Irene Adler is the most iconic female character to come out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. With a title like “The Woman”, it isn’t hard to imagine why Sherlockians everywhere have raised her from the level of minor character to Holmes’ love interest. After all, she is the only woman to ever beat Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle’s Irene Adler is an early feminist figure; she has the mind of a man, dresses like one, and with just a little bit of foresight is able to outmaneuver the most intelligent detective of the time. She is a well-known adventuress (a euphemism of the time for a woman who is sexually liberated) who takes control of her own destiny.
However, modern adaptations of Irene have fallen short. While “The Woman” is as witty and wily as ever, not even Irene is immune from the typical lovestruck damsel-in-distress tropes so often found in the media. Adler often falls prey to what Lara Mulvey refers to as the “male gaze” in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.
Let’s take a look the three most prominent Adler interpretations in the past few years.
1. Rachel McAdams in Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The Irene Adler in Guy Ritchie’s film has an edge. In addition to being an American-born adventuress, she is also a world-class criminal. She is a woman who can take care of herself—a woman who will fight off two would-be attackers while in a bustle skirt, one who ignores the warnings of Sherlock Holmes by smugly stating: “I’ve never been in over my head”. She is just as savvy as she is sassy, and she uses her sexuality to Sherlock’s detriment.
One particular scene of note occurs when Sherlock visits Irene at her hotel room. She greets him in a towel, one that she drops for his benefit as she goes to put on her dressing gown. The weaponization of sexuality is a double-edged sword in media. While on the sexual liberation of Irene Adler can be seen as a positive on the one hand, on the other it plays straight into male fantasy. Irene Adler is tantalizing Sherlock, the male protagonist with whom the audience is meant to identify. Thus, Irene invites the “male gaze”, acting as an object of desire. Additionally, while Irene is able to trick Sherlock, it is not through disguise, but by drugging him. Poison is, after all, a woman’s weapon.
Though in the film’s climax Irene is able to again manipulate Holmes into chasing after her so that Moriarty can steal the item he is after, she is ultimately caught in the end. The condition of women in film dictates that they who dare to show independence will be punished in some manner; the femme fatale never gets away with her deviant actions.
Ritchie’s Adler is of limited success in terms of being a feminist figure. Though she is portrayed as being intelligent and mostly self-sufficient, her depiction does not overcome the male-centric film experience. Adler is a hyper-sexualized character who, while supposedly capable of handling herself, is captured by, rescued by, controlled by and eventually killed by the various male characters. She functions as an element of spectacle, one that is overcome by the more important men of the film.
2. Lara Pulver in BBC’s Sherlock
None of the changes seen thus far in Sherlock have been half as controversial as the update to the character of Irene Adler. From the subtle title of adventuress to the not-very-subtle one of dominatrix, the BBC version of Irene is far less discrete than her Victorian counterpart. This Irene embraces who she is and makes no apologies. She proudly declares: “I make my way in the world, I misbehave”. However much like 2009 version, she also falls prey to the pattern established by a media that centers around male pleasure.
In her first thirty seconds on the screen, Irene Adler is established as a sexual object, albeit one that (again) controls her sexuality. This version of Irene Adler is a woman who likes to be in charge, and therefore a woman who is dangerous to the male agenda.
Sherlock first encounters an entirely nude Irene Adler (save for a pair of Louboutin shoes, of course). Her appearance doesn’t invite the male gaze–it demands it. John is flustered, asking Irene to please put on some form of clothing: “Could you put something on, please? Uh, anything at all, a napkin?” Irene cheekily responds with the question “Why? Are you feeling exposed?” This exchange perfectly demonstrates the perceived threat of the woman in control of her own sexuality: the woman, the ever-perceived passive receiver of action becomes an active agent and therefore a threat to masculinity. As such, the male-dominant cinematic ideal dictates that she must be punished in the end.
The scene later parallels the 2009 film yet again when Irene uses a drug to incapacitate Sherlock. Though Irene Adler beats Sherlock in this instance, it is a shallow victory, one decidedly lacking in the wit and foresight of Doyle’s Irene. Lara Pulver’s Adler is, much like her behavior towards Sherlock, ultimately “textbook”. She follows the path Laura Mulvey describes perfectly. The episode:
Opens with the woman as object of the combined gaze of spectator and all themale protagonists… She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised. But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalised sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too (Mulvey).
In spite of her ultimately outsmarting both Sherlock and Mycroft in the course of the episode, Irene loses all agency by the end of the episode. The subversion of the damsel-in-distress motif is rendered meaningless the moment she admits that the entire plan was Jim Moriarty’s. She becomes nothing more than a talented actress playing out the script written by someone cleverer than she.
The revelation of her phone password is the final straw. Stripped down to nothing more than a girl with a celebrity infatuation, all of the power Irene Adler has so carefully built up over the course of the episode is completely taken from her. As a female figure who dared to challenge the nature of masculinity, she must be punished in the end; she is sent into the world without her protection, left to fend for herself. It is revealed that she does not survive very long on her own at all—at least, not without the help of one Sherlock Holmes.
3. Natalie Dormer in Elementary
Elementary’s version of Irene is by far the most unexpected. In the beginning we are shown an Irene who is clearly damaged; she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and completely reliant on Sherlock to care for her, something he does willingly. Irene Adler is, once again, a damsel in distress waiting for Sherlock Holmes to save her.
We are given glimpses of the Irene she used to be in the form of flashbacks. The Irene of old was vivacious, intelligent, and a criminal. In this incarnation she works restoring, then forging, artwork. Sherlock is obviously smitten with her, later pushing for a repeat of their one-night stand. They begin to date and all is well until she is apparently killed off by Moriarty.
The “oh-look-an-independent-woman-she-must-be-punished” routine is somewhat subverted by the fact that Irene is actually alive, just horribly damaged emotionally. She begs Sherlock to run away with her, and that is when things start to get interesting. Sherlock immediately notices that Irene has recently had a mole removed, clearly indicating that she has not been kept captive the entire time. He immediately assumes that she is working for Moriarty. Oh, Irene, we knew you had to be on the dark side.
That’s when it hits. The big reveal that subverts every previous Irene Adler pattern in modern media; Irene isn’t just working for Moriarty, Irene is Moriarty. This completely changes the game. Every previous damsel-in-distress-oh-Sherlock-save-me moment is completely subverted. It was a television moment so glorious that I quite literally fell off my couch from my excitement.
And then, just the way “A Scandal in Belgravia” robbed Irene of her agency right at the end, Moriarty is also defeated. Yes, Moriarty was truly in love with Sherlock, a fact which allows Joan to hatch a plan to catch her. Sherlock fakes an overdose and Moriarty comes running to his bedside, allowing the police to arrest her. Once again, the deviant woman is caught and punished in the end (and in a manner far too simplistic to suit an Adler/Moriarty hybrid character). Irene Adler is defeated.
One can only hope that Elementary will hatch a better plot line for Adleriarty in the future. Perhaps there is an escape from prison waiting in season 2. Perhaps she never really went to jail at all. Either way, it’s terrible to think that “The Woman” who is simultaneously Sherlock’s greatest enemy was overcome so easily.
The modern interpretations of the one woman to ever outsmart Sherlock Holmes have been… less than ideal. The hope remains that one day, perhaps, a more feminist portrayal of that woman, the woman, will emerge in modern media. A portrayal that doesn’t use love as the disadvantage that leads to her demise, but as a source of strength. Or, perhaps, one who isn’t in love with Sherlock Holmes at all, but remains his intellectual equal.