I thought it might interest some of my readers to learn CBS has a new series planned, called Elementary, in which Doctor Watson will be played by Lucy Liu.
Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of grumbling over both an American series (it is set in NY), another modern series (on the heels of the BBC’s Sherlock) and now a female Watson. I am interested to see an American take on a modern Holmes and will reserve all judgement on the series until it airs. I do, however, feel compelled to point out that BBC’s Sherlock was not the first adaptation to modernize Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, prior to the Sherlock Holmes revolution (what I’m calling this sudden resurgence in SH interest) the most popular Sherlock Holmes was Basil Rathbone. All of his films were made during the late 30s/early 40s and featured Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis.
I want to also point out that Elementary (as I understand the CBS series will be called) will not be the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation to cast Watson as a woman.
Speculation that Watson was a woman began as early as 1941. Rex Stout’s famous essay, Watson was a woman, rather shook up the Holmesian/Sherlockian community of the day.
Then of course there was They Might Be Giants, which featured a female Dr. Watson as a psychiatrist whose patient believed he was Sherlock Holmes (and I’m interested to see if they do something similar in Elementary or if it will be a strict genderswap).
I’ll also point out that I’ve been a fan of genderswaps in the past. Battlestar Galatica’s recasting of beloved male characters as women was quite refreshing and I think part of what made the series so enjoyable.
So what is the problem?
On the one hand, yes, genderswapping Watson in order to allow for the Holmes/Watson ship (in order to heternormalize the H/W ship) is problematic, but considering ten years ago even suggesting the possibility of Holmes/Watson would have gotten you blacklisted. That people are even considering the possibility of the pairing marks a drastic leap forward.
I was blacklisted from several mainstream Sherlockian/Holmesian communities because I dared to write Decoding the Subtext, in which I suggested Holmes and Watson were involved in a romantic and sexual relationship. I wrote DTS in 2006/2007. To have gotten to the point where the pairing is now actively recognized and catered to in media is astounding.
To have an American series genderswap Watson in order to make the pairing acceptable to an American audience is not good, but it is perhaps a step in the right direction. I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree (and by all means, please share–I am very open to discussing this) but to even make the leap in suggesting these two names (which carry such significant weight, particularly with an older, largely male US demographic) might have a romantic connection, regardless of their genders, is breaking apart some very old and once impenetrable paradigms. While I agree, it would be nice to see the world change in leaps and bounds that is not how progress is made. It’s made in baby steps. Today we have a male Sherlock and female Watson as a romantic pairing. Tomorrow we have a male Sherlock and male Watson, or a female Sherlock and female Watson as a romantic pairing.
If you had asked me five years ago if I thought an actor portraying Holmes, or a director directing Holmes, or a writer writing Holmes would ever toy with the idea of him and Watson being anything more than friends, I would have laughed at you. We’ve come a long way, and while there is still so much room for improvement, I’m choosing to see this development as the industry’s acceptance of the romance that lies at the heart of the source material. You can make your Watson female, but it still means you have to acknowledge the homoerotic subtext of the original.