Steven Moffat is being taken to task by some Holmesians (and journalists) concerning his interpretation of Irene Adler, to the point of accusing him of being sexist. Jane Clare Jones in particular, accuses him of making a ‘regressive step’ by Irene being saved by Sherlock at the end.
I completely disagree and I’m going to out myself as not being a canonical Irene Adler fan. I agree with Moffat that her original ‘victory’ is “not a feminist victory”.
In the original story she’s not a strong character, she’s been made into a strong character by later writers and Holmesians but she’s not. She doesn’t really outwit Sherlock either – she runs off to America with her husband. I always take his failure to recognise her disguise as nothing particularly significant – it’s dark, he’s not in ‘Sherlock mode’ (getting your keys out to the open the front door… is anyone really entirely ‘on’?) and let’s be honest, his encounter with her probably lasted a total of fifteen minutes during which he was in disguise and desperately trying to find a way to trick her.
I don’t see their Irene as any sort of character-betrayal, we’re supposed to believe that she’s this clever blackmailer, but at the end of the day, her solution is to leave the country with her husband which doesn’t seem the safest of options when people are after you! Moffat/Gatiss’s Irene plays Mycroft and Sherlock, almost winning. I’ve watched the episode a couple of times and I’m still trying to work out what was part of her game and what might have been true about her.
In ‘Sherlock’ Irene is part of Moriarty’s scheme – he sends her photographs of Sherlock and she reads John’s blog. She’s also not a criminal, her camera phone is for protection, she keeps ‘secrets’ in order to stop anyone going after her. The compromising photographs bluff that she uses to get at Sherlock essentially turns him into her client, she’s pulling the strings to get him to dance and knows exactly how to do it. At the end of the episode, we don’t know if the demands are hers, after all – she’s working for Moriarty.
Even though it’s pretty clear from the DVD commentary on ‘Scandal in Belgravia’ that they’re intention is Irene being saved, I interpret the ending of is a possibly a fantasy. I think she’s dead. Mycroft would know that Sherlock had gone to Karachi and infiltrated a terrorist cell, and unless he’s the one that arranged it I can’t see her being alive (plus, Sherlock did that very quickly…!) It sort of links back to ‘Study in Pink’, what would you say in your last dying moment…? And if he did save her, I don’t believe it’s a betrayal or a sexist thing – she’s a dominatrix, she’s got under Sherlock’s skin and knows exactly what buttons to press to get a reaction.
Moffat’s also come under criticism from parts of the Holmesian community for the relationship between John & Sherlock. I’ve always seen the relationship between the two of them (canon) as borderline at the most. Holmes has unrequited feelings for Watson that he is not only scared to express but doesn’t really know how to, Watson very likely has some idea but never really thought it through and the sad tragedy of their friendship is that everything remained unsaid.
Moffat and Gatiss are huge fans of ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’ (they presented a screening of it last year) and I think a lot of the stuff between Sherlock & John is very reminiscent of what Billy Wilder did with their relationship in film (favourite scene where Watson runs home to confront Holmes
about what he’s said). In the DVD commentary for ‘Study in Pink’, Moffat and Gatiss have a long conversation about ‘the sexuality issue’, coming down on the side of he’s celibate and not asexual. Sherlock is capable of having sexual feelings/desire but he chooses to focus on his work (“I consider myself married to my work”) and when it comes up again in ‘Scandal in Belgravia’ it’s hinted that it frightens/intimidates him (although, it’s kind of hard to know if it’s just Mycroft being a bit of a dick or he is getting at Sherlock’s fear). I interpreted Sherlock’s reaction (“not my area”) to mean relationships in general. With all the various camps you are never going to satisfy any of them and if that’s how they interpret the character (they at least acknowledge the sexual ambiguity openly).
Regarding gay subtext, they seem to imply that Mycroft is gay (not just because he’s played by Mark Gatiss) – my favourite bit in ‘Scandal in Belgravia’ is Sherlock referring to Mycroft as “a queen” (which could have nothing to do with his sexuality, I know straight men who I would describe as
‘queens’if I was being rude) again on the DVD commentary for ‘A Study in Pink’, Gatiss talks about playing Mycroft like he would play Peter Mandelson, who is of course a very powerful gay man and please tell me I’m not the only person who thought Mycroft was about to reveal to John that he and Moriarty had been lovers at some point in their history.