Over the last 120 years, legendary detective Sherlock Holmes has been recreated as a cartoon mouse, seen his best friend programmed into the mind of an android, turned gay, had a female assistant, and been modernized as a black detective in urban New York.
But never, until CBS’s new series, Elementary, has Holmes’ friend Dr. Watson been transformed into an Asian-American woman—Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu.
Numerous factors connect Elementary to the popular BBC mini-series Sherlock, a work of modern-day Holmes fanfiction from Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. Unfortunately, the links between the shows have painted a target on Elementary’s back, and fans of the BBC’s Sherlock are trashing the CBS show (and its supporters) online before the first episode has even aired.
CBS originally asked Moffat to do a stateside revamp of his hit. When Moffat refused, CBS greenlit their own Holmes remake. Moffat wasn’t pleased, and said so numerous times, calling the U.S. version a “completely unrelated rogue version of Sherlock,” despite the fact that the same accusation could easily be made of his own version—or any version—relative to the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In another brain-breaking connection, the actor playing the U.S. Sherlock is Jonny Lee Miller, who shared an Olivier award with the U.K. Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, for their dual turns in Danny Boyle’s popular production of Frankenstein. On stage last fall, Cumberbatch and Miller alternated roles as the mad scientist and the monster.
Cumberbatch didn’t help matters, telling Shortlist magazine he felt Miller took the job for the paycheck (he later claimed he was misquoted), and adding to TV Line that he was “frightened of the dynamic of male friendship that you’d lose. Because that is obviously the bedrock of the books as well. There might be sexual tension between Joan [Watson] and Sherlock.”
The overt antagonism of the Sherlock cast and crew has bled over into the fandom. Sherlock fans have ranted about Elementary for months, even though it doesn’t air until September 27.
Fans’ primary complaint—though there are plenty of minor ones—is that casting a woman in the role of Watson will inevitably lead to a romantic subplot between Watson and Holmes, thus both highlighting and invalidating a century and a half of queer subtext between Holmes and Watson. Though “JohnLock” shippers—fans who want to see a relationship between Holmes and John Watson—aren’t the first to pick up on this subtext, they’re certainly the loudest.
Sherlock fan arineat told the Daily Dot,
“Initially, I was bothered by the idea of John becoming Joan. I don’t mind Joan Watson, but I will be really bothered if it turns out that John became Joan to make [the romantic pairing of] Holmes/Watson more ‘acceptable’. I am all for woman power and colouring outside the lines, but not if it’s just to get around the whole gay aspect of two canonically male characters being shipped.”
On the other side of the spectrum, many fans bristled at perceived queer-fetishizing, sexism, and racism in the ongoing criticism of Elementary.
“There was this mentality in [some] parts of the Sherlock fandom that they had the right to hate this show, and by extension, its fans,” Elementary fan Amanda Parker told the Daily Dot. “It’s what generated such a firm fan base for Elementary, even before trailers for the show started coming out. People who thought the show sounded potentially very good banded together as a result of the hatred and disrespect they were being shown.”
Tumblr fan lucyzephyr agreed. “I’m often taken aback by how much I feel the need to defend this show from the rabid Sherlock fen,” she said. “When you have people making jibes about Elementary filling racial quotas or having a [woman of color as] Watson as a ‘gimmick,’ I see red. As if more diversity in media is something to be condemned instead of encouraged.”
“I became an instant Elementary fan when I saw some UK Sherlock fans infer that Americans were homophobic because Elementary was giving the role of Watson to a woman,” Tumblr user gird-my-loins told the Dot. “And also that Americans only made crap TV and stole ideas for shows from the British. I’ve spent many, many hours online defending the show (and my American nationality) from haters.”
As Sherlock Holmes-devoted site the Baker Street Blog points out, this isn’t the first time the show has been Americanized, or even the first time Watson has been turned into a woman; and Elementary executive producer Rob Doherty has stated repeatedly that sexual tension between Joan and Sherlock is “completely off the table.” But the head-butting between fanbases of the two series shows no signs of ceasing.
A number of fans told the Dot that they hated the “tag wars,” the practice of labeling posts full of “hate” and insubstantial criticism of a fandom with tags you know members of that fandom will see. The “elementary” tag on Tumblr is so full of drama and antagonism between the two fandoms that some Elementary fans have stopped using it altogether and taken to using the tag “elementasquee” to avoid the hate.
Now that tag is filling up with drama as well, and Elementary fans are biting back, generating their own tags for the “Pressed Sherlock Fandom” and “Pressed Sherlock Fans.” There’s even a snarky tag for Cumberbatch himself, “curdled milk oppa,” in reference to his privileged white male status. (“Pressed” is slang for a hater. “Oppa,” made popular in the U.S. by PSY’s recent YouTube megahit “Gangnam Style,” is Korean slang for an older man, like “your daddy.”)
“They’re like bickering siblings,” one fan told us anonymously. “A minority of Sherlock fans decided to insult the Elementary show with hate (along with some people giving more serious racist & sexist comments). The Elementary fandom is now acting like the younger siblings throwing a tantrum.”
Still, there are some bridges being forged across the bitter fan divide.
But whether they’ll last once Elementary finally begins airing is a mystery not even Holmes himself can solve.
Photo via RevStan/Flickr