A Scandal in Baker Street, CAM

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes looking out the Baker Street window with Martin Freeman as John Watson

Those women appear to be protesting. John, what exactly is a “male chauvinist pig?”

The Daily Dot has a piece on the growing concerns among a some Sherlock fans that the apparent sexism and misogyny of Steven Moffat ,expressed in various interviews and certain Dr. Who scripts, has taken root in BBC’s Sherlock series, particularly in the ending of “His Last Vow” in Series/Season 3. Now I’ve expressed my sense that Sherlock has been morphed into The Doctor in my Series/Season 3 rant review, however, I’d avoided publicly airing my earlier concerns about the show’s portrayal of key women from the original Canon. So since I’m burning bridges, let’s go ahead and discuss some issues with the women in Sherlock.

[Oh, and do I really have to say SPOILER ALERT?]

The Daily Dot notes:

What has some fans angry is that Sherlock’s interpretation of Milverton’s death completely removes the agency and power of the female character in the original story. An unfortunate occurrence that neatly fits in with Moffat’s track record with female characters in both Doctor Who and Sherlock.

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is one of the very few examples in Victorian-era Holmes canon where a female character takes practical action on her own behalf, while Holmes and Watson technically fail to solve the case. Milverton, like Sherlock’s Magnussen, is a foe so powerful that it’s virtually impossible to defeat him using Holmes’ usual methods, which is why the story has to end with Milverton’s death. The final scene of the short story is Holmes identifying Milverton’s killer, but tacitly agreeing with Watson to let her get away with the murder because Milverton was such a loathsome figure.

If Moffat and Gatiss had simply said they wanted Sherlock to kill Magnussen because it was a more interesting story for him as a character, or because it provided an exciting development to lead into the next season, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But the fact that they seemingly couldn’t believe that a woman defeated Milverton only exacerbates their problems with Sherlock fans who already take issue with the way women are portrayed in the show. Links to the interview are already spreading on social media…

Twice now BBC’s Sherlock series has modified the ending, and a critical moment, of an original Sherlock Holmes stories in which woman take decisive action and ultimately beat Sherlock Holmes in solving the problem. The first was in “Scandal in Belgravia,” largely based on the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and the second was in “His Last Vow,” largely based on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” Steven Moffat is credited as the screenwriter for “Scandal in Belgravia” (Series 2, Episode 1) and is one of the writing team for “His Last Vow” (Series 3, Episode 3) along with Mark Gatiss and Stephen Thompson.

In the original story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the King of Bohemia hires Sherlock Holmes to recover a compromising photograph in the possession of Irene Adeler, opera singer and “adventuress,” who has successfully foiled the King’s earlier attempts of illegal searches, seizures, and theft. Holmes succeeds in discovering where the photograph is kept, but is ultimately beaten by Irene Adler, who, having deduced Sherlock’s initial plan and its success it discovering her hiding place, flees the country with her new husband and the photograph leaving behind in the hiding place another photograph of herself and a letter to Sherlock; the letter explains that the photograph was kept only to ensure her safety, and that the King is safe from any further threat. When offered a magnificent payment for his services by the grateful King, Sherlock asks only to keep the photography of Irene Adler Norton. Watson notes that afterwards Sherlock only refers to her, not by name but, as The Woman, supposedly smitten by her beauty, voice, charm, and most of all her intelligence at having “beaten” him.

In Moffat’s re-boot, “Scandal in Belgravia,” Irene Adler becomes a dominatrix who rents her body out for sadistic sexual escapades, and collects photographs and other incriminating documents for “protection.” Sherlock is initially hired to recover indiscreet photographs of a member of the Royal Family that Ms. Adler has on her phone.  While waiting for Watson to initiate his part of the plan, Sherlock taunts Ms. Adler with the puzzle of a concurrent case.

Irene: The hiker’s going to die.

Sherlock: No, that’s the result. What’s going to happen?

Irene: I don’t understand.

Sherlock Oh, well, try to.

Irene: Why?

Sherlock: Because you cater to the whims of the pathetic and take your clothes off to make an impression. Stop boring me and think. It’s the new sexy.

In this version, Sherlock does recover the mobile phone, — and takes out a team of CIA operatives in the process — however,  Ms. Adler  steals the phone back by drugging and beating Sherlock with a riding crop . (Giving us the first time Martin Freeman must channel Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, but that’s a different topic.) Ms. Adler returns the phone to Sherlock on Christmas Eve causing Sherlock to deduce that she’s been killed and then identifying her body from a portion of anatomy “not her face” which sends him into a depression. (We will also skip over small questions like how she managed to sneak into his flat and place a package on his mantel wrapped in a bright, shiny red paper and he doesn’t notice the intrusion or the package until she texts him to look there, or why he doesn’t question why, if she wanted him to have its contents after she’s died, she didn’t bother to give him the password, despite having time to wrap it so perfectly and text him its location?) A week later he learns she is still alive, and shortly after that she hires him to decode a portion of an email she has stolen from a client who does top-secret security work for the British government (Again, passing over pesky questions about Official Secrets Act and treason…) Ultimately, we learn her plan has been all along to get Sherlock to decode the email snippet so she can blackmail Mycroft, and sell her secrets at a queenly-price to the British government, aided by Sherlock’s Arch Enemy and Consulting Criminal, James Moriarty (because obviously a woman couldn’t outsmart Sherlock Holmes on her own). Just as it appears Irene Adler has won the game, Sherlock figures out the password to her phone is “I AM SHERLOCKED” because she’s become smitten with him, despite being formerly a lesbian, and coldly beats her at The Game.

But this isn’t the end. “Scandal in Belgravia” actually has 3 endings. Some time later Mycroft meets Watson at Speedy’s Diner to explain that he doesn’t know how to tell Sherlock Adler is dead, beheaded by a group of Muslim terrorists (for reasons not explained). Watson chooses to tell Sherlock that Adler is in a U.S. Witness Protection program, therefore Sherlock will never see her again. Sherlock takes Adler’s wiped phone (which manages to still scroll through all of her texts to Sherlock?). Sherlock stares out the window. The End. Fade to Irene Adler  wearing a full hijab, kneeling, texting “Good-by, Mr. Holmes” as tears streak her face and a large man with a very large curved sword comes up behind her and someone takes away her phone. Fade to Black. The End.  We hear the sigh Sherlock’s phone makes when he receives a text from Irene and fade up to Adler turning in surprise. Sherlock in Arab robes, with his face hidden except for his eyes, which twinkle as he says, “When I say run, run!” He swirls around raising the sword. The End. Dissolve to Sherlock staring out window, he chuckles, turns and tucks away Adler’s phone in his mementoes drawer. The End. (No, really this time.) Theme music, roll credits.

As you see, a very different story from the original. While in the original Irene Adler is called “an adventuress,” — but only by the King of Bohemia who sees her as a peasant threat to his royal marriage — in Moffat’s hands she is transmuted into a lesbian prostitute who rents her body to men and women through a very explicit website. Adler, in the original, does threaten to impede the King’s marriage by sending the photograph to his fiancée, but she acts like a woman in love who feels she’s been dumped and wrongly used, not as a blackmailer. And, of course, in the end of the original, Irene Adler outsmarts Sherlock Holmes — and he admires her for it.

In Moffat’s revision, Adler is inherently evil, or at least sociopathic, wicked, immoral, and lawless. This is a characteristic repeated in the other smart and ambitious woman we meet — Mary Morstan Watson. After a charming introduction, we learn in “His Last Vow” that Mary is a former CIA wet work agent who went rogue and became a freelance assassin who is now in deep hiding from various governments and bad guys. Like Moffat’s Adler, Mary is at risk from a smarter, more evil man. In Adler’s case, it’s James Moriarty who threatens to turn her into a pair of shoes; in Morstan’s case, it is Charles Augustus Magnussen who threatens to publish her secrets which would result in her death one way or another. Both Irene Adler and Mary Morstan have their plans fail, and both must depend upon Sherlock to save their lives. The only smart women we meet who aren’t immoral and lawless, are the ones whose highest ambition is love and marriage — Molly Hooper and Mrs. Holmes. The moral in Sherlock is that women should not be smart, or if they are smart, they should not be ambitious for anything except love and marriage. And if they happen to be inherently powerful, and one assumes reasonably intelligent, like Lady Smallwood, they are to be humiliated, even if they do consider sacrificing all for the man they love.

To quote again from The Daily Dot:

In Sherlock, Magnussen’s death becomes even more inevitable once we find out that he memorized all of his blackmail information. Basically, death is the only way to “delete” those files, so in the absence of the woman who killed Milverton in the original story, it does make sense for Sherlock to shoot him. The problem is, there’s another character who would have been far better qualified to shoot Magnussen, and guess what? She’s a woman as well.

In “His Last Vow” we learn that John’s wife Mary is a trained assassin, a fact we discover when she literally has a gun held to Magnussen’s head. But instead of shooting Magnussen and solving everyone’s problems, she decides to shoot Sherlock instead, in the hopes that this will (somehow) help her keep the truth about her past a secret from John. In the end, Sherlock has to do the deed.

This means that Mary, much like Gatiss and Moffat’s interpretation of the lady from “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Magnussen,” has effectively been written out of her own story. [emphasis mine]

It seems women, in the new world of Sherlock, should confine themselves to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church) ,with the “Kirche” being the worship of “their man,” preferably at the alter of the bedroom. Even Mrs. Hudson has turned out to be not the abused wife implied in “A Study in Pink,” but an vapid, shallow, exotic dancer and bookkeeper for her husband’s drug cartel until Sherlock proved he’d murdered someone leading to Mr. Hudson’s execution (which, I gather left Mrs. Hudson with sufficient drug money to buy the building on Baker Street and leave it without tenants for at least 2 years while not working). Mrs. Hudson brings Sherlock his tea (without him even questioning its source or his entitlement to have it delivered each day), she periodically attempts to clean and straighten the mess (and as bad as the kitchen is, imagine the bathroom), she acts as greeter and receptionist to Sherlock’s visitors, she withstands physical abuse rather than give up Adler’s phone to the CIA agents, and yet when she can’t immediately meet his need for painkillers, Sherlock snarls, “What exactly is the point of you?”

In the original canon, there are many women whom even Sherlock Holmes admires for their strength of character, bravery, beauty, charm, and, yes, even their relative intelligence. But in BBC Sherlock it seems the women are their to serve “the boys.” And if the women are very, very lucky, “the boys” might rescue them and bestow a kiss.

I think I’ll go re-read “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” a story in which Holmes not only admires a young woman who consults him, but proves a little too late in rescuing another strong young woman. (And the mother who sacrifices even her daughter for her wicked husband’s sake, gets her just desserts!)

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One thought on “A Scandal in Baker Street, CAM

  1. Ekizabeth

    The phone he scrolls through at the end of “Scandal in Belgravia” is NOT her phone but HIS OWN. He uses his own phone to view the texts. He places hers in his trouser pocket-picks his up off the counter. Was it done unintentionally/or on purpose to mislead-only the stage manager knows for sure. Watch the scene from when John hands him the phone. Dialogue between Mycroft and John before he goes inside the flat, Mycroft states only Sherlock could fool him and he “doesn’t believe” he was available at that time. Because he “doesn’t believe” doesn’t make it gospel, he could be guessing. With this show everything has clues hidden in plain sight including the dialogue! Please re-watch-let me know if I’m mislead. Love your site and insights. Please tell me if I am wrong 🙂

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