The Case of the Sudden Femme Fatale (guest post by Delilah des Anges)

13 February 2012

Last time I was allowed onto this blog as a guest poster I came and perved on Romans; the time before that I was being a little too kind about Burke and Hare. This time I’m here to whinge about depictions of Irene Adler in modern Sherlock Holmes Adaptations. This will contain spoilers for the BBC adaptation and the Guy Ritchie movies.

When A Scandal In Belgravia aired there was a lot of talk about Irene Adler, and whether or not her character was “feminist”, whether her portrayal was “feminist”, and whether or not nudity, sex, rescue, romance, blah blah blah blah. As you can see I didn’t actually find that particular discussion very exciting, because people on the internet have been bickering about whether or not sex work, naked female bodies, and ladies needing help occasionally is feminist since there’s been an internet and will continue to do so until there isn’t one any more.

What’s bothered me not just about the BBC adaptation (in which Lara Pulvey was very good as Adler) but also about Guy Ritchie’s recent steampunk-inspired and anachronism-riddled films (where Rachel McAdams was at least the right nationality for the character), is the insistence on turning Irene Adler into a femme fatale –a woman who, by definition, is more prone to using her sexuality to dumbfound her opponent than solely her brain to outwit him.

This would be entirely acceptable to me as an archetype were it not for the fact that the original (and some of the later adaptations) had Irene Adler as intelligent and with a past, but not someone who was in any way interested in seducing Holmes or indeed on interacting with him much. She was looking to protect herself from a potentially vengeful and very powerful man (the crown prince of Bohemia) by using the only thing she had to hold over him: the evidence of their affair.

Holmes originally spoke of Irene Adler with admiration because she’d outwitted him, and because he places a high value on intelligence; he places rather less value on intelligence that places him in personal danger the way Ritchie’s Adler and the BBC Adler did!

There is the question, though, of whether the modern adaptations are aiming to shock or scandalise their audiences in the same way that Irene’s shady affair with European royalty might have scandalised readers of the original work; something salacious and enticing but similarly morally grey to the sensibilities of the time. Presumably then, just as now there are people saying “well if a woman wants to horsewhip royalty for money, why not? As long as the royalty in question want to be horsewhipped”, there would have been people saying, “So she had an affair, lots of people have affairs”.

The problem with using the femme fatale archetype to express the scandalous nature of the original and the shock value of a woman (a mere woman!) with the intelligence to outsmart Sherlock Holmes is that it also necessarily renders Irene highly morally ambiguous at best, and in the original she was not a criminal but someone trying to protect herself from the repercussions of a mistaken affair; in the Ritchie adaptation, for some reason, the element of fear of retribution for an affair was replaced with savvy conwomanship and some apparent debt to James Moriarty which left her in fear of him instead.

This is the primary objection I have to both the BBC and Ritchie adaptations’ use of Irene Adler; while the BBC version managed to retain a little of Irene’s vulnerability and response in “making my own way in the world”, they both trashed the idea of Irene as an independent agent at all by conflating her with Moriarty, and turning her into his pawn – either manipulated by him or ordered about by him.

Turning Irene, originally an ambiguously-moral woman with A Past, into a pawn of a character she has no connection to, is a necessary facet of the other problem with modernisations of Irene Adler; her transformation into Sherlock Holmes’s love interest. Maybe because it’s less believable to a modern audience to have a protagonist without a love interest (after who knows how many decades of a romantic subplot being shoehorned into every story), maybe because it helps allay “suspicions” about the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which you can no more stop than the rain, but making Irene Adler into a romantic interest as well as his foil in the story is sure to add a frisson of additional tension, right?

Well it would do if in both the BBC and the Ritchie version (moreso the latter) she hadn’t been sidelined by the presence of Moriarty as her puppeteer, reducing her to “romantic interest: subtype potential villain”. And perhaps if the possibility of a sustained love interest threatening to ruin the character dynamic didn’t then mean that she had to be summarily disposed of in both, instead of allowed, as the original Irene was, a happy ending with a man she loved and an act of kindness bestowed on a Bohemian Prince who didn’t deserve it.

It wasn’t just the woman’s mind that Holmes originally admired; it was also the content of her character.

Delilah Des Anges has more half-baked opinions on her own blog.


Pass the Parcel by Delilah Des Anges. ISBN: 978-1-4461-4570-8

Know Your Words by Al Kennedy, Amy Kreines & Delilah Des Anges is available to buy on Lulu.com. ISBN: 978-1-4452-6946-7

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