So, Elementary premieres very, very soon, and the controversy over Lucy Liu’s casting as Watson has yet to die down. Probing the depth of the controversy, and what people are saying, reveals some fascinating attitudes that bear further examination, because there are layers upon layers here.
Media with a pop culture slant has focused on the rivalry between Sherlock fans and the new CBS show, and it’s true that a lot of fans of the BBC production are making some really gross comments. I can’t blame the hardcore fans; after all, if they feel the same way about women that Steven Moffat does, they must be having a terribly hard time dealing with the idea of a complex, interesting, fully-realised female character who is her own person. But seriously though, I like Sherlock, I actually think it’s a great show and I love it to pieces, and I think it could be possible to like both shows.
Unlikely, but possible. And the reason I think it’s unlikely is because CBS, as a general rule, makes bad television. Moffat’s Sherlock is an amazing adaptation with a serious budget behind it. It’s gorgeous, it’s complex, it’s interesting, and there is a lot to love, even when I’m railing about it. The CBS production, I suspect, will be cringe-worthy; not just because it’s painfully derivative of the BBC’s success, but because creative teams on CBS seem to have a really tough time making television that isn’t terrible even when it’s not a remake of a perfectly good British series.
However, some Sherlock fans, and others, are very fixated on the casting of Liu as Watson. They claim Watson can’t be a girl because that’s all wrong; he’s supposed to be a boy, you know. Just like heads of secret services are supposed to be men (hello, Judi Dench as M), rulers should be men (hello, Elizabeth I. And II.), and so forth. Yes, canonically, Watson is a man. However, there are a lot of departures from canon in adaptations of Conan Doyle’s work, because that’s what happens when you adapt work; you change it, you make it more interesting, you make it more dynamic, you take it in new directions.
And I’m actually really excited about having a female Watson because I think it’s going to change the relationship between the two characters and I’m interested to see how it’s worked. One thing about the Holmes/Watson dynamic is that it’s a deep platonic friendship, possibly even a queerplatonic one, where the characters experience a deep emotional connection but no sexual attraction, though I should note that not everyone reads their relationship this way. I choose to do so because there are so few depictions of these kinds of relationships that it’s critical to identify them when they do occur, or when an ambiguous relationship could be read this way.
Is that going to change with a female Watson? Are the creators going to do the obvious and obnoxious thing of making them into bubbling vats of sexual tension waiting for a chance to explode? Or are they going to keep that platonic friendship, the deep love and intense emotional relationship, without sexuality? Are we going to see Joan Watson going on dates? Are we going to explore an actual crimefighting pair that doesn’t need to have sex with each other? Because that would be both really exciting and rather refreshing, given how it seems inevitable on television. This is a chance to think outside the box, and I’m really eager to see what happens.
Behind these criticisms of a female Watson, though, lie something deeper and very ugly. It’s not just about the fact that Watson is a woman. It’s also about the fact that Watson is an Asian woman, and people need to be confronting this and engaging it; especially when some of the same critics screaming about Watson are the ones who are also rightly complaining about limited representation for women of colour on television. Seeing a woman of colour occupy an iconic role formerly reserved for white men is an important moment in the history of pop culture.
Lucy Liu is paving the way to other important breakthroughs. Why can’t we have a Jane Bond? A female Doctor? And why can’t those women be women of colour? The list goes on, and Liu’s Watson is challenging the norm that characters who are traditionally white and male should stay white and male; just like women of colour in leadership roles in the real world are challenging the race and gender dynamics we live in. If we can all admit that having a Black President has not caused the United Stated to implode, that it is in fact possible for members of minority groups to campaign, we should be able to handle a woman playing Watson—and we should be able to handle women in a lot more unexpected places in larger culture, too.
Liu is going to have a tough path ahead of her, given the hatred of her character that’s started before the show is even airing and the bad material she’ll probably have to work with. If Elementary flops or her character doesn’t test well, though, it will not be because she’s an Asian woman or because Watson shouldn’t be played by girls. It will be because CBS took a chance on something important, something key, something that had the potential to shift the system, and it chose to throw it away with poor writing, bad characterisation, and generally low production values. And that’s not on Liu.