Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Thing About Genderswapping (Why I'm Iffy on Elementary)

I speak here of the fabled genderswapping, when a writer takes an established character, like, say, Dr. John Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories, and makes him a woman. That's genderswapping. That's also a not-so-subtle reference to the upcoming CBS drama, Elementary.

I have mixed feelings about Elementary and media like it because, on the one hand, I like things that shake up our gender paradigm, and girl!Watson certainly does that, but on the other, I do feel like something is lost when the genderswapping is not applied unilaterally. Allow me to explain.

There are two genders, see? And society favors one of them more than the other. Let's, for the sake of argument, call these favored souls "men". The less appreciated gender, perhaps called "women", therefore experience a different world than "men", seeing the world in a slightly different way. They must be constantly alert to the slight discrimination around them in order to succeed above it. They must also be watchful that they do not act in a way that society deems inappropriate for them, because that would possibly damage their stature even more than it has been already by being born "women".

Harry Potter. [Artist unknown]
So too, "men" have little knowledge of the difficulties that "women" face, being more comfortable as the dominant sex. They take the rights and privileges of this for granted, sometimes even going so far as to discount the "women" as people and dismiss their complaining as whining and shrill shrieking.

Now imagine in your mind a love story between two of these characters, a "man" and a "woman". The "man" is clever, rich, but lacks a certain kindness in his life. The "woman" is sweet and gentle, but has no money and no cunning to make her way in the world.

It's a story, and it's not a very good one.

Now switch the two of them. With the "woman" now the rich, clever, unkind character, it makes a more compelling story, especially as concerns her position in society. She's rich, but she's a "woman", and therefore lesser than the "man", who is gentle and poor, completely without the wits to survive in the world. That is a good story.

And that's good genderswapping. The best genderswapping is used to inform the story, to bring out the characters in a new light, with new characteristics embraced in full view of the strictures placed on us by society and our genders.

So what about Elementary?

Here's the thing. Genderswapping works best in two instances. When, one, it's used to highlight a certain solitary character and show that character in a new world and new gender, it's great. Imagine The Three Musketeers done with d'Artagnan really a girl dressing up as a man in order to join the Musketeers she's always dreamed of. I would watch the shit out of that.

The second instance is when you have a pair or group of characters who all work together as a cohesive mold. In those cases, genderswapping the whole lot creates a really interesting, brand new dynamic. Imagine a version of Oliver Twist where Oliver, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, even Bill Sykes are all women. And Nancy and Mrs. Bedwin are men. That story would be awesome!

The problem with Elementary, as I see it, is that changing just one character, especially one character of a partnership as nuanced and close as Holmes and Watson, changes the balance of power. While before they were both men, and therefore equals in dominance, and while I would totally love on a version of the story where they're both women, and therefore equals in discrimination, I don't like the idea of making them lopsided.

Glee. [Artist unknown]
I like even less the fact that they've made Watson the woman. Yes, Lucy Liu is fabulous, and I saw the trailer, liked it, and am probably going to watch the show, but there's a power imbalance here where there wasn't before. Before, Watson and Holmes were equal in every way but that of the mind. And even there, Watson constantly surpassed Holmes with his abilities with people. Here, they are equals nowhere, held together by obligation and the tenuous suggestion that Joan Watson might someday succumb to Sherlock's temptation and sleep with him.

Again, it could be a great show. But the imbalance of power makes me queasy, and I feel like the show has lost out on the opportunity to make something amazing here, with a Charlotte Holmes being chased by her adoring Joan, throwing the whole world out of their way.

[Special Thanks to my mother, who kindly came up with examples and looked things up on wikipedia when I yelled across the downstairs that I was stuck.]


  1. Oh Lord. So they did cast a female Watson. Sorry Johnny Lee Miller. I like you, but I'm not going to watch this. This is not Sherlock Holmes.

    1. I may watch and superimpose Rooney Mara over him in my mind, because all girl Sherlock still makes me happy.

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