Alright so yesterday I was asked why I like Elementary so much. I gave a kind of generic answer: that I really love the dynamic between the main characters. That’s true, Joan and Sherlock’s relationship is basically everything I have ever wanted from a show. Also, just LOOK AT THESE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE.
But upon further consideration, there’s another, deeper reason. There are plenty of other shows and movies with beautiful people and great dynamics that I enjoy, but none that I’ve fallen in love with so quickly. Why? Because of this.
There’s this sort of implicit belief in the American movie and television industries that only white men spend money. That’s why there are a million shows with a hundred different hero archetypes but only ten stock girlfriends. We can’t have any women or POCs in the hero archetype role because the audience (assumed to be white and male, because Only White Men Spend Money) needs to be able to ~relate~ to the main character. Nearly every American cartoon has a male main character because boys wouldn’t be able to ~relate~ to a heroine. Women are only present when there is a specific reason for a character to be female—we are mothers, we are the hero’s girlfriend to be rescued and protected and sacrificed for the sake of a tragic backstory, we are pretty little dollops of fanservice with two lines and one dimension. Women of color are even more grossly underrepresented, because they more often than not are written into racial AND gender stereotypes.
So it means a lot to me, and it means a lot to a lot of other people, to see a character like Joan Watson as half of the main pair of a show on a major network. Particularly since the show is based on a mythology so well-known as Sherlock Holmes, a mythology that’s spawned hundreds of direct adaptations and inspired a thousand more. In the Holmes/Watson dynamic, Holmes is the eccentric genius, a combination of intelligence and a lack of social skills that distance him from the average reader. In contrast, Watson is the everyman, the narrator, the character to whom the audience is supposed to relate. And that character is being played by a Chinese-American woman.
From the very first episode, Joan Watson is presented as a human. She has a backstory and motivations and relationships that don’t revolve around Sherlock. She is smart and observant and realistic, she goes jogging in the mornings and she likes watching baseball and she has a slightly strained relationship with her parents and she doesn’t always love her job. She calls out Sherlock whenever he’s a dick to her, and she’s not treated as oversensitive or irrational for it! This shit sounds basic but it is so fucking rare. She is a fully rounded character and I love the Elementary writers for that.
And it’s more than just Joan Watson. The minor characters, the background characters, the victims, the villains, the cops, the suspicious interviewees, hell, even the extras in a two-minute coffeeshop scene reflect the actual real life diversity of New York City instead of Hollywood NYC, where everyone’s white unless you’re a criminal, a hobo, a prostitute, or some combination of the above. (Crime dramas are particularly guilty of this.) They didn’t just plunk a black woman in a supporting role and call it a day. They’ve created a diverse show without collecting a rainbow of token stereotypes and it’s fucking glorious.
So yeah, you’re free to complain about the cases, you’re free to whine about how it’s too close/not close enough to canon, you’re free to cling on to your precious whitebread BBC version. But this show means a lot to me, and it means a lot to a lot of other people too.
References and other good posts:
Research on gender stereotypes in media
Sherlock Holmes tropes
The jerk genius
Why it’s awesome that Watson’s a woman