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grit in a sensitive instrument

sherlock irene

The new season of Sherlock starts on 1st January, and the BBC has just released a new, longer, interactive trailer that's pretty spanky and all. Tumblr is having hysterics, predictably enough. I must confess to a certain excitement. (Although, warning, that trailer made me exclaim "Sherlock, you bastard!" at least twice. They're interpreting the two years dead in the way the bulk of the fanfic does, which is to focus on how brutally the deception affects Watson and how emotionally detached Sherlock is from it; he's not going to be likeable this season). But I watched the trailer, and in particular the bit with the Stephen Moffat interview, and something crystallised for me, possibly because Moffat in interviews comes off as slightly smug.

See, my love for the narrative elegance of his early Doctor Who episodes notwithstanding, I still can't forgive Stephen Moffat for what he does to women across Doctor Who and Sherlock alike. He's not an enlightened thinker, certainly not a feminist one; his female characters tend to slide back into reactionary gender roles to a somewhat worrying extent. They wait. And have babies. Or unrequited crushes. Or are royally screwed around by circumstances. They're quite often passive in one or another way. They're almost always reacting to men, rather than having their own goals and agency, which means that ultimately any power that they have tends to reside in their sexuality.

And what he did to Irene Adler is the single thing that most annoys me about Sherlock. I've always vaguely assumed that it was because he insists on bloody well sexualising Sherlock, which I think is flat against both the letter and the spirit of Doyle's character. But today I realised it's not that, or at least not just that. It's also about the way he sexualises Irene herself. In the Doyle story she's "The Woman" because she's an intellectual equal to Sherlock: she doesn't seduce him, she out-thinks him. She's a sexualised figure in that she's beautiful and adored by men, but in fact she's characterised as a spurned woman more than an adventuress, and she doesn't randomly focus her sexuality against Sherlock himself: she triumphs over him in the story because of her intelligence, not her looks. The story takes for granted that Holmes himself wouldn't be susceptible to seduction anyway, it has to be a intellectual tussle. (In the original story Sherlock is actually fooled into not recognising Irene while she's disguised as a man, which I think is an important index both to how little her power is about her sexuality, and to how much Doyle equates her with Holmes himself - disguise is his own skill, after all). Moffat's Irene Adler is a complete reversal of this: the assumption in the episode is that she only prevails over Sherlock because her sexuality attracts, confuses and distracts him, which rewrites both of them.

That would be annoying even if Moffat hadn't gone the whole hog and made her into a dominatrix, which I find to be quite one of the most unpleasant symbolic sexual roles for women. A dominatrix, in the sense of a woman for hire as Irene is (I don't mean women in consensual BDSM relationships), is not about female power. The encounter is not about her desire to dominate: it's about the customer's desire (and that's usually male desire) to be dominated. She's a commodity, very much a sexual object whose apparent power is entirely illusionary. Irene Adler in Sherlock is thus neatly undercut in the same way that Molly's technical skill is by her infatuation with Sherlock, or that Donovan's strength of personality is by her affair with Anderson. Moffat can't think of women separately from men, and very often he can't think of them separately from their sexual identity. Even Mrs Hudson, apart from revolving around Sherlock, is tied to him through his past interference in the case against her husband. Irene Adler is the most extreme example of a worrying trend. (She's characterised as a lesbian who's helplessly attracted to Sherlock, for fuck's sake. Good grief. Sexist clichés much, Moffat?)

I love what Sherlock does to the canon, its creative re-interpretation of the characters, its updating of the narrative arcs. It's an amazing piece of adaptation. But it's also flawed, and a lot of what flaws it is Moffat's ideological ineptitude. It's doubly saddening, because I adore the elegance of structure of "Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace", but now I re-watch them with a critical eye for their women, and ultimately their women are sad.

(And it's only tangentially related, but while we're on the subject of women trapped in and punished by their sexual identities, you have to read this on the Susan/Narnia problem. It made me cry, and not so much forgive CS Lewis, as realise he's actually irrelevant.)

Subject line from "A Scandal in Bohemia", naturally: Watson talking about how alien the concept of romantic love is to Sherlock. I want to rub Moffat's nose in that paragraph.
This is a very interesting piece which I have forwarded to my friend who is looking at Sherlock and his numerous interpretations for her PhD. Thank you!

But THANK YOU THANK YOU for that link to Tumblr, to the musings on Susan - THAT made my heart soar! God, I want to read all that too, Hell, I want to write it! I wonder what the coordinator of the MA in Creative Writing would think if I said I wanted to forget all the original work I've been thinking about for next year and the year after, and instead follow a character from CS Lewis, and make her story the triumph it should be?

On second thoughts, the original author of that piece should do it. I'll buy whatever she writes.
It's an amazing validation of Susan, isn't it? Makes something soaring and triumphant out of Lewis's punitive prudery. Really good modern children's and YA fiction makes one realise how hopelessly doomed he was in trying and write sexuality out of the story lock, stock and barrel. Bloody religious allegory.

I'm getting to teach Sherlock next year in an undergrad TV studies seminar devised entirely by myself, which means I'll either go Rathbone/Sherlock/Elementary, or I'll go Sherlock/fanfic/generic reinterpretation. Or possibly both. Either way, undignified and entirely unacademic squeeing is present :>. I'd love to chat to your PhD-writing friend.
I'll ask her to pm you - can I just say how entirely envious I am of both of you, getting to do this kind of work with these amazing characters?? I think I shall have to work in a trip to Cape Town next year, for research purposes, you understand, and sneak in to one of your seminars :)
Hello - I'm the PhD-writing friend :)

That sounds like an amazing course. I'd love to have a look at your course material sometime, if you wouldn't mind. It would also be great to chat.

This is a very interesting piece. I confess I hadn't thought about Irene Adler in these terms before. I found this character much more interesting than the original, mainly because we see so little of her in the original story that Holmes's regard for her seems somewhat overdone to me. But I take your point about Moffat's female characters.

WRT Susan - I LOVED that piece about her. Lewis's treatment of Susan always makes my blood boil. If you've read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, this ( is a lovely crossover story with Narnia, inspired by Neil Gaiman's 'The Problem of Susan', another interesting take on what must have happened to Susan after Narnia.
Thank you for articulating why Moffat's writing *bothers* me so much.

It's been very difficult to explain why I just want to smash these two shows into a wall somewhere.
They're both maddening because there's so much there that's good and interesting and creative, and borders on brilliant mythmaking, but I think for female viewers there's often a faint discomfort. I must re-watch Doctor Who, I think, and look at exactly how far Moffat's sensibility extends beyond his episodes. I also have the faint niggling feeling that Russell Davies doesn't like women very much - I'll never forgive him for what he did to Donna.
Don't have much time, but wanted to pop in and say thank you. I learned a great deal about what I'm missing in regards to women in fiction from this post, but mostly it just became a lot clearer to me why I both love and hate Sherlock.