“Irene Adler Syndrome” is a common affliction to well-written, well-rounded, and as much as I hate the term, strong female characters; specifically, what happens to strong female characters when adapted to other media. In short, they are too often robbed of what makes them good characters and reduced to a lesser role sometimes even what should be their own stories.
I’ve named this problem after one of the most maligned female characters – Irene Adler. If you have not read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” I urge you to do so and have provided a link. It’s a short story and a quick read. But here’s the short, short version – noted adventuress (so the story says) Irene Adler had an affair with the King of Bohemia who dumped her to marry a political equal. The King was afraid Irene would use a picture of them together to ruin his upcoming wedding. The King asked Holmes to steal the picture before this could happen. Irene had thwarted five attempts to steal the picture already, so Holmes thought of a plan to get into Irene’s house and have her show him where the picture was hidden. His plan worked, and he was so confident that he left her house when it would have been too suspicious to stay. He had every intention of returning in the morning to retrieve the picture. But when he arrives, the house is empty, and Irene is gone, except for a picture of herself and a note explaining exactly how she had out-smarted him.
And there you go. That’s Irene Adler. She wins. She absolutely beats Sherlock Holmes, no ifs, ands, or buts. She may not be entirely right to threaten to blackmail her ex-lover, but let’s not forget the King attempted to rob her five times before he hired Holmes. Irene is not a villain. She’s cheeky, yes, but not a villain. When she says she won’t use the picture to ruin the King’s wedding, he takes her at her word. And yet somehow when this particular story, or this character, gets adapted to other media, she is seldom this awesome. Even Doyle, a very Victorian man, was content to let a woman occasionally get the better of his protagonist (in the third printed story no less and she’s an actress/singer, which is a pretty scandalous profession), but somehow the modern people (mostly men) who often adapt this character just can’t accept that. Poor Irene is often forced to be somehow in love with Sherlock Holmes, even though in the story they didn’t really know each other, and Holmes is not the sort of guy to fall in love (by the author’s own statement). But hey, if there’s a male and a female, there has to be a love story, right?
In the recent Sherlock Holmes movie, Irene was reduced from an adventuress to a high-class thief who did outsmart Holmes, kind of, but it also turned out she was being employed by Moriarty, so the implication is that her clever plans came from him. And in the TV series, Sherlock, she’s again a pawn of Moriarty, reduced to a standard damsel in distress, and of course is hopelessly in love with Holmes. And both, of course, are femme fatales, because of course. And I really do not want to get into Irene’s self-identification as a lesbian who then falls in love with a man. The BBC TV adaptation is just a seven-layer cake of unfortunate implications.
It is genuinely distressing to me that the original Irene Adler, as written by a Victorian man well over 100 years ago, was a stronger and more interesting character than pretty much any modern adaptation. How the hell did that happen? Yes, Doyle had her married at the end of the story to show she was safely out of the way (a Victorian thing to do) but other than that, she was extremely progressive for the time. Why does modern media get her so very, very wrong?
Sadly, I think this is because society has not advanced as much as we may hope it has. No doubt classifying Irene as an “adventuress” and actress/singer was Victorian shorthand to denote a woman with a colorful and checkered past but instead of modern updates embracing Irene’s independence and implied sexuality, too many make her character all about sexuality. Hell, in the TV show, she walks into the room naked! The idea is that by not wearing any clothes Holmes won’t be able to read any of her intentions, but let’s just say I find that rationale more than a little suspect. And if the idea is to update the implied sexual past of an “adventuress” and actress/singer, well, why go to the extreme of a dominatrix? I mean, it’s not as though the idea of an actress having a sexual past is outdated. Entire tabloids are dedicated to that very thing. I’ve read a few pieces that argue Irene is being updated as a modern, strong woman, but I simply do not agree. The reason? Because it seems like so many “strong female characters” are femme fatales. It’s an overdone trope. Still, various character changes might have been fine had the conclusion of the original story been maintained – Irene’s victory is complete and unambiguous. But few adaptations maintain that ending.
Holmes himself, a brooding, brilliant, asexual, drug-addict, has been adapted successfully many, many times, including the cocaine habit, which one would think would be dropped for a modern audience (although maybe not so much after the success of Breaking Bad). So the people who adapt Doyle’s stories are more comfortable featuring a manic-depressive, occasionally violent drug-addict (yes, that scene in the first movie where Holmes shot up the wall was something that happened in the stories) as a lead character than a one-off story in which a woman is clever enough to beat him? I argue that the former should be more difficult than the latter, and yet the adaptations do not bear this out.
Irene Adler, unfortunately, is not the only victim of Irene Adler Syndrome. I’ll get to some others at another time. “Scandal in Bohemia” – read it.