“Elementary” and Racebending, My Dear Watson

by Vivian Obarski

Photo: CBS

I remarked on Twitter once that the fandom war between BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’ Elementary is starting to make the Biggie/Tupac feud look like a playground spat. I wish I was joking.

What I’ve found most fascinating (ie, infuriating) is that most of the discussion focuses on Lucy Liu, who plays Joan Watson on Elementary.

Now there’s a difference between nattering amongst fans and fandom wars, but it’s interesting watching how some of the people have reacted to this news. During a chat, Louise Brealey (who plays Molly Hooper on Sherlock), thought the casting of Lucy Liu was “ridiculous”, which resulted in backpedaling from the actress:

Most recently, Victoria Coren of The Guardian opened her article saying “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a feminist” (which should’ve been a red flag right there) said the following:

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.

Here’s the thing — these women come from a place of privilege that I don’t think they realize. As a Chinese-American woman working in Hollywood (and judging by the casting, the ONLY Chinese-American woman working in Hollywood — seriously, what’s up with that?), neither Coren nor Brealey seem to get how difficult it is to find roles in Hollywood, as Liu told NPR:

I don’t really have an option if I want to be an artist and in this business, in order for me to survive, this is the direction that I have to go in.

Actresses bemoan the fact that as they age it gets more and more difficult to find good roles. Now imagine that for minority actresses. To put it in video game terms, it’s probably on the hard level (the Godmode being the African-American gay transgender disabled woman).

Couching the argument in something like “If you were going to be revolutionary, you’d cast her as Holmes,” is irritating, because it’s an idealist notion that most realists know probably won’t happen. I would’ve loved to have Liu as Holmes also (I’ve always said that along with the fact that I want a reimagined Charlie Chan), but you grab the roles you can get. If they did as Coren suggests, then Watson of Elementary would have ended up being a white man and Liu wouldn’t have a job.

There’s not enough roles for minority actresses out there, so if there’s an opportunity like this, you jump on it. To say that you should reject a role because of artistic visions or because you’re not the right “look” is incredibly privileged and I don’t think that Coren gets that. Acting is still a business after all — pretending that all actors have the luxury to reject gigs based on artistic vision indicates a background that many people do not have.

People can also say it’s a gimmick and a twist to get audience members, but you know what? Modernizing Sherlock Holmes and bringing it to the 21st century was also a gimmick. Doyle’s writing of a genius detective was also a gimmick. There’s always a hook to get the audience and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

I’m reminded of the reaction to Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in Thor and Thor 2 and how fans of the comic threatened to boycott the movie with his casting. It’s just saddening. We pretend we live in a post-racial society, but whenever a casting occurs that challenges our notions (be it based on gender, race or other categories), it’s funny seeing how fast the arguments against that casting occur or that the role is merely pandering.

Minority actors can’t catch a break in big roles apparently — everyone’s got to turn their jobs into statements on politics, gender and race and whether or not they’re doing the world a favor with their choices.

It’d be nice to have people cast for shows without thought to race or gender, but apparently that still doesn’t exist. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to ignore the fandom war, watch Elementary, Sherlock and all the other Holmes adaptations, knowing ultimately Doyle didn’t give a toss.

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Comments (1)

Hey, I’m sorry that I’m constantly meandering around on this wonderful site and commenting on old posts, but I can’t help myself. You are my kind of people.

I’ve been a Sherlock fan as far back as I can remember. As a child, I sat in front of the TV with a deerstalker on my head and watched Jeremy Bretts manic cocaine fiend Holmes solve crimes (absolutely nobody can ever do a better Holmes than him). My aunt gave me the collected works of Sir A.C. Doyle when I was seven, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Credentials out of the way, here are my opinions:

I think Elementary is far superior to Sherlock. Sure, it has its usual US network TV limitations in the stifling format and the sometimes inconcistent writing. But as a modernization of the original, it is better. Freemans Watson is cleverly played and concieved, and just the fact that history repeats itself is funny (both book-Watson and Freemans Watson are back from the war in Afghanistan, even though they are separated by 150 years). But then the writers seemed to stop caring about him other than as a straight man to contrast the quirkyness of Sherlock.

Liu is absolutely brilliant as a modern, updated Watson. She has her own life and her own sexual partners, whom she chooses without regard for Sherlock and his childishness. Conversely, Sherlock has HIS sexlife, which seems to simultaneously baffle and disgust Joan. Their relationship is completely devoid of “will they or won’t they” sexual tension, which is refreshing.
Joan is also allowed to be a competent if burgeoning sleuth, unlike any other Watson in history and most other female detective sidekicks. If this show had been made in the late 1980s, my guess is that Liu would have spent every episode in high heels and a miniskirt as bait for a serial killer.

A reimagined Charlie Chan would be awesome! As a Swede, I am proud that the original Chan was played by a Swede, but I will concede that maybe Liu would be better at playing an Asian-American than Verner Ölund.

Which brings me to Heimdal. I think I am qualified to talk about Heimdal, as these are the gods of my ancestors. Anyone complaining about Elba as Heimdal needs to shut the fuck up. If the Thor movies were meant to portray the gods accurately, there are several other things that are horrendously wrong (e.g. Loki is really Odins oath-brother, not Thors adoptive brother, Valhall wasn’t designed by Liberace, Thor was read-headed). But this isn’t a biopic, so who cares?

If it WAS meant as an accurate account of the old sagas, then I would agree that Elba wouldn’t be ideal, as Heimdal is specifically said to be “the whitest of the gods”. And Elba, brilliant as he is, isn’t the whitest of the actors. But then, who would complain about having one of your gods portrayed by Stringer motherfucking Bell? Not me. So, if one wanted to cast Elba as the Heimdal of the sagas, his skin colour could be easily explained by the viking penchant for ironic nicknames. Like how a big guy would be nicknamed “tiny”. I could totally see how a black Heimdal could have the nickname “Whitey” (all the gods had tons of nicknames, especially Odin, as you didn’t want to arouse his interest in you by using his name). Also, they shapeshifted and gender-bended all the time, so skin colour isn’t a big deal.

Even in-universe it makes sense to have a multi-racial Asgård. In the Marvel universe Asgård is a planet, and as such would probably be subject to the same evolutionary forces as Earth.

Oh, and a quick (not really) word on Victoria Coren Mitchell and her piece in The Guardian. She is immensely witty, snarky and intelligent. She is a chainsmoking professional poker player and TV host (“Only Connect”, a fairly cerebral quiz show), and recently married Britains nerdiest comedian (David Mitchell, who is also absolutely brilliant, look up “Peep Show”, “Mitchell and Webb Look” and his regular appearances on panel shows).

I think what she is snarkily protesting against is American media appropriating others cultural icons. No sane person would complain if a Turkish TV channel made a version of Sherlock, or if there was a Punjabi Harry Potter. But there is a disturbing trend where American media conglomerates steal others work, slather it in syrup, and try to sell it back to us. Does anyone remember that Winnie the Pooh was a series of books and not a sugary Disney plushie? That Mary Poppins wasn’t a musical with Dick van Dyke fucking dancing with cartoon penguins, but also a series of books? Not to mention poor Alan Moore, who have seen all his best works totally shat upon by Hollywood (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell.)

And worst of all, Constantine. Don’t get me started on that abomination. I can imagine the Hollywood meeting where this abortion of a movie was created: “Hey, who should play the grizzled 50-year old London cab driver? I know, SHIA LABEOUF! Perfect! Ok, now his childhood friend who is a Liverpudlian sorcerer and con-artist? What? That’s immoral! Make him a catholic with a crucifix-shotgun and have him played by the brilliant character actor Keanu Reeves!”

I can’t really explain how infuriating it is to see this happen all the time. I don’t even know how to describe it. Imagine if Benny Hill directed a MLK biopic, in which MLK – with a comically oversized afro – ran around in circles being chased by cops and inexplicably a few topless women, to the dulcet tones of Yakety Sax. For 90 minutes. And it won three academy awards. And MLK was played by Benny Hill in blackface. And after a decade, everyone believed that MLK was just a hilarious Benny Hill character.

So Corens criticism doesn’t come from a “I hate Liu” place, but a “don’t mess with OUR creations” place. It is – as she says – the “american” part that she is opposed to, not the “asian”.

(“Episodes” is an entertaining TV show where the central concept is exactly this. Highbrow British TV writer couple watch as their show, and their lives, are mangled beyond recognition by the studio system.)

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