I Love the Woman: an Analysis of Love, Power, and the Character of Irene Adler (Sherlock)

Call me a sucker for bizarre romances, but this one is special. Irene Adler is a character who has seen many incarnations, only three of which I am really familiar with. The first is the Irene Adler from the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She is barely in them (only appears in A Scandal in Bohemia). If one reads that story looking for a steamy romance between Holmes and ‘the Woman’, prepare for disappointment. The romance was an invention that came later. The second Irene Adler I encountered was portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. She had the physical attractiveness of Irene Adler but none of the mental presence. To be fair to Ms. McAdams, that was more the script that turned her into a damsel-in-distress, rather than her acting. Okay, two Irenes out of the way, let’s talk about Lara Pulver‘s powerful performance from the BBC series, Sherlock (specifically the episode: A Scandal in Belgravia).

Proof that beauty does not equal presence.
Rachel McAdams: Proof that beauty does not equal presence.

She is one of the best characters I have ever seen on screen, hands down. I will begin with a description of her character: character in this case being shaped by the script and Pulver’s acting. Irene is sexy and she knows it. I know that there is a modern view that power, in the female sense, comes from sex appeal (and knowing how to control it). I really do not agree with this statement and it does not apply at all to Irene Adler. She is sexy, true, and she knows it. This Irene Adler is intelligent, cunning, and unafraid to do what she needs to do to get what she wants. The fact that she has any attractiveness is simply another tool for her to use.

Pulver's Adler always looks composed. More importantly, she is doing something in nearly every scene. She does not exist to simply stand there and look pretty.
Pulver’s Adler always looks composed. More importantly, she is doing something in nearly every scene. She does not exist to simply stand there and look pretty.

The Irene Adler, in this incarnation, is a dominatrix (children, don’t ask your parents what this means) who is (spoiler alert) under the employ of James Moriarty. Moriarty is the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, in case anyone out there was wondering. Anyway, Moriarty hires Adler to seduce Holmes and get him to give her information. Anyone even remotely familiar with the character of Sherlock Holmes knows this is not an easy task. He is known as “the world’s greatest detective” a.k.a. “not a moron.” Nevertheless, Irene Adler matches wits against Holmes… and wins and loses.

She succeeds in manipulating Holmes. He is attracted to her (the two share a phenomenal chemistry) and is foolishly tricked into giving her the information that Moriarty wants. Irene Adler is set to walk free at the end of the episode, having manipulated Sherlock completely without getting involved… except she did get involved. Part of the great success of the BBC Sherlock series is that genius characters are still human characters.

In one of the many scenes to showcase their similarities, Adler and Holmes prepare for battle. Both understand that appearance is important... but they look at it as part of the power struggle rather than simply looking pretty for one another.
In one of the many scenes to showcase their similarities, Adler and Holmes prepare for battle. Both understand that appearance is important… but they look at it as part of the power struggle rather than simply looking pretty for one another.

“Brainy is the new sexy.” Irene’s words to Sherlock near the beginning of their encounter. It is true, for both parties. Sherlock is attracted to Irene’s intelligence, Irene is attracted to Sherlock’s intelligence. The wonderfully tragic element emerges in who both of these characters are. Sherlock Holmes, in any portrayal, is always slightly ostracized from other human beings because of his intelligence. In the BBC edition, Sherlock is a high-functioning sociopath. He does not (outwardly) care about people or even acknowledge emotions. Irene is a dominatrix, someone so in control of herself that she is afraid of feeling helpless more than anything. Both are in constant struggle for power in their relationship, and the power comes from the appearance of not caring. He is how it climaxes:

For those out there who haven’t seen the episode and are curious as to the context: go watch it (seriously do, it’s wonderful). I will give brief background – the phone was Irene’s challenge to Holmes. She gave him time and opportunities to figure out the password and he almost bungled it until… well, you saw what happened.

“But wait,” you say, “that didn’t look like a romance. Sherlock didn’t care.” Really? That’s the power struggle. In that scene Irene has lost, her emotions are betrayed and Sherlock has the advantage. If he didn’t really care he could just walk away and that would be the end of it. Irene Adler would be killed and the world spins on. She is nearly killed… until this happens:

They both lose the game… and they are okay with it. Sherlock, in the most bizarre way possible, gives a very important lesson about love. When two people love each other, they are at their most vulnerable. Logic, intelligence: these things fall to impulse and emotion. I feel that this theme is the center of A Scandal in Belgravia, and is reflected even in the music. The love theme between Sherlock and Irene fluctuates in intensity, similar to the way emotion works. It embraces, then pulls back, only to ultimately embrace again. Feel free to disagree but please, listen to it in its entirety (“The Woman” and “Irene’s Theme” are also part of this):

This Irene Adler is the most compelling because she is the only one I have seen who manages to stay equal to Sherlock Holmes. Both characters have their moments of triumph and defeat. For brilliant people, they make a mess of love. Luckily they are smart enough to sort it out in the end. I remain cautiously optimistic for Adler’s return in the series. Irene Adler was only in one book, but maybe that was simply because that incarnation was less interesting.

There is one line from the episode that I quickly want to touch upon. It is a dialogue exchange between John Watson (Martin Freeman) and Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss). I am simply paraphrasing here so apologies if I get a line wrong:

Mycroft: “Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.”
Watson: “Why would he care? He despised her at the end. Won’t even mention her by name. Just ‘The Woman’.”
Mycroft: “Is that loathing or a salute? One of a kind, the one woman who matters.”
Watson: “He’s not like that. He doesn’t feel things that way. I don’t think.”
Mycroft: “My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?”
Watson: “I don’t know.”
Mycroft: “Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.”

This perfectly encapsulates the nonsensical nature of love. It really never can be explained. If it could, I doubt it would be as powerful (I know, I’m a romantic, humor me). Point is that, at the end this is a blog post, and if it can impart any wisdom it is: love is not always portrayed correctly in media, but when it is, it is powerful. That said, it will never be as powerful as – you know – the love you will experience in your actual life. So if there is a ‘the woman’, ‘the man’, or whomever out there, let them know. Whether traditional flowers or something as screwed up as Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, love is worth noting – even if it is just in a small way.

Anyway, sorry to get sidetracked at the end. A Scandal in Belgravia: see it if you want to see a version of Irene Adler who earns the title of ‘the Woman’ and not just some damsel-in-distress.

Probably says more about me than I would like that this is one of my favorite written romances.
Probably says more about me than I would like that this is one of my favorite written romances.

Mycroft: Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.
Watson: Why would he care? He despised her at the end. Won’t even mention her by name. Just The Woman.
Mycroft: Is that loathing or a salute? One of a kind, the one woman who matters.
Watson: He’s not like that. He doesn’t feel things that way. I don’t think.

Mycroft: My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?
Watson: I don’t know.
Mycroft: Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.

– See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/sherlock/series-two/a-scandal-in-belgravia/#sthash.HWfmwkuG.dpuf

Mycroft: Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.
Watson: Why would he care? He despised her at the end. Won’t even mention her by name. Just The Woman.
Mycroft: Is that loathing or a salute? One of a kind, the one woman who matters.
Watson: He’s not like that. He doesn’t feel things that way. I don’t think.

Mycroft: My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?
Watson: I don’t know.
Mycroft: Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.

– See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/sherlock/series-two/a-scandal-in-belgravia/#sthash.HWfmwkuG.dpuf

No Love Lost for Valentine's Day

Let me make one quick comment at the beginning of this post: I do not hate Valentine’s Day. I don’t love it either – it’s a day. Valentine’s Day, as a date of measured time, has never done anything to personally advance or hinder me so I bear it no feeling. For those out there hating Valentine’s Day, here you go. So why am I talking about it then? This is a blog dedicated to media’s (marketing/advertising/pop culture) impact on the world. I can’t entirely ignore it.

In many ways, Valentine’s Day is like every other major holiday. It has a history, it has a focus group. Many out there will claim that Valentine’s Day was invented simply to make money. Well, they’re right. In the same way that Santa Claus was invented for Christmas and costumes purposed for Halloween: there is a definite money-making angle associated with Valentine’s Day. Yet Valentine’s Day, for the record, is not a Hallmark celebration.

According to internet history a.k.a. Wikipedia, Valentine’s Day is a feast celebrating the life of St. Valentine. Which St. Valentine you may ask: good question, there may have been at least three so… all of them? The particular one people celebrate lived during the time when Christians and Romans were anything but bros. In fact helping Christians was a crime back then… yeah, Roman Emperor Claudius II had no time for these new crazy Jesus folk. In fact, St. Valentine was arrested for marrying Christian couples – Christian marriage back then being entirely illegal. Boy, if only there was a modern day equivalent for that:

Maybe all those people out there calling Valentine's Day "gay" are just being historically insightful.
Maybe all those people out there calling Valentine’s Day “gay” are just being historically insightful.

So anyway, St. Valentine got arrested. He was ultimately put to death for trying to convert the emperor (Claudius II had taken a liking to his prisoner just not in the way: “I like (will switch my faith) like you”). There it is: the official reason for Valentine’s Day. Celebrating a man who was jailed for helping others find love. That’s an excellent cause for celebration but probably not what most people take offense to.

Nothing says long-lasting love like an endangered species doomed to extinction.
Nothing says long-lasting love like an endangered species doomed to extinction.

Merchandising. Corporations are making a nice profit today, specifically florists, card makers, chocolate makers, and restaurant owners. For them, their valentine is small and green and smells like money. But here is the thing: nearly every holiday out there has been marketed to death (thank God for Thanksgiving) so Valentine’s Day isn’t unique. This isn’t even an invented tradition, people have been giving “valentines” to each other for hundreds of years.

This is a 13th century painting of the Valentine's Day hipster: giving hearts before it was cool.
This is a 13th century painting of the Valentine’s Day hipster: giving hearts before it was cool.

For those out there protesting corporate intrusion into something as personal as love: that I can support. Good thing there’s an easy remedy: don’t buy sh*t. Seriously, if anyone out there in a relationship can’t think of anything more personal than chocolates and flowers for their significant other… how well do they know each other?

Roses aren't even the only red flower in existence. At least be a little creative.
Roses aren’t even the only red flower in existence. At least be a little creative.

Yet I think there is more to the Valentine’s Day resentment than just the commercialization. This is day celebrating the joy of sharing love. Many out there don’t have another human being they feel that way about so naturally: there are feelings of exclusion. Again, I blame this on marketing. They’ve been better with other holidays:

Christmas: the Christian holiday for everyone.
Christmas: the Christian holiday for everyone.

Unfortunately here is the principle of marketing: making you, the individual, want something. Valentine’s Day is the double-dose of this principle. Since the day itself is purported to be  about celebrating love with a significant other – there is already a need for someone else. Now Valentine’s Day advertising says that someone else isn’t enough, the consumer must buy things to please that other. And if buying things make the other happy than not buying things might make them sad and so on… it’s a rabbit hole: don’t go down it.

You know the most precious thing about love: it cannot be commodified. Every love is unique. Asking a corporation or really anyone else to make a gift for your significant other is like asking a stranger to decorate your house or name your child. They have no way of knowing. It doesn’t make them soulless or evil, just outmatched. If you are in a relationship: you are the only person capable of getting your significant other what they truly want. Don’t ask Hallmark – they don’t know.

Hey, it's the best a stranger can do.
Hey, it’s the best a stranger can do.

And for those out there without a significant other: your love is still special, so you’re part of the celebration. Doesn’t really matter if you love another person or your job or something else in this wonderful world of ours – Valentine’s Day is about celebrating that healthy love. I say healthy because there are those out there just in relationships because they don’t know how to be alone… that is one romantic love that should be anything but celebrated.

Yes, marketing can make single people feel bad about themselves today. Marketing can (and does) make people feel bad about themselves every day: that’s their job (really sick when you think about it). Don’t blame Valentine’s Day, it’s just a day. And really: could be worse. Take Korea for instance, not only do they have two days for couples, they also have a day where single people are required to eat black food in mourning of their lack of relationship. Yikes.