Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Racebending, My Dear Watson! Our review of “Elementary”

September 25, 2012

At ComicCon 2012, I was able to get into and attend the preview panel for CBS’s new TV show, Elementary, which premieres this Thursday on September 27th, 2012. We were screened the full pilot, and near the end of the panel the stars and producers were brought onto the stage for a Q&A session.

[Image: A clip from a promotional poster of “Elementary”, depicting the show’s two stars, Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Miller is seated and Liu stands behind him; although she is in the foreground, neither actor dominates the shot. Both actors smile confidently at the camera.]

For the uninitiated, Elementary is a television show inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories–it’s Sherlock Holmes set in modern-day New York City. As per the mythos, Sherlock Holmes is an English consulting detective with a drug problem. This time around, he’s relocated himself to New York City, where he meets a woman named Joan Watson, a former doctor assigned to be his sober living companion. The idea for setting Englishman Sherlock Holmes in modern day America came from a person of color, producer Carl Beverly (Justified), who is one half of the co-executive producer team alongside Rob Doherty (Medium).

[Image: “Elementary” Executive producers Carl Beverly and Rob Doherty, and show stars Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, on the ComicCon 2012 panel. Image from CBS.

In an interview with Collider, Doherty notes that “there was no part on the show 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.” In this case, the casting resulted in a re-imagining of white British war veteran Dr. John Watson– Dr. Joan Watson, a former Asian American physician played by Lucy Liu.

Immediately, Lucy Liu’s non-traditional, racebent casting generated grumbles from the internet: Too sexy, too female, too dragon lady, too Asian, too American. “Casting Lucy Liu as Dr ‘Joan’ Watson will ruin one of the great bromances of all time” declared a columnist from the UK Telegraph. Because you see, Lucy Liu is so powerfully femme, she has the power to invalidate the previous 250 instances of audience-projected bromance between two white British dudes and/or mice.

From all of these critiques, there was a lack of faith in whether or not Elementary would be able to defy romantic trope–a goal that that the showrunners were conscious of and ready to pursue. Beverly spoke with Collider about the relationship between Sherlock and Joan. “Rob often calls it a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman. He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description. There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens.”

This is definitely a dynamic noticeable in the pilot, one that is carried well in the pilot by both lead actors. It actually serves to distinguish Elementary from BBC’s Sherlock. Lucy Liu’s Joan keeps her cool. It’s subtle, but throughout the pilot you can watch her character struggle with keeping professional distance from Sherlock–even as he actively tries to push her buttons, even as she gets drawn into his lust for adventure and risk. Dr. Watson was always intended to be a character foil to Sherlock, and Liu’s Joan fulfills this same role. Johnny Lee Miller’s version of Sherlock gets this. He can see how Watson brings something that was missing to his work, even as he lacks self awareness in other areas.

Refreshingly, when Sherlock makes a major mistake in the pilot episode, he coughs out a genuine and sincere apology. This action distinguishes his portrayal from other similar ones such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock or Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House. With a woman portraying Watson as an equal partner, the audience is also buffered from a repeat of Cumberlock and House’s sexism (those wince-inducing scenes were supposed to make those characters more endearing and quirky?) Elementary‘s Sherlock isn’t afraid to respect Watson for her competence, nor her ability to tolerate him. Here and there, he even shows bits of deference and appreciation towards her.

Image: Lucy Liu in a promotional poster with the caption, “My Dear Watson”

Lucy Liu does not have to play a dragon lady in Elementary, and that freedom has definitely affected her performance and portrayal of the character. Liu recently told The Wall Street Journal: “It feels really good to be always breaking down walls and starting something new and trying something new. You never know – it’s hit and miss. 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.”

In his review of Elementary, television critic Eric Deggans wonders if Liu’s ethnicity or ethnic identity will factor into the story at all, or if she will just exist in a “mostly-white world.” It’s not an entirely unfounded concern. Elementary producer Rob Doherty said in response to a question about racial or ethnic tension between Holmes and Watson, “Sherlock is a guy who’s seen it all and been everywhere, and happens to live in New York, right now. If anything, he struggles a little bit with the New York of it all, compared to London, but as far as cultural differences go and race, it’s just not going to play into it. Elementary is not going to be teaching cultural differences to the audience.”

Deggans argues that “Characters of color won’t add nearly as many new dimensions to a TV show, if they don’t reflect their heritage.” And I wonder if cultural differences is impossible to avoid without sacrificing some of the show’s refreshing uniqueness. It’s exciting to see a reinvention of the Sherlock mythos that features people of color both in the foreground and in the background. When Holmes and Watson ride the subway in New York, or go to the opera, or meet up with NYPD cops, it actually looks like New York.

It’s important for Watson to not be defined by Liu’s ethnic identity, but it’s clear that Watson’s Asian American identity and identity as a woman do make a difference in the series. On a meta level, there are people railing against Liu’s casting simply because of her race, gender, and nationality. And in Sherlock Holmes’s initial encounter with Watson, he uses gendered romantic tropes to test how unflappable she is–ostensibly because she is a woman. Later in the episode, Sherlock and Watson play good-cop, bad-cop with a witness who is a woman, and it is also subtly gendered. Because of her job description, Watson is supposed to trail Sherlock and follow his lead. Sherlock even jokingly refers to her as a valet and assistant. There is a huge gender and racial dynamic behind having a woman of color be the assistant/caregiver/service provider to a wealthy white British man. In a show with verisimilitude, Watson’s familiarity with American culture–and her experiences as a “double minority” while living in it–are bound to bring a new perspective to Sherlock’s cases, and I hope this is something the producers can work in to acknowledge just how progressive Liu’s casting is.

With a procedural formatting, the show offers ample opportunities to cast diversely. The full cast was not fleshed out in the pilot, but white actor Aidan Quinn plays Captain Tobias Gregson, who is Sherlock’s in-road to NYPD cases. Manny Perez‘s cop who distrusts Sherlock, Detective Javier Abreu, was a bit one-dimensional, but hopefully, they will give Perez more to work with in coming episodes. More recently, Jon Michael Hill was promoted to the regular cast as Detective Michael Bell. And Anika Noni Rose will be guest starring as a former colleague of Joan Watson’s. (I’m still holding out for the casting of a Latino actor–or actress!–to play “Estrada,” the American analogue for Inspector Lestrade. Especially since CBS’s diversity numbers for Latino actors are miserable.)

[Images: Actors Manny Perez and Jon Michael Hill]

It’s such a contrast from other depictions of people of color in other Sherlock adaptations, such as the stereotypical depiction of Chinatown and Chinese immigrants in The Blind Banker, or Robert Downey Jr. in straight up yellowface in A Game of Shadows.

Image: Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller in a promotional photoshoot for “Elementary.” Books are scattered everywhere. Liu reclines in a chair and Miller sprawls on the floor.

During the ComicCon Q&A session, tumblr blogger Watermeloncholy approached the mic and decided to ask a question about the backlash towards Liu’s casting. She pointed out that Sherlock Holmes has been adapted multiple times in different ways, and asked about the controversy surrounding the casting of Lucy Liu as a woman and Asian American Watson.

Watermeloncholy: “This is a general question, but it’s mostly directed to Lucy. There have been many many different versions of Sherlock Holmes, including a version where Sherlock and Watson were cartoon mice. However for some odd reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy because Watson is a woman and Asian American. So, I was just wondering how you’re responding to the criticism?”

Lucy Liu: “Firstly, this is the first time I’ve heard anything about criticism–thanks for letting me know. If I didn’t try anything different, I’d still be doing a Calgon ad. You have to be a pioneer, which means doing things that are not schedued and different. When you do stuff, it’s not always to please other people–it’s to please yourself. For me, the more individual you make something, the more universal it can be. You have to be a pioneer.”

Elementary is a pioneering show. It is more than just an American remake of British television. The casting decisions add some much-needed, well-done diversity to the miasma of Sherlock-media out there. Here, Sherlock–a white British man–is the immigrant with the accent. We’ve got Sherlock Holmes and Watson as mice, Sherlock Holmes in modern day UK, and Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. Now we have Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, Featured

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • crazy MMer

    *yawn* the white haolewood system puts in an AF as a double whammy of “minority” and female? just like the corporate world.

    guess all the AF reproduces by asexual budding because no AM exists on TV ever.

    • happyappa

      Do you know how awesome this would be if Sherlock was also asian, or if both of the main roles were pocs (asian or not asian)? I wish. The poc female with white male has been done a lot, I agree. So far from what I’ve seen though, I think it was on Racebending.com’s tumblr, there is a scene where Sherlock (white male) does something wrong and gives an actual apology (not a non-apology) to Watson (poc female), none of that “if I offended you” bs, and the background and foreground people are actually pocs in NY (as mentioned in article). lol @ that one HBO show. I am looking forward to watching Elementary.

  • A

    Elementary is not “an American remake of British television.” It is an adaptation of ACD’s Sherlock Holmes short stories/novellas.

  • SD

    I love BBC’s Sherlock. I’m only watching this version for Lucy Liu, so they did an excellent job casting if you ask me 🙂

  • DC79

    Do they explain her not having an Asian name? I’m actually to the point where I don’t need one- I was just wondering if they tried. It seems like the sort of thing a producer would insist needs an explanation.

    • crazy MMer

      clearly it’s because her father is John Cleese

    • Kalli

      There was a scene where they talk about her parents. She pulls up her phone and it shows that her mother is Asian while her father is white. So it’s likely that Joan Watson is bi-racial.

      • Venom

        That’s pretty lame. If they said she professionally changed it to avoid discrimination, it would be a powerful statement.

  • Shazza

    Watching this new show I guess I was expecting way to much. I don’t know
    why America felt the need to try and mimic this truly British classic
    literature. I wanted to like it, I really did but it wasn’t very good,
    unfortunately. Perhaps they were just trying to do an American take on
    the very British theme but can I just say, it failed terribly, and they
    should stop right now. I mean my goodness does anyone see the big pink
    elephant in the room??? Watson is a woman and the actor they use is LUCY
    LIU!!!! Are you kidding me???

  • Kel

    Great read! While I agree that it would be amazing for an Asian man to take over a traditionally “Caucasian” role, this is a great achievement by Liu. She isn’t a supporting character here where nobody would blink an eye even if she did take over a Caucasian and male role, she’s one of the leads and judging by the show, there will only be two leads basically, much like Supernatural (another incredibly racist and sexist show).

    And we all know why Hollywood, including the television industry, is so afraid to have Asian men lead anything. Men are more intimating to other men. Producers in Hollywood are not afraid of one Asian or black woman having a decent role. Why would they be afraid of that? The actresses won’t affect them at all. Yet, you have an attractive black or Asian man lead a show or film and white men can’t take it. They are PROFOUNDLY insecure. They don’t want to give us opportunities because they don’t want to promote us, heaven forbid a white woman find an ethnic man attractive. It’s all incredibly PATHETIC. That’s the real reason. It’s not because normal white people in New York or L.A. or even Alabama hate us.

    There has been evidence in the past that people don’t have a problem seeing Asian men in a variety of roles, including leading ones. Russel Wong? Jason Scott Lee? Jackie Chan? Jet Li? Chow-Yun Fat? The average american could care less if it’s an Asian guy on the screen as evidenced by the success of the Rush Hour films. They like us or simply don’t care. It’s a very small percentage that actually would have a problem with it. It’s those same people who don’t want to see a black man with a white woman. It’s Hollywood’s responsibility to move forward and not be enslaved by the stupidity of a few. It’s atrocious how slow Hollywood has progressed over the years. Truly pathetic. We have to be the change. Watch Elementary and support it. Don’t watch shit like Hunger Games or even Dark Knight for whitewashing all of the characters. Girls is another shit show. Thank God it was cancelled. The studio execs are morons anyhow. So finding a couple of good ones who are okay with Elementary is cool. Now we need an Asian man as a lead in a show. I’m still waiting for that to happen in my lifetime….

    • Ha ha, preach it. With all the excuses of ‘not alienating white people’ and ‘women don’t sell movie tickets’, Hollywood is consistently pretty concerned with getting money from bigots. Then again, when actual bigots are the ones in charge…

      Now, I looked up Girls, and apparently it hasn’t been cancelled? I’m reading it got renewed for another season in April.


  • Tisiphone

    I figured Cumberbatch’s Sherlock was just condescending to everyone, and I hope we still have that with Lucy’s Watson, an almost miraculous build up of a partnering Sherlock has to admit is good for him considering Sherlock generally prefers to work alone. I like a dysfunctional Sherlock.

    Although, I do have to admit and agree with you that he can be problematic, Sherlock is the type to pick at you history rather than respect your identity. I read a fanfiction where he outed a trans person, and I couldn’t say it was out of character.

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  • twinkaspie@live.com

    I’m sorry, but as much as I enjoy and have been an avid reader of racebending.com, it annoys me that you are upset when they change the race of a non-white to a white, but not when the change the race of a white to a non-white. There cannot be a double standard — if they are to remain true to the story, then they are to remain true to the story, without an exception. Otherwise, what’s the whole point of this website?

    • Hi, thanks for voicing your concerns and your support. We certainly would not support a double standard. Based on our systemic understanding of history, discrimination, and current casting practices, we do not consider non-traditional casting to be a form of double standard.. Our stance on why we support shows like Elementary is detailed in our About Us section and the FAQ.

      • superfan911

        as my fav author Edward Marcus said “no more colorlines we all bleed red, we all live under the same sky, time we acted like it.” you know even James bond makers have ran projections said James bond will be black mixed race etc etc after 2020. and as for said Elementary a step in the right direction. no suckee suckee or love you long time crap. or street gangs or kung fu! or though kung fu is cool! a nice show for all. it is so important for all groups out there to have heroes and get a chance to be the said hero too, now Lucy gets too every week:) now little girls be they Asian eps or not, will have someone to look up to. and that’s a good thing eps these days;) gr8 work you are doing too miss Lee. keep it up:)

      • I read the FAQ and About Us sections and I might have missed it but I didn’t see any reference to non-traditional casting. I read the section where you say that racebending occasionally has a positive effect such as Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, but I don’t understand how that qualifies in your own words as racebending but in the case of Lucy Liu as Watson it’s termed non-traditional casting.

        I definitely see the sites point in regard to the more egregious examples of racebending such as Jake G in Prince of Persia, but I also see the point the commenter makes that you can’t have it both ways. Why does casting Lucy in a role from a novel where it is a white male qualify as non-traditional casting but you call it “erasing a role” when Dr. Chen is turned into a white male in “Extraordinary Measures”? How is that not termed non-traditional casting?

        • Nicole

          Here’s the thing – white people have a plethora of characters to look to and white actors have an enormous variety of characters they can be considered to play. There is no shortage or severe, hurtful, all-encompassing misrepresentation of white people. A straight, cisgendered white man can turn on pretty much any tv show and see somebody who looks, feels, and talks like him.

          It’s not the same for people of color. Growing up, there were almost no characters I could watch that looked like me (a Filipino-American), and when there was, it was beyond racist. It is progressive and refreshing to cast Lucy Liu in this role because it shows an Asian American woman without the racist stereotypes, without an accent, and without anything that tries to distinguish her as unmistakably foreign and therefore unable to belong in American society. It shows that people of color are just as strong, smart, and capable as white people and can kick ass. It erases a role when a white person is put in a role that is meant to be a person of color because there are such a precious few that we have, and opportunities to be represented (WELL) are few and far between.

          Does that answer your question?

          • Your point makes perfect sense in the context of the suggestion that roles should be colorblind and just giving them to the best actor/actress that shows up. I have no problem with that concept whatsoever. What I take issue with racebending.com’s double standard. If someone can overwrite a role like Watson with whatever gender, race, nationality they want then it should be just as valid to do the same thing with Dr. Chen in “Extraordinary Measures” and as soon as someone like racebending.com tries to dictate which roles it’s okay to change and which it isn’t then they are putting themselves in a position of judging what is best for society as a whole and that is way above their position. At the end of the day, racebending.com is perfectly fine saying that Asians should be allowed to play definitively white roles and terming it “non-traditional” casting, but they are not okay with whites playing Asian roles because they term that racebending and their simple reason is that it “reinforces structural or systemic racism”. At the end of the day they want what is essentially Affirmative Action applied to movie roles. To sum up, I am entirely fine with roles being roles and actors/actresses getting the role regardless of race including roles cast anywhere in the world (i.e. not just in Hollywood) but I am not ok with the idea that racebending terms changing Dr Chen = racebending; changing Dr Watson = non-traditional casting. That’s simply hypocrisy.

            The only issue that I see that potentially causing is one of quality. For instance you say “It erases a role when a white person is put in a role that is meant to be a person of color because there are such a precious few that we have, and opportunities to be represented (WELL) are few and far between.” In the scenario I suggest the “person of color” would have to be the best person in terms of the quality of their acting to get the role which is entirely likely but potentially upsetting to people if they are not.

            At the end of the day what that does is merely take the “systemic and structural racism” and turn it onto whites. And while that sounds like an eye for an eye sort of thing you are punishing a group of people that are not necessarily guilty of racism. I can’t stand this site’s use of the term “reverse racism”. There is no such thing as reverse racism….racism is racism and terming it reverse racism “reinforces a structural or systemic” belief that only whites can be racist and anything else is “just reverse racism”.

          • Venom

            That is an assinine comparison. For one, Dr. Chen is a REAL PERSON. Secondly, Extraordinary Measures has been the only telling of his story. Sherlock Holmes has been done by the book a million times already. And this show will never, ever replace Basil Rathbone’s or even Robert Downey Jr’s in the eyes of the public. Lastly, the main hero is still a white man. A sidekick is very. very insignificant in comparison.

          • First…the inspiration for the character in that book is not based on Dr. Chen. That was a mistake in the movie review of Roger Ebert as Dr. Chen only collaborated on the research project while “Dr. Robert Stonehill’s character is based upon scientist and researcher William Canfield”. Ergo, it is not the telling of Dr. Chen’s story. Additionally, what difference does it make that the story has been told a million times? Are suggesting that after an arbitrary number of re-tellings of a story it because acceptable to racebend? And lastly, you’re saying that it’s ok to racebend secondary characters but not primary main characters? All of those are very, very weak arguments for why changing a white character is acceptable as non-traditional casting but not changing a minority role. Also, can you honestly admit that you would be ok with those arguments if the shoe was on the other foot?

            FYI – http://www.thehealthjournals.com/2010/11/extraordinary-measures-father-coming-to-norfolk/

          • Venom
          • This really doesn’t fly. It’s like rallying against the NAACP for being a predominantly black organization and trying to claim the Ku Klux Klan as a white analogy. There’s a huge difference.

            The problem with the idea that roles should be colorblind is that it’s great in theory, but never practiced. It almost never works in favor of minorities. In fact, minorities are worse off, because it silences criticism of the lack of POC on our screens, and justifies movies like The Last Airbender. In other words, The Last Airbender gets whitewashed under the noble claim that casting is colorblind, while at the same time maintaining the status quo of predominantly white actors in all other productions as well.

            So productions choose white actors for “being more facially expressive,” or “more personable” or “more relatable” while being unaware that the perception of these characteristics are heavily influenced by the actor’s whiteness.

            Here’s the real contention: Asians rarely get a fair chance to be cast in non-race specific productions, so it’s even more troubling when they’re ignored for race-specific productions (like Last Airbender) under the idea of “the white people were just better actors”

            This will rarely, if ever, be a problem that current white society has to deal with. In other words, there’s no justification for the Ku Klux Klan while there is justification for the existence of NAACP.

          • The KKK analogy is not relevant in this regard at all. The KKK specifically agitates against specific races and religions and not in favor of whites while the NAACP doesn’t charter against a race but for a specific one. Those are very, very different goals.

            And at some point the argument that “well, we have it tough because ewe don’t get as many roles as white people do” sounds childish. This is an issue that is like recycling…everyone knows everyone in society should support it and more people are over time, but its not going to happen immediately. But to suggest that not having enough Asians cast in Airbender is anything even remotely like the fight that African Americans had against the KKK is ridiculous. It’s not even in the same league. It’s like a comment on the Cloud Atlas conversation where someone likened yellowface to what the Jews experienced pre WWII…no…no it’s nothing like that at all. Jim Sturgess as a Korean is not a precursor to genocide.

  • superfan911

    forget all this race crap, time to switch all that off. the president is black. no color lines. in the planetary patriot its hero Jackson carter is black but can turn white or Asian Mexican etc, it makes sense to update these stories like battlestar did with starbuck etc, and so for elementary well if they did the u.k version the gay jokes would be running hot. no jokes lool, gr8 show the best and only on ep 3:) Lucy Liu hot! only a silly racist would not want to hold a girl as prettiest as her in their arms in the night! she’s got it! updated to the best! when i told my grand dad i hoped Sherlock and dr watson would get it on, he looked at me like WTF??? u saying kid… lool then showed it and when yep lets hope so. so here’s to a full run on tv and a final ep say 2019 whether wedding bells or a romance whatever nice to see this play through. good luck johnny and Lucy it is well deserved.

  • kate

    Argh another hollywood bastardisation of englishness. You CAN’T take sherlock holmes out of london! Oh wait, it’s hollywood it’s America, so they can do whatever they want.

    • Anonymous

      Half of the original stories were set outside of London.

  • kate

    Now if we have an Asian male lead actor for Sherlock Holmes I’d call that a major step forward!

  • Joshua Graham

    @Marissa Lee Really? This site seems to get pissed off when a white person is put in place of a POC. But when the tables are turned and a well established character(who is a White Male) is replaced with an Asian American female, your totally fine with that? I’ll remember that when you guys complain about the movie Cloud Atlas. Oh wait, you’re already pissed about Cloud Atlas.

  • Venom

    Hasn’t Lucy Liu always been regarded by the Asian-American community as a self-hating sellout?

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps I have missed something, but wasn’t the original discussion mostly about “John Watson” being female in the first place, and now the main point of critism is (rightly so) that they changed the whole backstory of the character because, you know, a female Watson NATURALLY can’t be an ex-army doctor? Truthfully, the sexism of this character design is, regardless who actually plays her, so insulting (in the Pilot she even turns around at a crime scene, despite having been a surgeon, because, you know, woman NATURALLY can’t deal with violence), I really don’t get why even care about the race. Though it naturally plays into the character not having anything to do with the original character in the book, too (again, totally different background sums up to a totally different character), it’s actually the least of the problem with this particular interpretation.

  • I quite like the idea of a racebent and genderbent Sherlock cast, and equally enjoy male-female platonic bro’ships. There is far too much whitewashing in the industry, and Lucy Liu is awesome.

    Having grown up a great fan of the ACD novels (canon!Holmes was a bit of a misogynist, though I suppose if one adjusts for the times…), the Grenada series, and now BBC Sherlock, I do enjoy a refreshing new take on it (The Blind Banker is an episode I will happily never watch again).

    I have yet, however, to see a good explanation for why Joan Watson is not an Army Doctor. I will be the first to say that women do not need ‘validation’ through being employed in traditionally male professions or that war is a thing that needs to be glorified, but as far as I can tell, they’ve yet to give a reason for it, and I feel obliged to draw the connection between her state of (former) employment, and her gender. 🙁

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