When Men Write Women Wrong

Words by Bree Brincat


The lack of female representation in major motion pictures is no secret. Whether on-screen or off, the tipped scales remain painfully uneven. When a man takes to writing (directing/producing) women in film, there is often a lack of nuance to said female characters (no matter the talent of the actor playing the role). 


Over a decade ago, Warner Brothers released a worldwide hit with their Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Sherlock Holmes (Dir: Guy Ritchie;

Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, & Simon Kinberg).

To date, the film has grossed over $520 million. Downey Jr. and Jude Law headline this take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective.

Appearing as both Holmes’ love interest and secondary antagonist, enter Rachel McAdams as the infamous Irene Adler. Before breaking down Irene’s character, it must be clear that this movie is woefully short of women. Besides Adler, the only other serious female players are Mrs. Hudson (Holmes landlady) and Mary Morstan (Watson’s fiancee). Needless to say, this blockbuster hit does not pass the Bechdel test. 

Irene Alder both seduces and antagonizes Holmes from early on in the film until Holmes rescues her in the end when she is in over her head with the mysterious Moriarty during the climactic battle on the burgeoning Tower Bridge. 

Irene Alder hails from the same source material as the titular character. Her first appearance in the film occurs at approximately 28 minutes. Her introductory frame has Irene cracking walnuts in her palm (subtle, eh?). The scene plays out over 4 minutes: Holmes knows a great deal of what she has been up to but Irene has the power and withholds a secret that Holmes is keen to figure out. She leaves without offering answers and Holmes follows her to discover whom she is working for and why

Irene Adler is used here as a vehicle to introduce Moriarty who will be revealed as the puppet master by the end of the film. (Moriarty appears in the sequel as the primary villain).

Irene is also used to shed backstory on Holmes to round out the great detective. She delivers bland and expository dialogue that shapes her as a black widow, skilled thief, and/or the object of Holmes' complicated affections.

Due to the nature of the film, Irene is allotted little screen time — her precious screen time paints us a picture of a two-dimensional figure that Johnson, Peckham, and Kinberg offer up. Irene appears as a shade of an interesting and dangerous woman: without being a bit interesting and dangerous. We are given a scene where Irene manages to save herself from would-be robbers but is unaware that Holmes has been trailing her since she left his apartments. Although it is pleasant to find Irene taking care of her own and overcoming two ne’er-do-wellers, when it comes to any major event: the woman falls short. 

Sherlock Holmes (whether played by Downey Jr. or another actor across the decades) is by definition a whip-smart and larger-than-life man. Irene is the “only adversary whoever outsmarted him, twice,” according to Watson and yet there is no evidence within the 2-hour run-time that Adler is any more than an old flame and decent thief. 

Sherlock Holmes is a testosterone-fueled flick fueled by the director (known for his action movies), the writers (originally by Conan Doyle & the three men credited for the screenplay), all the way to the lead actors (A-list superstars). When a woman graces the screen she is there to serve a purpose to the men and lacks nuance and depth despite the casting of very talented women (McAdams, Reilly, and James). 

Irene Adler feels misplaced and misused in this film. She is one of three major antagonists and serves Holmes as a love interest — instead of serving the character outlined originally by Conan Doyle in “A Scandal in Bohemia” — which was published in 1891 giving the writers over a century to improve upon Conan Doyle’s original work. 

Overall, Sherlock Holmes is a good movie & a fun ride — but it begs the question: how much better would it be if we were served full-fleshed women who hold higher purposes than being a love interest. Unfortunately, it was not far improved upon in the sequel (McAdams, although having a small appearance, is traded for Noomi Rapace’s Madam Heron). 

Guy Ritchie does a fine job with this material but ultimately having a female tackle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous work would offer us a fresh look at both the famed detective and the women in his world — and that would change the game afoot. 


Read Part 2 in this blog series by Bree here: Women Written Well.


The author of this Guest Post, Bree Brincat, is a writer/director living in New Orleans. She is pushing her keyboard to the limit to make writing her full-time career. When she is not writing she is probably hanging with her rescue coven (cats Luna + Phoebe, and dog Sabrina) or reading the giant pile of books on rotation from her local bookstore.

You can find Bree on Instagram or check out her website: www.breebrincat.com.