Dear Victoria Coren…
I’m a big fan. I once briefly chatted to you during the Edinburgh Festival. I usually love your articles and adore Only Connect. I have always particularly enjoyed your calling out of the more sexist elements of panel shows you’ve been on, such as Have I Got News For You.
There are no words to describe how offended I am by your latest Guardian article, decrying the new show Elementary and its race-gender flip for the character of Watson.
I won’t dissect the entire article because I’m too tired and angry, but this part in particular deserves attention:
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.
I’m still looking for more recent figures but a study from 2009, only made available 2 years later, showed that black & Asian representation in UK TV dramas stood only at 8.3%. This site here, while a little outdated, gives some important facts on how “Asian American women carry[ing] the double burden of racial and gender stereotyping” and some examples of said stereotyping. Racebending has an interesting review of the pilot that emphasises just how big a deal Liu’s casting is, and I also heartily recommend a general browse around the site, particularly when it relates to the lack of non-stereotypical casting opportunities for Asian actors. I don’t have figures but I don’t think this really needs them - turn on the TV and count the Asian faces in US and UK drama and comedy. Count any non-white faces in speaking roles. Count any non-white faces in speaking roles that aren’t massively stereotyped.
This is why Liu’s casting is such a big deal, and this is why she’s allowed to brag about it.
Appalling? Offensive? Just like the Orientalism that went on in Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock adaptation? Or was that okay because it was loyal to the 200 year old source material? Is it only offensive and appalling when it ruins the biases of a middle class white writer for the Guardian? Was the Americanism offensive in House, essentially Holmes and Watson in a hospital? You start the article with a hollow disclaimer that you’re a feminist who’s happily a member of the boy’s club, but yet you seem entirely unwilling to engage with the issue at hand. You didn’t even watch the pilot before making an informed decision on the show. If you had watched the show or done any research into it then you would be aware that the relationship between Holmes and Watson is entirely platonic, and the creators of the show have promised that it will remain so. You also seem to have a selective mind when it comes to adaptations of Holmes.
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.
Watson has been figuratively castrated and turned into the bumbling hero worshipping fool long before he was ever turned into a woman. Joan Watson is certainly no fool - she is on an equal playing field of respect with Holmes, doesn’t stand for his arrogance or show-boating, and as his sober companion, re-introduces an element oft-forgotten from the Watson/Holmes dynamic. Remember, Watson claims to have weaned Holmes off of cocaine and helps keep him on the straight and narrow.
I could go into this more but honestly, I feel like I’m just going round and round in circles. I urge you to look into this issue and understand just why a female Asian leading character on a major TV show who isn’t a ninja, hooker or crook is such a big deal, and why sneering at it and “jokingly” threatening violence against her is such an awful thing. I also urge you to watch the show. It may not be your thing, and that’s fine, but give it a fair shake before you go off on it. Re-imaginings of public domain material have been going on for quite some time now, and Elementary brings something a little new to the table.
You’re white, middle class, the daughter of Alan Coren, a writer for the Guardian. While you may not be an actress, I’m sure you have never had to face the level of stereotyping and limiting of career opportunities that someone like Lucy Liu has. If the biggest thing you have to worry about as a white person is a TV adaptation of a book not meeting your preconceived expectations, then honestly, you’ve got it pretty good.