Femme Fatale in Modern Film and Television

The character of Irene Adler serves as in intriguing example of the continued interest in the femme fatale, beyond the nineteenth-century. Adler only appeared in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, A Scandal in Bohemia, but her character captured the imaginations of Holmes fans even today. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Adler outwits Holmes, who describes her as having “the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men” (Doyle). Though Doyle’s Adler is cunning and outwits the genius-hero of Sherlock Holmes, she exhibits no other traits characteristic of the femme fatale.

However, modern fascination with Adler has spun her character into the realm of a femme fatale: seductive and dangerous. In Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes, Adler functions as a femme fatale. She asks Holmes to help her, befuddling him with her beauty, while, unbeknownst to Holmes, she works for his arch-nemesis, Moriarty. One scene in particular shows how Adler’s seductive nature endangers the highly-observant Holmes. Adler hands him a bottle of wine, and proceeds to enticingly dress herself while Holmes prepares the drinks for them. While Holmes almost-super-human skills of observation would normally have noticed that something was wrong in that situation, Adler distracts him with her hyper-sexualized actions. In this case, Holmes unwittingly drinks poisoned wine, which allows Adler to overpower him both mentally and physically.

Similarly, in the BBC series, Sherlock, Adler is shown as a dangerous and highly sexual woman. Adler is introduced to Holmes while she is entirely naked, inhibiting his normal mental prowess for a moment. This version of Adler uses her seductive powers to gain information, which she uses to benefit herself. The danger of Adler as a femme fatale in this case is through blackmail and the manipulative use of the information she keeps.

Though women’s place in society has drastically changed since the nineteenth-century, the continued development of the femme fatale archetype is characteristic of a cultural uncertainty with women’s progress. The changes made to the character of Irene Adler, who did not serve as a femme fatale in the nineteenth-century, shows that a cultural bias against powerful women still exists today. Adler, who originally was credited with simply out-smarting Holmes, now must do so through sexual manipulation. A woman cannot simply be allowed to be intelligent, rather she must derive her intelligence or success from her sexual prowess. This link inherently discredits all women from achieving their own successes. It is  through this cultural bias that the caricature of the femme fatale is still relevant today.

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