Holmes, Watson, Genderswapping & Platonic Relationships.

The speculation on the homosexual subtext of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous characters’, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, relationship has been around for a great many years. This still goes on today but the analysis has taken to recent adaptations like BBC’s widely-acclaimed television show Sherlock, which features John Watson and Sherlock Holmes placed into the 21st century instead of the canonical Victorian Era setting. It is argued that this speculation undermines the strong friendship Holmes and Watson share. Their “bromance” is hailed as inspiring, and complex–as it always has been, for the 120 years or so since Sherlock Holmes has been in publication–and that they cannot possibly be gay lovers because their friendship runs so very deep.

BBC’s Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, Martin Freeman as John)

But what if the mythologically male Holmes-Watson friendship were to be changed into a female-male friendship? Would people still say, no matter the amount of sexual tension or lack thereof that is displayed, that they were obviously platonic?  That their friendship is complex and needn’t be undermined by “love”? CBS’s new 2012 fall show Elementary (premiering September 27th), also a modernized Holmes TV show, is asking these questions and subsequently attempting to answer them.

There is heated opposition about the mere idea of Watson being a woman (Joan Watson will be played by Lucy Liu).

CBS’s Elementary (Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock, Lucy Liu as Joan)

Some people believe that Watson was made a woman because it will allow for Holmes and Watson to become involved romantically, sexually and that this is what American media thrives on (which isn’t a far-reaching assumption). Beyond the show, there are people who truly believe a man and woman cannot be merely friends. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, contributes his rather heteronormative opinion,

“If I were the [producer], I’d be frightened of the dynamic of male friendship that you’d lose…because that is obviously the bedrock of the books as well. [Now] there might be sexual tension between Joan [Watson] and Sherlock, which is [a different dynamic than you’d have] between the two men. So, that’s a new thing to explore.”

Rob Doherty, the writer of Elementary, makes it clear he will not create any sexual tension. 

“I don’t feel like that’s a part of the show. To me, it’s trying to honor the spirit of the original partnership and the original relationship.”

I was lucky enough to watch the pilot episode of Elementary and can confirm that Mr. Doherty is true to his word. Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson works very well with Miller’s Sherlock and still holds a lot of Watsonesque qualities.  Their friendship is refreshing because there is no power-struggle or sexual tension, as it was assumed there would be. It’s not something you see on TV very often. Why should we be “frightened,” as Mr. Cumberbatch said, at the loss of the dynamic of a male friendship? I think we should be more frightened about the fact that women are still not considered equal to men in relationships and that women must fall in love with man whilst in a friendship because it’s the “norm.”

I lurk many fansites and have learned that Sherlock fans, myself excluded, believe that a female Watson damages the brand and that the deep male bond of Sherlock and John in BBC’s Sherlock is somehow more inspiring because it stays true to the canon and that there is no purported sexual/romantic attraction  (which there are many arguments against, but that’s a discussion for another day).

I blame the media for perpetuating the heterosexual norms and for further ingraining in society that a John and Sherlock friendship cannot ever be a Joan and Sherlock friendship because it is believed that women are most certainly not men’s equal and must always submit to a man’s domination in a relationship.

Female-male friendships may begin in one place, but they almost always end in a bed. This New York Times article illuminates that it’s because love has a narrative, a beginning middle and end, and a friendships do not. The article further states,

We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand.

Sure, friendship is the basis of romance but friendship on its own seems to be an enigma. Men’s Health ensures men that there benefits of being only friends with a woman. These benefits are: ‘You’ll See Things Her Way,’ ‘You Can Emote Fearlessly,’ and ‘You’ll Become a Master Listener.’ If men need to be assured of the benefits, need to be assured that there are even “benefits” of female-male friendships, we just know there is a problem.

Historically, women have remained in a separate sphere from men in all cultures. According to an associate professor of Psychology, April Bleske-Rechek, “historically, men faced the risk of being shut out, genetically, if they didn’t take advantage of various reproductive opportunities. So the argument is that men have evolved to be far more sexually opportunistic.” So, basically, researches are asking the question: why do people even bother to be in a male-female relationship?

I say that friendship can be just as powerful as love. Friendship is sometimes love. But a different love, a love without romance and sex.

I think there is a link between equality and same-sex friendships and a link of inequality and opposite sex romantic/sexual relationships, as we see  through the Sherlock vs. Elementary  controversies.  Opposite sex friendships are just a difficult concept for many people to grasp because it is a fairly novel concept and challenges history and evolution. But it’s there, it shouldn’t be demeaned and deserves more representation. Thank you, Elementary, for taking the challenge.

Update: Thanks to Kerishma for recommending this NPR interview with Lucy Liu!

7 thoughts on “Holmes, Watson, Genderswapping & Platonic Relationships.

  1. kerishma says:

    I agree so much!
    On a slightly less academic note, my main issue with Elementary’s interpretation of Watson is that they’ve given Lucy Liu an entirely different history – she’s a surgeon who botched surgery, instead of a military doctor. Maybe it has to do with her gender – people don’t tend to think of women in a military context.

    • shatoum says:


      Thanks! Continuing on the less academic note…I have my gripes with that as well. I don’t see what harm it would do to maintain the canonical army-doctor attributes in Lucy Liu’s Watson. She could easily be a vet of the Afghanistan War. Unfortunately, I think you’re right–we have some sexism here.

      But at least she’s smart, doesn’t take bullshit (from Sherlock, mainly), and is as interested in Sherlock’s work as canonical Watson would be!


    • shatoum says:

      It’s really fantastic and refreshing. Some people’s reactions to a WoC as Watson disturbed me. I direct you to people’s reactions here: http://dearjimmoriarty.tumblr.com/tagged/receipts. It’s cringe-worthy.

      I haven’t listened to the NPR interview, but I’m going to now! Thanks!


      • kerishma says:

        The majority of the ridiculousness in reaction to Elementary seems to be coming from the fandom of BBC’s Sherlock and Steven Moffat – which I ignore. Moffat didn’t write Sherlock Holmes, and he’s not the first to adapt it.

      • shatoum says:

        Yes, it’s mainly them and Moffat is their leader. Moffat said in a BBC interview, “The bigger problem for us with Elementary is, what if it’s terrible? What if it’s awful? Then it degrades the brand.”

        Like you said, he does /not/ own the brand of Sherlock Holmes. Someone really needs to pop that ego of his (he should also stop doing interviews…)


  2. […] few months ago, my wonderful colleague Sarah blogged about genderswapping and platonic relationships, specifically related to two contemporary […]

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