So, you or may not have noticed the kerfuffle that erupted online a couple of months ago when CBS announced that, following the success of the BBC’s Sherlock adaptation, they would be releasing their own updated version of the Holmes stories, titled Elementary. That in itself is not really news. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is listed in the Guiness World Records as the ‘most portrayed movie character’ of all time and there have been over 200 film and television adaptations. Johnny Lee Miller was down as the new Sherlock. So far, so normal – an English actor, albeit one with an overly large forehead. Whatever. The bit that got bees in the internet’s collective bonnet was the casting of iconic off-sider, Dr. John Watson. Or should we say, Joan Watson? Gasp. Shock. Horror. John was now a lady named Joan, played by Lucy Liu, who has left her former career as a surgeon behind in the wake of some as-yet unspecified drama. Cue outrage – rabble rabble rabble.
Unsurpisingly, I have a lot of feelings about this. The main one is that I think that the internet is angry for the wrong reasons. Let me break it down for you: complaints about Elementary seem to fall into two categories. The first is usually articulated thus – “Ahhhh! Why are they making another modern Sherlock Holmes so close to BBC’s Sherlock!? Does America have no original ideas!? You guys are shit! Wahhh!” The second usually runs something along the lines of “Joan Watson!? What the actual fuck!? Since when is Watson a lady!? Watson can’t be a lady! I will have none of this! Ahhh!” And to be honest, those two complaints are usually less grammatically correct and feature more exclamation marks. Now, I love (LOVE) the BBC Sherlock. I’m even willing to overlook some of the vaguely more problematic elements of the story-telling in order to continue to bask in the glory of Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones, Martin Freeman’s cuddliness and the unadulterated joy that is a Moffat/Gatiss collaboration. So, I can’t say I’m completely for Elementary, but I do think both these arguments are stupid.
The first argument is pretty easy to dismiss. Like I said before, there have been literally hundreds of adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s orginal stories. Some are more successful than others. Some draw more obviously from the source text than others. Some are English, some are American. Some of them keep to the Victorian era, some of them take place in modern settings. Some of them might have slipped completely under your radar – you can’t tell me I’m the only person who took forever to work out that House was an interpretation of Holmes and that the name was totally a play on words (or maybe I’m an idiot, I don’t know). For those of you complaining about the proximity in releases I will just take a second to point out that the BBC’s release of both seasons of Sherlock coincided with the respective releases of Warner Bros’ Guy Ritchie-led franchise pieces. You may remember them. The giant blockbuster holiday films, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows? Anyone? Robert Downey Jr? Jude Law? Alrighty. Point made (I hope).
The second argument is also pretty easy to dismiss, but seems to garner a lot more venom from people. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Watson as a woman that seems to annoy people, but I’m going to spell it out for you in plain English and hope that you understand. To date, Watson has been almost everything. There have been adaptations in which he is a robot, a cartoon mouse, a dog and even a goddamn tomato (seriously… Veggie Tales did it… Holmes is a cucumber). Why on earth are any of those things more acceptable than Watson being a woman? It reflects poorly on a fanbase (and on humanity, really) when we can be perfectly fine with an anthropomorphised tomato, but not a woman. If you’re one of the people who are having serious issues with a female Watson, you should consider the following: what has it been about your integration into popular culture that makes you so afraid of having a woman portray traditionally masculine roles? And if you’re female, you get a bonus question: why doesn’t it excite you? Watson is a badass, intelligent and loyal counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes. As if you don’t want a woman with all of those qualities on your screen.
Now that we’ve established what we shouldn’t be talking about, here’s what you should be mulling over. CBS has not only pulled a genderflip on (some of) the cast, but they’ve also put a woman of colour in a front and centre role. That is damned cool. What concerns me though is that they opted to do that for Watson and not Holmes. I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on Watson being a badass. I am not taking them back. However, I do think that there are some serious issues with not gender-swapping Holmes. Traditionally, the divide for the characters has been along the lines of heart vs. head. Holmes is a ridiculously intelligent, vaguely autistic, drug-addicted, damaged soul. He displays little ability to care beyond his friendship with Watson, but even then doesn’t let it get in the way of his relentless pursuit of the truth. In short, he is the head. On the other hand, Watson is a doctor and a husband. He is keeps Holmes in check socially, is loyal beyond a shadow a doubt and cares deeply for his slightly off-the-rails companion. Perhaps most importantly, he is in awe of Holmes’ brilliance. The heart, then. In a homo-social relationship this isn’t so problematic. When we genderflip only Watson, however, we get a woman who fulfils all the roles a woman is expected to in mainstream television – off-sider with a couple of sassy lines who provides all of the emotional insights that pass the brilliant but dysfunctional main (male) character by.
Without wanting to write it off before it’s even on the air, the trailer above does seem to play into this trope. 30 seconds in the only thing that Joan Watson has managed to do is squeak at the sight of a dead body – something she should be beyond anyway, given her history as a surgeon. The other problematic part of this is that they have stripped Joan of all the things that make Watson, Watson. She isn’t actually a doctor, though she is trained. There’s some unspecified nastiness there that I’m sure will develop into a story arc. There isn’t the military service. No one has mentioned whether she is still Joan ‘three-continents (worth of sexual conquests)’ Watson, but I’m not holding out too much hope. With all of that gone, there had better be some hardcore character rebuilding going on or things could go horribly, horribly wrong. In short, I’m worried that without genderflipping Sherlock, Elementary will end up with an unintentionally sexist portrayal of a hero-worshipping, emotional (because that’s what women do, don’t you know?) counterpoint to Holmes, who ends up completely detracting from the awesome factor of having Lucy Liu at the head of a cool TV show.
The other thing that’s worth keeping in mind is the fact that there is a lot of potential here for sexual tension, which I think would be completely missing the point of Sherlock Holmes. Yes, yes, I know. Homoerotic subtext, blah blah blah. The point of subtext is that it isn’t actually the text. You could just be reading into it. Unless Arthur Conan Doyle resurrects himself and says “Why yes, in between cases and bouts of intense opiate addiction Sherlock was rogering John on a daily basis. When I said that Watson walked with a limp, I didn’t mean he was war-wounded, I meant that Holmes had been banging him too hard the night before. I am, how do you say it? A Johnlock shipper” then yes, it entirely accurate to read homosexuality into subtle textual nuances. Until that day, it’s all just potential subtext and educated speculation. That’s fine, but the most beautiful bit of Sherlock Holmes (for me) will always be the relationship between to individuals who are very damaged in their own way. That and the kick arse crime-solving…because that’s pretty flipping awesome too. By making the friendship between a man and woman they have dragged up that dreaded potential for an actual sexual liason. If we get a sexy Holmes/Watson relationship rather than a rad criminal-busting, hetero-platonic friendship, I’m out (unless it’s really well done and I’m too emotionally invested). But I’ll be really disappointed if they do down that road, because it’s almost like no one who writes for television has ever managed to maintain a friendship with the opposite sex. All male/female relationships end up laced with potential lustfulness and that is boring.
Anyway, have a watch of the trailer. Are you dismissing Elementary? Are you excited? Are you a Sherlock fan? Let me know what you think.