Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

There have been countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations, both film and television. Fast forward to this fall, when CBS started airing.
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I first read the collected Sherlock Holmes stories in a really good translation when I was very young. I recall that even back then I wondered about its attitudes towards women. Beyond the single token appearance of Irene Adler and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (a typical caretaker role), it was a universe of men. Yes, this was Victorian and Edwardian England where you could live as sex-segregated a life as in a country with sharia law -- and of course Watson plays the role of admiring helpmate to a cranky genius -- but even so the stories made repeated, explicit points about women being "clutter" that might impinge on the pristine state of that incandescent Holmes mind.

There have been countless Holmes adaptations, both film and television, but most were period (indulgently defined -- "period" was extended to include Basil Rathbone battling Nazi spies). Fast forward to 2010. The BBC started airing the series Sherlock, in which the stories are kept "intact" but happen in the present. Holmes and Watson are played by two talented actors whose stars are rising: Benedict Cumberbatch has been appearing in career-making roles since 2007 and Martin Freeman is about to become a household face by playing Bilbo in Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit. Critical accolades, prestigious awards and aficionado swoons rolled in. General verdict: "Flagrantly unfaithful to the original, yet wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters."

This fall, CBS started airing Elementary, also based on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, another sharp actor, as a recovering addict taking time out in New York. Watson is played by Lucy (Yuling) Liu. Two episodes have aired so far, to positive reviews. What is the Holmes worshippers' verdict? I will spare you the suspense: "How dare they desecrate gospel?!" One of the most vocal purists is Victoria Coren of the Observer, who essentially reprised Ursula Le Guin's denigration of Helen Mirren playing Prospero in The Tempest. Beyond that, Coren decried the cultural shift of a fundamentally British "myth" (has she ever used adapted Hellenic myths? If yes, she should stop right now). She also bemoaned the "will they, won't they" vibe (discernible only to her), ignoring the fact that the original Holmes stories and all their successors have an obvious homoerotic tinge.

I've seen four episodes of Sherlock and both episodes of Elementary. My verdict: Although it's too early to make a definitive decision, Elementary so far is head and shoulders above Sherlock in terms of originality, chemistry between the two leads, lack of preciosity and (yes) elementary human resonance.

I saw only four episodes of Sherlock because I found it, frankly, repellent. The settings tend to brutalist deco (edgy, dontcha see), the style is consistently pseudo-sophisticated smug (Dr. Who half a notch up... not surprising, given who the directors are). Irene Adler is shown as a high-end prostitute who wears furs with nothing underneath and sheds her furs every few minutes whether it's relevant to the plot or not. Cumberbatch's self-satisfied smirking becomes oppressive after a while, despite his brilliance otherwise; Freeman's slack-jawed adoration, ditto; and the misogyny is up-front and blatant, unlike Conan Doyle's quasi-passive elision (there's also nudge-nudge treatment of homosexuality, which is odd to say the least).

Elementary is subversive along more axes than just its choice of Watson, though it retains some traditional default tenets. Watson is a helpmate, so casting an Asian woman perpetuates stereotypes, and Holmes' behavior would not be tolerated for a split second if it came from a woman (see discussions about how beloved Harriet Potter and Edwina Rochester would be).

However, core carryovers are spot on. The cases remain outré and Holmes performs his acrobatic intuitive leaps, both hallmarks of the original. Placing the series in New York makes sense: Today's London is not as central to the world as it was in Conan Doyle's time. New York still is. Making Holmes a recovering addict is not new; what is new is that it's not just a tic to make him fascinating in the Luciferian mold. Instead, his adjustment process is integrally linked to both his investigations and his own personal decisions. Also new and welcome is that he's given kith and kin connections beyond a cardboard brother with convenient top-government access.

Watson remains a doctor, but she is not the cipher of the original or the dumb follower of most other versions. She has a full backstory of her own that plays an important, organic role in the developments, and she has already become an almost-equal partner in the cases because her medical knowledge is put to active use. And Aidan Quinn, with his dissipated good looks and easy-going manner, makes a perfect Lestrade stand-in.

What has really improved is the depth of the characters. Both central actors speak volumes with their face and body language and they submerge themselves in their roles, rather than strut in them like mannequins on a stage. The chemistry between them is marvelous, the repartee as fast and furious as world class tennis -- and it has zero eroticism, but tons of friction and compromise as genuine as you can get on TV. Too, Watson isn't following Holmes because he gives meaning or adds spice to her life: It's a job, with specific boundaries and mutual obligations. For more details, I recommend Beatrice Eagle's thorough comparative analysis of the two series.

Through ages and cultures, women were forbidden to do many things by the explicit or implicit decree that they weren't "equipped" for it (because lower head equals upper head). This went from praying to the ancestors, forming a minyan and ruling as heads of state to becoming craftspeople. To that must be added: women taking roles in iconic works of art that have been infinitely reinterpreted, Shakespeare prominently among them. Everything has been altered in these stories upon retelling, from shifts in the time and context to changes of the race, class or sexual orientation of the principals. As long as these have been done well, they are still recognized as legitimate variations of the original. All, that is, except to introduce girl cooties by casting women in roles deemed "inalienably male" (just as Tiptree "could not possibly be a woman").

It's fine not to like anything but canon. However, using gendered slurs like "menopausal" and "blundering half-naked" (Le Guin for Mirren), "trendy feminizing," "sexy lady cohort" and "castrating fiction's greatest sidekick" (Coren for Liu) are statements not of aesthetics but of politics: gender politics as regressively essentialist as those of Rand, Paglia and Coulter. Women who use such expressions may be jealous of someone assuming a role they fantasized playing themselves; or, perhaps, they simply don't like attention being diverted to other powerful women (de facto disproving the idea that women are gentle nurturing creatures incapable of aggressiveness). But given the still-parlous status of women in the world, people who consciously use such expressions in their critiques deserve the gender-neutral epithet of another body opening.

For those whose minds are not welded shut, I suggest watching the first two episodes of Elementary, available on the CBS site. I do, nevertheless, agree with Coren on one point: I'm looking forward to a version that casts Holmes as a woman (Tilda Swinton is my first choice, followed by Judy Davis).

Note: as usual, this article is also cross-posted at the author's website.

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