I've been thinking all day about the new Sherlock episode, and about the argument being made loudly across much of the internet regarding the plot and characterizations in this episode and sexism.
Me, I loved the episode. Passionately and wholly and unreservedly. It didn't even occur to me that there might be anything wrong with it until I started poking my nose around the fandom. Now, I do consider myself a feminist, and I've read the arguments and I think they're very reasonable (some especially excellent points were made in the comparison to the source material), and I'm glad the issue is being discussed... but I think every scene that has come up in discussion is open to interpretation, or at least, I interpreted them differently, and personally feel that certain other interpretations may be entirely missing the point. Maybe I'm an optimist, maybe I'm naïve, but either way this is the point at which I respectfully... well, maybe even "disagree" is too strong of a word, but I respectfully refuse to be offended.
Now, I'm not going to discuss the sex worker thing, or the nudity thing, because Irene Adler rocked that, owned it, and to suggest that she was in any way demeaned or diminished by that seems flat-out erroneous. I'm not going to discuss how the manly hero turned a lesbian straight, but feel free to ask me and I'll explain to you why this is a case of missing the point (the point being, as I saw it, the flexibility of sexual identity and the inadequacy of labels). I'm not going to talk about the other things, unless you feel the burning need to discuss them with me, in which case, by all means, let's talk.
I'm going to talk about the part where Irene Adler is rescued by Sherlock Holmes. I see what you're getting at here, I really do... Irene's been turned into a damsel in distress, you say. Being a strong woman only gets her so far, and then she must rely on a manly hero to save her. A troubling and problematic trope, I agree.
1. I worry sometimes that we've gone too far in our definition of what a "strong female character" must be. How did we get to the point where a woman must be invincible in order to be considered strong? How is that fair? How in the hell are we supposed to live up to that? Isn't it sexist to expect women to adhere to a much higher standard than men? Isn't that what we've been fighting in the workplace, where a woman must work so much harder for equal respect and equal pay?
2. We are again, in my opinion, missing the point. Maybe this scene isn't really about a woman needing a man. Maybe this scene is about a man discovering that he needs a woman, that he needs people. I mean really, this does appear to be the overarching theme of the story right at the moment: Sherlock learning to care, learning to use his heart as well as his mind, learning that he does need people after all, they're more than just annoyances, he needs them. This starts at the end of last season, where we see Sherlock discovering to his surprise just how much he needs and cares about John. The shock and hurt and betrayal he feels when he thinks for just a moment that John is Moriarty, the terrified urgency with which he rips the Semtex vest away from him. This episode continues in that vein and doesn't stop. We see how viciously he defends Mrs. Hudson against anyone who hurts her, be it Mycroft or men with guns, the fear he feels when he sees she's been taken, the tenderness with which he comforts her, the fond pride he shows for her afterward. We see him realizing his own cruelty to Molly, his intense and honest regret, and his heartfelt apology. (When have we seen him apologize, honestly, did you see John's face, he was as shocked as I was.)
And then there's Irene. She is smart, and confident, and mysterious, and she likes him, honestly likes him for who he is. She is his equal the way so few people in the world are, and he latches on to her, comes to care for her quickly and deeply, mourns her when she's gone. ...And then she betrays him and he is so hurt by that, he shuts down and boxes himself up and is cold and so, so cruel. And he could let her go, leave her to the wolves... but he doesn't. Because he likes her. Because he cares about her. He tracks her down, keeps his eye on her, and when she is in trouble he is there for her. And he knows she is alive, out there somewhere, and he is so, so happy.
Sherlock's personal journey in this story arc is so beautiful and wonderful to me, and I feel like forcing him into the role of Manly Hero to Irene's Helpless Damsel cheapens the whole experience. I just can't see this in terms of Man's power over Woman. I never stop seeing Irene as his equal, and I refuse to believe Sherlock isn't with me on that. Their game isn't over. She beat him, then he beat her, then he saved her. I think she'll beat him again, and I certainly hope she'll save his ass at some point.
...So maybe my rose-colored glasses are too firmly affixed to my face. Well, maybe. Maybe not. But I prefer to see beautiful than broken.
EDIT: For anyone angered or offended or hurt by anything I have said (and I know there have been some already), please accept my sincere apologies. I must ask that you believe that it is not my intention to shut down, dismiss, or offend anyone; I made my best attempt to make it clear that all of the above are my personal opinions, that my read of each scene was colored by how it resonated with my personal experiences, and that all other opinions are valid and welcomed.