I don’t watch telly obsessively, but there are some shows that I become obsessive about: Firefly, Battlestar Galactica (RDM version), Doctor Who, and The Simpsons. The BBC’s excellent new version of Sherlock is on this list now, in large part due to the lead actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and because it was created and written by Stephen Moffat who is one of the best television writers ever. In my most humble opinion.
This show is smart, snarky, and unintentionally sexy at times, but that could merely be the echo from my fawning over Sherlock. I do love a highly intelligent man. The character’s sexuality is the subject of much talk among critics and fans and one that I will delve into in a future post. Anyway, the first episode of the second series of Sherlock is quite intentionally sexy even if it did make me wince in a professional capacity.
The villainess…well, adversary is a better term, of this episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” is a wealthy and successful high-end dominatrix, known professionally as The Woman*. Her legal name is given as Irene Adler, who figures prominently in the original Sherlock stories. The Woman has among her clients “a certain young, female member of the British Royal Family” and other very important people in elite British society. It is through these members that she has gained access to classified information, which she is holding for ransom in exchange for unnamed demands to be met (which, in my wildest dreams, is a demand for the full decriminalisation of sex work in the Commonwealth). The Woman also has photos of said clients in her possession– “protection” as she calls it.
But here’s the problem: The Woman has been in the tabloids for being involved with a number of scandals. For a modern-day sex worker, this pretty much ends our business venture. Full stop. When Sherlock is tasked with obtaining the photos from Ms. Adler, he is given a paper dossier on her, including full color screenshots from her website…which show her face. The decision on whether to show your face or not on your website is one of the most important decisions an escort or dominatrix makes and it’s not one to be made lightly. For a woman working at the very, very high end of the sex industry, who has bloody Royals as clients, showing face is probably not the decision she would make. Clients at that level are going to be extremely paranoid about discretion, which is completely understandable.
The storyline suffers a bit from what I call “time translation”: moving a story/concept/idea appropriately contemporary in a previous period into our current times. In the original Sherlock Holmes detective stories, set around the period of the Belle Epoque (France), late Georgian England/early Victorian (UK), Irene Adler was an opera singer and courtesan. It is believed that she is based on a combination of American actress Lillie Langtry and infamous “Spanish” courtesan Lola Montez; in this iteration of Sherlock, The Woman has a sassy personality much closer to Lola. In these time periods, a man or, in rarer cases a woman (such as Natalie Clifford Barney), in the romantic company of a courtesan was not a shameful thing. Courtesans like Lola Montez, Liane de Pougy, La Belle Otero, among others were so famous that as a group they actually had a title- Les Grandes Horizontales.
Today, however, with sex work constantly and purposefully conflated with sex trafficking and all sorts of horrors imagined, even being connected loosely with any flavor of sex worker brings more trouble than most clients want to deal with; political clients would definitely want to make sure that their chosen companion operated with discretion and taste.
*(All that aside, Lara Pulver portrayed this character wonderfully and I truly enjoyed seeing her interactions with the supposedly-sexless Sherlock Holmes. I also liked the fact that Irene was shown as a successful and proud dominatrix (though I wonder if she was an escort if the same traits would have been given to her): she has a lovely, well-appointed townhouse, extremely intelligent (indeed, even besting Sherlock at one point, which is quite the feat), and even had a female assistant, who may have also been a lover, who helped her with various daily tasks.)