Sexual power and sentimentality in Sherlock

Since the airing of the first episode of the new series of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock last Sunday, a lot has been said about the apparent (or not) sexism in his modern day rendering of character Irene Adler. “The Woman,” as Conan Doyle’s hero refers to her, was a person of acute intelligence and steely nerves. She manages to outwit her pursuers and as a result becomes something of a fascination to Holmes.

The BBC version has her as a high class dominatrix who fakes her own death, gets involved in a terrorist plot, and has a schoolgirl crush on Sherlock Holmes. She doesn’t even get to outwit him in the end, her silly emotions letting her down at the last minute. It transpires she wasn’t the criminal mastermind after all (it was Sherlock’s arch enemy, James Moriarty). Oh, and Sherlock has to save her life at the end, proving that all women need rescuing really. Or something.

So after thinking about it for while I have decided that…. yes, it is probably a bit sexist. Of course, they’ve thrown in a few token ideas to suggest otherwise. For starters she’s a domme, that’s pretty progressive, right? And, and… it was a female royal that she had pictures of, not a male one, so see? She’s not just catering to the whims of men. And she says she’s a lesbian so it can’t possibly be sexist, can it?

Well, actually yes. But that’s only half the story. For me the problem is sex. In 1891 it was deemed unusual – transgressive even – for a woman to match a man on wit and bravery. Clearly this is no longer the case so they had to come up with an alternative and sexuality is the obvious choice.

Thus the challenge she presents to Sherlock is not so much in terms of intellect but in her ‘fearless sexuality.’ Now, the show itself works quite well and I’m not remotely interested in discussing whether it is true to the original, either in plot or characterisation (though as a rule I don’t think it does too badly) but this immediately set off alarm bells, not least because I can’t imagine a BBC show in which a character’s sexuality doesn’t come with a caveat. But also because I hate the idea of sexuality being used as a ‘challenge’.

Let’s talk about it…

  • She’s cast as a domme. Thus we can assume that to be powerful, one must also be sexually dominant (despite the fact that all her sub clients are people of power and rank).
  • Dominance is ascribed to her as the modern-day equivalent of the ‘soul of steel’ and ‘mind of the most resolute of men’ that Conan Doyle attributed to her. Dominance then is interpreted as an inherently masculine trait.
  • She self-identifies as gay. If she is going to take on a man, be a match for a man, she must herself be like a man and from the heteronormative standpoint this makes her a lesbian.
  • At no point can we be sure that this sexuality is really hers. Domination is her occupation and the point at which she turns up asleep in Sherlock’s bed suggests that secretly she wants something else.
  • She clearly enjoys playing psychological power games but we are never convinced that she enjoys the physical ones. Throughout the show she is asked several times about whether she knows certain individuals. Her response is always: “I know what he likes.”
  • She can’t love and dominate. A man can be both dominant and loving and he can be loved for dominating. But not a woman. So in order for her to love Sherlock (and be loved by him) she must be ’emasculated’ – this means relinquishing her dominance. (As an aside, I would ask why love needed to come into it at all. Why couldn’t there be a mutual fascination that was asexual or a spark that was unsentimental? That there had to be a romantic subplot is yet one more example of the bland heteronormativity that pervades our culture.)
  • She cannot live and dominate. In the end she is literally brought to her knees by her would-be killers, an impressive symbol of patriarchal fantasy, as Jane Clare Jones put it.

So what can we conclude from this?

Society, or rather the media, still doesn’t like the idea of female sexual power whether it’s directed towards men or women. We can have all the brains in the world but it’s still transgressive to be sexually powerful as a woman and moreover to enjoy that sexual power. Consequently female sexuality is viewed as a ‘challenge’, something to overcome rather than engage with. Women ‘take on’ dominant roles to create an appearance of sexual equality rather than because it is their inherent disposition (or because equality is the necessary basis from which they derive their pleasure).

What this attitude displays above all is a fundamental lack of understanding about individual sexualities and sex practices, in particular BDSM. The role of the domme is not to “know what he likes,” it is to do what she likes. Of course, there is a discussion of individual preferences and limits and a strong mutual respect for these but in the end, she gives the orders and she controls the play. The vast majority of pro dommes have a strict list of what they will and won’t engage in and operate a policy of “I only do what I personally enjoy.”

Many are also lifestyle dommes who only look for relationships with submissive partners which makes the suggestion that Irene Adler is pining after Sherlock even more patronising. I emailed professional dominatrix Mistress Absolute and asked what she thought. She has worked as a pro domme for ten years and describes herself as having been dominant from an early age. She told me she suspected there were women out there practising BDSM who would give it up for ‘the right man’ but she was not one of them and suggests that any domme who did (or could) was probably not “intrinsically dominant.”

In the end, this is exactly the problem for Steven Moffat’s Irene Adler (as well as women more generally). She is never allowed to own her sexuality, she is not allowed to be intrinsically dominant. Her sexuality is reduced to sentimentality and in this way she is stripped of her power, both sexual and political. Furthermore, she is humiliated and hunted down to be excuted only to be rescued at the eleventh hour by Sherlock.

‘Slut-shaming’ is such a buzzword but when the woman is on her knees, bowing her head before a mighty scimitar, it doesn’t take an Olympic athlete to make that leap.

At this point (or probably much earlier) you might be tempted to accuse me of over-analysing. Why, yes I am. Well spotted. But as I said at the start, I am deconstructing it in order not to critique the show itself but to try and discuss some of the issues it raises, namely that of sex. For me, this is not personal. It was never about condemning one individual director, it is – as ever – about criticising a narrative that runs through far too much of our mainstream media.

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