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Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

So Sherlock is back - complete with the problems that surrounded its treatment of minority groups in the first season. Within a couple of hours of the first story airing, Stavvers argued that the treatment of Irene Adler had seen what looked like a genuinely strong and self-directed female character reduced to tropish helplessness when we learnt that Moriarty had been advising her on her criminal activities, saw her security code compromised by her foolish willingness to be influenced by her romantic attraction to Sherlock, and then saw Sherlock rescue her from execution. Jane Clare Jones followed up in the Guardian saying much the same.

While I absolutely agree that problematic portrayals of female characters are, well, problematic, and fully recognise that Moffat is particularly prone to perpetrating them, the problems with this particular character didn't strike me as forcefully as they obviously did some viewers. I think this was because Sherlock as a programme makes so much use of misdirection, and reveals the 'true' solutions to its mysteries only fairly sparingly and sketchily. By comparison with, say, Moffat's recent Doctor Who Christmas special, this leaves an awful lot of room for us as viewers to generate our own alternate readings - indeed, it actively encourages us to do so.

Take, for example, the issue of how Irene Adler really feels about Sherlock. Our understanding of this is reversed multiple times during this story. For a long time, we're encouraged to believe that she is falling in love with him - all those comments about how 'brainy is the new sexy', the flirty texts, the conversation in Battersea Power Station where she suggests to Watson that both of them are strongly attracted to Sherlock in spite of their usual sexuality, the intimate scene between them in his flat. But on Mycroft's flight of the dead and in his office afterwards this apparent scenario is reversed, when she claims that she was playing Sherlock for a fool all along, entrapping him into decoding the Ministry of Defence official's email for her by merely making him believe she was in love with him. And moments later, the switch is flipped once more when Sherlock states that by taking her pulse and observing her dilated pupils in his flat he was able to detect the real truth - that her act had become a reality, and she had genuinely fallen for him after all.

I've no doubt that that is basically where Moffat signs off. This is his intended portrayal of the characters' motivations, and we are then meant to understand that Adler is undone by the weak, feminine sentimentality which drove her (already some six months earlier) to use a pun on Sherlock's name as the PIN code for her phone. That is problematic. But by the time this scenario was presented to me, I found I had got into a state whereby I was automatically reading everything I saw as potentially untrue. Sherlock was telling me assuredly that Adler had been attracted to him. But was even he right about that? Or, indeed, was that what he really thought, as opposed to (say) a bluff intended for Mycroft? And meanwhile, so much else in the episode remains ambiguous or incompletely explained. For example, did Sherlock ever really think that Irene Adler was actually dead the first time? After all, he'd had every opportunity to study her naked body in great detail. Would he really have been fooled by the substitution of a body which merely had the same measurements, when (for example) the shape and size of a woman's nipples, belly-button and indeed other parts are so very distinctive? Or was he complicit in helping her to fake her death that first time, too?

In that frame of mind, and with so much room for manoeuvre, almost everything about the story becomes extremely fluid. To continue with the example I've used above, it isn't hard to flip the switch on the does she / doesn't she fancy him question yet again. I've already suggested above that Sherlock himself may be lying about what Irene's pulse and pupils revealed to him - perhaps as part of a wider collaboration between the two of them of the sort which Roz Kaveney sketches out in the comments on Stavvers' blog. But even if he's not, she could have faked those symptoms. A little bit of ecstasy taken at the right moment would probably do the trick, for example - and she is clearly a woman who knows how to obtain and use illicit drugs effectively.

From that point onwards, you can go on to build all sorts of variant interpretations of the closing scenes. Did Irene, for example, a) make Sherlock believe she was in love with him so that he would finally figure out the code to her phone, as well as b) carefully manipulating him into falling in love with her in spite of himself so that he could then be relied upon to protect her from the consequences of that by helping her to fake her own death a second time? Because that could actually work out quite well for her by creating a clean break if she had begun to feel her embroilments with people like Moriarty had got rather too deep and she wanted a way out of it all - and she would have maintained total control of her own destiny throughout that scenario.

I am not saying that the above is the 'correct' reading of this episode, or even that it's the one I most subscribe to myself. My point is simply that this series fosters variant readings of itself to such as extent that even when the script-writers' intentions are problematic, I find the impact of that on me as a viewer is considerably watered down by the pervading sense that many different readings of what I am seeing are all true at once, and that I can never be 100% sure of any of the characters' aims and motivations. This, of course, is part of what make the show so irresistible, whatever the final verdict on Irene Adler.

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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
Jan. 7th, 2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
Isn't Irene's ringtone on Moriarty's phone suggestive of who really holds the power in their relationship? Moriarty is a 'woman's man'...?
strange_complex
Jan. 7th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
Quite likely. Who knows? This is another of the ambiguous, unexplained things in this story which we can (and indeed must) read however we like. Did she get hold of his phone and doctor it in the same way as she did Sherlock's? Or is this his regular ring-tone which he chose because he liked it? It's our decision to make - and of course our choice is both shaped by and has huge consequences for our perception of both characters and their relationship.
parrot_knight
Jan. 7th, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
Television was interactive before interactive media, so called, were invented; and Moffat knows it.
minnesattva
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
As someone who hated this episode to the point of not being able to follow it (okay I was really sleepy as well, but still!), I am delighted at how you've managed to finally explain the thing about it which most mystified me: how I could so dislike something that so many of my friends seemed to really like.

Of course even before I saw (yay for iPlayer) I had friends grumbling about Moffat's sexuality and gender fail, etc. but I also saw a lot of people raving about it...including some of the people I most expect to hear critiques based on social-justice perspectives.

I have thought Moffat's storytelling was full of plot holes since at least the beginning of this season of Doctor Who -- which I remember watching the first half of with friends, who after each episode would excitedly dissect and attempt to explain the confusing bits of, and as I listened to them I got the impression that they were plotting out the season-long story arc more tightly and sastisfyingly than Moffat could have been arsed to.

And i just got the same impression from this: Moffat's good at moving from set-piece to set-piece, but doesn't even pretend to seem bothered at how everything fits together between the jokes and the naked ladies and so on.
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:38 pm (UTC)
Yes indeed to Carry On - or maybe also something like Jeeves and Wooster (not that that will ever need re-doing after the fantastic Granada series, though).
strange_complex
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:34 pm (UTC)
I've spent the week struggling with that issue, too, except from the opposite perspective - why didn't this episode bother me in the way it did so many of my friends, particularly given that Moffat's Christmas Who very much did? This is the best explanation I can come up with - if it works for you, too, that's great. :-)
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Heh - that is very true about her measurements. Most real women would be too well aware of how changeable they are, for one thing.
minnesattva
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:37 pm (UTC)
Yes! This was the first objection made by a sympathetic friend (and fellow woman) when I grumped about this in the pub Tuesday evening.
parrot_knight
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
What was that you were saying about everything being subordinate to the joke? Moffat's sense of humour is rooted in the era of his birth, and earlier.
biascut
Jan. 8th, 2012 11:06 am (UTC)
The Moriarty thing only bothered me because of the GET MORIARTY INTO EVERYTHING, which just seems silly. If he's supposed to be a consulting criminal, then the fact that Irene consulted him doesn't mean she's working for him.

What pissed me off was that Irene was just PURE SEX, and heterosexual-man-sex at that. In the original, she's an "adventuress", but all her cleverness isn't filtered through that. She crossdresses well enough to fool Sherlock. But in this, it was all about her putting on her lipstick and her eye-make-up and her sexy dresses and her nakedness and her five-inch heels and YAWN.

I actually liked the measurements as password bit (partly because I worked it out before the programme told us), although I agree it is a real man's-version-of-a-woman thing. But I was annoyed that it just flattened her out into this boringly classic heterosexually-framed femme fatale. It just felt like a real missed opportunity.
biascut
Jan. 8th, 2012 11:10 am (UTC)
Actually, what I would have liked was to see her having somewhere completely different in private - her house was decorated as a place of business, totally bland. It would have been awesome if there's been somewhere which was her off-duty safe-space, where she wore fluffy slippers or old jeans or whatever. That would really have turned the character around for me, and it would have been quite cool to see her deliberately hiding that personality from Sherlock or carefully choosing to expose certain parts of it in her manipulation of him.
strange_complex
Jan. 8th, 2012 01:02 pm (UTC)
Yes, the consultation of Moriarty didn't trouble me either, for the same reason as you.

On Irene as pure sex, I very much take your point about the rather one-dimensional vision of female sexuality which it conformed to. But I also felt that portraying her as strongly and overtly sexual, and making that the core of her character, worked well thematically against Sherlock's portrayal as possibly-asexual, possibly-repressed. It helped to position her as an effective foil to him, with opposite and contrasting strengths - and ones which it would be difficult for him to handle.

I get that that still boils down to subordinating decisions about how to present a female character to the needs of a more important male character - but the fact is that Sherlock is the main character here, so that all of the secondary characters (male and female) need to be drawn in a way which enhances his drama.

I agree about seeing Irene in 'off-duty' mode, though. That might also have created an opportunity to show more of her relationship with the 'maid' (as the script described her), Kate, who I felt was rather underdeveloped.
surliminal
Jan. 18th, 2012 06:11 am (UTC)
This is vg, thanks - captures exactly what I was trying to say dazedly last night. Moffats writing in this could never be described as capable of only one reading whatever faults he seems to have as a human being..
strange_complex
Jan. 18th, 2012 10:45 am (UTC)
Cheers. I am always a bit baffled by people who say confidently after Sherlock episodes that they could see everything coming and know exactly how and why it was all done. I'm not saying I don't understand the plots as Moffat writes them - but at the same time, he sets up such a complex world and only shows us a certain angle on it. It is multi-layered, and I'm never quite sure where the layers Moffat has laid down end and ones which only his characters know about begin.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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