‘Elementary’–the new Sherlock Holmes on CBS: Gender Trouble.


To be quite honest with you, I’m still giggling.  According to the Internet buzz this afternoon, Jonny Lee Miller—who took turns with Benedict Cumberbatch last year, both starring in the National Theatre production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—is going to appear alongside Lucy Liu in CBS’ version of 21st-century Holmes. Now, guess who’s playing who.

What I’ve read is that, in Elementary, Holmes will be a former consultant to Scotland Yard, whose drug addiction will land him in rehab in New York City. There, he’ll basically be forced to move in with Joan Watson, a former surgeon. She lost her medical license for losing a patient while she was working with the NYPD.

OK. So, um, CBS, I’ve got a question: why would you do this? Why create a completely new procedural show (that basically crosses Sherlock and Castle, by the way) and then slap the names of England’s finest on it? Is it because dumb teenagers will watch anything that’s got the name of Holmes on it, in light of the rampant economic success and the revival the character is enjoying since the BBC adapted it for the modern world in 2010? This reminds me of the  movie adaptation with James D’Arcy. The only thing he and Sherlock had in common were the name, the address, and the clothes. Also, ‘Elementary’? They’re aware that Sherlock never actually uses that line, right?

Now, the discussions are running hot, especially since revealing Lucy Liu as gender-bent Watson this morning. Basically, this is a struggle between Feminism, Queer Theory, and canon, and I have absolutely no idea who’s winning, because there are so many questions left unanswered. Really, we should withhold judgement until we’ve actually seen it, but there are a few things I’d like to say to shed some light on the situation.

The things that will decide the vote for me are: why did they do it? And how are they gonna do it?

If John has become Joan because CBS wanted to avoid the rampant homoerotic subtext, then: oh, dear. Not that again. (Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law have commented several times, more or less subtly, how much of a fight producers can actually put up when their leads run wild with the gay, so I wouldn’t really be surprised.) If John has become Joan because, if written for the first time today, any author would probably automatically consider making the character female—it might actually be a compliment, guys. Lucy Liu is, as far as I can tell, a good actress, and if the material they give her makes for a strong, badass woman who’s on par with Martin Freeman’s Watson, then, why not? And if they keep their relationship an unwaveringly loyal and unbreakable friendship, then that should be commended, especially with the added element of the two probably really hating that they have to live together in the beginning; that could be a nice bit of spice, though, again, it irks me that they take the names and then stray so far.

If John has become Joan to play it safe and give Sherlock a love interest that’s heteronormative, then I will not be happy. If Joan becomes a doormat or just a plucky sidekick swept up in Sherlock’s crimesolving, then I will not be happy. If Joan becomes a straw feminist out of Clichés 101, then I will not be happy. If Joan becomes the woman to change the bastard Sherlock into someone more emotionally accessible, then isn’t that inherently sexist,  deceptively wrapped in a pseudo-feminist progressive casting choice, the girl changing the boy with love? And if they make her a love interest, that’s as good as saying that women aren’t good for any other genre than romance, anyway. Also, who will save whom? Since in Sherlock, John is clearly in need of saving from boredom, his loneliness, and his memories of the battlefield… Joan won’t be a damsel in distress, will she?

The huge deal about Sherlock and John is that they have an exceptional male relationship in fictional canon. The way they meet, the way that Sherlock practically chooses John a milisecond after seeing him for the first time, the way these two become blatantly emotionally co-dependent  is remarkable, and making Joan a woman takes away all that subtext, the entire message of gender doesn’t matter, because John might be straight and he might be denying it to everyone including himself, but he does love Sherlock, ’cause sex doesn’t matter in this case. All of that would simply get lost, and that would be a shame. Now, if other characters on the show assume that Joan and Sherlock are together, it will be for safe, heteronormative reasons. Huzzah. A man and a woman being friends and not wanting to bed each other was something the X-Files producers were so proud of—until they caved. Simply because, as Russell T. Davies said in The Writer’s Tale: put a man and a woman on screen together and you’ve got a love story. It’s what people are bound to see. Why not be truly progressive and let Watson stay a man, but make him a love interest? If you rip these characters out of canon, do it properly.

Besides, what about Sherlock’s stance in female issues, anyway? In canon, he can’t stand the lot of us—what about Irene Adler? Makes that character and the entire gender dynamic practically unusable. That’s a problem this show might have, no matter how close to canon it is.

Now, we always demand of television to give us more strong female leads, and half the Internet complaining now might ring bells of misogyny and internalized sexism, and I admit, it’s a paradox. But I think that’s not the main reason, the reason is that these two bachelors knocking about in the wild have such a longstanding tradition in fictional literature, and their relationship is so amazing because they’re men that, out of all the characters they could have genderbent, this just seems the wrong one, like a classic swing-and-a-miss. The producers might be taking a risk here, or they might be playing it safe, we don’t know yet, and I for one will wait until I see it until I pass final judgement. The things truly irking me are not so much to do with a female Watson, but more with the entire concept of the show, hellbent on using Sherlock’s name, but then chucking out the old plot and tacking on a new one. Like the US version of Life on Mars. Or the 1996 Doctor Who movie making the Doctor half-human.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog a few weeks ago, and am so glad I did. I’ve been so uneasy about the show in general, and this announcement made me even more so. And then seeing the outrage, I felt weird about feeling weird – what a conundrum. I could have written this post. (with the addendum that, on the flip side, if they wanted to mess with gender norms, I would’ve loved to see two women, instead of one man and one woman.)



  2. Thank you – you expressed my thoughts pretty exactly! Thanks for picking this apart. You mentioned some details about the show that I”m not privy to – such as the fact that Joan Watson lost her licence – where did you find those tidbits? what struck me about those facts is that the show seems to portray both characters as sort of failures: Sherlock’s in rehab, Watson’s lost her licence. in the BBC show, both characters are, obviously, also rather “damaged” and lacking, but they’re not failures. This, to me, seems a very “American” twist to the show.

    The one thing I have to add is about male/female friendship: I can think of shows that manage a very close male/female bond without making it in any way romantic and sexual. Mal and Zoe from Firefly come to mind. I actually really wish that’s what they would do, because it really would be interesting. in the BBC series, Sherlock comes face to face with the fact that he actually needs someone else, and that someone else is John, which is totally new for him. If, in this show, he had to face the fact that there might be a woman in the world who is more than just a factor in a problem (but not a love interest), that might actually be interesting. Of course, this being an American TV show, that’s way too much to hope for.

    Also, just a note: I’ve criticized a lot of things on the basis of being “American.” I am, in fact, myself American, no offense intended, I’m just stating observations.



  3. Holmes does say “Elementary” in Doyle. If sex doesn’t matter in their friendship, then gender shouldn’t, and not because they should get together, but because they could be friends. A man and a woman being friends seems to be the last taboo. Interesting post.



    1. That’s exactly what I’m saying: why make it a point to change her gender? If they do it to let them be friends, I’d applaud that. If they do it to make her a safe love interest, then I’d take to sitting on my hands.
      (Really? I read that Jeremy Brett hated having to say the line ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’ once, ’cause it doesn’t actually show up. It’s like the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet, doesn’t really happen, but it just stuck.)



      1. “Elementary” and “my dear Watson” are used separately in Doyle. I’ve never understood the fuss about putting them together as, if we believe in adventures beyond the text, it is perfectly possible that Holmes does put them together in some unrecorded moment. But the title of the show isn’t “Elementary, My Dear Watson,” so objections are moot in that regard. I don’t recall Brett saying “Elementary, my dear Watson,” but perhaps he did and I’ve forgotten or perhaps he refused. Basil Rathbone used the phrase, as did Clive Brook onscreen before him. It is unclear if William Gillette really did. I haven’t read *Romeo and Juliet* as many times as I have read the Canon (the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but are you saying there is no balcony scene in Shakespeare’s play? Did it take place at a window, perhaps? The scene itself is there, so you have piqued my curiosity.


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