Sherlock Holmes and the Evolution of Irene Adler.


Spoilers may follow.

I watched Sherlock Holmes the other day, and I have to admit I was disappointed. Not that I’m a truist in this case, since it ended up having more references to the source material than I expected. But what I was expecting was a no-holds-barred adventure romp, and I felt that what I got was a hollywood action cliche. I felt like I was watching National Treasure, as written by some fanboys of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I could have forgiven it for being disappointing, but I’m holding a grudge on the account of Irene Adler. This seemed like a case of show vs. tell as demonstrated in movies. They told us, early on and then repeatedly, that Irene was awesome and had outsmarted Holmes on many occasions. She was confident, intelligent, independent, and all-around kick-ass. Problem is, they then proceeded to show us very clearly how she was actually incompetent and helpless.

We’re never told how she outsmarts him the other times, but from what we’re shown, she’s clever, but not nearly as intelligent as either Sherlock or Moriarty, or even Watson. The one time we’re shown her to outsmart Sherlock, she blatantly has to use her sexuality in order to distract him, so that he falls for what is actually a really obvious trick. Sure, I liked the resealed-bottle cleverness to hide that she’d drugged the wine, but she’s also half-naked for the entire scene, and it’s visible that her cleavage is impairing Sherlock’s intellectual abilities to about half their normal level (one fears what effect full nudity would have).

Never mind that the movie fails the Bechdel test. ( ) Though there are two named female characters, they never talk to each other, and pretty much only exist to make the main characters seem more manly and heterosexual. (Come on, do Mary’s scenes really have any relevance to the plot or the movie as a whole? Would the movie be any different or any weaker if her character was cut wholesale?)

And–this part impresses me most–the movie’s representation of Irene Adler is more sexist than the original. Let me emphasize this. More sexist than a book written in the Victorian era by an upper-class white male. From my experience in Victorian-era literature, ideal heroines and romantic interests ought to be delicate and feminine, soft-spoken and talented at painting and piano, but not too clever, and absolutely not clever enough to challenge the intellect of the male lead. In the original, from what I recall, Irene was every bit as intelligent as Holmes or Moriarty, and she was considered a nemesis–just like Moriarty–because of how much trouble Holmes had trying to unravel her complex schemes. Plus, she always outsmarted Holmes and got away, in the end, and never had to take off her clothes to do it.

Whereas in this movie, her motivation is given as follows: She’s helping the villain to destroy Sherlock Holmes, because if she doesn’t, he’s threatened to hurt Sherlock Holmes. So we’re given to believe that either she’s too stupid to realize that the villain’s repeated tasks for her to manipulate and distract Sherlock Holmes might be planned with ill intent, or just that since she’s a female, her mind shut down from the emotions at the mere hint of threat to her beloved, after which she became a willing puppet for opportunistic meglomaniacs. Right.

She’s not a person. She’s just a clever pet who can do tricks for her master (whichever one that might be).
And that, right there, is why I think that sexism creates plotholes.


6 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes and the Evolution of Irene Adler.”

  1. 1 Rupee

    Interesting, I’d never heard of the Bechdel test before.

    I would agree, although Rachel is gorgeous I thought she was generally meh.

    Also, I did like the movie. But seeing as I’m going into film visuals, I would say that that was what I was looking at.

    Also the opening scene was shot on the Hogwarts set if you noticed.

    Also, I can’t believe that you compared it to National Treasure. That hurts to hear about, seeing as Sherlock Holmes actually had beautiful cinematography and National Treasure is just another family action piece of trash. And Nicholas Cage is the most horrible puppet there is in the acting world. He can’t play a different character to save his life. I know that’s not your point but when you brought it up you opened my can of worms.

  2. 2 Anna

    See, I didn’t think Mary was pointless at all. Granted, she existed as a way to explore things about teh menz rather than as a character in her own right . . . but Holmes’ treatment of her said a lot about his character. Mary is there to show us that Holmes is not just a condescending bastard, but a bit of a misogynist (which is an important piece of his character.) She’s also useful in that Holmes’ upset over the idea of Watson getting married, and subsequent ill-treatment of her, highlights the weird codependency of the Holmes-Watson friendship.

    Unfortunately, they don’t really give her anything *else* to do, let alone a real personality, but I would disagree that her scenes are pointless. That, and she’s canon

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  5. 5 drush76

    [“Problem is, they then proceeded to show us very clearly how she was actually incompetent and helpless.”]

    Irene was incompetent and helpless . . . because she got caught by Blackwood? In the same scene in which Watson nearly got killed, because he idiotically walked into a trap?

    Why is it that when it comes to female and minority characters – especially in action films – they are not allowed to be vulnerable or make mistakes? I find such reasonings rather bigoted.

    [“Whereas in this movie, her motivation is given as follows: She’s helping the villain to destroy Sherlock Holmes, because if she doesn’t, he’s threatened to hurt Sherlock Holmes.”]

    Wow! You really got it wrong! Irene was hired by Moriarty to distract Holmes. It was Holmes who was so distracted by Irene and Blackwood that he failed to notice that Moriarty had achieved his goal.

    And why is it wrong that Irene should care what happened to Holmes? Since when does feminism meant not having any emotional feelings for another . . . even for a “gasp!” man?

    This is such a pathetic attempt at feminism.

    • 6 squawk

      “This is such a pathetic attempt at feminism.”

      There’s nothing “pathetic” about the author’s opinion about how Adler was depicted. She also didn’t say anything about feminism keeping anyone for feeling anything about each other—that’s not even what she said. I didn’t like how the main female character ended up being defined almost solely by her sexuality. I also hate when a show, or movie always finds some lame reason or excuse to get a woman naked just for the hell of it, as usual. The show was better than that, which is why I was disappointed in it too, just like the author was,and hell, yeah, it was nothing but sexist,flat-out. Plus, I also didn’t like how the show switched and at that point became more about showing off the technological advances in special effects, and losing sight of what really was the glue that held the series together—which was the relationship bwt Holmes and Watson. Didn’t like that second season at all—wasn’t even feeling it, which is why I was gald the show went back to its old self in the 3rd season.

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