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Taming the Woman: Irene Adler and the Male Gaze


The Woman

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.

Now what?

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.

Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments!

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Author: Critique Geek

Writer and dreamer with a BA in Sarcasm. All-around nerd and lover of geeky things.

17 thoughts on “Taming the Woman: Irene Adler and the Male Gaze

  1. This really made me see Irene in a different light and WOW THIS IS SO TRUE. *applause for eternity* what about an Irene that Sherlock loves but that love isn’t reciprocated? Oh I don’t know. Just give us a stronger Irene please.

  2. Well written, solidly considered.

    That ending to Elementary was the low point of the series so far, and smacked of either some executive meddling (good guy must win!) or more annoyingly them having written the entire thing to that point while waiting for renewal then scrambling an ending through focus groups and their own committee based writing process. That said Elementary has been fairly above par so far (YMMV but it maintains a character arc more consistently than the BBC Sherlock) so they might be planning something more sensible in S2 but for now I’m going to assume that any Moriarty/Irene Adler based plot-line is going to be a bust. Roll on some original villains.

    Then again Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock felt less like a mistake that could be forgiven and more like the death knell for any decent continuation of that entire series. It reeked of everything that is troubling about how female characters are presented in modern fiction and (in that frustrating Moffat way) seemed to smugly imply that its ok because “its all just a bit of fun!”. Don’t get me started on the recent episode of Doctor Who, I mean seriously all that horsing around for a pay-off that gets completely negated by **SPOILER REMOVED** so they could **SPOILER REMOVED** and string together some **EXPLETIVE REMOVED** to do with how learning how to be a homemaker saved the universe. That soufflé line can bite my shiny metal ass.

    It’d be nice to say that this, the whole male gaze shenanigans in modern fiction, are the result of some kind of validly understood marketing paradigm that made a writer/producer gunshy about going there. A state of affairs which has defined the development of a lot of good and bad tropes in fiction. Hell it’d even be nice to just blame it on the consumer. Sucker Punch did a good job of doing just that but I think it kind of missed the point (although considering the reaction of several major creative figures in cinema maybe it hit its mark). Its actually more an issue with individual auteurs complete inability to separate themselves from a work long enough to appraise it as a piece of fiction as opposed to just forcing everyone to accept their excrement as a gem encrusted wonder deserving of special attention.

    Whatever could you mean? Bad fan-fiction is typically subject to a great deal of Sueism. Ultimately fan-fiction and proper “fiction” are one and the same.

    Ultimately anything can be subject to sueblindness, the inability to objectively examine a given characters motivations within the story without looking at it from the perspective of a specific character. The whole male gaze issue is just one symptom of many caused by this and while it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it exists for a reason, its unnecessary presence (Irene Adler is a really great example of a situation where a character is almost deliberately and repeatedly subject to it for no good reason) genuinely kills a good story.

    TL;DR – BBC Sherlock is bad, and should feel bad. Elementary might be saved.

  3. Goodness, yes.
    Although, I did have some further issues with Dormer’s Adler, not the least of which is the tired Disney trope of intelligent, self-determining woman as villainess. I was actually very disappointed in Elementary’s Big Reveal and would have been a lot happier with an Adler who was simultaneously brilliant and morally upright. Doyle’s Adler may have broken a few social conventions as an adventuress, but she never broke the law. The flashbacks gave me trouble as well — intellect subordinated to sexuality, when I’m still having a hard time envisioning Holmes as sexually interested in -anyone-.

    I was actually in the process of blogging my irritated diatribe, but as you’ve said most of what I wanted to, I think I’ll just pare it down a little and throw a link back here.

  4. Would prefer to see The Woman portrayed as a badass challenge to Sherlock; plenty of clever mental sparring and NO love interest on either side. Sherlock works better when the only emotion he portrays is self centred. A strong woman who only interested him because her mind challenged his would be good to watch. She should not need to undress or flirt to show her ability – unless to don a sheet in an inappropriate place for the hell of it 😉

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  6. That was an interesting and well-written point of view! I haven’t seen Elementary yet, but maybe I’ll take a look 😉

    BBC’s Sherlock is one of my favourite tv-shows,so I was disappointed with the way they created their own Irene Adler. At first I thought it was everything about satisfying the male gaze (the dominatrix is,after all,still present in the male fantasies), but a little later it seemed that Irene was capable of defending herself (the scene at her house) and be, at the same time,not only a beautiful sexy woman but also a woman with a brain,capable of challenging Sherlock.
    So it annoyed me a lot seeing how they managed to put an end to her character. I would had preferred her to flee or disappear without the need of being “saved”.

    Same thing goes with the Irene from the Sherlock movie. I love the actress and I loved the way she talked and acted with Sherlock (he was really impressed by her witty and cleverness, you can tell it just by looking at him during the scene), and I hoped to see more of her.

    It seems like they can’t give those strong female characters and end without letting men murder/kidnap/torture them. As you said, “punishing” them for being too indipendent and challenging.
    So I wonder why the scripters don’t try harder to find a way to create a new point of view and let those Irenes be a REAL challenge.

    Btw, I agree with zeudytigre: maybe they should create an Irene who’ll never be a love interest for Sherlock (without stripping her of her sexuality)

  7. I seem to agree with the main point of the article:There hasn’t been a truly faithful interpretation of Irene Adler. However, for what it’s worth I’d like to say that Moriarene is probably the best interpretation, mainly because it covers many of the flaws in and of itself.
    To be frank, because of non-canon works, Irene Adler will always be a love interest to Sherlock Holmes, and it must be reciprocated. Everyone knows the story, everyone loves it, and TV audiences will eat up an intelligent romance like Holmes/Adler(In many ways, Casino Royale has a dynamic I found to be very much inspired by Holmes/Adler).

    It’s perhaps because Elementary so blatantly throws canon out the window that Adler is presented so successfully.
    But let me back track:When sherlock came out, I saw the name “A Scandal” and immediately prepared for the ride of my life. I knew immediately that this was going to be a tremendous interpretation that would shock me. And it did, but for all the wrong reasons. I swallowed many of the changes gladly, as the character was built similarly, but ultimately modern.

    But ultimately while it hit all the right plot points of the story, it was lacking because it suggested that Irene Adler was a woman that was weaker than sherlock because she was in love with him. And after watching it, I was so conflicted: For a character built up so well, they destroyed her so easily. Why was she even working for moriarty if all she wanted to do was use the pictures for protection? In fact, shouldn’t she be his equal? How did she even get caught by…well what appears to be terrorists(and isn’t that a little racist? No other organization trading military secrets or even a part of moriarty’s entourage could have been after her, it randomly had to be an Al-Quaeda expy??)

    Contrast this with my Elementary viewing, where I didn’t actually know what to expect. The show’s been heavily about not being about canon, but spooning us giant chunks of it when we don’t expect it, and I came in without expectations, beyond a slight sense of snide expectation that if nothing else, at least she was an american this time.

    And over the course of the episode, I was surprised. After I finished it, I was surprised. Even now I’m surprised. On the wholly superficial level, they wrote irene adler as a smart character that sherlock falls in love with but loses. They covered her being in love with sherlock by adding moriarty’s obsession. Now, maybe Irene Adler should never be in love with Sherlock to some fans as the ideal, unreachable woman, but non canon fans, studio executives, shippers and those unfamiliar are going to want her to be a love interest, and what’s interesting is that they satisfied it by covering it with moriarty’s obsession.

    On another level, it addressed my reviled ending to “A Scandal in Begravia”. Adler’s already won once. She’s back. It means she’s already beaten sherlock. Her love doesn’t make her weak, it’s made her his equal, because sherlock doesn’t understand the weaknesses of it being mutual, just like it’s left deliberately ambiguous in “A Scandal in Bohemia” if she actually DOES love Sherlock(there is an undeniable attraction, but perhaps I read too far into it).

    And how does she lose? Because Watson tips the scale. For all intents and purposes, Sherlock and Moriarty should be equals. If not for a clever last bit of listening, for the most part Sherlock and Irene are equals. And that’s why it’s such an incredible episode, because it for the most part shows an incredible stalemate where moriarty can’t stop sherlock and sherlock can’t stop moriarty on his own. In a character-centric interpretation like elementary, having someone outside the “triangle” let’s the status quo stay but still gives the season’s happy ending.

    And on an even sneakier level, the writers snuck so much canon in it isn’t even funny, it’s incredible. Irene needs protection before she disappears. In this case, it’s sherlock. Later, it’s handcuffs. Stolen painting? A moriarty quirk. Irene’s main source of living? Pictures(…portraits. same thing). Hell, before the first time we see her, they have the overture to Don Giovanni playing, and it’s not just any opera reference, it’s a damned clever one: Your overture is what is ALWAYS played before the opera starts and you see the opera singers. It’s a freaking stealth mythology gag referring her her being an opera singer in the books.

    And the stealth references don’t even end there: Irene Adler restores painting. She physically takes paintings and recrafts them for the modern era, like the show. She restores renaissance paintings, sherlock plays baroque music(chaconne for violin by Bach, who’s death marked the end of Baroque music) on his violin when we first see him do it. The Baroque era came right after the renaissance, just as this is sherlock’s next era after the traumatic ending of his “irene” era.

    Getting back to it though, it’s such a strong interpretation. And maybe it’s unfair to judge the two characters that way, as clearly i had higher(or, more canon to be exact) expectations before me, but that’s just it: They’re RADICALLY different shows with radically different takes and because of that, they’re going to hit things wildly differently. For elementary, I’m glad that Irene Adler was one of those differences.

  8. You are forgetting that in Elementary’s version, it’s Joan, another woman, who defeats Irene. Not Sherlock. The general theme is that love is everyone’s weakness, Irene/Moriarty included, people who otherwise have no weaknesses at all. But it could only take a woman to recognize and exploit another woman’s weakness in this version, the male was hopelessly clueless.

    Making Irene into Moriarty also brought around full circle the decision to make Watson a woman. That’s when it hits you: “Of course!”. I never really accepted a female Watson until that point because Sherlock was classic Sherlock so a female Watson felt out of place when you’ve read the originals and seen all the other versions.

  9. To add to that last comment, Irene/Moriarty uses Sherlock’s love of her, his weakness, against him and defeats him. So in the dynamic between the two, it is the woman using their mutual love as a form of power over the other. It’s the reverse of the other situations where Irene’s love for Sherlock brings her down a notch. Here, Sherlock is brought down a notch because of the love. Sherlock had been sent spiraling into a life of drug addiction and hit rock bottom and it took him years to recover.

    Watson swoops in to save the day because of who she is and, I suspect, being able to empathize a bit with how Irene/Moriarty sees Sherlock.

    So Irene defeats Sherlock, then Joan Watson defeats Irene. It’s not like the other two, and Irene is hardly treated as an object of the male gaze apart from her beauty. The show ends with Sherlock naming a new species of bee after Joan. It’s reaffirming that the victory is Joan’s because in the first season it was Joan’s struggle all along to win us, the audience, over so we can accept the drastic new interpretation of an old character.

  10. This was a great article. But I think it’s important to note that in Elementary, Irene/Moriarty and Sherlock are equals, but it is the addition of Joan that tips the scale in Sherlock’s favor. I think that the arrest of Irene seems too easy, and that the next season will open with another trick up her sleeve.

    As for BBC Sherlock, what in the world is up with their Irene? A faux “lesbian dominatrix” who’s not actually a lesbian nor really a dominatrix who once again falls under the trope of the “woman in love weakness” and is defeated as such

    There were always be a war between BBC Sherlock and Elementary, and I believe that while Sherlock may have better “cases” (all 6 of them lol), Elementary is completely superior in terms of its characterizations. How novel that Joan Watson is actually an equal to Sherlock rather than his doormat sidekick! “I am… better with you, Watson.” Hooray!

  11. I also write a bit about Irene Adler and the failure of modern interpretations. Loved what you had to say.

    Why is it so impossible for modern(?) male writers to let Irene be Irene?

  12. I’m late to this party, but this is a good discussion, so I’m jumping in! I think a lot of people really misunderstand the basic plot and resolution of the original story, A Scandal in Bohemia, which contributes to a lot of questions about whether or not these stories are “accurate” or “appropriate” interpretations of the character. Since we have only ONE story with Adler, the case is pretty clear:

    1. Irene was the King’s mistress. He gave her a photo of the two of them as a gift to memorialize their trysts.
    2. When he attempted to extort the image from her upon announcement of his marriage, she refused to hand it over and this is why Sherlock Holme’s is hired.
    3. Sherlock and Adler have a battle of wits. His attraction to her is never mentioned in physical terms.
    4. Sherlock discovers the hiding place of the image, but when he is finally able to retrieve it, Irene has left him a letter and an image of her in a dress.
    5. Adler wins. She flees the country with the photo in hand and intends to use it for “protection.” When Sherlock tells the King this, he throws up his hands and admits to her brilliance. And he wants to pay Sherlock anyway! All Sherlock asks for is an image of Adler.

    All three modern interpretations borrow threads from this story. BBC’s Sherlock follows the beats of the story most closely, but Adler doesn’t win. And that’s the key difference. Some may argue she “wins” by choosing to be a dominatrix. Or by earning Sherlock’s trust. Or by surviving. But we all know that’s a cop out. Same thing with Elementary – because I, like you, was FLOORED when Adler was essentially turned into a twofer. But again, she loses in that narrative.

    So here’s what I wish: I dream of BBC’s Sherlock bringing Adler back in S3 and giving her a role in Sherlock’s disappearance/death. Give her something to do that really shows off her intellectual prowess and give her the opportunity to be a good gal.

    For Elementary S2: Allow “Moriadler” to escape and have her bring Sherlock to England and win. I don’t know how that’s possible after all the death and destruction she’s caused, but there’s got to be a clever way.

    Alright, *end rant*.

  13. Reblogged this on The Science of Procrastination and commented:
    I love this article.

  14. You got rong in one thing about Irene in Elementary. Irene Adler, “the woman”, was not defeated. She fooled Sherlock and she destroyed him. Moriarty, her alias, was the one who was defeated. And she was defeated by JOAN. Moriarty won over Sherlock TOO (her plan to won the 2 billion dollars was successfull and he was a mere unwtitting pawn in her works).

    I think people over-glamourize the name “Irene Adler” and forget that she actually lost to Joan Watson. Also, she did not lost because “she was in love”. She lost because she was an arrogant person who underestimated Watson, obsessed by Sherlock’s intellect and nothing about her “love” for him was healthy or even “romantic” and “cute”.

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  16. Ultimately I’d just be pleased with and Irene and Sherlock relationship without the romance. Two cunning adversaries in a battle of wits with no romance and only the utmost respect between the two. Sherlock Holmes was never in love with Irene, and the same was true considering she married another man and presumably lived quite happily at the end of A Scandal in Bohemia. It kind of seems like they’re repeatedly demoting her to love interest, that a smart, cunning woman and a smart, cunning man must fall in love if they meet one another. I adored Irene in the original stories, but cringe every single time she appears on screen. I was particularly disappointed with BBC’s Sherlock for their adaptation if only because I’d been so pleased with how everything else was adapted so cleverly and as close to canon as a modern day adaptation can be.

  17. I write a strong female character. If looked at just the right way, in a certain light, you might even call it Irene Adler fanfic. I’m not the only one writing strong female characters, although by strong I mean “worthy of being the central character in a novel” not “male action hero with a female name slapped on.”

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