of a woman redeemed by a man's love. But the treatment in Sherlock does suggest a discomfort with the idea of a strong female character who may be able to rival Holmes, as well as removing that her ‘redemption’ in the Conan-Doyle seems to have been of her own volition.

A problem I found with stavvers’ reading of the episode, one which Dinosaur-lover also found problematic, was the simplicity of the assertion that Adler had come out as gay to Watson. We both heard Adler say “I am... not, I suppose.” Stavvers’ argument can still work with this hearing of the statement, but yields more complicated, and, I think, more interesting, meanings. The argument in question is that ‘Holmes is such an uber-dude that a lesbian has fallen in love with him and thoroughly fucked up all of her security arrangements by the password to the only thing keeping her safe being an allusion to her crush’. This is still a valid interpretation, as one might think that this is Adler voicing that she has discovered an aspect of her sexuality that she wasn't aware of before.

However, the earlier performance of Adler had suggested that she did not only work for women. In which case we're into a semantic issue of how people approach the idea of "gay", whether they include bisexuality, for example. Or perhaps Adler was responding to Watson's denial that he is gay, a statement which she sees as untrue, with another which is untrue... (In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Watson is recently married.) It’s not entirely clear what to make of this scene, but I think the confusion, and lack of clear definition might be meant to point to a confusion and lack of definition of sexuality which is part of what leads to Adler’s loss of status as a strong character. Because _clearly_ not having a sexual identity which fits into some category made by a hegemonic party should be problematic....

I would also suggest that the treatment normalises Holmes admiration for her into a romantic attachment, as is seen in many of the other secondary texts. This has, I grant, not been explicitly stated yet in the BBC series. What we have had is confusion and insinuations from other characters. Holmes’ social persona has been stigmatised heavily, however, such that the audience is _meant_ to identify with these insinuations, rather than Holmes, who doesn’t _really_ understand feelings (even if he understands the physical symptoms of Adler’s sexual confusion). Whereas in the book, his personal emotional detachment stems from an understanding of the complications attachment could cause him.

The normalising of Adler into a more standardised romantic interest, then, is, of course, a ‘feminism-fail’. But it is also a normalisation which denies the validity of relations to others (particularly relations of admiration) which are not ‘love’ or lust. The character of Holmes, and others like him, also need to find a voice with which to defend non-normative approaches to relations with others.

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