When the new CBS crime drama Elementary (a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in New York City) announced its cast this February, fans of the original books – and the BBC’s modern Sherlock – rose up in protest. They weren’t upset that white, male, British actor Jonny Lee Miller was cast as Sherlock. Their anger stemmed from another casting: Asian-American actress Lucy Liu as Sherlock’s sober companion, Dr. Joan Watson.
Fans jumped on the casting decision because “Watson is a guy,” but the underlying message was clear. They didn’t like their predominantly white, male TV world being invaded by a woman of color. They didn’t like their view of the Sherlock Holmes narrative being turned on its head—even though, at its heart, Sherlock Holmes is a mystery series featuring two friends and partners. As Rob Doherty, Elementary’s executive producer, noted, “[T]here was no part on the show [casting-wise] that was race-restricted because we all felt very strongly that it was irrelevant and incidental. You find the best Sherlock you can. You find the best Watson you can. We did that, obviously.”
Doherty’s sentiment is refreshing in a world where people of color (especially women of color) are so rarely depicted on major TV networks in a major role. When they are, they are usually relegated to flat, stereotypical characters that have no identity transcending their race. Lucy Liu’s own career reflects that dominant paradigm, through her roles as “chilly Ling Woo on Ally McBeal and O-ren Ishii from the Kill Bill movies.” As Lucy Liu told The Wall Street Journal,
“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.”
To those who complain that Elementary’s casting decision is irrevocably damaging Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s precious story, remember how many times and in how many ways the Sherlock Holmes stories have been rehashed, reinvented, and reworked. A modern Sherlock Holmes is already deviating from the Victorian source material—why not make Watson a woman of color to reflect the increasing diversity of America and the world in general? What’s so wrong with that?
Kim, Sylvie. “Elementary Racial Privilege, My Dear Watson.”