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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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
The 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)
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)
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)
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.