Friday, 30 November 2012

Regress the Classics

(Disclaimer: If you’re a hardcore Sherlock fan who sees no problem with Irene Adler’s portrayal in the show, this may not be the post for you. Here, there be dragons. Also, NSFW content.)

Imagine, if you will, a modern adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia” as an exploration of the spread of digital information set against the backdrop of a status-obsessed high school. Sherlock Holmes is the weird kid, an adolescent Encyclopedia Brown with a drug problem who has recently gained notoriety for acting as a consultant for the local police. John Watson is his straight-laced best friend, recently injured in an Army Cadet exercise. Irene Adler is the former choir star who regularly misses class to visit exotic climes. Last year, she had a fling with a popular student known in the drama department as the King of Bohemia, who has told his new girlfriend’s strict parents that he is saving himself for marriage. When Irene threatens to email incriminating pictures to the king’s potential future in-laws, the king knows it’s time to bring in the big guns, in the form of Sherlock Holmes.

Will Holmes prevail? Will we want him to? No, because this Irene is a woman wronged, whose trust and home are violated, whose quest for revenge ends when she decides to be the bigger person, and whose actions prove her more than equal to the greatest detective in literature. You know, like in the original.

Our point with this exercise is this: it’s not that hard to make a modernized adaptation faithful to the spirit of the original work. Looking at “A Scandal in Belgravia,” however, you’d think it was impossible.

(Full disclosure: Although Ashley has seen every episode of Sherlock, I’ve only watched this one. She’s out of the country right now, so I’ll limit my comments to observations about this specific episode.)

So, to quote the King of Bohemia, the facts are briefly these: Sherlock and Watson are caught in a stand-off with Moriarty when Moriarty gets a phone call that convinces him to let them go. We learn that the mysterious caller was a woman, and we soon find out that this is the woman when Sherlock is hired to find sexually explicit pictures taken by the dominatrix, Irene Adler, of herself and a young, female member of the British royal family. Hijinks (that we will detail a little further on) ensue and Irene keeps the photos from Sherlock’s grasp. So, technically, the “Scandal in Bohemia” section is finished about half an hour in. After this, the episode essentially becomes a piece of particularly misogynistic fanfiction.

Let’s start again because, as Sherlock Holmes states, “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Irene Adler is introduced as a hand with carefully manicured, long, crimson nails clutching a cell phone. When she walks further into the shot, she is wearing black lingerie. Her head is never revealed, showing her to be an anonymous body. She enters a doorway through which we can see the legs of a woman shackled to a bed. Accompanied by the crack of a whip, she says to the woman on the bed, “Well now, have you been wicked, Your Highness?” The shackled woman replies, “Yes, Miss Adler.” And that’s how we meet Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual rival: as a body.

This becomes a recurring problem. Before she meets with Sherlock, there is a scene juxtaposing their separate preparations. Both consider their chosen outfits to be a kind of armour, but while Sherlock remains fully clothed as he puts together his clergyman costume, Irene is again shown in loose, barely there robes and revealing gowns. While she gets ready, the camera lovingly captures (in fragmenting close-up) the sensual movements of her girlfriend/personal assistant/person whose role I’m pretty sure is never really explained applying her eyeshadow and lipstick. Her assistant, Kate, asks what she will be wearing, and Irene answers, “My battle dress.” Which, it turns out, is nothing at all. She throws off Sherlock’s game by arriving naked, relying solely on her body to blast through his defenses. As if all this weren’t enough, the code to Irene’s safe turns out to be her measurements. Because she describes the phone hidden in the safe as her life, her body is literally the key to her life.

Like many of the other people who have commented on this episode, we have no problem with the fact that she’s a sex worker. What we do take issue with is the way in which sex and sexual control form almost the entirety of her character. When she talks about using her connections with specialists or influential people, the connection was invariably forged on the job; when she says she knows someone, the implication is always that it’s in the Biblical sense. She even reframes intellect in these terms, stating that “brainy is the new sexy.” And the thing is, she is brainy, but every time she or Sherlock accomplish some impressive intellectual task, she immediately links it to sex. The best example occurs late in the episode, when Sherlock cracks the code to discover the flight information of a doomed airplane; to show her appreciation for his skill, Irene states, “I would have you right here, on this desk, until you begged for mercy twice.”

There is another problem with this conceptualization of Irene Adler’s power. In the original story, most of the punch of Sherlock’s defeat comes from the fact that she beats him at his own game. He is known for using his powers of deduction; she deduces either that the kerfuffle outside her house was staged or that Holmes was in disguise (or both). He meets her in disguise, so she wears one to follow him and confirm his identity. In Sherlock, however, Irene is constantly manipulating his apparent discomfort and inexperience with sex. It is the difference between besting a master in their area of expertise and striking an easily exploitable weakness. One’s just more impressive than the other.

Comparing these two methods, I find it interesting that the original story complicates Irene’s deduction by portraying her as unwilling to believe that an old clergyman could be working against her. Essentially, she almost doesn’t win because she wants to think the best of people and assumes that an old man who was injured trying to help her is a decent human being, not an agent of her enemy. The Sherlock Irene, by contrast, messes with people’s lives by faking her own death and threatens to incite scandal just for the hell of it.

Here’s the deal: I love female characters with dubious moral codes. Give me all the ladies with checkered pasts and compelling, human weaknesses. What I don’t like is the fact that modern (almost always male) writers cannot conceive of a powerful, intellectual woman like Irene Adler being genuinely decent. The scandal in the original story would have been the result of the king doing Irene some cruel wrong, which may or may not be the wrong of carrying on a long-term, sexual and romantic relationship and then pulling the plug because Irene was not of his social status, a fact that he knew going into the relationship. Any payback she exacted could easily be justified as karma.

In addition, the context of the original story has people constantly violating her privacy and invading her home in order to steal her personal belongings. It’s not wrong to be a bit annoyed by that. Still, she doesn’t ruin the king’s life and even makes a point of being the better person. She’s a thoroughly decent human being. In modern adaptations, however, she’s made into a manipulative love interest and antagonist because obviously a powerful woman has to be evil. Or, at the very least, morally inferior to Sherlock Holmes.

What proves that this adaptation misses the point of the original story is not the fact that its Irene is morally inferior to Holmes, but that she is intellectually inferior to him. While most of the episode is offensive, it is in the climax that it proves itself offensively wrong.

First, Irene loses. The whole point of the character in the original depends on her victory, but this Irene does not triumph. She’s not even an independent agent, working instead with Moriarty. Even with the assistance of a man, she cannot beat Sherlock, who bests her in the nick of time and then gloats about it, literally making her beg for protection. Instead of Sherlock learning a lesson in humility, Irene is humiliated.

Beyond the obvious problems with this ending in terms of Irene’s depiction, it has disastrous consequences for Sherlock’s character. Sherlock has to lose to Irene, if for no other reason than that it builds his character. It makes him human and shows him to be fallible. It makes the times when he wins matter more, because we now know that he can lose. It takes him down a peg and makes him acknowledge the value of others. It forces him to reassess his assumptions, ultimately helping him to eliminate his blind spots and become a better detective.

This brings us to this adaptation’s treatment of “the woman.” The title is not originally bestowed by Sherlock on Irene as a mark of respect; instead, it’s Irene’s self-constructed business persona. Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, suggests that Sherlock’s use of the title could be either a sign of loathing or a salute. The fact that the first is even an option shows that this adaptation went off the rails.

Even the possibility that it is a sign of respect seems unlikely, as Sherlock spends much of the episode being extraordinarily condescending to her, with one brief respite when it becomes apparent that she has played him. In the climactic scene, however, his superiority is restored. He solves the code on her phone and then lectures her about the reason why she lost. As he observes, “this is your heart, and you should never let it rule your head.” Irene Adler is defeated by her love for Sherlock Holmes. She falls victim to her womanly feelings and finds herself beaten by Sherlock’s masculine intellect. It is too awful for words, except perhaps these: if your adaptation of a 120-year-old story has a more antiquated formulation of gender roles than the original, you need to take a long, hard look at your life.

Finally, because a sandwich just isn’t a sandwich without the tangy zip of Miracle Whip, an analysis of “A Scandal in Belgravia” isn’t complete without some mention of its awful treatment of Irene’s sexuality. Not only does Irene fall in love with Sherlock, she does so while seemingly identifying as gay. When she assumes that Watson and Holmes are in a relationship, Watson tells her that he isn’t gay, to which she responds, “Well, I am.” Upto this point, she appears to be portrayed as bisexual, having had relationships with both men and women. With this scene, however, there is a strangely deliberate attempt to turn this into the story of a lesbian who falls in love with a man.

One could make the argument that sexuality is fluid, and that love defies gender. Of course, on television, that’s only ever true of young, attractive women whose queerness is often fetishized before they invariably fall into a heterosexual romance. There is no attempt made here to explore the nuances of sexuality. There is only an incredibly dubious heterosexual romance between an ostensible lesbian and a man often read as asexual, which ends with the man saving the woman as if she were a damsel in distress. It’s the opposite of progressive.

And this is ultimately our problem with this adaptation: for a modern Sherlock Holmes, it seems positively primeval.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™

And remember, we strongly recommend that you check out our new Monday posts, helping you with gift ideas for your friends, your family, and yourself from now until Christmas.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Film Recommendations

It’s that time of year again. (Of course, if you go by the music playing at the mall, it’s been that time of year since Hallowe’en.) We here at Strong Female Character would like to get into the holiday spirit, and what better way to do that than to support the shameless commercialism of the season? So, without further ado, the first of five recommendation posts filled with female-friendly gift ideas for the whole family.

Winter’s Bone

Director: Debra Granik
Writer: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Daniel Woodrell (book)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes

Some people will tell you to watch this film because it’s basically Jennifer Lawrence’s audition for the role of Katniss Everdeen. While those people might have a point, it is only one of the many points in favour of immediately opening a new tab and ordering Winter’s Bone.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone chronicles one teenaged girl’s search for her father as she fights the cold of an Ozark winter and the colder actions of her neighbours. When her father goes missing, Ree Dolly must find him before their house is seized as part of his bail. It soon becomes clear that there is much more to his disappearance than avoiding jail time, and Ree sets out to solve the mystery and save her family.

This brief summary doesn’t do the film justice. It is a brutal, wonderful treatment of a harsh life and the hard people it produces. The primary triumph, to our minds, is the character of Ree Dolly, who is tough enough to withstand a beating, tender enough to care for her younger siblings, and determined enough to act when everyone tells her to stop. Do yourself a favour and pick up the book as well; both it and the film are well worth your time.

St. Trinian’s

Director: Oliver Parker, Barnaby Thompson
Writer: Piers Ashworth, Nick Moorcroft, Jamie Minoprio, Jonathan M. Stern
Starring: Talulah Riley, Gemma Arterton, Rupert Everett

In many ways, St. Trinian’s is not a good film; it is, however, a feel-good film. We don’t mean that in the “movie based on a true story in which someone magically turns their life around and embraces love conveniently released at Christmas” way, but in the “that movie had so many women there was a token male character” way.

Based on the cartoons by Ronald Searle and vaguely related to the films made in the 1950s and ’60s, St. Trinian’s focuses on Annabelle Fritton, a teenaged girl experiencing culture shock when she transfers to her aunt’s boarding school from the prim and proper Cheltenham Ladies’ College. St. Trinian’s is a school for female delinquents with no rules in place to prevent them from working together to hone their skills; in fact, the school encourages criminal behavior. So, when the girls learn that the school is in danger of being shut down, they orchestrate a heist.

This film and its sequel, the not-quite-as-good St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, are flawed, but there hasn’t been anything with this much girl power released since the Spice Girls broke up, so we’ll take it.


Director: Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews
Writer: Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, Steve Purcell, Mark Andrews
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly

“If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” With the recent purchase of Lucasfilm, Disney now owns basically everything, so you’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t heard this phrase.

Brave tells the story of the fraught relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when the personal becomes political. When headstrong Merida, who hates being a princess, learns that she will have to marry a suitor from one of the kingdom’s other clans, she finds a loophole. Unfortunately, her actions threaten to destroy both an uneasy alliance and the already strained relationship Merida has with her mother, Elinor. When Merida makes another foolish -- if completely understandable -- decision, it is up to her and her mother to save the kingdom.

If you’ve read our “New Age of Princessery” or “Disney Mothers” posts, you know that we adore this film. It’s full of women talking to each other and being complex and doing things, and it argues that women’s relationships are important not only to history but to stories in general. If that doesn’t convince you (and if it doesn’t, you probably shouldn’t be here), the film is also gorgeously animated and beautifully scored.

Saving Face

Director: Alice Wu
Writer: Alice Wu
Starring: Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen

The tagline for Saving Face proclaims it “a romantic comedy about right, wrong and everything in between.” It may be more accurate (if less compelling) to label it “a film about what happens when you watch Chinese soap operas instead of dealing with your problems.”

Wil Pang is a young surgeon with a promising career whose life is disrupted when her pregnant mother moves in with her. In order to restore her mother’s social standing, Wil sets her up with a string of potential husbands. Unfortunately, this happens just as her own love life is picking up with the appearance of Vivian Shing, a ballet dancer nursing a decades-long crush. Well-written, often poignant hijinks ensue.

Halfway through my most recent re-watch, I had the idea to tally the number of conversations with which this film passes the Bechdel test. I quickly abandoned this idea because, honestly, in a film where the three principal characters are all women, the number was likely to be pretty high. Also, in a piece that explores issues of racism, cultural expectations, and the detrimental effects of patriarchal rule, you can rest assured that these women are talking to each other about something other than men.


Director: Vadim Jean
Writer: Vadim Jean, Terry Pratchett
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Marc Warren, David Jason

Every year, while hanging the stockings by the chimney with care and decking the halls with boughs of holly, my family puts up one very special decoration. On our front door, we hang up two banners: the one facing outward emblazoned with an image of a jolly Santa Claus, the one facing inward a carbon copy, save for the replacement of rosy cheeks with a grinning skull.

Based on the Terry Pratchett novel of the same name, Hogfather tells the story of the night that Death traded in the black robes for a red, fur-trimmed suit. When an assassin is hired to kill the Hogfather, the Disc’s version of Santa Claus, Death realizes that someone will have to keep belief in the jolly fat man alive. While Death delivers presents, his granddaughter, Susan, must figure out who is trying to destroy the Hogfather. If she fails, the sun will never rise again.

With elements of The Grinch, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and a number of other holiday stories, Hogfather is like a package of Christmas tradition, slightly subverted and tied with a bow. Add to that the presence of one Susan Sto Helit, a badass governess who drop-kicks bogeymen, manipulates time, and has awkward family bonding moments with Death, and you’ve basically got a perfect holiday flick.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Irene Adler, Femme Fatale

The blurb on the back of copies of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 adaptation, Sherlock Holmes, calls the film “a bold reimagining that makes the famed sleuth a daring man of action as well as a peerless man of intellect.” On the same cover we see images of Irene Adler, a woman who proved herself to be, at the very least, Holmes’ intellectual peer. The film sees no problem with this, and therein lies our problem with it.
The Irene Adler that appears opposite Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is not the one that graces the pages of Conan Doyle’s story. Whereas the original Irene was an opera singer and adventuress, this one is a “world-class thief.” She doesn’t get mixed up in scandal because she happened to date the wrong royal, but because she makes a habit of robbing royals blind. In fact, in addition to the crimes she commits against the governments and monarchs of India, Bulgaria, and Spain, she was involved in a scandalous affair that ended a royal engagement. That’s right: Ritchie’s Irene apparently carried out her threat against the King of Bohemia. This last point seems to suggest that the film is less an adaptation than a continuation set in an alternate universe.

Still, such a version would require that Irene remain fundamentally herself. We don’t think that that’s the case here. As we see it, the difference lies in the fact that the textual Irene possesses the photograph, while the filmic Irene embodies it. The original has some power over her own representation, while the adaptation is merely the picture as Holmes sees it. What makes this even more problematic is that this Holmes sees not through a magnifying glass, but through a camera. She is no longer the woman, but a femme fatale.

In this film, Irene Adler is identified with objects on several occasions. She is introduced through a monogrammed handkerchief that she leaves to get Holmes’ attention during a boxing match. Only after he recognizes it does he look for the woman who left it. When she arrives at Holmes’ apartment to offer him a case, her effect on him is demonstrated through the hiding and revealing of her portrait. Not long after she arrives, he leaps to lay the picture face down, trying to keep her from realizing that he has had it on display as a treasured memento. On her way out, she flips it back up, letting him know that she sees right through him. The most troubling identification occurs when Irene is hung up like a pig carcass: a fairly literal piece of meat.

These examples bring us to one of our major issues with this adaptation: the romantic relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. If you’ve been reading the blog upto this point, you may have noticed that a number of our posts isolate the moment when boy meets girl as the point when everything falls apart. This isn’t because we hate romantic plots or sub-plots (we don’t), but because female characters tend to get caught up in the male lead’s gravitational pull and spend the rest of the movie caught in his orbit. This leaves us with planets, not stars.

We don’t really want to belabour the metaphor any further, so suffice it to say that the same thing happens here. We learn that Sherlock and Irene have intimate knowledge of each other; she knows his favourite foods, he knows her criminal signature. He also knows which room they frequented at the Grand, because obviously a man and a woman could never have a platonic relationship based on mutual respect for their intellect and cunning. This intimacy also leads to a very different take on “the woman.” This Holmes does not use the iconic title as a sign of respect; instead, he uses her name most of the time and saves the title for those situations when he’s angry or frustrated with her. On these occasions it is never “the woman,” but “Woman!” -- almost as if Sherlock Holmes has temporarily been replaced by Glee’s Artie Abrams.

After she leaves 221B Baker Street, Irene has a rendezvous with her employer, who informs her that her connection to Sherlock is the only reason why he hired her. She can manipulate the great detective, and her employer can control her because, as it turns out, her weakness is her love for Sherlock.

Our biggest problem with this version of Irene Adler is that she’s controlled by men. When Holmes meets her at the hotel, he tells her that she’s in over her head and informs her that he will be taking her to either the railway station or the police station, regardless of her thoughts on the matter. Given his paternalistic attitude, it’s not surprising that she decides to drug him. Of course, he does end up handcuffing her to a construction site. The villain of this film, Lord Blackwood, chains a bound and gagged Irene to a hook that draws her ever closer to a saw used to cut pigs in half. His disembodied voice tells Sherlock, “She followed you here, Holmes. You led your lamb to slaughter.” He dehumanizes and dismisses Irene, all while making Sherlock responsible for actions she herself chose to take. The shadowy figure, who turns out to be (to absolutely no one’s surprise) Professor Moriarty, manipulates her at every turn. Even when Irene tries to quit, he tells her that he will be the one to tell her when she can leave his employ. He takes her agency and, in the second movie, it is implied that he takes her life.

 Still, there’s something about this Irene Adler that we appreciate: she is a perfect example of our name, the very definition of what we call the Strong Female Character™. When its audience calls for the portrayal of strong women onscreen, Hollywood tends to respond with a kind of character whose strength is superficial at best and nonexistent at worst. Viewers demand depictions of living, breathing people with all their accompanying strengths and flaws, and Hollywood provides very lifelike cardboard cutouts. Ritchie’s version of Irene Adler embodies this problem. She has tremendous sexual confidence but, as with many of these characters, this trait seems to exist merely to justify the existence of a scene that begins with her wearing a sheet and goes on to show her undressing. Her sexual confidence is less for her than for the presumed male viewer. Her apparently remarkable intelligence fluctuates wildly, as she easily tricks the great Sherlock Holmes in one scene only to waste bullets shooting at people in a room containing a chemical weapon in another. She wears masculine dress in a suitably feminine way. The real clincher, though, is the scene in which she is being threatened by two men in an alley. With the implicit threat of sexual assault looming, Irene fights the men off in a scuffle that ends with her knifepoint lodged against the throat of one of her assailants. Observing unseen, Sherlock says, “That’s the Irene I knew.”

We’re glad he recognizes her, because we certainly don’t.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Scandal in Granada

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind. … And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”
        - John Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) in “A Scandal in Bohemia”

This season, CBS premiered Elementary, a new crime procedural based on the oft-adapted Sherlock Holmes canon. In the show’s pilot, Joan Watson deduces that a woman was behind Sherlock’s relocation from London to New York. In its sixth episode, she learns that the woman in question is named Irene. For viewers with even a passing familiarity with Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler’s inclusion in the show was a foregone conclusion the moment a woman entered the equation. Who could it be but the woman?

This week we start a three-part examination of Irene Adler, comparing her characterization in the original story with three different adaptations: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, produced by Granada Television, Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, and Sherlock, produced by the BBC.

Original Story

In the original story, Irene Adler finds herself at the centre of a scandal which, if made public, could have repercussions on a global scale. Or so says the King of Bohemia, a man dumb enough to allow photographic evidence of an affair more than a hundred years before he could blame it on Photoshop. Some time after the relationship has ended, Irene threatens to send the incriminating picture to the family of his virtuous fiancée on the day the engagement is publicly announced, intending to humiliate the king and end his marriage before it can even take place.

This is where Sherlock Holmes enters the story; five attempts to find the photo have been unsuccessful, and he is the king’s last hope against a more than formidable opponent. As we learn, Irene is an adventuress and retired opera singer with “a soul of steel ... the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men.” Her word is inviolate. She is beautiful, kind, and graceful, and the king suggests that she would have made an excellent queen. At the same time, she is apparently entirely convincing as a young man when she walks on the street, at those times when she wants to enjoy the freedom that being a woman denies her.

We know all of this primarily because the men in the story spend most of it talking about how awesome she is. This praise is completely deserved, as we learn when she beats the great Sherlock Holmes. Although she doesn’t initially see through his disguises, she does come to realize that he’s tricked her into revealing the location of the photograph. To confirm her suspicions, she follows him to his home, assuming a disguise herself and turning his own methods against him. She denies him the satisfaction of finding the original picture by taking flight, promising not to use it as anything but insurance against the king’s vengeance. Finally, she seems to disprove the king’s claim that she is motivated by jealousy, as she loves and is loved by “a better man than he.”
To us, this is one of the most intriguing aspects of Irene Adler; her life doesn’t revolve around a man. The king assumes that she is motivated by jealousy, but she actually seems more set on revenge for the wrongs he did her. She does marry Godfrey Norton, but that relationship seems to work according to her terms. Sherlock Holmes comes to know her as “the woman,” but she quite clearly does not think of him as “the man.” He is, instead, referred to as a formidable antagonist. Afterwards, she doesn’t appear to be as profoundly affected by the situation as Sherlock; she would be unlikely to keep his portrait.

As Watson suggests, the case details “how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”

While we’re always happy to see a story end with a misogynist seeing the error of his ways (see also: Grumpy’s character arc, the one positive development in Snow White), this moniker strikes us as an interesting problem. Sherlock Holmes’ newfound respect for women is focused on one particular individual, who apparently towers above the rest. In addition, this singular female has “the mind of the most resolute of men” and makes a habit of passing for a man. There’s an unpleasant implication in the fact that the woman who both exemplifies and overshadows womanhood seems to be able to do so because of her ostensibly masculine traits. To be the woman, you have to be man enough for the job.

Still, the fact remains that Irene Adler beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game and then basically rides off into the sunset to continue living her life. Regardless of her canonical label, we think of her as a strong female character.

Granada Holmes

To our minds, the best adaptation of this story is the one that aired as the first episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1984. Second place goes to the Wishbone version, demoted only because we’re not sure what lesson we’re supposed to learn from a woman outsmarting a dog.

This adaptation is almost disturbingly accurate, with much of the dialogue taken straight from the original text. There are, however, two notable changes. The first is that the episode has the King of Bohemia explicitly state that Irene’s vindictiveness stems from his refusal to marry her. The original story never gives the exact nature of the king’s betrayal, and “didn’t put a ring on it” is literally the least compelling explanation for this level of vengeance. We’re not saying it’s wrong, but we are saying it’s only one of any number of things one person in a relationship could do to hurt another.

The other alteration is the addition of a discussion between Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes -- the latter in the guise of a clergyman -- about the nature of revenge. Holmes observes that “there are people in this world … to whom revenge is, in itself, a reward.” Irene responds that she can’t imagine such feelings. She can, however, imagine that some random guy turning up and implying that she should lay off the revenge seems a little fishy. This is a particularly interesting scene because it depicts the moment when Irene realizes that she’s been tricked, a moment that Watson’s narration prevents us from reading firsthand in the original. This is the moment when the tables turn. It is also the moment when Holmes encourages Irene to relinquish her need for revenge, giving him a weird, indirect role in his own defeat.

The last we see of Irene Adler, she is tossing the incriminating photo overboard and making out with her new husband. While Sherlock Holmes looks at her picture and pensively plays his violin, she moves on.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Evil Exes

In a series that unfolds like a video game, we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the boss battles. By this, of course, we mean the evil exes.

Envy Adams

If you ask Wallace Wells, Envy Adams is pure evil. If you ask Scott Pilgrim, she is a heartbreaker. No one really asks her who she is.

In Natalie V. “Envy” Adams, Bryan Lee O’Malley traces the rise of a superstar and the fall of a fairly decent human being. When we meet Natalie in a flashback, she is an anime fangirl who wears baggy hoodies and dislikes parties. Over the course of her relationship with Scott, she gives up her fannish obsessions, selling her prized possessions for clothing and accessories; changes her name; stops remembering relationship milestones; doesn’t bother hiding her probable cheating; and makes all the decisions for the band they started with Stephen Stills, even forcing Scott to switch instruments. Hers is a classic transformation for the sake of money, fame, and power.

Well, money, fame, power, and a guy. Envy appears to be yet another example of what can go wrong when a woman builds her life around a man. She is completely devoted to Todd, and this makes her blind to his flaws and his transparent lies. She believes that his gesture of love -- punching a hole in the moon -- demonstrates an equal devotion. She believes that gelato is vegan, because Todd says so. Even after she has discovered his infidelity, she believes on some level that Todd didn’t deserve to be defeated. Finally, in the scene in which she departs from Toronto, we catch a glimpse of Natalie, once again clad in a hoodie, taking this opportunity to remake herself without a male influence.

Except, of course, that she doesn’t. The next time we see her, she is preparing to debut her solo album under the watchful eye of Gideon Gordon Graves, Ramona’s seventh and most evil ex. She is intensely fetishized, as he mentions his tendency to dress her up like a Barbie in order to achieve sexual fulfillment. She has been reduced from a woman in control, determining the conditions for Todd and Scott’s battles, to a sparkling bauble for Gideon to play with.

It’s difficult to resist the symbolism that emerges in these last few moments with Envy. Gideon has dressed her in a butterfly outfit, as if to represent metamorphosis and flight. However, he literally removes her wings in order to get to the sword he concealed in her outfit, leaving her in a “sexier dress.” She is clearly reduced to a mere object. Bizarrely, though, by the end of the final battle, she is once again left on her own, and she retains some form of power; using her song, she releases the six potential girlfriends Gideon had locked away. It’s a strange moment, because it seems like Envy’s selfish need to perform nevertheless has positive consequences.

This is one of the problems with Envy: she is difficult to figure out. She has a shifting identity, being both Natalie and Envy to varying degrees throughout the series. The one thing that is clear about Envy is that our view of her is clouded by Scott’s perception. She has the power to literally make him fall to pieces. For the duration of her first phone call with Scott since their break-up, the visual style of the comic changes. Suddenly, the page assumes a fragmented appearance, with smaller panels in a 3x3 format depicting Scott’s memories of Envy interspersed with the scattered pieces of his body, separated by the gutters between panels. His self is actually torn apart.

So it’s hard to consider his point of view to be objective when it comes to Envy. In the sixth volume, Envy says as much: “You make me out to be some kind of villainess. We were practically kids when we dated, Scott, and it’s not like you were some paragon of virtue.” She claims that Scott broke her heart, just as she broke his, and reminds him that he was the one who started that final argument. Scott needed not to be the bad guy in their relationship, so he made Envy suit the role.

The concept of perception is further complicated by a statement Envy makes at the end of this conversation: “I know I’m changing. We’re all changing. Just... don’t forget me. This is the only me he knows...” This is an issue that goes beyond the problematic aspects of Scott’s suffocating perception that we brought up in our discussion of Kim. Guilty of papering over real events with his more convenient memories, Scott is being entrusted with the preservation of Natalie V. Adams. He must keep an entire person alive.
What troubles us -- and what we’re pretty sure is supposed to trouble us -- about this line is the way it frames and genders memory. Scott’s story involves him having to look beyond his own straight, white, male narrative in order to acknowledge the truth of other viewpoints. What are the implications, then, of Envy entrusting him with her self before he has seen the error of his ways? Indeed, what are the implications of allowing a woman’s identity to be maintained or determined by a man? In addition, it’s problematic not only that Scott is made responsible for Natalie, but that Gideon is seemingly creating Envy. Scott is therefore protecting her past self from Gideon’s controlling influence. Unlike Ramona, who finds a way to save herself using an army of Ramonas, Envy is defined by men.

It almost seems disingenuous to mention the film version here, because she’s nothing more than a caricature. She doesn’t even get to fight. She does, however, get to rock a Metric song.

Verdict: Love Interest

Roxie Richter

If we’re discussing the ex who most influenced Scott, we have to talk about the ex who, aside from Gideon, had the greatest influence on Ramona.
Roxie Richter affects the story even before she is introduced. In the world of Scott Pilgrim, male homosexuality has always existed, in the form of Wallace Wells, his boyfriend, Mobile, the Other Scott, Kim’s roommate, Joseph, and, at the last possible second, Stephen Stills. Queer female sexuality, however, doesn’t warrant a mention until the fourth volume, when it is suddenly EVERYWHERE. Kim and Knives have a drunken make-out session, and Ramona starts to make comments about marrying Kim. Wallace tells Scott to break out the “L” word, to which Scott responds, “Lesbian?” It seems almost as if O’Malley thought he needed to remind his readers that women can be interested in other women so we wouldn’t be shocked when an actual queer woman showed up.

Roxie is introduced as an almost invisible force, which seems somehow appropriate when she represents a group of people heretofore invisible in the series’ universe. We learn that the canonical reason for this is that she is a half-ninja and therefore has a sword, as well as the ability to move with “almost ninja-like stealth and speed.” We also learn that Roxie and Ramona were roommates at the University of Carolina in the Sky, a floating school tethered to a mountain by a giant chain. Unlike any ex before her, Roxie seems to have Ramona’s number, calling her out on her habitual cheating. At the same time, Roxie is clearly the ex Ramona knows best, evidenced by the familiarity of their highly personal insults.

There is a strange and unpleasant subtext in the treatment and characterization of Roxie. She is intensely insecure, interpreting Ramona’s comment that she’s a lousy excuse for a ninja as a slight against her half-ninja status: “Half ain’t good enough, huh?!” When Knives’ father shows up to fight Scott, Roxie immediately assumes that Gideon sent him to help her. She has an emotional outburst, shouting, “I don’t need help! Why doesn’t anyone ever believe in me?!” Even the expository text doesn’t respect her, identifying her as the “4th evil ex-boyfriend.” Further supporting the idea that no one takes her seriously is the fact that, after Scott avoids every opportunity to fight her, one time even going so far as to hide in Ramona’s subspace suitcase, he defeats her with a single blow.

It seems to be no coincidence that she is the ex that represents a homosexual blip in Ramona’s largely heterosexual dating history. Her relationship with Ramona was, for Ramona, apparently just a phase. Even when Roxie promises to kill him, Scott doesn’t consider the possibility that she might be one of the evil exes or, indeed, the reason why Ramona no longer refers to them as her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Instead, he assumes that Roxie is merely dating one of the exes. The realization of her true identity is so momentous that it requires an entire page for Scott’s brain to literally crack open. He points a finger, almost in accusation, and then, when Ramona says that it was only a phase, he replies, “You had a sexy phase?!” Every other ex at this level is a serious threat, and Roxie is part of a sexy phase.

Indeed, the book even puts forward the idea that a woman cheating on a man with another woman isn’t actually cheating. When Ramona tries to apologize to Scott for Roxie staying at her place, she assures him that they “didn’t even make out that much.” This is apparently not infidelity enough to get in the way of an exchange of love confessions.

To add insult to injury, Roxie shows up in the volume where Scott finally gets up the nerve to tell Ramona that he loves her, thereby earning a sword representing the Power of Love. So the heterosexual man defeats the queer woman who dated his girlfriend with the power of heterosexual love. This may be the absolute worst statement made in the entirety of the series.

It’s especially obvious that Roxie and Ramona’s relationship is invalidated due to Roxie’s gender, as she is actually quite clearly second only to Gideon in the extent of her effect on Ramona. Ramona’s trademark rollerblades seem to be a riff on Roxie’s rollerskates. Roxie claims on two occasions to have taught Ramona everything she knows about subspace. She seems to be the only person Ramona didn’t just play with for a few days or weeks before she got tired of them, as demonstrated by their familiarity with each other and Ramona’s decisions to have lunch with Roxie and visit her gallery opening.

What complicates the portrayal of Roxie in the comic is, as always, the fact that we are still by the fourth volume quite firmly entrenched in Scott’s point of view. His heteronormative viewpoint may be affecting the storytelling itself. This seems unlikely, however, because most of the instances where Scott’s perspective has a profound effect are interrogated in some way. This is played pretty straight. (Pun intended.)

What is also played pretty straight is the film’s rendition of the Scott vs. Roxie battle. We’ve talked in every post in this series about the injustices done to the female characters in their translation from page to screen. In a lot of ways, it may have been more apt to call this series “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Vs. the Girls.” Still, no female character’s arc becomes more thoroughly offensive than Roxie’s.

Roxie, or Roxy, as she’s apparently called in the film, is introduced almost exactly as she is in the comic. Her defeat, however, could not be more different. This is partially because in the original, it’s not actually her battle, but rather one that takes place between Ramona and Envy. The battle begins when an invisible Roxy punches Scott in the back of the head and knocks him to the ground. As he sits up, we’re given a delightful view of him framed by Roxy’s legs, just to demolish any hope you may have had that Roxy was going to be treated as seriously as the other exes.

This becomes even clearer when Ramona tells Scott not only that her relationship with Roxy was a phase, but that “it meant nothing. I didn’t think it would count! … I was just a little bicurious.” As if this weren’t bad enough, the soundtrack for the reveal that Roxy is one of the evil exes is punctuated with breathy feminine sighs.

When Roxy then tries to attack Scott, Ramona intervenes; in this version, she doesn’t fight Roxy because Scott is hiding behind the rules of chivalry and his own terror, but because she just... does? It’s not explained. Roxy also suddenly fights with a whip-sword-belt-thing because, I don’t know, it’s sexier than a sword or something. (The change is likely a matter of increasing visual interest and avoiding repetition in a film where the final battle involves swords, but still...) When Roxy reveals that Scott will have to defeat her by his own hand, he protests, saying that he can’t hit a girl. Instead of denying Scott the moral high ground he thinks he deserves for taking this position, as Ramona and Roxie both do in the book, Ramona just tells him that he has no choice... and then proceeds to control his limbs as he enters into fisticuffs with Roxy.

Then something happens that makes us a little bi-furious. As Roxy lifts her leg in the air to deliver the final blow, Ramona tells Scott that Roxy’s weakness is an erogenous zone at the back of her knee. This will be familiar to readers of the comic as Envy’s weakness, discovered by Scott during a serious two-year relationship, and used to take her down in a non-lethal manner. In the movie, however, it is a weakness discovered during just-for-fun make-out sessions, used by a straight man to orgasm a queer woman to death. Roxy’s last words: “You’ll never be able to do this to her,” followed by a blissful moan. Our reaction: not suitable for print.

What really irks us about this scene is that it is so intentional. Roxy suffers a perfectly adequate, if still dubious, defeat in the comic, so the appropriation of Envy’s fight and weakness represents a deliberate change. A character that is already treated as a joke is humiliated in an incredibly offensive way, and we’re supposed to find it funny. We are, perhaps, even supposed to think it better than the original. We’re actually not sure what could have been worse.

Verdict: Love Interest (Comic) and NO NO NO OH GOD WHY (Film)