Friday 9 March 2012

The Curious Case of the Multiplicity of Watsons


Posted by Sebastienne

The internets have been roused, and they are very angry.

What can have caused this, you might think - has the US senate passed SOPA, legislation which could destroy the World Wide Web as we know it?

No - the unthinkable has happened.

Some TV execs in the US have decided that what the world needs now is another take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos... and they've cast an Asian-American woman in the role of Watson.

So obviously, the comments under every news article are full of the vilest kinds of misogyny and racism. It's even been summed up in Impact font:

Ah, Doctor Watson. Sherlock Holmes' "one fixed point in a changing age". A solid and stoic counterpart, sometimes mistakenly represented as unintelligent, but always as devotedly faithful. As the narrator of most of Conan-Doyle's stories, he is the audience identification figure, the "everyman" who provides us with a window on Holmes' unique world.

You know, for a brief moment, I can understand the internet uproar at the casting of Lucy Liu in the role of Doctor Joan Watson. I mean, yes, there has been a backlash full of entirely predictable racism and sexism (well-covered in this week's Lashings Link Round-Up)... but also, isn't it fair to comment on such a great deviation from canon? Perhaps, even, to express concern that such a deviation from canon might suggest a general disregard for the source material?

But, of course, this is a nonsensical argument. Very little is shared between Martin Freeman's shy, bumbling, blogging Watson (in the UK series Sherlock) and Jude Law's bombastic action hero (in the Guy Ritchie film franchise). Gareth David Lloyd's Watson (in the Asylum mockbuster version) FACES OFF AGAINST A CGI DINOSAUR. It is completely arbitrary to say that these divergences from canon are somehow "in the spirit of the original", while the very idea of a woman or person of colour playing Watson is sacrilege. In fact, it is a perfect example of the kind of thinking I discuss in my post Paging Doctor Sherlock House - it can be very telling to note which characteristics of their favourite characters fans consider sacrosanct.

Well, I'm here to break it to you all: Watson WAS a woman. Rex Stout first shared the news with the Baker Street Irregulars (the original Sherlock Holmes BNFs) in the 1940s, where he was met with derision. But I think the world is ready, now.

"Like all true disciples, I have always recurrently dipped into the Sacred Writings (called by the vulgar the Sherlock Holmes stories) for refreshment; but not long ago I reread them from beginning to end, and I was struck by a singular fact that reminded me of the dog in the night. The singular fact about the dog in the night, as we all know, was that it didn't bark; and the singular fact about Holmes in the night is that he is never seen going to bed. The writer of the tales, the Watson person, describes over and over again, in detail, all the other minutia of that famous household-suppers, breakfasts, arrangement of furniture, rainy evenings at home-but not once are we shown either Holmes or Watson going to bed. I wondered: why not? Why such unnatural and obdurate restraint, nay, concealment, regarding one of the pleasantest episodes of the daily routine?

I got suspicious."

In fact, Stout's tongue-in-cheek writing (TW for historical misogyny is really not talking about Watson's gender at all, or rather, only as a smokescreen - the core of his argument seems to be, "Holmes and Watson are SO OBVIOUSLY a couple". He draws out the situations and interactions which, to him, are indicative of a husband/wife relationship - but I would counter that they are, more generically, evidence of a deep and lasting companionship.

Now, I'm not here to debate the finer details of any slash pairings. Holmes is loved by many as an asexual hero - Watson is married (twice?) - but the key point here is that the two are very close, in a way which (in modern, western society) it is hard to understand without analogy to romantic & sexual relationships. Even by the 1940s, it had become difficult to read the books without "slash goggles" - our sexualisation of romance had already destroyed the concept of the "romantic friendship" so beloved of the Victorians & Edwardians.

No, I'm not proposing that Lucy Liu will provide us with the ultimate & most authentic version of the Holmes/Watson relationship - far from it. In fact, what I find most interesting is the lengths that modern adaptations need to go to disguise the homoromantic friendship between the two leads. These interpretations are both very aware of the potential romantic/sexual implications of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and go to great lengths to show that it's "not really like that".

Guy Ritchie's steampunk film franchise has, perhaps, the least need to make any changes - it is set in the late Victorian era, and could represent the relationship exactly as it is presented in the books. However, they do not - they foreground Watson's wife, sculpting the entire second movie out of the conceit that Watson just wants the case to be over so that he can get back to his honeymoon. Although there is obvious homoerotic mileage in the idea of Holmes & Watson sharing a honeymoon, (and having to THROW WATSON'S WIFE OFF A TRAIN to achieve it) it is not at all the same thing as a romantic friendship. Watson's virile heterosexuality is emphasised heavily throughout these films, and moments of physical intimacy between the two men are played as accidents, as jokes. Steven Moffatt's modern-day version also emphasises Watson's heterosexuality, making "I'm not gay!" almost into a mantra for the character.

A female Watson is the most certain way to diffuse any suggestions of homoromanticism. (Until, of course, the show that casts both Holmes and Watson as women... no, I don't think that's very likely either.) I'm not saying that this is the only reason for Liu's casting - and I am certainly not saying that her casting is in any way a bad thing, I hope they will do wonderful things with it - but I do think that it is indicative of a general inability of producers to think clearly about the Holmes/Watson relationship.

Yes, it is hard to take a relationship form which no longer exists in our culture, and portray it without misunderstanding. I completely understand the need for updating and contextualising the Holmes/Watson romantic friendship for a modern audience.

But a queerphobic culture is pushing these interpretations the wrong way. It is, of course, impossible to hypothesise with any accuracy on the changes in character which would follow from a person growing up in an entirely different time and culture; but nonetheless I'd like to propose an alternate interpretation to these updatings of Watson's character.

A man who, in 1880, formed strong romantic and non-sexual bonds exclusively with other men had no way of labelling his orientation. In the social framework of the time, he would be very likely to marry (as Watson did), but spend all of his social time with his man-friend(s). A man who, in 2012, forms strong romantic and non-sexual bonds exclusively with other men can identify himself as a homoromantic asexual. It is not even necessary to assume asexuality (although why not, for visibility's sake?) - we can surely say that some relationships which would have been celibate under a culture which shamed and outlawed male/male sex would likely be sexual in today's more liberated culture.

My alternative suggestion of an updated Holmes/Watson relationship would be one of careful poly negotiation between a sexual Watson, his sexual partners (most often women?), and an asexual Holmes. Yes, Holmes would still be overly demanding of Watson's time, and almost completely incapable of empathy - but Holmes' coldness aside, the cultural shifts of the last 150 years have made it easier, not harder, for Holmes and Watson to acknowledge the depth of their relationship.

I'm not suggesting that this was what Conan Doyle had in mind, nor am I proposing this as the only way to understand the canon; just commenting that it is sad that present-day adaptations feel the need to work so hard to obfuscate these elements of the original.


  1. Oh yes! If gds ends up playing Watson again this summer I am pointing him at this as a guide :)

  2. Argh. I want female Holmes and Watson so badly I can't even. (Er, I have other thoughts, really. But you said the magic words.)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. *re-posted for grammar fail*

      So much of the this. I am endlessly fascinated by the ways in which late 20th/21stC adaptations of older texts struggle to represent forms of relationships outside the very narrow set of boundaries (heterosexual romance, nuclear family, nonromantic same-sex 'buddy' or 'girl-friend') that mainstream Western film seems to be set up to represent. I think that this is partly informed by the Hays Code (which I need to write a queer history post about at some point!) which really forced film to focus exclusively on heterosexual relationships at a key point in its development as a medium.

      My own particular obsession is Tolkien. I think that Peter Jackson was to some extent almost forced to introduce homoromantic/homoerotic elements into his film adaptation because mainstream film lacks any kind of visual language to talk about the relationships that Tolkien was trying to portray in any non-sexual way*. Particularly Frodo's and Sam's, that fascinating cross-class mix of interdependence, loyalty, service protectiveness and mutual admiration that you just don't see in many books written even as late as Tolkien was writing, but is relatively common in Victorian and Edwardian writing. FWIW, I think it's also why it's almost impossible for modern film to represent Arthur and Lancelot convincingly.

      * There's also a pleasing rumour that Ian McKellen mischeviously gave acting tips to an unsuspecting Sean Astin Elijah Wood, but I suspect it's only a rumour.

      It also, of course, leads to all kinds of amusing arguments between groups of fans, with one lot screaming 'THEY'RE SO QUEER!' and another lot screaming 'THEY'RE SO NOT!', and me sitting in the middle thinking 'They're so both.'