Beyond ‘Elementary’ Feminism

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By: Rebecca Wei Hsieh

When it premiered in 2012, Elementary caught mainstream attention for casting Lucy Liu as a gender-bent and race-bent Joan Watson. Joan is not merely Sherlock’s (Jonny Lee Miller) killjoy sidekick — she’s an accomplished surgeon who keeps him sober and learns how to be a brilliant detective in her own right. The series also decided to gender-bend Sherlock’s longtime arch nemesis Moriarty by merging the character with Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer), who is typically Sherlock’s primary love interest and one of Moriarty’s underlings. Moriarty takes advantage of the way Sherlock idealises ‘Irene’, feeding the fantasy to distract him from her true identity as a criminal mastermind. While toying with Sherlock and besting him several times, Moriarty judges Joan as inferior and dismisses her out of hand. However, Joan is the one who defeats Moriarty, establishing Joan as Sherlock’s equal once and for all. By having Joan triumph over Moriarty, Elementary points us towards the type of feminism we should strive for: feminism that aims to truly elevate everyone. Moriarty’s feminism is outdated and exclusive, if it could be called feminism in the first place; she seeks only to benefit herself, not caring who she has to tear down — or literally murder — in the process. On the other hand, Joan’s feminism is neither performative nor self-serving; she is neither seeking praise for her actions nor throwing other people under the bus in the name of self-empowerment. Joan strives to be inclusive simply because it is the right thing to do.

The first season focuses on setting the foundation for Joan and Sherlock’s evolving relationship. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that in this iteration of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock is not a flawed genius whose questionable choices are tolerated due to his intellect. It’s quite the opposite — he faces consequences for his poor decisions, often when Joan holds him accountable as his sober companion. At first, Sherlock trivialises her role, describing her as his “addict-sitter’ and “glorified helper monkey”, reiterating that he has no need of her assistance. Joan is initially roped into the NYPD’s investigations, tagging along only to keep an eye on Sherlock. But she soon proves to be full of potential: not only is she well versed in medicine, but her remarkable empathy also prompts suspects and witnesses to open up to her when Sherlock’s more sterile methodology fails. Joan shows a willingness to connect with other human beings, while Sherlock is reluctant to form connections with people, preferring to view them as problems to be solved.

Despite his growing acceptance of Joan as his equal, Sherlock still harbours sexist tendencies, even towards the love of his life, Irene Adler. Sherlock admits that women bore him, and his interactions with them are purely to satisfy his sexual needs. Yet Irene was the woman to Sherlock, the one who embodied perfection and overshadowed all other women in his eyes. Where most narratives use the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as a reward or plot point for the male lead, Elementary plays on this trope by using Sherlock’s unrealistic fixation on Irene to set him up to be outwitted. Even when Moriarty reveals that ‘Irene’ still lives, ‘Irene’ continues to play along as a damsel in distress. She acts totally reliant on Sherlock, allowing him to play her caretaker and monopolising his attention while she manipulates him into leaving the country with her. Moriarty takes Sherlock’s sexism and uses it against him. He realises too late that there is no ‘Irene’, no strong quirky heroine with just the right amount of vulnerability for a man to rescue, no perfect fantasy woman superior to all other women — believing in this idealisation has led him to failure.

Moriarty is indeed a strong, complex female character, a powerful woman running a criminal empire in a male-dominated enterprise. She’s cognizant of the sexist standards she faces in her field; in the season one finale, she explains that she chose a male lieutenant to pose as her not only to hide her identity, but also to avoid any prejudice from her clients. Her sarcastic quip, “As if men have a monopoly on murder,” sounds like a rallying cry.

However, Elementary goes a step further than merely having a strong female character by setting up and subverting the characters’ — and the viewer’s — expectations. After having pointed out Sherlock’s sexist idealisation of Moriarty, the show begins to address the dynamics between Joan and Moriarty, the two most prominent women in Sherlock’s life and in the series. In examining their relationship, Elementary sets Joan up as the better feminist character due to her willingness to recognise other people as human beings in their own right and the way in which she stands up for others.

Despite all the ways Moriarty initially seems to be an empowering character, she begins to show some decidedly anti-feminist behaviours. As they sit in an upscale restaurant, Moriarty begins to explain her analysis of Joan. It puzzles Moriarty that someone like Sherlock — who she insists possesses the only intellect to rival hers — would be so attached to someone like Joan, who she refers to as ‘the mascot’. To Moriarty, Joan is only Sherlock’s caretaker, a crutch to prop him up rather than a partner of equal standing. Yes, Moriarty shatters Sherlock’s sexist fantasy by revealing her real identity, but that was never her intent. Despite her intellectual interest in Sherlock, Moriarty does not hesitate to disappear once she satisfies her curiosity, uncaring of what emotional carnage would be left in her wake. She incorporates sexism in the way she moves through the world, playing along with sexist tropes and using them as tools for her own gain rather than working towards dismantling the tools that keep women down in the first place. Her comment, ‘As if men had a monopoly on murder,’ sounds like a girl power slogan until you realise that the assassins and saboteurs that comprise her criminal empire are (as far as we see) exclusively men, meaning that she is satisfied being the only woman in power. She treats the only woman with whom she interacts, Joan, with little respect. To her, people are mere games to be toyed with to achieve her personal goals.

With one final plot twist, Elementary challenges not only the characters’ but also the audience’s biases. Joan — who the viewer overlooks as the show shifts the spotlight onto the Sherlock-Moriarty rivalry — is the one who concocts the plan that leads to Moriarty’s arrest. Joan makes Sherlock snap out of his self-centred obsession for vengeance against Moriarty for deceiving him, and remember that she and Sherlock are partners who operate together, equally. Instead of letting Sherlock persistently yet fruitlessly engage with Moriarty head-on, Joan convinces him to fake a heroin overdose, knowing that Moriarty wouldn’t be able to resist visiting Sherlock one final time in the hospital to entice him to leave with her. Joan realises that Moriarty has fallen in love with Sherlock because she believes he is her only equal in life. Sherlock is unable to see through the persona that Moriarty has crafted, choosing to see her as an evil seductress instead of a human being that wants to connect with him, albeit in an unhealthy manner. Rather, it’s Joan’s ability and willingness to view Moriarty as a human — rather than a collection of tropes to be solved or toyed with — that allows her to capture Moriarty. It is not Sherlock who defeats Moriarty, not the vengeful man who one-ups a wily femme fatale. Joan is not ‘the mascot’, as Moriarty claims, but ‘the heroine’ to which the episode title refers.

As gratifying as it is to watch Moriarty outwit countless men, Joan is the character closer to exemplifying the intersectional feminism that we should pursue today: grounded in concrete actions that advocate for people qua people rather than hollow slogans and selective activism that maximise the interests of an exclusive group. It’s satisfying to watch Joan triumph as the true heroine of the story in the season one climax, but it’s important to remember that her victory didn’t come out of nowhere. Even before the dramatic figure of Moriarty entered her life, Joan calls out problematic behaviour when she sees it, advocating not only for herself but also for others.

Another angle that keeps Elementary’s representation of feminism relevant is the racial difference between Joan and Moriarty. Although Rob Doherty has repeated that Liu was simply the best actor for the role, that only Joan’s gender-swapping was intentional and that he had chosen not to focus on race, the casting of Liu means that Joan becomes a Chinese American woman, a part of her identity that is frequently referenced in the show. With the success of projects like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Mindy Project, Asian American women are increasingly visible in mainstream media. However, we live in an era in which the concerns and struggles of white women are prioritised without acknowledging their own potential for racism, with women of colour overlooked in favour of white women. Amidst these various manifestations of selective, self-serving feminism, Elementary places a Chinese American woman in the spotlight, injecting some much-needed colour in a wave of strong yet mostly white female characters. Joan is the one who prevails and resolves the chaos surrounding two white Brits, the Chinese American woman who everyone, including the audience, had implicitly ruled out and underestimated. We see an Asian woman triumphing over a white woman and her flawed feminism, a welcome sight as white women continue to dominate discussions about gender equality.

Elementary is certainly not without its flaws, but it remains one of the most inclusive shows on the small screen. There is no shortage of strong female characters who hold their own in the media, but Elementary goes beyond that: it gives us a female character who is strong without closing off her emotions, who recognises the depth in other people. It gives us a feminist character that seeks to elevate others as well as herself, rather than one that is a shallow representation of girl power. If the entertainment industry genuinely wants to live up to its liberal rhetoric, it’s time to move beyond tokenism and towards inclusive representation of all the intersecting identities that comprise society, not for the attention, but because it is the right thing to do.

Editor: Caleb Zimmerschied

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