Opinion, Television

The Detective and the Dominatrix

Anybody who watched the triumphant return of Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock on New Years Day will not be surprised to learn that the naked dominatrix, Ms. Irene Adler, was the subject of some controversial debates around whether or not having a female character with no agency outside of her sexuality was a little bit, well, sexist. A great rundown of the points to be made on that side of the argument can be found over at the Guardian. The latest episode, Hound of the Baskervilles featured precisely two female characters, which can’t have helped matters either.

While it is a little weary that Irene had to be introduced to Sherlock as naked as the day she was born, there are some fascinating bits to be picked out of this arguably ill thought out use of stereotype. This was brought to my notice by the fannish safari park that is Livejournal which provided some thought provoking screen grabs.

Irene Adler is presented as the very personification of sex, and she’s a woman and that is reductionist and unfortunate. That is, after all, what many people and particularly in the media would list as a woman’s primary function. However, put in context I don’t think this particular characterisation is as tragic as all of that. What is arguably more tragic is the reaction provoked by carefully framed shots of a naked woman.

There is an important revelation minutes before Sherlock meets Ms Adler that throws each characters representation into a very different light: Sherlock is a virgin. Is Ms. Adler’s blatant sexuality not the perfect antidote for the bane of Sherlock’s stuttering, awkward virginity?

Nakey.
Irene Adler- naked save for a well framed shot & Sherlock- naked save for a bed sheet.

This creates a parallel and a juxtaposition between Adler and Holmes- a literal virgin/whore dichotomy, except with our dashing detective as the virgin and his intellectual equal as the whore. One is stripped naked and shamed, one declares nudity to be her battle dress. One is empowered by sexuality, one is “alarmed” by it (despite his protests to the contrary). Add to this their shared brilliance and mutual fascination and there is an argument for presenting them as two sides of the same coin, albeit with a controversial point of comparison. Although I suppose sex is always going the divide between great men and great women as far as many people are concerned. In the episode, it isn’t until Sherlock flirts back, uses his sexuality to his own advantage, that he manages to beat Ms. Adler at her own game.

Irene Adler- in Sherlock’s Coat

They are also made to look alike. Adler has her hair in curls like Sherlock’s and the same length. She is even wearing his coat.

Looked at in this light, I think introducing Ms. Adler in the nude was a crucial point of comparison between predator and prey. While in this instance, nudity has its use and can be justified, it’s still getting a woman naked and making her sexuality her tool for making her own way. Yes, she manipulates powerful men and women, but without them she would have no secrets and be of no importance. She clearly has a powerful mind but, as Sherlock points out, she chooses to “take her clothes off to make an impression.”

Of course then it becomes about demonising the female form. I don’t recall seeing any complaints about Sherlock’s nudity, though it was more revealing. Is it sexist to present a woman in this way, or sexist to be outraged by a woman presented in this way? Is the female form really so horrific? Is it the fact that she uses it to her advantage or the fact that it’s there at all? There are too many points against Ms. Adler’s nudity that strike me as sexist in themselves that I don’t feel comfortable sticking to one argument or the other.

Both? Neither?

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About Mell Moore

23, Journalist, Student, Gamer, Reader. I talk about the internet, games, books and idiots, in no particular order of preference. I try not to rant, but this is the internet and the WTFery here is of the highest standard, so please excuse me if it aggravates my tendency kick ignorance in the face. With words. Word-kicking. It's my thing. I have been featured in Friction Magazine and on Made2Game. I am a Deputy Editor and contributor at The Camel's Hump.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Detective and the Dominatrix

  1. Interesting post.
    I would have to check but my memory of the book is that Adler has no need of the Sexuality Card, pure intellectual attraction is the key force at play. I guess the reinterpretation says way more about today’s society and it’s priorities than anything about Conan Doyle and his mindset. I always consider Holmes as a bit of a role model tbh. I got my first proper job by expounding on that view!

    Posted by Stitch This | January 10, 2012, 5:41 pm
    • Oh no, in the book she doesn’t. However since Sherlock’s sexuality or lack of is (somewhat) explored by this episode I think it’s an interesting way to have played Irene. It’s also an convenient way for her to have contacts with so many powerful people.

      Again, not saying it isn’t a little tedious that she was Irene Sexler, just that it’s somewhat valid in context.

      Posted by mellmoore | January 10, 2012, 6:54 pm
  2. I was going to make the opposite case to the first comment. Conan Doyle’s attitude to women may have been refreshingly progressive for his time, but in retrospect they’re incredibly sexist. He makes the point that Adler is the ONE woman who Holmes regarded as an equal. Today, we’d be considered sexist to propose that the majority of women were not the equal of a man in a given role. Restricting a woman’s sexual freedom is an attitude of a bygone age, and in all ways the Adler of ‘Sherlock’ is the equal of Holmes except that she enjoys her sex life where his is stunted. I didn’t find it sexist in the slightest.

    Posted by stuartjamesbox | January 10, 2012, 7:01 pm

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