From the exchange of hostile attacks and impassioned defenses over Lena Dunham’s Girls and its lack of minority characters, to the controversy over the delegation of barbarian and slave roles to mainly non-white actors on HBO’s Game of Thrones, conversations about the representations of people of color (POC) on screen have been heating up.
CBS’s new hit crime drama Elementary, which is currently in its second season, has entered into the fray. The show, which has been lauded by audience members and critics alike, is a modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Elementary takes place in Manhattan and features Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective for the NYPD and recovering drug addict, and Watson, a former doctor and Sherlock’s sober companion.
Elementary began gaining buzz when Lucy Liu’s casting decision was announced in early 2012. Lucy Liu, an American actress of Chinese descent, was revealed to appear as Joan Watson, a spin on the original character of John Watson.
When the news was first released, some championed Liu’s casting as an Asian American woman in a lead role on network television, while others met the initial news by criticizing the replacement of John Watson’s character with a woman who was neither a British male nor an Army Veteran. Many were outraged – How can a woman possibly take over the role of John Watson? Doyle is positively rolling over in his grave!
But once Elementary aired, responses to the character of Joan Watson were overwhelmingly positive. Many applauded Joan’s nuanced characterization and overall lack of stereotyping, as well as her position as an equal to the brilliant Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, perhaps the love for Joan’s character was because her portrayal as just another American woman resonated with many. Executive producer and writer Rob Doherty acknowledged this color blind, or race blind approach in an interview with Collider.com: “As far as cultural difference go and race, it’s just not going to play into it. Elementary is not going to be teaching cultural differences to the audience.” According to Doherty, Elementary apparently considers race irrelevant.
However Doherty’s statement is flawed, as Joan’s characterization is situated between a stereotypical, essentialist portrayal of a POC, and a depiction in which race is completely ignored. In fact, Elementary explicitly refers to Joan’s Asian American identity throughout the show, and provides a truthful portrayal of the Asian American experience.
Joan is not reduced to racial and ethnic stereotypes, nor is she limited to the role of a token character or sidekick for whom race is incidental. Rather, Elementary exposes and subverts common stereotypes and tropes associated with POCs. In one episode, Joan offers some Chinese herbal tea to Sherlock along with a scientific explanation of its benefits in response to his skepticism, subverting the common trope in which medicinal remedies from non-white cultures are portrayed as magical. In another episode, Sherlock’s sarcastic quip that Joan has “numerous black belts” (when in reality she has no training) clearly mocks the racist assumption that all Asians are martial arts experts, and Joan’s responding glare indicates her awareness of his ploy. Even Joan’s own unconscious racism towards Alfredo, an African American man who Sherlock chooses to be his sponsor, reveals the internalized racism that Joan herself and some audience members may possess. Elementary thus invites the audience to reconsider their own prior biases and prejudices, and offers a solid example of the realistic representation of POCs in television and film.
More significantly, Elementary demonstrates that audience members are able to place themselves in Joan Watson’s shoes despite her Chinese American identity. Although Joan Watson, an Asian American woman, is in the role typically occupied by a British white male, the audience is still able to relate to Joan and experience the mystery alongside her. Joan embodies the characteristics audiences have come to love and associate with Watson: intelligence, curiosity, a kind heart, and a steadfast loyalty to Holmes. Racial and ethnic differences between onscreen characters and off-screen do not prevent audience members from identifying with their fictional counterparts.
As a result, contrary to what Doherty believes, Joan’s race and ethnicity do matter. Future episodes can make Joan’s character even more representative than it is already. This could entail Joan speaking Mandarin, or Cantonese, or some other language to help Sherlock solve cases. Elementary could also portray the challenges and inequalities associated with being an Asian American in today’s society, such as having Joan deal with the assumption that Asian Americans are “fresh off the boat.”
A supporting token character of color whose race is ignored is an example of a poor representation, just as the Asian nerd, black criminal, and Latino service worker are all examples of poor representations. Realistic representation occurs in that tenuous middle ground. And as Elementary suggests, that realistic representation of POCs is very possible. I’m crossing my fingers to see Sherlock and Joan cooking Chinese food together this season, and you should be too.