Sherlocked – the humiliation of Irene Adler
It is hardly news that Steven Moffat, lead writer on Doctor Who, co-creator of the critically acclaimed Sherlock, has a tendency to fail a bit when it comes to talking about women. This quote is quite gloriously awful, with its double whammy of being misogynistic itself and implying that misandry is a serious problem in “civilised” countries. Smooth. A wonderful blog post here discusses the representation of women in Series 1 of Sherlock.
Despite that, and the fact that I have felt uncomfortable with his writing of female characters in both Doctor Who and in Sherlock, I love both shows. And I naively hoped that last night’s episode of Sherlock, A Scandal in Belgravia, would perhaps redeem him a bit in my eyes. Irene Adler, in the stories by Conan Doyle, was one of the few characters ever to get the better of Holmes. She was an opera singer, witty, with “the mind of the most resolute of men” according to the King who brings the case to Holmes in the story. She outwits him, the way in which she gains his respect.
In Sherlock, she is turned into a sex worker who is humiliated and brought down by Sherlock, and betrayed by her emotions. (Note: I am not intending to demean sex workers at all; my issue is with the fact that Moffat could apparently only conceive of a woman’s strength and power being conveyed sexually.) This episode of Sherlock upset not me not just in its portrayal of Adler as a woman, but with the dismissal of other women, and also the way Irene’s sexuality is explored. Or not explored, rather.
Irene in Sherlock is portrayed as a high-end dominatrix, engaged in the kind of “classy” sex work which exists in male-fantasies: it can be pointed at to show that some women like being sex workers; it’s fine, really. It’s their choice. Being a dominatrix is also, in Sherlock, the way women can apparently exercise power; there are no female politicians, just girlfriends (interchangeable in the eyes of Sherlock and Watson), mother figures (Mrs. Hudson), and whores. This is the female role. There is also Molly, of course. Constantly humiliated by Sherlock, she is shown as being needy and desperate. We don’t sympathise with Sherlock’s actions, it’s true, but we’re invited to pity Molly, not empathise. Like Irene, her emotions are shown as robbing her of her dignity. Every woman in last night’s episode of Sherlock was humiliated in some way. John’s girlfriend was treated as being a generic accessory by both Sherlock and John; this may have been to show the nature of Sherlock and John’s relationship, but the way neither of them respected the woman enough to remember details about her was presented as amusing. It is no defence of the show to say that it is just a portrayal of a misogynistic character, Sherlock; apart from the way he treats women, they are cast constantly in roles which humiliate them, need them to be rescued, or fetishise them (the Orientalism in the last series a case in point.) Mrs. Hudson is better written, but she is still a mother figure, taking care of boys who never seem to grow up.
A defence given on twitter when I raised these issues was that Sherlock humiliates everyone, no exception. The problem is that the humiliation of women in the series is highly gender specific. Molly is humiliated for her attempts to be attractive; Sherlock displays a hard, cold version of the male gaze, criticising her mouth, her breasts, her lipstick. Irene is humiliated because she fell prey to emotions; quite often presented as the “weakness” of women. In the last series, a female police officer was humiliated publicly by Sherlock because she’d had sex with a fellow male police officer. These aren’t generic humiliations; women are made to feel ashamed for “feminine” actions or character traits.
I was no more impressed by the portrayal of Irene’s sexuality. It was ambiguous; she described herself as gay, but was attracted to Sherlock and was recorded as having affairs with men and women. Either way, I was unhappy. If she was indeed supposed to be a lesbian, quite apart from the disappointing fact that she was another TV lesbian who was clearly designed to appeal to the male gaze, the fact that she fell for a man throughout the episode was pretty much a male fantasy come to life. If she was intended to be bi or pan-sexual, she handily fell into the old “bisexuals are sluts” cliche, in an extremely literal way. Her sexuality seemed to be a pasted on character trait to make her more sexy, more appealing. As with many portrayals of female sexuality in the media, she seemed less to experience sex, but perform it. She came across as a straight man’s fantasy of a lesbian or bisexual sex worker. What better than a femme looking, conventionally attractive woman, who might be up for a threesome?
The ending of the episode was so awful it barely needs criticising again. The sexually active and controlling Irene faces execution in a Middle Eastern country; she cries. (Those silly women with their emotions again). She’d be killed, were it not for Sherlock saving her life at the last minute. The archetype of the lying seductress, the Delilah, is transformed instead into the damsel in distress. Nice work, Moffat.