Homosocial Detective Adventures

If the casting of Lucy Liu in the role of Watson holds true, CBS’s Elementary may be a “re-imagining” of Sherlock Holmes which abandons one of the key elements of the source material. After all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories – and the overwhelming majority of adaptions which have followed – are stories about the homosocial; that is, they’re about relationships between men. Put bluntly, Doyle’s stories are about men because – at the turn of the c19th – they arose from a culture which was dominated by men and structured by their financial, emotional and, yes, sexual, relationships.

In the stories themselves, you can’t help but notice that we mainly encounter Holmes through Watson: Watson’s account of Holmes’ words, or his own narration of Holmes’ actions. The original short stories are about men watching other men, pursuing other men, fighting other men, outwitting other men, killing other men.

Even A Scandal In Bohemia – infamous for introducing Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Holmes – is largely disinterested in the female form. While Doyle has Watson linger on the King of Bohemia (“A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules”) and Holmes on Adler’s husband-to-be (“He was a remarkably handsome man, dark, aquiline, and moustached”), Adler’s own appearance is noted only fleetingly: a “beautiful creature”, little more.1

Watson’s wife is only significant insofar as she comes between Watson and Holmes, though even that influence is – at best – rendered as passive and indirect. In fact, Watson’s account of his changing relationship with Holmes doesn’t even mention her:

My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.

It’s all about the boys.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock makes hay of the tension and/or confusion between the homosocial and the homoerotic: in annoyance rather than anger, Watson repeatedly explains that he and Holmes are not a couple. With the role of the narrator supplanted largely by the eye of the camera, we end up watching Watson, watching Holmes. While Adler reappears in A Scandal in Belgravia, the infatuation seems to be almost hopelessly one-sided. We learn, a few episodes later, that the only numbers listed in Sherlock’s phone are for three men: his brother, Watson and Inspector Lestrade.

The decision to cast a woman in the role of Watson, then, isn’t just stunt-casting; it’s either a chance to re-write one of the grounding dynamics of the source fiction or – depending on your tastes – a horrible mistake.

  1. We might read this as an emphasis on Adler’s intellect over her appearance – though there’s little evidence of Doyle fleshing out the other female characters in the Holmes cannon in substantial detail. []