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Critical responses to Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” an installment in the Sherlock Holmes series, have been dramatically varied. While some hail it as a work of feminist fiction ahead of its time, others condemn it as one of many examples of Doyle’s inability to write a rounded female character. Irene Adler, who makes her first and only appearance in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” is the subject of the controversy, regarded both as an empowered woman and a product of misogyny. The most striking aspect of Irene’s story in retrospect, however, is how thoroughly riddled it is with missed opportunities. The text itself seems to dance around the possibility of a strong female presence before solidly undermining its own potential. One would expect contemporary adaptations to seize this potential and give Irene the depth and autonomy that she was cheated out of in the original, but unfortunately this has not been the case, especially in the televised BBC series Sherlock. The same flaws that plagued “A Scandal in Bohemia” are present in the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and their new iterations may be even more distressing.
In the original text, the same gesture towards progressiveness is the one that illuminates its failure to be an empowering narrative: Sherlock’s constant reference to Irene as “the woman.” Watson explains, “I have seldom heard [Sherlock] mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (Doyle). These are among the opening lines of the piece, and thus Irene’s accomplishments are downplayed as soon as she is introduced; she is simultaneously stripped of her individuality and reduced to an exception. Doyle makes it impossible for any of Irene’s strengths to reflect well on all women, as she is presented as a lone outlier. While Doyle may have intended for Sherlock’s awe at Irene to be indicative of her cunning, it instead reflects more on Sherlock’s misogyny. Even as Irene defies gendered assumptions, the whole of her identity is still equated to her womanhood. This prompts a modern-day reader to question: would Irene still have been able to outwit Sherlock if he hadn’t underestimated her intellect from the start? Her dehumanization through the use of the title “the woman” suggests otherwise.
Within this contradiction lies what might be the most glaring missed opportunity in Doyle’s text, which is one for Sherlock’s development as a character. Though the use of a female character as a narrative device to alter the beliefs of a male protagonist is still problematic, Irene could have served to inform Sherlock’s future relations with women and left a lasting, constructive impression on him. Though Watson notes that Sherlock ceases to “make merry over the cleverness of women” (Doyle) following Irene’s appearance, it is clear in subsequent installments that his sexist philosophies are still very much intact. In the story “A Case of Identity,” which follows closely after Irene’s, Sherlock opts not to inform a female client that she is being conned by her own stepfather, quoting a woefully misogynistic adage: “There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman” (Doyle). Irene has not, as Watson suggests, enlightened the detective as to the intellect of women.
Despite this lack of continuity, Irene’s exceptionality still could have resurfaced in the series as a means of creating tension and conflict. As the only character who canonically bested Sherlock, she easily could have been his final opponent, eschewing the need for the hastily-introduced Moriarty. She only makes one appearance in the original text, however, and Sherlock’s assumption that her contentment with her new beau would prevent her from engaging in further mischief proves to be correct. Irene is not arrested or killed like many of Sherlock’s other antagonists, leaving her available for an additional storyline, but this opportunity is missed as well.
Works of adaptation, whether across mediums or within the medium of the original text, can offer fertile revisionary spaces for problems like the ones in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Often, adaptations are used as a means of salvaging a text that is rapidly becoming outdated, selecting the successful elements and omitting those that may be dragging the text down and preventing it from surviving in the evolving media. These kinds of adaptations provide an opportunity for remediation; creative authority can be used to update antiquated texts, rewriting moments that may have been informed by racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or other such limitations. Because Arthur Conan Doyle’s female characters adhere to a consistent pattern of victimhood and fixation on the men around them, it naturally follows that many modern adaptations would seek to shed more light on these characters (or even in the case of the American TV show Elementary, to explore the possibility of a female main character in place of the previous male one) and access their untapped potential. BBC’s Sherlock flirts with this sort of remediation, but ultimately fails Irene just as Doyle did.
In “The Naked Truth: The Postfeminist Afterlives of Irene Adler,” Antonija Primorac addresses the many misfires of Irene’s adapted reincarnations. Primorac focuses in particular on a scene in the BBC episode in which Irene appears naked in order to disarm Sherlock and prevent him from analyzing her. This, like her gendered title, is a gesture towards empowerment that proves to be greatly counterproductive. Her status as a femme fatale seems to be her identifying strength, and even this trait does not carry her to her final objective in the episode, as Primorac notes:
“The ‘updating’ of Adler as a dominatrix and a sexual woman gives her only the temporary power of the female body as fetish and a very ‘Victorian’ narrative destiny. As soon as she ‘over-reaches’ her limits of agency as a sexualised body, Adler promptly falls/fails, is humiliated and punished.” (103)
Her sexualization thus functions as a form of pseudo-feminism, and this eventually is not enough, as she must seek out Moriarty’s assistance. Surprisingly enough, this modern remediation does not even allow Irene the triumph that she enjoyed in the original text, as Sherlock breaks her code and foils her plan by the end of the episode. This is just one of many failures of the BBC adaptation to update and empower Irene. Whereas Watson dismisses any romantic connotations regarding Sherlock and Irene in the original, the BBC Irene’s attraction to Sherlock betrays her and leads to her defeat.
Irene is not even given the dignity of disappearance in the episode, as it ends with a scene in which she is – as Primorac puts it – “reduced to the most oppressed image of the female body in Western media: that of the hijab-wearing (Muslim) woman, waiting either to die or to be rescued by a male hand” (103). This alteration also results in the omission of one of the most culturally interesting moments in the original, which is the scene in which a crossdressing Irene bids goodnight to the oblivious Sherlock. Primorac notes that this is a refreshing demonstration of autonomy on Irene’s part (however unintentional it may have been), as she is able to manipulate her appearance and defy gender performance norms to her own advantage. This blurring of the gender binary would have been a prime opportunity for expansion and remediation in a 21st century visual adaptation like Sherlock, but instead it is bypassed entirely in favor of a sexualized, stereotypically feminized character whose primary weapon is her naked body rather than her wit.
Primorac theorizes that the inability of many adaptations to effectively remediate Arthur Conan Doyle’s work is not a coincidental one. Its status as a Victorian series, she argues, makes it highly susceptible to oversexualized re-imaginings as contemporary authors resist the conspicuous sexlessness of its original canon. The focus on Sherlock’s virginity in the BBC series and the envisioning of a dominatrix Irene conveys this need for neo-Victorian media to fill in the perceived gaps, and often – particularly in the case of “A Scandal in Belgravia” – to overcompensate to a fault. Female characters suffer the consequences of this practice almost exclusively; the traits that should be fleshed out in contemporary works end up shouldered aside to make room for the sexualization that, rather than liberating these characters from social convention as intended, instead simplifies and objectifies them. Their center-stage male counterparts retain the screen or page time necessary to make them somewhat rounded, while the women lose their most memorable characteristics.
One can hope that future adaptations will give Irene Adler the attention and agency that she deserves, but as Primorac points out, this is difficult to achieve without a critical awareness of the strained relationship between neo-Victorian and Victorian media. Female characters like Irene are most at risk in the production of these adaptations, and unfortunately this is telling of contemporary gender biases. Ideally a remediation would devote time to developing Irene’s defiance of gender divides as a crucial part of her character, regardless of the chronological setting of the work. She would derive her independence from this fluidity and from her formidable intelligence, which would make her arc more satisfying and less problematic. A successful re-imagining would free her, with finality, from the bonds of the title “the woman.”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Case of Identity.” London: n.p., 1891. N. pag. Print.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” London: n.p., 1891. N. pag. Print.
McGuigan, Paul (dir.). 2012. “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Screenplay by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Sherlock, BBC.
Primorac, Antonija. “The Naked Truth: The Postfeminist Afterlives of Irene Adler.” Neo- Victorian Studies 6.2 (2013): n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
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