jblum (jblum) wrote,

A Scandal in Fandom: Steven Moffat, Irene Adler, and the Fannish Gaze

The thing about the latest round of "Is Steven Moffat sexist?" that's currently flapping round the blogosphere, is that if within the same week you can manage to get accused of hating women by a Guardian blogger, and simultaneously accused of championing women and hating men in the Christmas special by the Daily Mail ... you're probably doing something a little more complex than either side is giving you credit for.

The thing that strikes me is, there's some very interesting stuff to discuss surrounding the way Moffat writes for women... but there's also interesting stuff to look at about the way fandom in particular responds to stories, and the filtering processes we put them through. Because this latest stoush is fan-driven -- the complaints which are getting the attention may stem from Jane Clare Jones' blog piece for the Guardian, but Jones also has a personal blog which nails her fannish colours to the mast. (To give an idea where she's coming from, she's been declaring that Matt Smith simply isn't really the Doctor for some time now.)

And that filtering process can get really blatant -- Jones' blog piece is one of those classic examples of second-rate literary criticism which just quietly overlooks any bit of the text which outright contradicts their thesis. (It does acknowledge some of the flaws of Conan Doyle's original "A Scandal in Bohemia", but quickly dismisses them on the basis of being The Old Days; the actual text that's the target of her ire is allowed no possible redeeming points.) And then there's this sharply-written essay on Sherlock by the novelist Foz Meadows -- a friend of mine who I really hope won't mind that I only agree with part of what she says.

After having dealt with years of petty inter-author slanging matches in the old days of Doctor Who fandom, I want to make absolutely clear that I'm not out to shred Foz over this -- mainly I just want to use her thoughts as a springboard for my own. I agree with a fair chunk of what she in particular says, and think she makes some very good points. I think it's perfectly reasonable to raise a flag at a story which takes a powerful woman and literally brings her to her knees, to be rescued by a man. I think it's worth looking at the cliched elements of the all-too-familiar "undone by her feelings" aspect to the story. And by the end of her essay, Foz starts focusing right on how fans are filtering and reinterpreting the story -- she's bothered by the way that the women in fandom are "rewriting the series in realtime, erasing the sexism in favour of focusing on how pretty Benedict Cumberbatch looks when wearing only a sheet".

But one of the bits I can't get on board with is when, in the midst of talking about fandom's response to the stories, she equates Steven Moffat's own actions with the strategies of a pickup artist:

"Baiting his hook with ‘shiptease, Moffat has drawn us in, engaged us in conversation, and then insulted us to our faces. If, then, as a fandom, our main response is to continue talking about how hot the actors are as though nothing untoward had happened - instead of calling this bullshit - our reward shall be a shallow, meaningless fuck, the only long-term consequences of which are to leave us feeling dirty and Moffat with a freshly reaffirmed belief that what women viewers really want are men who act like bastards. (...)
"Or, put another way: the scene in the episode where Sherlock acts like an obnoxious dick to Molly, and then buys her off with a kiss on the cheek when she cries? That is what Steven Moffat is doing to us. It does not compensate for the rudeness that came before. It does not compensate for the sexism."

And to me, that's too much like playing the man rather than the ball. I'd love to have a discussion about the positive or negative aspects of these characters and stories which isn't actually about whether the author is personally reprehensible or not.

Room For Doubt

As fans, we don't really do ambivalence. We love intensely, or we hate intensely; the same passion pushes us to either opposite extreme. So it's actually harder for us than anyone else to look at things from a sort of measured middle ground. If anything, when surrounded by people who share a similar strong opinion, or arguing against people at the opposite pole, it only encourages us to spiral off further towards our own extreme in a spiral of incestuous amplification.

And from that intensely amped-up starting point, we construct our own context -- in many cases, we're telling ourselves a story of our own, which may bear little or no relation to the story the writer is actually telling to the audience in general.

Take the moment Foz mentions above, with Sherlock verbally dissecting Molly and then realizing how he's stuck his foot in it. Looked at through a prism of "how Sherlock Holmes relates to women" (a reasonable perspective in itself for an episode guest-starring Irene Adler), you can find one set of meanings in it -- which is how Foz is able to interpret it as a power-game, and a sign of Sherlock continuing to be a bastard rather than being changed by his encounter with Irene. But that scene carries another purpose in the larger narrative, that only comes into focus when you take into account the surrounding episodes.

And it's not one we're predisposed to see. Thing is, as fans, we are absolutely stone-cold brilliant at making connections to other episodes -- it's the heart of what we do, the construction of a greater web of meaning connecting wildly different pieces of story. We're great at spotting patterns... but once we've locked onto one, it actively makes it harder for us to notice the parts which don't fit that pattern. We're flat-out geniuses at comparing, not so good at contrasting. Being similar equals being identical.

(Doctor Who fandom in particular is riddled with this; it's a side effect of generations of fans discovering vast stretches of the show through a programme guide before they see most of the actual episodes, and thus having the outlines of an often-widely-varying show presented to them as if it's one homogenous lump. And so the old show is so often treated as a stable monolith, rather than a constant process of movement and change. But I digress; look here if you're interested in an example of what I'm on about...)

That's part of the filtering process I've been talking about -- we seize on a connection, and it becomes a definition; the contrasts and bits which don't match quietly disappear. Anything which is like something else is treated as being that something else. Our talent for pattern-matching blinds us. Our great strength is also our great weakness.

And so it seems to me that the only really useful way to judge a story, is to make a point of looking for the bits of context we've instinctively been filtering out.

The Adventure Of The Obnoxious Git

Here's a case in point, which also relates to the Molly moment. In passing, Foz reacts to the idea that "under Moffat, the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes have both become the same snide, angry, rude, sociopathic, lying genius who mistreats his friends and stays emotionally distant from the people who care for him". Again, similarity apparently equals the same -- no one seems to look at the points where the Doctor and Holmes are diametrically opposed, which Moffat has painted a clear picture of. (As he said -- "Sherlock is a man who wants to be a god, the Doctor is an angel who'd love to be one of us.") But the more important thing is, both those characters always were snide, rude, et cetera... we just overlooked it, because we weren't encouraged to pay attention to what it meant before.

As a child, Tom Baker's Doctor being staggeringly rude was just fun; he's fast and funny and smart and no one else can keep up with how wonderful he is. It's only much later, as a grownup, as someone who's used to living life not as a star, that you begin to realize just how cruel he's being. When the Doctor abuses Harry Sullivan, or Sir Colin Thackeray, or Ralph Cornish, or the Brigadier, for no greater crime than that they're a bit ordinary compared to him, only now do you begin to register that the Doctor's being a bit of a gratuitously nasty bastard, really.

That's just part of the process of understanding more as you grow up, of course. Like realizing that the man you thought of as your favorite wacky uncle is in fact a womanizer and a drunk. And then, as you grow up further, that he's both these things and more... also a man who loves his kids dearly and put them through college, a man who can be staggeringly kind as well as staggeringly unkind. In the end you can neither wholeheartedly love nor wholeheartedly condemn the man... just recognize that all these different sides coexist in one person, and none of them is negligible. Sometimes even the same traits which drive his good behavior drive the bad stuff as well; again our great strength is our great weakness. It's all part of the process of understanding that one human being can be the most wonderful and most terrible thing in the universe at once. And that somewhere in the middle is where real life happens.

If there's a difference between the old Who and the new, I think it's that now it actively tries to draw attention to these paradoxes of character. When the new series makes Mickey or Rory the butt of the Doctor's wit, they're the ones you sympathize with. (Contrast the opening scenes of Rise of the Cybermen with "Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!", see how much you're encouraged to notice that Mickey is actually hurt by his treatment.)

But it doesn't do this instead of showing the Doctor as a hero; no, the show keeps presenting him as incredibly brave and heroic and dazzling and kind and a self-involved arse. Love And Monsters even presents this subtext as text; the Doctor practically looks into the camera as he tells his fan Elton "Don't ever mistake me for nice." There's a dissonance, but we're expected to recognize that both these things are true.

And so it is with Sherlock. If there's an emphasized spine running through the whole show, it's what Lestrade says in the very first episode: Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day he may even be a good one. As he stands, the story makes clear, he's both a fascinating, charismatic genius and a thoroughly rotten human being. More than that, the text points out that there's development at work; John Watson is there to humanize him. If there's a first big turning point for the character, it's probably the end of The Great Game, which is the first time Sherlock shows any sort of genuine concern for the welfare of another person. Before then... check out how appalled Watson is earlier in that episode, when Sherlock's reaction to Moriarty killing an innocent is "Well technically I won". Sherlock is explicitly painted as a man who's a long way from decent.

Molly, of course, is there to drive home that point. Because as with Tom Baker, it's easy to shrug off Sherlock being rude to minor police functionaries or even Watson; that's all part of the fun. Even in the Christmas-party scene before he turns his gaze on Molly, he's already being beastly to his closest friend -- demolishing Watson's hopes that his sister has quit drinking, shattering his plans for a happy family Christmas. But hey, that's just Sherlock being Sherlock, it's all part of the game. It's only when he starts dissecting Molly that the scene breaks out of our comfortable expectations; now we recognize that Sherlock Holmes really is an arse.

But there's more going on here than just kicking a puppy. Again, this is part of a larger context being developed through the whole series; he's done this sort of thing to Molly before, most notably when he outs Molly's boyfriend in the previous episode. But the previous times, even when Molly and Watson called him on it, he's just shrugged it off. This time? He apologizes. Never mind that he's awkward and cursory about it, he bothers. This is not just (as Foz presents it) a sop to him not being quite as bad as he could have been; it's also directly underlining that he's changing. This is perhaps the first time in recorded history that Sherlock Holmes has apologized for anything.

Given the emphasis on that, both in the previous episodes and the next one, Moffat clearly wants us to pay attention to this bit of the context. It's very much woven into the story Moffat is consciously telling (even if not into the story fans are focused on hearing): this man is a bastard who's limping towards humanity.

Their Story Vs. Our Story

Most basically, that's why I can't get on board with the idea of Sherlock as a sucker-play bait-n-switch for female fans. They've been telling us from the beginning in so many words that Sherlock is both amazing and monstrous. We're not always good at recognizing that they're selling us both sides of the "and".
Yes, he's sexy. He's not nice. They're explicitly not selling anyone a perfect fantasy man.

Which is why I have a problem with Foz describing Moffat (and here's where I get leery, because there's a real person at the other end of this criticism whose mind is being read) as holding "a freshly reaffirmed belief that what women viewers really want are men who act like bastards. Specifically, that we want fiercely intelligent (but handsome!) sociopaths whose rudeness is excused by genius, whose inability to display normal human courtesy and kindness is considered further proof of their worthiness..."

That strikes me as unfair -- because it rests on the assumption that Moffat is selling Sherlock's vices as virtues, rather than as the opposite side of his coin. His strengths are tightly linked to his weaknesses, but the text does the exact opposite of excusing them.

If fandom does that excusing, that's a problem with fandom, not with the script.

Personal note: I hardly know Steven Moffat at all -- he's a friend of friends, we've chatted online a bit over the years, my wife had an epic lunch with him about fifteen years back, haven't really heard from him since he got the producer's chair -- but I'd wager that if he has any impression of "what women viewers really want", he might think it would be someone with Sherlock's virtues but not his flaws. But he's writing a series which puts those flaws front and center, makes them positively vast and gaping (as in the scene with Molly); I'd say he's interested in writing a character who viewers will find both attractive and repellent, but interesting, more than selling anyone exactly what they want.

And what he's writing is not as simple as "women really want a bad boy", either -- as shown by the sheer number of people in the series, both male and female, who would happily punch Sherlock in the face. What the series is making a point of showing is ambivalent attractiveness, with both real plus points and similarly clear minus points. I suspect we've all been attracted to someone like that at some point in our lives: smart, hot, charismatic, doesn't so much have baggage as have their own personal freight train. Sure, they're attractive -- from a safe distance -- but you still know better than to fall for them unreservedly. (Unless maybe that's another as-you-get-older thing; at 21 I know I didn't quite reserve myself when I fell for a woman like that...)

But like I said... fandom doesn't do ambivalence. We want wholeheartedness. And if the thrust of the story is different than what we're looking for, we'll seize on only the bits of the text which tell the story we want to be told... the rest can just vanish. For example: the episode of Torchwood which Kate still only knows as "The One Where Ianto Got A Haircut".

We can even tell, roughly, what some of those stories are going to be. In Buffy, it didn't take much to predict that as Spike became a breakout character, some of his fan following would try determinedly to file off his rough edges -- even to the point of "well he didn't kill all that many children, and they probably deserved it anyway". Which in turn led the writers to get more extreme in asserting what they saw as the character's true nature ("Hello! Still evil here!")... and that in turn led those fans to accuse the writers of writing their own characters out of character. Go figure.

But the thing is, you inevitably have a clear picture the Spike these fans wanted, just a bit off to the side of the Spike we actually got. Or, in a slightly less soulful-bad-boy vein... there's Kate's undying love for Hundra, a really-actually-not-bad '80s Amazon-barbarian flick which to her is one long YAAAAAAAAHHH! of in-your-face-feminism... as long as you squint your way past a tepid subplot with Hundra learning how to attract a good man. The icons in those stories are agonizingly close to everything she wants... so close that there might actually be value in ignoring the bits that aren't.

The thing is that we're all aching for our own personal simple, unconflicted stories -- just like young me thought that Tom Baker's Doctor was an unalloyed bundle of wonderful. They're like unfulfilled archetypes in our heads, we're yearning for anything to match these outlines -- and if we get something even slightly close, we start reshaping it to fit.

And sometimes outright ignore that the story isn't what we're making it. Or alternatively, blame the makers for telling their story instead of ours.

(Sidebar: check out this rather wonderful blog entry from one of the showrunners of Leverage -- with the telling lines "Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need. (...) I think it's important when working in television to understand we are in the emotional need business.")

The Irene We Need

As Foz puts it, talking about Moffat's version of the Irene Adler story:

"But the story he’s written is vastly less equal than the one most fans assumed must, naturally, exist; and because they are committed to its existence, it is the story they will continue to believe - not because it was told to them, but because they have told it to themselves."

And I think she's right, that fans are driving the stories they hear. But I don't think she goes far enough... I don't think she recognizes that the same is true of the Irene Adler story she's got in her head, the one she's committed to, which Steven Moffat has failed to live up to.

When it comes to anticipation, she points quite rightly to the process of pre-emptive storytelling which causes fandom to see the story in their preferred terms before it even airs... but where she blames that on "sexually loaded clips of naked-Adler and naked-Holmes prior to the episode’s airing", I'd say that process of de-contextualizing started months before a single clip -- from the moment fandom started building its own context around the words "Irene Adler". That was enough to give everyone a concept of what the character should be, for better or for worse.

Because to Sherlockians, of course, she's always the woman. A unique repository for their hopes. An ideal, one of those archetypes, who looms far larger than the story she was actually in.

Foz describes the story she wants to see thus:

"Adler is meant to be the only woman who ever beats Sherlock: she has no sexual interest in him whatsoever - in fact, the story ends with her getting married to someone else - but her intelligence and skills impress him so profoundly that he keeps her photo and, as a direct result, stops devaluing the abilities of women."

And that phrase "meant to be" seems to be the key. Because the thing is, this isn't really a very good description of what Irene Adler is in the original story. It's more like, as Foz says, the story we've been telling to ourselves.

The Irene Who Was

Because that description is partially true, but drastically incomplete. Really her reputation as The Woman Who Out-Thought Sherlock Holmes is entirely down to a couple of paragraphs of good press from Watson as narrator, rather than what she actually does in the action of the story. In that story, she doesn't actually keep pace with Holmes; she's genuinely taken in by Holmes' various deceptions -- even though she's been warned in advance to look out for him in particular. The victory she wins over Holmes is simply a matter of spotting when she's given herself away, and getting the hell outta Dodge before Holmes comes back -- having decided that she can't go up against "so formidable an opponent". Far from engaging in an intellectual battle of wits with Holmes, she's actively trying to avoid such a clash.

And as strong female characters go... well, the original Irene is way more Fatal Attraction than anything. She starts her whole blackmail scheme to ruin her ex, because she'd rather see him humiliated than let him marry someone else. (People who've been complaining about Adler being sexualized in the modern version may be forgetting that this is a story about a Victorian sex scandal.) She finally abandons her scheme for no better reason than that she's found the love of a good man, with Godfrey Norton. And her new husband -- conspicuously absent or downplayed from most of the commentary on Ms. Adler -- makes a respectable woman out of her; after the wedding, she ends up more explicitly defanged and harmless than the free agent at the end of Moffat's script.

Foz's complaint is that "given Sherlock’s best and only female adversary, Steven Moffat can find nothing better to do with her than make her a victim of her own ladyfeelings while Sherlock rides to her rescue." But this glosses over that the original Irene Adler is entirely motivated by her "ladyfeelings"; her actions throughout the story are driven by being after the love of one man or another. The only difference is that it's not Sherlock. And indeed her entire screw-up which leads to her skipping town is Sherlock exploiting what he portrays specifically as a feeling of the female mind: "When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it." The original Irene screws up precisely because -- as a Twitter poster accused Moffat of doing in his story -- "she thinks with her heart like a woman".

Basically, the woman who's a match for Sherlock Holmes is the story we've been told exists -- first by Watson, then by our own hunger for such a figure. And thus we pin all our imaginings and aspirations on this one flawed example. But there's something worrying about complaining that an adaptation fails to live up to that ideal, when the original wasn't really close to the ideal that's been constructed around it in the first place.

(In that Guardian piece, the author is at least able to acknowledge the negative qualities of the original story; she can accept and excuse its flaws because the story is safely a product of the past. But there's no room for ambivalence in Jones' attitude towards Moffat's version -- no, acknowledging any of the ways Moffat has improved on the original would be giving him credit. Anything he does right, well that's just automatic; apparently only the bad moves are his creative decisions.)

The Irene Who Is

But what of the Irene Adler who's actually in Steven Moffat's script? She's actually a good bit closer to the match-for-Sherlock ideal... Look at the bit of the episode that's actually a reasonably-direct adaptation of the short story (sans husband). Where the original Irene never keeps pace with Holmes, and doesn't win a trick against him until it's too late to do anything but flee, this Irene is ahead of the game even before she lets Holmes into her house. She's shown as able to keep up with his deductive abilities, and has the same attitude of relishing the battle of wits that he does.

As for what she's "meant to be"... that's all still in there. Something which the various commentaries tend to overlook is that the equivalent of the original short story reaches its end not even halfway through the episode. Pretty much immediately after that... we get his turning-point apology to Molly, as discussed above, and later his various expressions of intense regard for Mrs. Hudson. The episode is directly showing Sherlock's changing attitude towards women, as noted in the original story. Just as Foz asks, he's out-thought him, she's impressed him with her knowledge and skills, he retains her texts (the equivalent of the picture), and his attitude in general starts changing -- after the point when he's been beaten by Irene that first time around.

Of course, as people point out, it is the first time around. There's a second separate story in the same episode, about their further encounters, which exists in addition to the original story rather than replacing it. (There's even a gap of months after the end of the first story, to emphasize the separation.)

And the next time... well, actually Irene wins that round as well. In fact, she plays Sherlock like a harp throughout it. In a neat bit of symmetry with the way he plays on her instinctive emotional reaction in the first story (when she reacts to the fire), in turn she makes him a victim of his own nerd-macho emotional makeup, in which the puzzle is all. Again, his great strength turns out to be his great weakness.

Irene uses his desire to show off and his tendency to ignore the surrounding context (as seen in the cases he dismissed early in the episode) to make him play right into her hands... that's the sort of premeditated calculation which, in the original story, is only Holmes' territory. And unlike Holmes getting away scot-free in the short story when he misses a trick, this time there are actual consequences; he's blown the government's advantage over the terrorists. And where the original Irene -- thanks to hubby -- just relents and decides not to continue with her plans, here she goes ahead after he's handed that power to her.

The third round, of course, Sherlock wins; he manages to crack the phone code and prevent further blackmail. Here he's recognizing and exploiting her emotions in exactly the way she's already done his. So, not exactly a sign of one being inferior to the other... more of them being evenly matched.

Ah, but this is their final battle, so that's the real message of the story, right? One which totally negates the ending of the short story which we got halfway through? Well... Let me put it this way. Boiling the whole question of who's got power down to "who saved who last", as if that outright negates all the previous interactions, has the ring of that same throwing-out-the-details-that-don't-support-your-preferred-story gambit.

It also leads to the same sort of madness we see repeatedly in Doctor Who fandom, where the Doctor being responsible for anything less than a perfect score in the finale is taken as a sign of him being emasculated. Those complaints started in week one with Rose; never mind that the Doctor singlehandedly tracks down an alien invasion, blows up their transmitter, brews up a weapon against the invaders, tracks them back to their lair, and negotiates on behalf of the human race, if he needs Rose to help him out of a spot of bother at the climax he's obviously just a feeble wimp. Doesn't matter how many actual fabulous wonderful things he does, we take those for granted. But if he's not perfect... if he's not that exact story we're hungry for... what's the point of him?

That's the flipside of fandom's tendency to excuse texts because we love them: when we find a story which fails to live up to our personal preferences, that same passion leads us to declare it reprehensible. Any positive features just vanish. That's just the mirror image of the whitewashing tendency Foz was talking about above. (Hmm, is "blackwashing" a word? Well, for the purposes of this essay it is.)

The Adventure Of The Missing Nuances

And that's at the heart of a lot of the criticisms being flung round here, especially by Jones. Details only admit one meaning, the most negative possible one. When Moffat's Irene identifies as gay, while still being attracted to Sherlock, no, we can't look at that in the context of the other material being emphasized in this story -- an asexual man being attracted to Irene, and indeed a straight man (John Watson) being attracted to Sherlock as well. No, it's just Pussy Galore all over again. Instead of acknowledging that Moffat is telling a very different sort of story about the flexibility of love and desire, we'll just use that fragment of the story as another more-or-less-conveniently-shaped stick to beat him with.

Or look at Foz's description of the modern Irene:

Instead, we get an Adler who acts as Morairty’s pawn; whose love for Sherlock undoes her so profoundly that she loses everything; and who, after unsuccessfully begging Sherlock for mercy and being cast out, is nonetheless overcome with gratitude as he rescues her from beheading at the hands of terrorists in Karachi.

Which again seems determined to see only one side of the material. For a start, far from "acting as Moriarty's pawn", Adler hires Moriarty as a consultant, to achieve her own aims. She's no more working for him than the guy in the boomerang case is working for Sherlock. For once Moriarty's the marginal figure in the story, rather than her -- which is arguably a pretty radical thing to do in such a story, to subvert the whole expected hero-versus-villain clash by reducing it to a couple of throwaway lines, while keeping her own aims central. She literally begins the story by derailing a confrontation between those two, and making it about what she wants instead.

(Contrast this also with the Irene Adler in the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes films -- who actually is under Moriarty's thumb, doing his legwork, and living in fear of him. In the films, she's Moriarty's catspaw. In Sherlock, he's her weapon.)

Then there's the way that "her love for Sherlock undoes her so profoundly that she loses everything". Which does seem to be the crux of the matter: at the end of the day, Irene loses.


Well, not really. Much like in the original story, Irene's actual goal is something quite separate from going mano-a-mano with Holmes; in the original, it's all about having a lover, but here, her goal is security. Protection from those who genuinely want her dead. And both then and now, the trick she wins or loses against Sherlock doesn't actually affect her achieving her ultimate goal -- it's won by other means which render the contest irrelevant.

And at the end of the day... she achieves that goal. Holmes ends up helping her achieve it, by faking her own death.

In fact, if you look at their respective goals in that story -- Irene wanting security, Holmes wanting to maintain his superiority and detachment... she does a better job of winning than he does. Far from ending the story with him sitting back talking about love with a gibe and a sneer, it turns out she's successfully pulled Holmes' strings to the point where he gives up on his resistance to sentiment. He actually cares about keeping her alive.

(If Sherlock said "Well technically I won" again, because he cracked the code... well, focusing on the game rather than the prize is the same blinkered mistake he made in "Great Game", isn't it?)

Where Foz reads Irene's final smile as gratitude for a man rescuing her, I'd suggest that what she's showing there is triumph. She's just realized she's got what she wants -- which goes way beyond Sherlock. She doesn't end the story as Sherlock's "offisder", as Foz puts it, but as a free agent who's successfully disappeared.

Now, I can see why for some people, the fact that Irene has previously gone through the humiliation of losing a round to Sherlock -- and doesn't recover from her defeat as elegantly as in the short story -- outweighs her ultimate victory. But I do think it's worth keeping that defeat in perspective: in her story, it's no more the end than the bit where Irene humiliates Sherlock halfway through is the end for him. (For heaven's sake, she reduces Sherlock to playing mopey musical love poetry on his violin -- what a come-down for the uncaring genius!) The point is not one triumphing over the other, it's that they're evenly matched. In that light, even the coda in Karachi is a bookend to the opening scene of the film; this time he's disrupting her mortal peril.

(ETA: since writing this bit, Steven Moffat has come right out and said that's what he meant it to say. I love it when an author says "I'm not dead yet." :-)

What we have here is a shift in the model of what it means for Irene Adler to be a match for Sherlock Holmes -- she's been redefined from winning a single (carefully limited) victory and getting off the field, to a sustainable ongoing competition. He humiliates her, she humiliates him. Who beat who last? Well, unlike in the short story... we haven't seen "last" yet. Hence the open ending.

The Affair Of The Missed Sweet-Spot

Now, this version still is not the same undiluted story some people saw in the original, of a woman winning at life without needing to rely on a man... aside from the husband who hands her a new life, of course, but he's already been quietly elided. The thing is, I think that's another one of those unfulfilled archetypes in our heads at work... in fandom's mind, Irene Adler has been turned from a symbol of strength to a symbol of independence -- which she never really was, in the text.

I'd love it if someone actually could write such a story which hits that sweet-spot dead center, for a change. But I'm neither surprised nor disappointed that Irene Adler isn't actually the vehicle for it. She's always been a mixed bag.

And that's what people seem so unwilling to look at this new story as being. Yes, it contains these readings people are finding... and other ones besides. Some of them are progressive, some aren't. The presence of one element doesn't negate the presence of the other.

I think Foz is absolutely right to draw attention to some quite questionable things in the scripts, but not necessarily to present the questions as answered. And I also agree entirely about the dangers in fandom's tendency to whitewash (and blackwash too, for that matter)... but I think it's better to look at that in terms of our general relationship with texts, rather than directing so much ire at the writers. Because while the texts themselves may well be flawed, they're also open to interpretation -- and they may not just be telling the simple story we're predisposed to read from them.

It's possible to read a dodgy message in the story; it's also possible to read the exact opposite of a dodgy message, with no more particular effort.

And putting the script beyond the pale, into the Irredeemably Sexist basket, ignores that people will still be able to find these powerful readings and meanings within this story, just like they could within the original Irene Adler. Even if they have to overlook some unfortunate stuff along the way. That's the positive side of our talent for whitewashing -- we're learning how to tell ourselves the stories we need.

So I can get on board with the concerns, but not with the condemnation. I'll hang out somewhere in the middle... where life happens.
Tags: doctor who, sherlock

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  • Twice Upon A Time: The Novel

    For the third time in my life, Paul Cornell has written exactly the words I needed to read. The first time was early in 1992, when the blazing hot…

  • "Hell Bent" Revisited

    Well, it’s only taken me two solid years of hindsight, but I think I’ve finally figured out a way to make Hell Bent work a lot better! At the end…

  • Let's Rewrite Hitler! Or, Series 6 Re-Revisited

    Okay, after a tangential discussion on Gallifrey Base, I've had people ask me to pull together my thoughts about how I would have liked to see the…