So the BBC version of "Sherlock" is back, and with it a new take on Irene Adler, the only woman who ever bested Sherlock Holmes in the original stories. Played by Lara Pulver, the new Irene is a professional dominatrix, identifies herself as a lesbian, and is positioned very much as a villain in "A Scandal in Belgravia," the first installment of the newest series. The episode has set off a lot of debate over whether the new Irene is better or worse character than the original one, whether her sexuality has been too fetishized, and whether she's ultimately a strong and admirable female character or another one of the problematic portrayals that should be discouraged. There are spoilers everywhere, should you choose to continue reading. Please watch your step.
The main charge against the "Sherlock" version of Irene is that she has become a love interest and adversary for Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), and loses considerable power and independence because of her portrayal in those roles. She becomes more vulnerable because of her feelings for the detective, ultimately loses the game because he realizes she loves him, and to add insult to injury, he rescues her from certain doom at the end of the episode. She's also apparently in cahoots with Moriarty (Andrew Scott), and takes advice from him on how to handle the Holmes brothers. All of this undercuts the idea that Irene is on equal intellectual footing with Sherlock. Some have taken exception to Irene continuing the widely despised trend of lesbians who are "turned straight" by the love of the male hero. And then there's her profession, which suggests her sexuality rather than her brains are her primary asset.
But when you put her in the context of the rest of the episode, these issues are all mitigated in a number of ways. First, Irene is not the only character who is questioning their sexuality in the story. John Watson (Martin Freeman), who is straight, clearly has a very strong attachment to Sherlock that may go beyond friendship. Gay references have been tossed around since the premiere episode, but here they aren't played for laughs. There's no indication that John or Irene are willing to forgo their current sexual preferences entirely, but Sherlock may be a potential exception for both of them. And then there's Sherlock himself, who is portrayed as asexual, but clearly develops feelings for Irene, feelings that get him in serious trouble. The writers may have softened up Irene with sentiment, but Sherlock gets the same treatment. There are actually scenes of him pining for her. Sherlock Holmes. Pining.
Then there's Irene's job as a dominatrix, which is surely meant to be titillating to the viewers, but it also puts her in a prime position to target one of the major weaknesses of this version of Sherlock Holmes: he clearly doesn't have much experience with romance or sex. Sherlock is initially baffled by her, unable to pick up any of the usual clues he easily gleans from other people. This, more than anything else, is what catches his attention. In place of a traditional courtship, the pair spend most of the episode taking turns outsmarting each other. Irene may not win in the end - as a villain it's just not allowed - but she certainly gets her cerebral blows in. She loses her protection and is forced to go on the run, but not before manipulating Sherlock into helping ruin one of his brother's cleverest plans.
As for Irene being saved from certain doom in the final scenes, this is sheer chauvinistic indulgence - or it would be if Sherlock and John hadn't been saved from Moriarty's clutches by Irene in the opening sequence. We don't know Irene's motives, or if her good timing was simply dumb luck, but Sherlock swooping in at the last minute to rescue her can easily be read as him repaying the favor, and maybe admitting his own feelings in the process. Now, we can talk about the negative Orientalist implications of the certain doom being a menacing terrorist cell that beheads people with big honking scimitars, but that's a post for another time.
In the end, there's lots of material to support the argument that this Irene Adler is a problematic character that enforces certain gender stereotypes. I wish the writers had let her be more self-sufficient and figured out how to express some aspects of her personality differently. However, she's no weakling in the context of the "Sherlock" universe. She gets the better of Sherlock Holmes, both intellectually and emotionally, multiple times in the episode. She gets him to reveal parts of the character we haven't seen before. She continually drives the action, takes the lead, and proves to be a worthy adversary. And yes, she has weaknesses, but all the best characters do. Is the new Irene Adler a good example of an admirable, independent, modern woman? Nope. She's a charismatic miscreant with a penchant for extremes, but then so is this version of Sherlock Holmes.
The newest Irene Adler may not be the best portrayal of the character, but she's a perfectly appropriate one for "Sherlock."