Elementary, My Dear: What Casting Lucy Liu Means For John Watson

When CBS announced their new “modern” Sherlock Holmes adaptation Elementary, it was the similarity to BBC’s Sherlock that had the internet buzzing. Then Jonny Lee Miller – last seen opposite Sherlock‘s lead Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein - was cast as Sherlock Holmes. Even Sherlock producer Sue Vertue noted the casting similarity. How, the internet wondered, could Elementary possibly set itself apart from its BBC counterpart?

The answer came abruptly. Lucy Liu as Doctor Watson? the internet raged. Lucy Liu??? Described as the sober companion to a Sherlock Holmes fresh out of rehab, Lucy Liu’s Watson is not John but Joan, and a struck-off surgeon rather than an army doctor. The change is, in a word, drastic – regardless of whether or not it was spurred on by the threat of legal action from the BBC. Opinion on the change is certainly mixed, and the real time reaction on Twitter swerved rather more towards the negative.

But could it work? More than that – could it be a positive change?

Let’s get some assumptions out of the way first. De-facto representations of women in mainstream Western media promise a few things – one) that Joan Watson will fill the role of “kick-ass girl,” and two) well – that’s about it. Roughly a third of the ire seems to stem from worries that Elementary will conform to this new stereotype of the “strong woman” and leave the rich depth of female experiences in the dust. Another third is worrying at the heteronormative turn the pilot has taken, transforming one of the closest male relationships in the literary canon into the (likely romantic) story of a man and a woman. The other third is an unknowable mix of opinions, probably with a dash of misogyny. These are all valid worries (misogyny aside) – but engage with a positive person like me and be prepared to hear the upsides.

Here are some facts about Lucy Liu: she is a woman; she is forty-three; she is Asian-American. And what these facts tell us is that she manifests three of those (many) who are under-represented in mainstream media. Women in their forties and above are especially invisible amongst their younger counterparts, and high-profile Asian-American women don’t fare any better. Discussing Lucy Liu’s casting with a friend, they were ecstatic at what they felt was more representation of their sisters, their family, their friends, as Asian-Americans. It’s akin to the joy I found in the character of Molly Hooper, and in a lot of the discussion about Lucy Liu’s casting it’s an angle that’s been sadly forgotten; it’s difficult to name more than a handful of Asian-American female characters from the last decade on US TV, let alone from now. Casting a woman gives us one more on our screens; casting Lucy Liu in particular gives us one more Asian-American.

Creating new female viewpoints out of male characters isn’t as unusual as it seems. Certainly nobody got as angry when Helen Mirren played the lead in The Tempest (2010), a reworking that explored what changes might or might not come about if Prospero were in fact Prospera. It’s part of a process of writing back, building on the work of post-modernism and post-colonialism, of discovering and creating the points of view that have been sidelined. The (Western) literary canon is heavily populated by (Caucasian) men, and the gender- and race-bending of classic texts like The Tempest and Sherlock Holmes is a way of rewriting recorded history to include what wasn’t written down – whether it’s intended or not.

There are still issues, of course. Why make only one of them a woman, erasing queer readings of the original text, and undoing good work with a heteronormative stance? Why make her a struck-off surgeon, undermining the achievement in the first place? Perhaps it’s baby steps. Perhaps making her struck-off is simply an attempt to echo the original Holmes and Watson, and the relationship between two people who, when they met, had no one else. Perhaps Joan Watson won’t be “kick-ass” at all – or perhaps she will be, because however much I want more Mollys, I want more Irenes too. She might be a lesbian, or bisexual, or asexual. She might be suffering from PTSD, or she might not. What she is at the moment is a blank page – we know very few details about the character or where CBS will take her, so making assumptions is fairly pointless.

But however her character ends up, however successful or awful Elementary is, however unintentional this has all been, recreating Doctor Watson as a woman and as an Asian-American has opened a door onto new possibilities, and now that it’s open it’s going to be difficult to close. For 2012 it’s a female Watson – but for the future? Who knows.