Rude Girl [rood gurl] Noun. A confident woman of color that takes shit from no one.
I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson. I know, I know. A partnership between a white male and a woman of color? Warning! Red flag! Potentially problematic! Please hear me out, though. Although Elementary could easily use the relationship between Holmes and Watson to justify and even glorify the oppressive power dynamics that often occur between white males and women of color (to an audience of 10+ million a week, no less), it surprisingly doesn’t. This is my case (pun intended) for Elementary.
Elementary, produced by the CBS network, features Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes, a know-it-all savant for solving crimes, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, an intelligent and athletic former surgeon who lives with Holmes and often assists with weekly cases. Here’s what works about their relationship.
She’s just as smart. In the pilot episode, it is Joan, not Sherlock, who solves the murder through her sharp observational skills and medical expertise. In subsequent episodes, she often contributes crucial insights due to her background as a surgeon and Sherlock praises her for her knack at deductive reasoning. “She’s quite crucial to my [crime-solving] process,” he admits. In this way, Joan Watson is far from a sidekick and much more of a partner. Lucy Liu said in a promotional interview, “The most important thing was to make sure she [Joan] wasn’t constantly, like, 10 steps behind. She’s got to be just as fast.” Jonny Lee Miller added, “This is a necessity to that relationship. They are a team.” Good. Yes. Refreshing.
She stands up for herself (and others). Although Sherlock Holmes can project a certain swagger and self-assuredness that can seem somewhat intimidating, Joan has no qualms about challenging his assertions, defending herself and speaking up for others. When Sherlock explains his “attic theory” regarding the brain and memory (wherein the brain has only a limited capacity for the storage of facts), Watson is quick to dismiss it. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s not even accurate,” she declares with a wave of her hand. Furthermore, she speaks up for herself. “No, we are not both equally aware of my feelings!” she exclaims when Sherlock meddles in her love life, arrogantly assuming she is still pining over her ex. Lastly, she sticks up for other women. In the pilot, Sherlock over-enthusiastically and inappropriately probes a woman with questions about a past violent assault (of which she was the victim). He relentlessly presses the woman for information and even dares to accuse her of lying about the assault, although it is obvious that she is extremely upset. Finally, Joan stands up in anger. “That’s enough! You’re done here; go wait in the car.” #cosign
She’s not the love interest. Whereas Joan Watson could easily be reduced to an object seen through the lens of Sherlock’s affection (think Bella in the Twilight series), Joan is allowed full character development independent of a romantic relationship with Sherlock Holmes. Liu stated in an interview with the E! Network, “He [creator Robert Doherty] didn’t create her [Joan Watson] to be a love interest.” The premise of Elementary is that Holmes is a recovering addict and Watson a “sober companion,” assigned to aid him in maintaining his sobriety. She is the expert and he is the client. Thus, from the get-go, Joan is working with Holmes as a recovery professional, not because she’s enamored with him. On the contrary, she is privy to one of his greatest flaws: addiction. As his sober companion and crime-solving partner, Watson avoids becoming a “damsel in distress” trope and is treated as a fully fleshed-out lead character. Crisis averted.
She is neither tokenized or fetishized. Although it is common to see women of color tokenized or fetishized (e.g. Sofia Vergara in Modern Family), Joan Watson has yet to be either. In fact, her race has been handled with great aplomb, arguably. The first nod to Watson’s Asian American heritage occurs when she overhears Holmes speaking Mandarin. “You speak Mandarin?” she asks, to which Holmes responds, “Not as well as I’d like. You?” “Not as well as my mother would like,” Watson quips. Holmes’ question is respectful (rather than intrusive, accusatory or snide), Watson’s reply clever and lighthearted. The next nod to Watson’s Asian American heritage is brought up by Watson herself. When Sherlock falls ill, Joan casually mentions a medicinal Chinese tea her mother gave her growing up, which he initially discounts as homeopathic rubbish, but later admits is effective. The fact that Joan offers this cultural information about herself, rather than being asked insensitively about it in a racist manner (e.g. “Do you know kung fu?” or “Is your dad a samurai?”) is quite significant. Additionally, in the most recent episode of Elementary, “The Leviathan,” Watson’s nuclear family is featured. Her family members aren’t ethnic caricatures, and are free of accents (this portrayal is extremely accurate to a large sector of the Chinese American diaspora, many of whom have been in the U.S. for more than three generations). Moreover, Joan Watson is not treated as a token Asian American, chosen to represent her entire race. Nor is she asked to be a cultural navigator (e.g. as Sacajawea was to Lewis and Clark). When a case involves a Chinese business, Sherlock speaks to the owner himself, rather than putting Watson on the spot to translate, or automatically assuming that she would want to do so. This is huge.
Regarding fetishization, Joan Watson is far from Liu’s hyper-sexualized Alex in Charlie’s Angels. Her wardrobe throughout the series has been decidedly conservative yet fashionable and classy. Her character is not treated as “exotic.” The only major missteps have been implicit rather than explicit in nature. Over dinner, a man posing as Sherlock’s father implies that Watson’s companionship involves sexual favors as a “joke” (“How is the sex? I was told that was part of the ‘service’ you provide.”) Not okay. Another intrusion occurs when Sherlock suggests in passing that Watson should sleep with her male date, explaining at length that it would “do her good.” Again, not okay. This is none of his business. Overall, though, the sexualization and fetishization of Watson due to her race and gender are thankfully minimal. She is treated as a human being, not an object.
She gets respect. Sherlock and Joan, as in all relationships, often find themselves at odds with each other. What’s refreshing, though, is that their arguments do not devolve into an exchange of cheap shots (like targeting race, class, gender or history of chemical dependence). Rather, each disagreement provides a means for character development and a strengthening of their friendship. Holmes and Watson respect each other enough to realize when they’ve overstepped boundaries. Holmes, especially, is quick to apologize. “I’m sorry,” he admits in the pilot, “for the way I spoke to you earlier.” He also corrects his behavior. In early episodes, he frequently enters Joan’s room without her expressed permission, often while she is asleep, and speaks to her immediately upon waking (while she gets over the shock of his unexpected and uninvited presence). More recently, though, he catches himself as he thoughtlessly barges into her room, and knocks, albeit while he’s midway past the doorway threshold. Lastly, and most endearingly, in “The Leviathan,” he enters her room in the morning as she is waking (as is his habit), this time obligingly providing a tray of “coffee, yogurt, assorted fruits.”
Furthermore, as a live-in sober companion, Joan is far from being a glorified maid. The writers are intent on making this clear. Although initially Sherlock considers her to be an overpaid “addict-sitter,” he eventually winds up singing her praises (“She rebuilds lives from the ground up,” he gushes to her family). This is a large change from his initially sexist and dismissive comments: “This place is a mess; can’t wait for you to tidy up around here,” or “This is Ms. Watson, my consultant/housekeep.” In fact, Joan shies away from typically female-designated domestic labor. In their shared brownstone, Watson and Holmes are often shown eating from takeout boxes. “You would have thought by now that you would have learned to cook,” Holmes observes. Watson does not deign to reply, nor does she need to. She is above being shamed into performing her expected gender roles.
I could go on and on, but this will have to do for now. Let’s get one thing straight, though: Joan Watson is amazing. She’s strong, smart, independent, compassionate and doesn’t mess around. Elementary is far from perfect, but it’s Joan and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes that keep me tuning in every week, mesmerized.
For Further Reading
Furlong, Maggie. “’Elementary’: Lucy Liu Talks Playing a Female Watson, Shaking Up Sherlock Holmes and More.” The Huffington Post. 27 September 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/27/elementary-lucy-liu_n_1919614.html
James, Kendra. “Four Reasons Why Lucy Liu Won’t Sink Elementary.” Racialicious. 28 September 2012. http://www.racialicious.com/2012/09/28/four-reasons-lucy-liu-wont-sink-elementary/
O’Leary, James C. “Six Cases Which I have Added to my Notes.” The Baker Street Blog. 14 December 2012. http://www.bakerstreetblog.com/2012/12/six-cases-which-i-have-added-to-my.html
Rose, Lacy and Eriq Gardner. “’Elementary’ Creator Says Lucy Liu’s Female Watson ‘Started as a Joke.’” The Hollywood Reporter. 10 December 2012. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/elementary-creator-lucy-lius-female-404492