The Woman: The femme fatale in modern Sherlock Holmes

Irene Adler in Elementary is the perfect femme fatale.

In the vast canon of Sherlock Holmes, only one woman stands out: Irene Adler. Introduced in the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler receives the dubious introduction as “the woman.” She’s an object of affection or desire, because the great detective Sherlock Holmes could never feel something so base as love; instead Dr. Watson recalls that to Holmes Irene Adler “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” Now over a hundred years and two successful TV shows later, Irene Adler evolved from a mildly scandalous New Jersey opera singer to the classic femme fatale.

A standard trope of film noir movies of the 1920s, the femme fatale served as the dangerous female to draw in and often trap the male protagonist using flirty banter, dark eyeliner, and well-angled shadows. She only served her best interests and escaped to live another day to torment the protagonist’s dreams. Sexy, dangerous, and a little basic, the femme fatale recently became a sort of ideal for women in action-mystery adventures. Black Widow in the Avengers, Catwoman to Batman, and in the case of the BBC and CBS, Irene Adler.

For context, Arthur Conan Doyle introduces Irene as a cunning and unassuming woman who only shows up once in all of the Holmes tales. The prince of Bohemia comes to the Baker Street detectives asking them to retrieve a scandalous photograph of him with Adler before the prince gets married. Holmes takes on the case, and in one of the rare times through the series, fails. He tricks Adler into revealing the location of the photo, but she realizes his deception and outsmarts him by escaping the city with the photograph. Holmes, awestruck but not in love, forever immortalizes her “under the honourable title of the woman.” This brief short story launched a thousand Irene Adlers, and all befall the fate of the femme fatale.

None more so than seen on the BBC and CBS with their respective modern retellings. Viewers can debate which show, Sherlock or Elementary, took their Irene-as-the-femme-fatale farther, as both versions took her in completely new and darker directions. However I believe Elementary had the most original and in-depth take on The Woman never seen before in the canon: spoiler alert, Irene Adler and the criminal mastermind Moriarty exist as one and the same. The twist follows the overall arc of season one, as Sherlock struggles with sobriety in the wake of a two year heroine addiction sparked by the bloody death of Irene Adler at the hands of Moriarty. As the season drew to a close, the writers pulled out all the stops to tease Sherlock’s final showdown with Moriarty — aka Irene Adler, aka Moriarty in disguise.

Adler-but-actually-Moriarty could fulfill the trope of the femme fatale in all of the expected ways, but Elementary still managed to give both characters a new slant. Now the somewhat devious Irene Adler becomes the criminal mastermind Jamie Moriarty, the woman who runs one of the largest criminal organizations in the world, kills people regularly, and still fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. Complete with loose blonde curls, seductive eye contact, and a smooth British accent, the writers of the show took the woman one step farther and turned her into the ultimate villain, and in turn the ultimate femme fatale.

I think this twist in Elementary created a more intense show than its BBC counterpart and their female dominatrix whose ultimate downfall ended up showing in her devotion to an unloving man. But the real strength of Elementary lies in its casting between Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock), Lucy Liu (Dr. Joan Watson), and Natalie Dormer (Moriarty and Adler). The natural chemistry between the three of them builds off their character’s backstories, which only enhances the tension of the plot. Their on-screen build up created the most dramatic moment of season one, and it’s not the final arrest. The final argument of the episode, when Joan realizes how close to the edge Sherlock stands, acts at the climax of the episode. The intensity between Sherlock, Joan, and Moriarty makes the audience ask: Will the duo have to really admit defeat at the hands of Moriarty?

Elementary built off the way all of the characters were running on high emotions, and the entire time the audience wonders if Sherlock will go over the edge: lose to Moriarty or use heroine to escape his fate. By combining the one woman Holmes loved with his nemesis, the show took all of the famed Conan Doyle characters in a new bent.

The women of today’s Sherlock Holmes

Modern remakes of the famous duo also means updated takes on the women.

I love Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been working through the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series for the past few years, loved Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s movies, wait (forever) for every season of Sherlock, and last fall I binged Elementary. With each new version of the classic stories, I always like seeing where they go with the same base characters — especially the women.

After the season four premiere episode, a Mary-heavy story, Sophie Gilbert wrote an article in The Atlantic (contains spoilers) talking about the women in Sherlock. Gilbert’s “The Troublesome Women of ‘Sherlock’” looks at all the different women in the show, their characters, backstories, development, and lack thereof. Looking at quotes from creators Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, quotes from the original books, and articles written about “Sherlock,” Gilbert points out the faults of the show’s female representation.

“And when it comes to other female characters, in fact, Sherlock has sometimes been even more regressive than its Victorian source material. It’s a paradox: Why does one of the most dynamic and ingenious shows on television have problems fitting women into its universe?” Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic

Sherlock and its faults acknowledged, I still love the show and its interpretation with the Conan canon. Gilbert’s article also got me thinking about the other women in the Sherlock Holmes iterations that I watch. For the most part, I think any modern and more independent take on the Victorian-era females Conan Doyle wrote about is good, but each of my favorites — the ’09 RDJ- Law, Sherlock, and Elementary — took the same formulaic molds and made something different out of each of them.


Sherlock — (Netflix, Hulu, Season 4 on PBS)

The most popular of the Sherlock Holmes reboots, by far, is the BBC’s with Martin Freeman and Bumblebee Cummerbund. But, as Gilbert points out, it’s not a prefect retelling that could live up to all modern potential. However, I stand by their character building for the women. Each one has an interesting backstory, motivation, and depth… until the rest of the story enters in and nulls all that.

Irene Adler (Lara Pulver)

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Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: The Woman. I really enjoyed the Irene Adler of “Sherlock,” she was clearly able to match wits with the defective detective. The spin on “the woman” was fun to watch, and the actress did a really great job teasing and challenging the men folk. The writers expanded on Conan’s woman with a compromising photograph nicely, and hopefully we’ll see more of Irene in season 6 when it comes out in 2054.

Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington)

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Readers met Mary Morstan in “The Sign of Four,” as the pretty governess who hired the boys to solve a case before she up and marries Watson. That’s it. So the completely reworked backstory Sherlock gave Mary is amazing. A covert assassin running from her past? Brilliant. A seamless addition to the dynamic duo who understood both boys, I love Mary Watson.

Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs)

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Sweet house keeping lady constantly put out by the shenanigans of her tenants, nothing more, nothing less. The former stripper and cartel backstory are fun, and I appreciate the sass she gives the boys.

Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey)

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Molly is a non-Conan-canonical addition to the Sherlock Holmes cast. Adding a new character, especially a woman, to the tight crew of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Adler, and Mycroft isn’t an easy feat. Molly blends in as another character on the show Sherlock, canon be damned. Gilbert describes her as “a smart, intuitive, and realistic woman,” who adds one of the first real examples of women representation to the Sherlock world.


Elementary (CBS, Hulu)

The American remake of Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be compared to Sherlock because they’re not on the same field. The BBC’s version is a modern retelling of the stories with their own twists. Elementary, as I best describe it, is like an American AU fan-fiction of Conan Doyle’s characters. A cross between CSI and Sherlock Holmes, each episode is more singularly-plot focused on a crime, usually a murder, with an over-arching plot here and there. Currently in the middle of its fifth season, I suggest Elementary to any Sherlock Holmes fan because it’s an easy show to pick up and put down any time. In some ways, Elementary has made more modern strides where Sherlock has fallen.

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu)

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The biggest, most noticeable difference about Elementary is the detective stylings of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Joan Watson. When I first heard about the switch, I didn’t want anything to do with Elementary because I assumed it was an excuse to finally couple up Holmes-Watson. Then a friend assured me that was not the case, and five seasons later it doesn’t seem like it ever will be. Liu’s Watson is the doctor-turned-detective that other reboots (Sherlock) struggle to write. She’s a good doctor, genuinely helpful to Holmes and the case, gives Sherlock a heart and conscience, and is a fine detective on her own.

Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer)

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I love this Irene Adler, though audiences don’t meet her for a while. She’s sassy, sexy, and smart in all the ways fans know the woman to be for Sherlock, but she’s so much more. I watch a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and this Irene’s twist is my favorite.

Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond)

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Kitty Winter is a character taken from one of the Conan Doyle stories, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” Kitty only appears for 12 episodes in season 3, but they’re some of my favorites. Another smart detective-to-be under Sherlock’s tutelage, Kitty comes with her own strengths, weaknesses, backstory — real depth. Buzzfeed did an article with Lovibond, Liu, and showrunner Rob Doherty about Kitty’s character and what she brought to the show.

Mrs. Hudson (Candis Cayne)

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Mrs. Hudson only appears in three episodes so far, once per season. She also got a modern back story: “an expert in Ancient Greek who essentially makes a living as a kept woman and muse for various wealthy men.” But more importantly and more interestingly, she’s a transwoman (and actress) so I hope she comes around “the brownstone” more than once a season and we get to know more about her character. She also makes little shell warmers for their pet turtle, Clyde, which is great.


2009 & 2011 Sherlock Holmes movies

These are first Sherlock Holmes reboot I saw, I love these movies. They are, however, sheerly about the famous duo and there’s not too much outside the box interpretations of the women. But they still do more than stand around and look pretty.

Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)

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Smart, teasing, fun, this Irene moved almost separately from the duo and the main mystery. I also appreciate how the movies hinted at what Holmes and Adler had instead of forcing a romance into the movie. This Irene was competent and independent, and I liked her inclusion into the final plot at the end of the movie. Her appearance in the second was much of the same, and I thought it was too bad the writers stayed “canon” and cut her out of that ending as well.

Mary Watson (Kelly Reilly)

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The most Victorian-era of the characters, I am glad the writers gave her a few lines that weren’t about Watson and showed she had some brains.

Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace)

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A non-Conan-canonical addition in the second movie, A Game of Shadows, Madame Simza added some heart to the plot and she wasn’t some fine Victorian lady who couldn’t get her skirt dirty. A Roma fortune teller, Simza kept up with Holmes and Watson, helped them out when she could, and my favorite part: did not get romantically involved with anyone. Simza wasn’t there to replace Irene Adler, she was there to save her brother.


Each of the three series are fun to watch, I recommend them all to everyone, and of course these aren’t the only reboots of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, Elementary, and the movies each bring something different to the characters everyone knows and loves, including how they interpret the limited number of women Conan Doyle wrote. Each woman’s story isn’t perfect, and not all the female characters get the same development or attention they deserve. But they sure as hell don’t stand around fretting in their corsets as the men folk go dashing off to solve mysteries.

And if you ask me, the next logical step in this reboot chain is a female Holmes and Watson.

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