Dr. Joan Watson, Racism, And The Sherlock Vs. Elementary Backlash

There’s been a storm brewing in the Sherlock Holmes fandom. Steven Moffat, creator of the popular BBC series Sherlock and the show’s star Benedict Cumberbatch have expressed disapproval of Elementary, the upcoming CBS adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mystery series.

As a big Cumberbatch fan, I’ll admit that when I first heard about the idea for a show with a female “Joan Watson,” from an actress friend who attended a table read of the pilot, I was horrified.

Then, when I saw the posters featuring Lucy Liu, my first thought was, “Ugh, this is bullsh-t.” I don’t entirely know why I reacted that way. It might have been because I’m a Sherlock purist or because I think Martin Freeman is an international treasure. It might have been because Cumberbatch and Elementary’s Holmes Jonny Lee Miller played opposite each other on stage in Frankenstein recently, or because Cumbie has said he’s trying to be diplomatic about a US version of the character he’s recently made iconic but that he remains “cynical.” I continued to have negative feelings about Elementary until recently when I had this conversation.

Me: It’s just the worst. I hate that they’ve got a female Watson, and they’re just trying to capitalize on the BBC version, which is flawless. They’ll never match it.

Them: Fair point, but what’s wrong with a female Watson?

Me: Watson is a guy.

Them: But isn’t it nice to see a part for a woman of color on television that isn’t like, convenience store employee or hotel maid?

Me: But…

Them: Don’t you complain all the time about the degrading hooker or victim or nagging wife parts for women on dramas?

Me: But…

Them: Don’t you think it’s nice that there’s a big network show with a strong, complex female lead — a female lead of color — on par with her male co-star? Given equal credit and equal footing?

Me: ….

Them: Yeah.

Me: ….Oof.

They were right. I was being terrible and narrow-minded. I’d been so far up my own self-righteous butt about sticking to the books and die-hard stanning for Cumberbatch and Co., I’d somehow failed to see that Elementary was doing something revolutionary in terms of casting. On one hand, I’d constantly champion diversity, casting the best person for the role, and being open-minded in terms of characters — and on the other hand, I was b-tching about just such a change. Why was I mad about Lucy Liu being Watson? Because Watson is a white man? WATSON IS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER, GABY. Technically, he is paper.

That’s the similar brouhaha in the Sherlock fandom currently. There are those who are super upset and totally opposed to a female (and in some respects, to an Asian female) John Watson.

Liu told the Wall Street Journal:

…changing it up is a good thing. …If you look at the percentage of ethnicities and the percentage of women on television now, it’s such a different time. That’s how you keep things current. You update and you change them accordingly. …People probably thought the same thing about the president of the United States, how is it possible that you have someone who’s not Caucasian, in that vision. I think things are shifting quite a bit.


It’s nice to be able to portray an Asian-American on camera without having an accent, or without having to be spoofy. And I think that’s a big step forward, because there are still representations of people that are more comedic. And that’s not what I’m playing. I’m just playing somebody who represents anyone else who would be living in America or outside of it, who is just a regular person.

She’s right. Why can’t Watson be an Asian woman? Does Lucy Liu playing Holmes’ beloved doctor take away from Freeman’s performance? If the show is a modern twist, doesn’t it already deviate from the source material? Can’t Sherlock and Elementary, which to be fair, do seem like very different shows, co-exist peacefully?

Where there’s fandom there is drama. (See: Rue in Hunger Games who actually was black, or the similar firestorm that would break out if Doctor Who’s regenerating Doctor were ever not white or male.)

In this case, both sides love the same wonderful stories. Can’t we just, despite our differences, and just like Holmes and Watson, get along?

More importantly, like I did, those who oppose Dr. Joan Watson should take some time and really examine why. Yes, John Watson is a popular, iconic character, but step back from your own Sherlock purism and look at the bigger picture. This change could be a really good, necessary thing — bigger than Sherlock Holmes, and more important, interesting and exciting than sticking to the way the story’s been told before. TC Mark

Keep up with Gaby on gabydunn.com

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