California Literary Review

Sherlock Recap: ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’

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May 6th, 2012 at 9:25 pm

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Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Copyright: BBC Pictures

This was not an uncontroversial episode of Sherlock. But I’m going to leave the elephant over in that corner until we’re ready to attend to its full-trunkèd pachyderm wail of fail. In the meantime… The great thing about watching – and reviewing – Sherlock is it doesn’t trigger any of the usual questions about adaptation. We don’t have to deal with the translation of highly revered nineteenth century prose into the idiom of Doctor Who and that show where the giant boxing gloves knock people into the swimming pool. This is the match of early twenty-first century TV and Arthur Conan Doyle: trash calling to trash across the echoing century which divides them. Geek culture hasn’t so much appropriated Sherlock Holmes as taken back what rightfully belonged to them, thank you very much. It may well turn out that the entirety of steampunk was an expedition of geeks into the Victorian period in search of where they had left Sherlock, and trying to blend in whilst they were there.

This is why the atmosphere of Sherlock so often feels so right. It’s brilliantly balanced between frantic action and deep analysis, which is to say there’s no discernible analysis and plenty of action. One of Conan Doyle’s best tricks was to give the reader the impression they were glimpsing the hidden web of logical connections which hold the world together, when in fact they were watching a coke addict chase a luminous dog across Yorkshire. With a gun. (I’d point out which of them had the gun, but y’know we’re very careful about SPOILERS round here, so that grammatical ambiguity is all part of the service.)

The BBC Sherlock splendidly captures the tingling sense that everything around us is brimming over with secrets if we could only see them. And of course in this version we can actually see them. Sherlock sits humming at the intersection between our sulky obsession with the Victorians, our fascination with the idea that information is in the very air we’re breathing, and our fear that other people could use that information to harm us. There’s a lot to be beguiled by in this series.

Unfortunately beguiled would be a lousy state where this episode is concerned. I’m not the first to take a swing at A Scandal in Belgravia. Amongst others, the blogger Stavvers has done a number on it, pointing out that it’s quite something when the gender politics of a TV adaptation are more regressive and sexist than the 120 year-old source. The whole episode reeked of the worst kind of sniggering self-congratulation. Adler was the one woman whom Holmes respected and admired, who humbled him by beating him at the game and then handing his stake back. In this version she developed an embarrassing crush on him and descended to the digital equivalent of doodling “Mrs. Irene Holmes” on her exercise book. A Scandal in Belgravia was incapable of imagining female power as anything but sexual manipulation (“I know what he likes” ad nauseam), unable to conceive of female violence as anything but kink or groin shot. Adler seemed to be invoked in order to silence, humiliate and exorcise her from the series.

Conan Doyle’s work can justly be accused of being a boys’ club, and there are plenty of young men in nice suits and posh accents in Sherlock. Indeed the show seems worryingly convinced that everything will be OK so long as such men are in charge. But it’s harder to stomach the other kind of boys’ club which peeps out of this show – the resentful postfeminist backlash which yearns to humiliate women and put them “back in their place”. If this is the Revenge of the Nerds I’ve heard so much about, it’s a lousy cause and it’s going to find a lot more angry women where the likes of Stavvers came from. And Sherlock needs to sort itself out in a hurry.

  • Griff

    Honestly…the original Ms. Adler won by becoming a housewife, running into the protecting arms of her hubby? How’s that for feminism? No, Irene has power over people – men and women alike – by having them help her when she needs it. She wins in the end by once again keeping people interested. This time it is Sherlock, and it is a victory when you force a sociopath to protect you. Remember her smile in the end? She beat him right there, and she knew it.

    Why she had to be a dominatrix? In the original story she was a singer. It was seen as just as filthy and scandalous as being a dominatrix today. It was not an honorable profession then, and Steven Moffat did not degrade this Irene Adler when you compare her to the original. Learn a little history before you try to use modern days views and values on Victorian England.

  • Maggie May

    Original Irene was an opera singer & “adventuress”–a word utterly untranslatable in the modern world. But she gave up the opera career, then outwitted Sherlock & escaped to obscurity as a respectable Victorian matron. I wonder if they moved back to her original home–New Jersey…

    New Irene “beat” Sherlock but the original rather slight story wouldn’t fill in a 90 minute program. So she had further adventures & Moriarty was mentioned again. He’ll return!

    How convenient that this series debuted so long ago in the UK–New Years Day 2012. Bloggers have had ample time to find other bloggers to tell them how to interpret the show–rather than interpreting it themselves…

    I found it beautiful, stylish, intelligent entertainment. But I’m not looking for role models or moral lessons.

  • Lucia Davies

    I cannot agree more with Griff.

    Learn your history before you impose 21st century feminism on what was a very Victorian attitude.

    Doyle was modern for his time as was his protagonist. By admiring Irene Adler as THE woman the original Sherlock Holmes demonstrated no prejudice against what was considered a profession just one step up from prostitution.
    If that was not a plus for women, what would have been?

    No, this Irene is a very modern woman and nothing less than making her a high class escort or, as in this case, a dominatrix, would have had the same startling effect that Doyles’ original would have caused at the time.

    I would suggest it is you who is belittling her.

  • http://www.mamanervosa.com Lauren

    I’m soooooo disappointed in the show. Please, please, be more progressive so I can lust over Watson and Holmes without feeling like a traitor.

  • http://www.alifeunexamined.wordpress.com Jo

    I haven’t read the original so I can’t comment on Irene Adler’s character there, but I have to say I was also disappointed with the sexual politics in this. Firstly the way Sherlock has to rescue her in the end annoyed me. But what frustrated me more was the whole sexuality thing, as you rightly point out. Why does being a powerful women immediately mean she has to be so highly sexualised that her character almost is nothing else? The image this shows is that of a woman whose only tool is her sexuality. Other than that, she’s nothing. Aargh. It seems Moffat has a bit of a problem writing female characters who aren’t mothers or highly sexual.

    It’s not that there is anything wrong with being sexual, or sexually liberated, or wanting to have sex as much as possible. But every now and then I’d like to see a character who manages to be strong and powerful and smart without being sexy. Where are the awesome asexual characters?

  • Chai Latte

    I’m confused about some of the comments–we are discussing a modern-day adaptation, so why do modern day feminist concepts not apply? I would think they’d apply even MORE.

    Added note: loving a man is NOT an antifeminist act. Let’s just get that shit out of the way right now. Also, even in the original ‘Scandal in Bohemia’, we aren’t given much information on Godfrey Norton, Irene’s husband–who’s to say he wasn’t a great guy? Why couldn’t she and her husband have set off to have their own adventures together?

    (Which, in the amazing Irene Adler Mystery series by Carole Nelson Douglas, is precisely what they do. These books are the way Irene SHOULD be written, so if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend these books.)

    Irene being a dominatrix could have been done well, but the fact is, Moffat & Gatiss aren’t really known for writing really progressive female roles. If this was what we were going with, it could have been done well–but only if someone else had written it. These were the wrong guys for the job, full stop.

    I mean, this is 2012. Women do all sorts of things. Irene could have been a badass government assassin, a doctor, a barrister, a nuclear physicist, a journalist–the sky’s the limit, really. So it seems really unimaginative to make her a sex worker, in the way that they chose to write it.

    One thing that bothers me about BBC’s Sherlock and the films with RDJ is that they both have Irene getting mixed up with Moriarty. She was WAAAAAAY too smart for that shit; her outwitting Sherlock was her own doing–no one else got credit for that but her. She didn’t NEED anybody’s help, especially not Moriarty’s. She didn’t NEED anyone to rescue her. (For the record, in the original story, Godfrey did *not* rescue her, or at least, it’s never implied that he did.

    Oh, and this is a relatively minor quibble in the grand scheme, but I am unbelievably pissed that Irene is not American.

  • Aleema

    I agree completely. So insulting that the 1800s Addler is much more feminist than the modern-day interpretations. Even the Sherlock Holmes movie killed her off (for no other reason than they wanted a new love interest) and tied her on a leash to Moriarty.

    Insulting to her character and to women in general. So sick of the “sex as a weapon” trope for women characters. It’s not empowering, it stereotypes women as being manipulative and impresses upon us that our greatest asset is our (naked) body, not our minds.

  • Jem Bloomfield

    Thanks for the comments, everyone: I’m not surprised people have strong views on this one! I thought I’d better come below to line to point out a couple of things which seem to be clouding the issue.

    Firstly, it’s nonsense to say that Victorian female performers were “one step up from prostitution” or regarded as “filthy and disgusting”, particularly the kind of high-profile opera singer that Conan Doyle made Irene Adler. I appreciate the concerns for my historical education, and I’m never happier than when wittering on about the Victorian theatre or combing through nineteenth century newspapers, but that claim won’t stand up. It might have been the case in the seventeenth century, but not in the late nineteenth, when these stories were published. To suggest otherwise is just projecting modern hang-ups onto those big bad parent figures “The Victorians” whom we want to shock.

    Secondly, as Chai Latte points out, this show was produced and screened in the twenty-first century, so don’t have any option but to see it with twenty-first century eyes. If we were reading the original stories there’s a case to be made for understanding the constraints of the time (though that still doesn’t involve deciding that anything goes and time excuses all…!) But this is a modern show, and we inevitably read it as such.

    It’s also a little strange to argue that the writers are forced by historical parallels into doing anything: they seem very happy to “historicise” some aspects of the stories, and leave others just where they are. So Irene “has” to be a dominatrix, because that’s an accurate translation (it really isn’t) of her original role? But the show’s still about two professional-class white men with nice accents – no-one’s troubled to “translate” that into the more diverse demographics of modern Britain. I’m not arguing that they should, only it’s not convincing to suggest that this is a total “translation” (whatever that might involve)into the modern world, which is “forced” to do certain things because of its source material. Come to think of it, Chai Latte’s also right about the nationality issue: Irene was American, wasn’t she? What would have happened if the show had “translated” that as an ex-Imperial nation whose rising power Britain finds profoundly disturbing on a social and economic level…

    Thanks again for the comments – keep ‘em coming! It’s always fascinating to see what totally different impressions one TV show can produce!

  • Helen

    Late, oh well …

    I don’t see people saying that you should ignore everything that’s happened in feminism since the original story – just that, well, if you’re going to outright compare Sherlock!Irene with original!Irene, it’s valid to bring up the attitudes of the Victorians to the original, to say that it makes sense to try to keep the same sense of disreputability or outsiderness (and to be fair, most people who talk incorrectly about Victorian attitudes towards actresses/opera singers are repeating what they’ve been told and/or confusing the entertainment elite with the chorus, not just making things up to besmirch the Victorians). And it works for some of us, even some of us who are also feminists who talk about sexism a lot of the time and are angry about many things in modern life and the media! As shown in the comments here, it’s very easy to describe either version as feminist or pathetic.

    The fact that it’s been a while and everyone has seen a million reviews they disagree with (on both sides, I’m sure) doesn’t really help matters. To some of us it starts looking like having a character doing sex work or using sexual power makes her dreadful, when it’s really the trend that should be criticized.

  • Kethry

    I gotta say, the thing that ticked me off most about Irene was the shift in her alignment. Canon!Irene was fairly well Chaotic Good – yes, she was somewhat disreputable, yes, she was holding onto a picture that could get somebody Very High Up in a lot of trouble and that probably isn’t the nicest thing she could do, but instead of using said picture For Evil(tm) she promised it would be her eyes only, wished the fellow well, and faffed off with her young man. BBC!Irene is Neutral Evil – she wants to use the information she has, she wants to be one of the powers of the nation, and she’ll use whatever contacts she can acquire to get herself there. That got me angrier, even, than her actions, and than her having to be saved by Sherlock. (I read a fix-it fic that had her change the password TO “Sher” purely to get a hook in him, like Grif suggests, and I found that incredibly believable.) That far of an alignment shift is just…guh. “Sherlock” got some kudos from me for Mrs Hudson being a sly badass and the upgrade to Molly being Sherlock’s ace-in-the-hole, but I’m still squirmy about their stance on girls in general. I hope they step up the equality in Season 3.

    Oh, and the dominatrix thing didn’t bug me as terribly much as what she did with it. Being in the scene myself, the INCREDIBLE lengths in which she violates professional ethics (and yes they exist) hurt me deeply. It feels like watching a psychologist use their training to make people codependent on them, or a doctor using painkillers they know are addictive to get their patients coming back. It’s utterly, unbeLIEVably wrong. I’m not sure she’s technically a sex worker – being a dominatrix does not automatically involve sex, as the pros I know have confirmed – but even if she was I can’t imagine that what she’s doing doesn’t utterly violate the standards of the profession. Ugh.

  • deb

    I felt the very same way as you, Jo. You are spot on and, in fact, it put me of fhe whole series even though I thought Cumberbatch was so good in it, now I don’t like any of them.

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