Irene Adler: The (unconventional?) Woman.

What comes to mind when we hear someone say ‘the woman?’ While for some this might be a generic statement, for Sherlock Holmes fans it brings to the fore a very specific woman. That woman can be no other than Irene Adler, the only female antagonist in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories to beat the great detective Sherlock Holmes. This adversary merely appears in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” (1891) in which Sherlock fails to retrieve a photo of Irene Adler and the King of Bohemia because he is outwitted by Adler herself. Even if her role is small in the Sherlock Holmes canon, many 21st century renditions include her in their storylines as a dominant figure. In Guy Ritchie’s films, for instance, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is portrayed as a criminal; a woman that doesn’t abide by 19th century stereotypical views of femininity or laws in general. For this reason, even though Sherlock Holmes (2009) follows the life of our eccentric detective after the events of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” it deviates in a few significant details. Specifically, besides being a thief, McAdams’ Adler is portrayed as a past romantic partner of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.). Similarly, in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ “A Scandal in Belgravia” episode from their hit TV series Sherlock, (2010- ) Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) is again both a lawbreaker and a potential love interest for Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). Although the 2nd season’s premiere is in accordance to Doyle’s plot, (Adler has several shocking photos of a royal family’s member and doesn’t demand payment for them) it’s set in the 21st century. Pulver’s Adler, therefore, has to evolve in order to be considered unconventional. Consequently, she becomes a dominatrix; someone that is not only in control of her own sexuality, but is given control of other people as well. With all that in mind, one could argue that the same woman transcends societal limitations in both eras by breaking different rules. It should be noted, however, that unlike the original Irene Adler, her 21st century counterparts work under the supervision of James Moriarty (Jared Harris and Andrew Scott). No longer the mastermind behind Sherlock’s defeat, her brilliance is diminished. Overall, Irene Adler’s unconventionality is undercut not only because of her attraction toward Sherlock, (which is portrayed as a fatal flaw in both adaptations) but also because of her subordination to Moriarty.

Despite that, Adler’s nonconformity is undeniable as we witness her refusal to follow the script she’s been ascribed in her ability to fool men by using her sexuality. As a woman living in the 19th century, McAdams’ Adler is supposed to act in accordance to the ‘Angel in the House’ paradigm; she should be a loving wife and mother who remains within the margins of the domestic sphere. Instead, Adler leaves her husband because “he was boring, and jealous, and he snored.” Going against societal expectations, Adler has also allegedly stolen many valuable items, and has broken off a royal engagement. Nevertheless, it isn’t only her refusal to condone to stereotypical views of femininity that renders Adler exceptional, but also the effect she has on Sherlock himself; a man that is appalled by any form of sentiment. During the scene we meet McAdams’ Adler, we learn that Sherlock has a file about her, even if its contents don’t specifically include her name, because as he claims: “her signature was clear.” It is clear to the audience, however, that this isn’t the entire truth. Both the file and his failed attempt to hide Adler’s photograph disclose his continuous romantic interest in her. Aware of her ability to entice men, and especially Sherlock, Adler is capable of getting herself out of difficult situations; she is essentially portrayed as a femme fatale figure. For example, when Sherlock presumes that Adler’s working relationship with Moriarty has placed her in a position that is “over her head” and is about to force her to choose between protective custody and leaving London, Adler undresses in front of him. In this way, Sherlock fails to predict that she has tampered with her wine bottle to drug him. At that point, Adler refuses to be protected by him because that would mean admitting defeat. With that in mind, her nakedness here marks her dominance; she knows how to play in order to shift the power dynamics between sexes in her favor. By using her sexuality, Adler finds a way out, when Sherlock was convinced there was none.

Likewise, Pulver’s Adler also uses her sexuality to provoke and prevail. Thrown into the rules and conventions of the 21st century, Adler has to be updated. Her status as a dominatrix, and a lesbian dominatrix at that, places her once again outside the margins of societal expectations and helps her transcend the traditional rules of femininity. As Adler herself states, she likes to ‘misbehave.’ The choice of diction here brings to the fore the core of Adler’s character. To misbehave is to act improperly. To act improperly is to go against everything that is respectable and moral. Irene Adler is neither, and that is why she’s invincible; she has freed herself from anything that could hold her back. This lifestyle has provided her with a lot of information that has the potential to grant her protection if need be, but it has also placed her under the radar of powerful men that can end her life.  A fragment of that special information relates to a member of the British royal family, and Sherlock is assigned the task to retrieve the indelicate photos that are in her possession. Adler, already waiting for Sherlock, enters the room naked. She appears naked because “the big problem with a disguise is” that “however hard you try it’s always a self-portrait.” This choice of clothing, or better yet the lack of it, throws Sherlock off his rhythm and results in him failing to make any of his usual deductions. Similarly to McAdams’ Adler, therefore, Pulver’s is also depicted as a femme fatale and gains complete control over Sherlock in a split second by using her body; the source of her power. The audience is not in awe because John Watson (Martin Freeman) cannot concentrate due to Adler’s nakedness; it is impressed by the fact that Sherlock is baffled. Adler places herself in a superior position, and she knows it. That’s what makes her remarkable both in Sherlock’s eyes and our own.

Nonetheless, Adler’s superiority is somewhat of an illusion in these 21st century adaptations not only because she works for Moriarty, but aslo because she eventually loses her advantage due to her attraction towards Sherlock. During the second Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, (2011) Adler finds an early death because Moriarty, as her employer, finds her to be useless (she is in love with his nemesis). Even if McAdams’ Adler moves beyond stereotypes of Victorian femininity, she is treated merely as a means to end until the moment she no longer provides services that will bring that end to fruition, namely the destruction of Sherlock Holmes. Significantly, her death points to the fact that although she is her own person and has the ability to deceive, she’s not treated as an individual. She is either Moriarty’s pawn, or the woman that at the end of the day is defined only by her feelings. Unlike the original Irene Adler, therefore, McAdams’ Adler becomes the victim of her heart like so many famous female characters before her.

Similarly, the alliance between Pulver’s Adler and Scott’s Moriarty also marks a deviation from her predecessor. As she claims, she had “all this stuff and never knew what to do with it” until Moriarty “gave [her] a lot of advice on how to play the Holmes boys.” Hence, although Adler surpasses Sherlock, she doesn’t succeed based on her own cognitive abilities. Without Moriarty and his impeccable intellect, she wouldn’t even be alive. This turns out to be the undeniable truth when seconds later Pulver’s Adler is defeated due to her romantic connection to Sherlock (by Sherlock himself) and is then shown on her knees as she is about to be beheaded. Firstly, Sherlock’s successful deduction goes against the very foundation of the Adler character; she is the woman because she successfully deceives Sherlock. Further, the storyline doesn’t end here; it ends only after Sherlock has effectively rescued her and fooled everyone into believing that she found a brutal death. In this way, Pulver’s Adler becomes merely a damsel in distress; a woman who without the assistance of Jim Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes cannot escape the cold hand of death.

It still remains a mystery why these two 21st century adaptations of Irene Adler fail to do justice to the character’s intellectual capacity. After all, they begin with a strong basis that matches their predecessor’s wit and refusal to perform the typical feminine role each era entails. In the end, however, her predominance turns out to be somewhat of a façade that has been orchestrated by an intelligent man. This doesn’t completely cancel out Irene Adler’s nonconformity, (she misbehaved long before she met Moriarty) but it definitely undercuts it, especially since her romantic feelings for Sherlock Holmes either bring her demise (McAdams’ Adler) or render her helpless (Pulver’s Adler).


by Ioanna Micha

Ioanna is an English and American literature graduate from Greece. Other than her love of cats, Ioanna discovered her love of films around the age of 12 and has been using people’s taste in film to see if they’re cool ever since. Torn between her fascination with intellectually stimulating films/TV shows, and her love of all geeky and/or fantasy things, she finds it hard to pinpoint her favorite entertainment media. What follows is a semi-successful (?) attempt: Donnie Darko, anything Harry Potter related, Black Mirror, Lord of the Rings, True Detective, Freaks and Geeks etc.

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