On 1 January, the first episode of the new series of Sherlock aired — a retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle story A Scandal in Bohemia called A Scandal in Belgravia. Among several changes from the source material were a few which provoked comment; particularly the decision to adapt the character of Irene Adler (“the woman”, as Holmes calls her).
Instead of an opera singer, she was now a dominatrix. And — spoiler alert — instead of outwitting Sherlock, she was undone by her decision to make a crucial password dependent on her fearsome crush on the great-coated detective.
That night, Zoe Stavri wrote a blog post called “Irene Adler: how to butcher a brilliant woman character”, which argued that “it’s pretty when a story written over 120 years ago has better gender politics than its modern reimagining”. Jane Clare Jones, writing for Comment is Free, concurred. I, however, disagreed, arguing that there were sound dramatic reasons for the changes.
So I invited Zoe to debate the issue on this blog. Here is our email exchange —
Helen Lewis: First up, cards on the table. I really like Steven Moffat’s work; he’d be near the top of any list of British screenwriters working today, and if it were possible to have him cloned, I would find it sorely tempting. Coupling? Hilarious. Jekyll? Creepy. Blink? One of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Sherlock? So good I watched the first episode again the instant iPlayer would let me.
Maybe my love has blinded me to the fact that he’s supposedly a sexist, but I find it hard to believe. The character of Irene Adler in the new series of Sherlock is undoubtedly less strong than her forebear in the books – she doesn’t outwit the detective – but there are any number of sound, practical non-sexist reasons why you would make this change. Building a series arc about Moriaty, for one. Not demolishing the key allure of Sherlock the invincible so soon, for another.
Not making every woman in your drama a strong, confident person isn’t the same as being systemically sexist. I always remember what The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan told me: “One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.”
Zoe Stavri: Cards on the table: I, too, adore the work of Steven Moffat. I found myself turning joyful metaphorical cartwheels when it was announced that the man who wrote some of my favourite Doctor Who episodes would be running the whole show. Moffat’s writing sizzles and his plots twist with intricacy and never fail to surprise and delight.
I find it difficult, then, to reconcile my love for Moffat’s shows with a stripe of sexism I feel runs through it all. Particularly egregious was the first episode in the new series of Sherlock, which is based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story in which Holmes finds himself completely and utterly outsmarted by a woman.
In Moffat’s take, not only are Irene Adler’s smarts demoted to being due to advice from Holmes’s male nemesis Moriarty, but Adler ends up as a damsel in need of rescue.
I would be more willing to excuse this as serving a gender-blind narrative function were it not for the rest of Moffat’s body of work I have watched. Let’s start with Coupling, which was was funny enough to make even this sour-faced feminist crack a smile, despite much of the humour revolving around the notion that men and women are different species with men wanting sex and women wanting a relationship.
Compared to the men in the show, the women characters are somewhat flat and one-dimensional, desperately scrapping over getting men into their tightly-woven female webs.
Then there’s Moffat’s run on Doctor Who, which has featured some downright problematic content. Take, for example, the two Moffat Christmas specials. In the more recent one, the plot was resolved by motherhood being the source of women’s strength and womb-magic saving everybody. The Christmas before was about a woman in a box who was occasionally taken out for men’s amusement.
Put together, a worrying picture emerges. I’d hoped to see Irene Adler done justice on the screen, but she received a similar treatment to the rest of Moffat’s women.
HL: OK, I will give you that Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes are not as bristlingly right-on as those of his predecessor, Russell T Davies. But still, this is the man behind River Song and Amy Pond and Madame de Pompadour and Sally Sparrow. You could make the argument that these characters are primarily explored in relation to a man, but isn’t that the nature of long-running drama?
The Doctor will always be the most interesting character in Doctor Who, in the same way that Sherlock is the lynchpin of Sherlock Holmes. Moffat simply has the “bad fortune” to inherit two series with well-loved leading men. The answer is a few more Buffy the Vampire Slayers (that is also the answer to a number of other problems with TV today, incidentally).
It’s interesting that you raise Coupling, because for me that’s the hardest to defend. The characters – both male and female – are fairly broad brush, but I’d excuse that as the nature of the sitcom. Does it pass the Bechdel test, though? Possibly it’s rare that the female characters discuss anything other than men, but again – the clue is in the title. It’s a comedy about relationships. And I don’t agree the women are more one-dimensional: of all the character, Jeff is the subject of the most mockery, and is the least “realistic”. Is that misandry?
One last thing: Steven Moffat’s time in charge of the Tardis has meant there has been a female companion who is – shock horror! – married. I love that. I love that in Moffat’s world, you still get to have adventures once you’re married, and even when you’ve had a baby. And yes, I found the “this one is strong” Mummy-knows-bestery of the Christmas episode a bit yukky, but it really was refreshing to see a mother getting to be part of a TV drama doing something other than washing up or nagging.
ZS: You raise a very good point about the nature of long-running dramas and how Moffat’s current two shows happen to be centred around men. This is certainly relevant to the issue, and represents the broader problem of sexism in the media: there are far fewer shows, films and books with women in the leading role. I definitely don’t expect Moffat to single-handedly solve this entrenched problem, yet there are ways to create a strong woman character in a male-centred show which Moffat has missed entirely.
Returning to Sherlock, there were unfortunate implications to Adler being “beaten” by Sherlock, recasting an independent woman character as one who is ultimately less good than a man and needs to be rescued. This does not exist in a vacuum: it exists in a broader context wherein female characters are largely inferior to men anyway, and in the minds of many, women are still the weaker sex. To take a source material which subverted the Victorian expectation of a weak, emotional woman and return it into something which exemplifies this archaic archetype is inherently problematic.
Moffat has also expressed concerning opinions about women, describing his viewing of Karen Gillan’s audition tape as “a shame she’s so wee and dumpy” in an episode of Doctor Who Confidential. Ultimately, she ended up in the role as Amy Pond because on meeting he realised she was tall and slim.
To me, a better measure of sexism in the media is not the subversions along the way, nor the Bechdel test, but where the woman characters ultimately end up. In Moffat’s work, this is almost universally “in the arms of a man”. Whether as a contrite tamed shrew like Adler or having fought their way there through improbable science, they all end up in the same place.