Home Social Justice Opinion: America, Britain and progressive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes

Opinion: America, Britain and progressive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes

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American liberals like to believe that Britain, and really Europe at large, is at the vanguard of social progress in arts and entertainment. When it comes to sexual or minority representation, it is expected that the United States is generally a few steps behind the U.K. For the most part, this assumption is usually correct. Recently, however, one piece of entertainment shared by Britain and the United States has been subtly countering that trend.

Both nations have recently experienced a wave of increased interest in the character of Sherlock Holmes. In 2010, the BBC began airing episodes of “Sherlock,” a TV series about a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes solving crimes in 21st century London. Soon after, the American network CBS began airing “Elementary,” a show with a similar premise of a modern Sherlock Holmes, only set in 21st century New York. Once again, it would be reasonable to assume that in terms of social progressivism, which is not necessarily a requirement of good television, that the BBC show would serve to represent certain marginalized groups better than its American counterpart. In this case, the assumption is not particularly true.

First and most obviously is that in the American “Elementary” the character of John Watson, the intrepid Holmes’ sidekick, is replaced with the female character of Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu. In the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Watson remains male and fits the more classic portrayal of the character as being constantly baffled and in awe of Holmes’ methods of detection. Liu’s Watson, however, is not only the classic interpretation of the brilliant doctor and stalwart companion, but is very much a sidekick that Holmes could not do without. She is capable even of deceiving Holmes at times and eventually begins learning and matching the deductive skills of her compatriot. Perhaps uncharacteristically, the American producers of “Elementary” chose to give Holmes a sidekick who is not only female, but more complex and compelling than the original.

In addition, the way the show represents LGBT issues is more progressive than its British equivalent. In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Mrs. Hudson, the landlady to Holmes and Watson, frequently makes an appearance. This is kept the same in BBC’s “Sherlock.” But in “Elementary,” she appears briefly in the form of Miss Hudson, a transgender friend of Holmes who stays with him and Watson in their New York apartment. The character of Miss Hudson is seen only in one episode, but her brief presence is still remarkable in that the showrunners chose to portray a familiar character from the original stories as a transgender woman.

On the other hand, it seems that not an episode of “Sherlock” can end without at least one sitcom-quality joke or comment on the fact that Holmes and Watson are two men who conspicuously live together. The British Watson, played by Martin Freeman, seems to constantly worry about what people think of his and Holmes’ relationship, as if two men simply cannot be flatmates in London without being lovers.

This seems unusual coming from “Sherlock” creator Steven Moffat, who is also executive producer and head writer of “Doctor Who,” a British science fiction TV series noted for its social progressivism and generous representation of LGBT characters. But even “Doctor Who” has come under scrutiny recently after many fans publicly requested that the character of the Doctor, a British cornerstone near the fame of Holmes and Watson, be played by a woman in the upcoming new season. This idea was rejected by the show-runners, including Moffat, and the Doctor will continue to be played by a man. Doctor Who has also been criticized in some feminist circles over the character of the Doctor’s Companion, a woman who travels with him through space and time. With very few exceptions, these women are nothing more than groupies who have little complexity beyond their almost always unrequited love of the Doctor.

In a small way, the divide between “Elementary” and “Sherlock” seems to shatter the prevailing wisdom on the liberalism of the U.K. versus that of the U.S. The British are supposed to be more liberal and progressive than we are. We know this from our respective politics, from newspaper articles, from the constant insistence of Europeans that they are, indeed, superior to Americans, and from the legions of Tumblr users who have created an entire industry out of sepia filtering .gifs of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Yet it seems that in the effort to bring Sherlock Holmes to the 21st century, American television producers, a traditionally unscrupulous tribe, have managed to beat the BBC at socially progressive entertainment, which has long been a particularly European activity. It does not necessarily signal an enormous shift of liberalism from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Politically, the U.S. remains behind in social progress. But “Elementary” at the very least proves wrong all those who would simply assume that every bit of Britain is more progressive than any bit of America.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.”

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2 Comments

  1. […] American liberals like to believe that Britain, and really Europe at large, is at the vanguard of social progress in arts and entertainment. When it comes to sexual or minority representation, it is expected that the United States is generally a few steps behind the U.K. For the most part, this assumption is usually correct. Recently, however, one piece of entertainment shared by Britain and the United States has been subtly countering that trend. Read more… […]

    Reply

  2. larissa

    June 29, 2015 at 8:27 PM

    Yes yes yes!

    Reply

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