Victoria Coren is intelligent but she’s a little old-fashioned.
Also, I don’t think the fact that Irene was changed makes her less good? Like there are different Watsons, not the same character. I choose to believe she knew exactly what she was doing. But I don’t know enough about ACD canon and other versions to judge those in comparison, but to me that’s irrelevant.
I don’t think the Mofftiss even considered this as a problem- which is the exact bias which is the problem. I agee with that. I don’t agree that makes Irene weaker or lesser than her novel countepart. Same with Molly. They are women. They are humans.
There is nothing irrelevant about taking away a woman’s agency. I don’t mind at all that the Sherlock BBC series decided to make changes to Irene Adler, just like I didn’t mind that made changes to Jim Moriarty or Mycroft — but it is important to look and what those changes were. My main complaint centres around the fact that she was no longer clever on her own (for example, she did not see through Sherlock’s disguise unaided, like she did in the original) but that she was aided by Moriarty. She did not use her mind but instead she used her sexuality to gain ‘power’ which are tired tropes that are used and reused with women in media. Irene was depowered, she had her agency entirely removed and was reduced to a plot-device to further Sherlock’s storyline. She lacks any personal motivation. (I have a lot of other problems with her depiction, of course, but that deserves it’s own post.)
Additionally, Molly and Irene aren’t women and they aren’t humans. They’re characters written in television series and that means that have to be looked at differently than actual people because they don’t get to make decisions for themselves (obviously). How they’re presented and what they’re doing is all constructed and so it has to be examined as a whole.
Part of the reason I started this blog specifically is to tackle the problem that is how idiotic Sherlock Holmes fans are reacting to the show Elementary starring the ridiculously good-looking duo that is Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Now I don’t care if you dislike Elementary because you hate procedurals (though, I will ask you what you’re doing in the Sherlock Holmes fandom considering Sir Conan Doyle basically invented the procedural) or if you have some vendetta against CBS for killing your dog — that’s fine. You are entitled to your opinion as long as that opinion isn’t stupid.
If you need an example of what a stupid opinion looks like, give this vile article a read. Here, Victoria Coren decides to be horribly offended by the idea of Lucy Liu as Watson because she is a woman, and because of her race:
Meanwhile, Lucy Liu is worried that people will see only the gender change to her character and miss another excellent improvement to the rubbish old original story, telling the Times: “It was a very big deal for me to play an Asian-American in Charlie’s Angels; Watson’s ethnicity is also a big deal”, as if someone had bet her £100 that she couldn’t cause at least three Conan Doyle fans to suffer a pulmonary embolism.
Personally, I’d like to press Liu’s face into a bowl of cold pea soup for that statement. It’s not just her failure to distinguish between creating a new character and mangling a beloved old one (Tread softly! You tread on my dreams!), but the triumphant tone over such an appalling and offensive racial change. Let me be clear: I rather like the idea of an Asian Watson, but American? God save us all.
First of all - the last time I checked, “American” wasn’t a race.
But more to the point, in this quote, she is actually offended by Lucy Liu pointing out that having an Asian-American in a lead role on prime time television is a big deal. Coren seems to believe that filling a major role with a minority actress “mangl[es] a beloved” character.
In the past, John Watson has been portrayed by an overweight cartoon mouse (in what I think is one of the best Holmes adaptations ever), a cyborg, a dog, and a tomato — but reinventing him as an Asian-American Woman is considered mangling? I’m sorry. What? What? An American actor can play Holmes and no one cares because he fakes an accent — Christ, Batman was Welsh and I can’t find a lot of Batman fans who want to drown Christian Bale in soup. (Although, he probably could do with a bit to soothe the dry rasp that is his Batman voice, poor dear.)
The real problem, though, is that the people involved in the series think they are doing something good for women by castrating detective fiction’s greatest sidekick. And this is stupid. There is a massive logical flaw they aren’t spotting – which does not bode well for an interpretation of literature’s most logical mind.
There are only two possibilities. One: it will make no material difference that Watson is female, the relationship between the characters will remain the same and this is just a bit of visual “freshening up”, akin to making a version of Wind in the Willows where the mole is a giraffe. In which case, it simply reinforces the idea that women (and, indeed, “Asian-Americans”) in film and television are cast purely for how they look.
Or, the female Watson will behave differently and relate differently, in which case they will (in giving a familiar character a different personality when he changes sex) appear to be saying something about gender. But the first thing they’re saying is that it’s appropriate to have a woman in the junior role: the follower, the admirer, the helpmeet. Which is where women have been on screen for years already.
To put it another way: if they do want to make a feminist statement, they should cast Lucy Liu as Holmes, not Watson. And if they don’t, they should give the poor old doctor his balls back.
So, what Victoria is suggesting here is that the series is damned no matter what it does with Watson, which is an opinion she has formed not only without watching the series but without reading anything that the creators have said regarding the role. But that’s only half the problem.
She is implying that Dr. Watson has always been exactly the same character. That Nigel Bruce was David Burke was Jude Law — and that is simply not the case. The character can change, has changed, and will continue to change — just like Holmes has.
As for the incredibly tone-deaf claims that making Watson a woman “castrates” him - well, Coren’s definition of a woman as nothing more than a castrated man is incredibly problematic (but sadly widespread in the more thoughtless examples of sexist rhetoric), and probably requires a separate post to deal with that would slip out of the scope of this blog. And then, her fear that Elementary has cast a woman once again as a “side-kick” might have been assuaged had she bothered to watch Elementary before reviewing it: Joan Watson is presented as a character with her own problems & her own back story, and thus far in the series (which isn’t very far at all) she’s proceeded to put Sherlock in his place a number of times, has been a crucial ally in solving a case & is as conflicted and active a character as Holmes is. In fact, I will say she is one of the most fleshed out and interesting Watson-revamps yet because she isn’t just a bumbling biographer, heaping loads of praise on Holmes. I like it when Holmes and Watson have equally important roles, and in Elementary the simple truth is that they do.
Of course, I’d also be quick to challenge anyone who thought Watson was only the follower, the admirer, the helpmeet to a more in-depth debate about Conan Doyle canon because I think how the character was presented and how he’s remembered in public consciousness are two very different things indeed. But, I digress.
Coren also argues that if Watson being female makes “no material difference” to Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship, then Liu will be nothing more than window dressing on a tried and true Holmes & Watson dynamic. This to me seems to run right over an incredibly important point: if Watson’s gender makes no material difference in his/her friendship with Holmes, isn’t that a pretty strong statement about the nature of platonic male/female relationships, a subject so often dealt with in stupid, hackneyed ways by sitcoms stuck in the Victorian marriage plot? Wouldn’t a completely platonic hetero Holmes & Watson friendship be a new and refreshing addition to our prime time network options? When was the last time we saw a man and a woman on television working together, caring deeply for each other, and not sleeping together? How on earth can one simply brush that off as “visual ‘freshening up?’” Coren’s inability to believe that a woman will add anything to a role aside from her physical appearance shows a pretty shocking short-sightedness when it comes to media portrayals of gender relations.
On the subject of Lucy Liu as Holmes: Yes, of course a female Holmes would be great and I think Lucy would be an excellent casting choice! However, I can’t help but feel (after all that garbage Coren spewed about an ‘offensive race change’) that it’s something she’s tacked on at the end of the article and doesn’t really believe. And frankly, it’s hard to believe after her reaction to poor male Dr. Watson being “mangled” by a vagina that she’d have had a much better reaction to a female Holmes.
I have a policy of trying very hard not to compare Elementary and Sherlock — mostly because when we do, fans on either side get a bit cross-eyed for one reason or another. But I would like to pose a question to Victoria Coren or anyone else: How on earth can you claim to be a feminist and then complain about a woman taking on a lead role and an iconic character without talking about the ridiculously misogynistic portrayal of women in BBC Sherlock? If we’re talking about women in media, I think the disempowerment of Irene Adler — who was changed from a proto-feminist character to Moriarty’s pawn — deserves a mention. But then, I don’t find the BBC version’s unexplained decision to transform Adler from an American woman into a British one warrants calling out “God save us all,” so clearly my priorities are skewed.
The only mention Coren makes of the BBC series is this one:
Benedict Cumberbatch was reportedly rattled by the news that his old friend Jonny is essaying the Great Detective. But Cumberbatch has been stitched up by dodgy press before, too often for me to believe he could be remotely bothered by any threat to the wondrous Sherlock – particularly not in the form of a CBS version in which Holmes is a drug addict fresh out of New York rehab, with an assistant of whom the audience will ask (explained the executive producer in an interview): “Can they have a friendship without that turning into something sexual?”
To which I could respond, but as it happens, Benedict Cumberbatch already has. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival, he had the following things to say about Elementary:
“Under no circumstances would I want Jonny to have anything but rip roaring success. First and foremost he is my friend – it would be pathetic. I made a joke, which doesn’t translate when written (something I’ve learned this summer). I’ve seen him and it’s fantastic. It’s really good and you should all watch it. He’s stunning to watch – he really knows what he’s doing. He asked if I was alright with it – I said of course I am. Don’t take me out of context. Lucy Liu is wonderful – it’s another great relationship.”
And Benedict, I couldn’t agree more.