As a fan of the last series of Sherlock (although not that second Orientalist mess of an episode, never that) the news of the second series reaching us on New Year’s Day was obviously exciting news. However, as someone who no longer trusts Steven Moffat with a television script, I approached it with some trepidation. I’d heard before watching that this adaptation’s Irene Adler has been updated from an opera singer who had dalliances with sundry members of nobility to the society set’s favourite dominatrix. I’d also heard, through various interviews and reviews, that this Irene was queer. Reader, my heart positively jumped at the prospect. Having watched the episode some hours ago, I can wholeheartedly say I really ought to have stuck with my trepidation.
Oddly enough, and contrary to my low expectation, the sex worker aspect of the new Irene Adler was relatively well handled. There is no doubt that it was almost entirely played for the nudity factor and the double entendres it proffered but, there were few slurs (although a snarly description of her as a sex worker from Mycroft) and generally little aspersion cast. So far so good! In fact, for a good half an hour or so, this Irene was doing well out of her adaptor. The Woman, as she titles herself, is intelligent, self-reliant and canny. She is active within the narrative, making things happen, ordering proceedings. She’s allowed space to breathe.
But things soon start getting uncomfortable. Irene enters the narrative over her affair with a minor, female royal and spends a lot of time detailing her various clients – mainly men but with women peppered throughout. So initially, I think we’re probably supposed to read her as bisexual, although it isn’t really commented on. Later however, in a conversation with John Watson when he refutes that he and Sherlock are a couple and that in fact he isn’t gay, Irene replies, “But I am”, thus making her textually gay. The minute those words are uttered; we’re placed in an even stickier situation. In fact, as the episode continues, we see her devolve from being a woman with agency to being the damsel in distress. For a moment, when Irene has almost outwitted Sherlock we see it all as a role she was playing, all part and parcel of her mission to protect herself. Alas then, that Moffat decides to disregard the way she always been immortalised: as the woman who outwitted Sherlock Holmes. In the end, he has Irene brought to her knees for both having the daring to be self-preservationist and falling in love with Sherlock. Yes, in the end she was a weak woman who fell in love with this dazzling intellectual and made the first four letters of his name her BlackBerry* passcode. (*Corrected from my previous assumption of an iPhone)
Yes, you did read that right. It would be hilarious in its truly poor exposition if it weren’t also just blindingly terrible. Not to mention the final ending which involves not only her second fake death of the episode but also her rescue from the hands of terrorists (oh god I don’t even have the energy to go there tonight but good lord that was not a thing we needed to do at all) by the ever present, ever brilliant Sherlock Holmes.
Now, what really bothers me about this is that a show built on (and alludes to) the homoerotic subtext between its male leads – despite the increasingly bizarre protestations about this from cast and creators – it has dealt with female sexuality, specifically queer female sexuality in the most offhand, tokenistic fashion. In making Irene textually gay but providing a plot that hinges on her sexual attraction to Sherlock, Moffat is only playing at being progressive. Sure, his male leads might not be gay but! Here’s a lesbian dominatrix for your pains – and don’t worry because she’s actually got a thing for our main man. Despite her one reference to being gay midway through the episode, Moffat has used her throughout the episode as a ‘titillating bisexual’ stereotype. Her relationships with women are only ever alluded to, and briefly at that, because what counts is this newfound attraction to Sherlock Holmes, not the fact that she identifies as gay.
Now, let it be said, if this were genuinely an exploration of the fluidity of sexuality I would be absolutely thrilled. As a queer person I think it’s important that those sorts of relationships are explored. However, I honestly don’t believe Moffat’s intention is to explore that. To him, it’s just a line, it never gets followed up on and in fact it gets practically ignored by John on account of how she flirts so much with Sherlock. It’s merely something he’s using in order to be a little risqué, to make a change to the source material in a way that marks him out from the rest.
I’d also like to note that I’m not saying that gay people cannot be attracted to members of the opposite sex – as I’ve said above sexual fluidity exists. But it becomes frustrating that this is the most common narrative we see outside of the bullied and abused gay stereotype. It becomes frustrating for me as woman to see yet another fiercely intelligent, independent woman who becomes a pawn in the games of men, instead of being allowed to move the pieces. It becomes frustrating that once again, I have to see a character I can relate to be consigned to someone who is weak and requires saving. He uses this woman’s sexuality and profession to provide nudges and winks to the audience, to titillate safely whilst allowing him to be seen as somehow progressive for discussing Irene’s sexuality in the first place. Which I think upsets me most of all. Because a gay woman’s sexuality isn’t something you should throw away to make a plot work and neither is her narrative agency.
This was so nearly a plot of my dreams: a queer female sex worker outwits one of our greatest minds, remains calm and collected throughout with a hit of exploring the performativity of sex work?
But then Steven Moffat wrote it.