Thursday, July 17, 2014

Watson: A role or a person?

Comic books are forever revealing things to me about Sherlock Holmes. Not necessarily the comics about Sherlock, but thoughts on characters who go on, and on, and on, like the great detective has done. Comic book characters, living their living in monthly installments over decades, have a faster evolutionary rate than Sherlock Holmes, so for the same reason geneticists study fruit flies, they can be an interesting study.

This week Marvel comics made a couple of announcements of changes to major characters: The mighty Thor will now be female, and Captain America will now be African-American. The latter did not seem all that odd to me, as Captain America has been black before in a tale or two. And his old pal Nick Fury changed races recently, so no big deal. And even though we've been through gender-bending a lot of late, as with Thor's brother Loki becoming an evil enchantress for a time, something about Thor going XX bothered me. I mean, I'm as feminist as the next guy, but Thor?

As I discussed the matter with a friend, it occurred to me that there was a major difference between Captain America and Thor. One was a role, a mantle which could be taken up by anyone. The other, in my mind at least, was an individual.

And suddenly I was back two years ago when we learned that Dr. Watson was going to be a woman on Elementary. Back then the topic was a little too hot to delve into thoughtfully without being immediately labelled a misogynist, so I didn't let myself dwell too long upon that change, focusing my attention more on the titular Mr. Elementary. (Yes, I'm the only one who calls him that, but it's titular to me. Plus it's fun to say titular. Titular.)

Dr. Watson's change bothered me back then the way Thor's change bothered me at first reaction today. Not because I hate to see a woman in a role. But because I felt I was losing the individual that should have been there. Joan Watson isn't just John H. Watson with different body parts, she's a completely different person. As equivalent as the genders should be held in treatment and respect, few of us would argue against gender difference being one of the biggest characteristic gaps in individual human beings. While a given person can display varying degrees of masculinity or femininity, both nature and nurture are altered between XX and XY to the point where John H. Watson surviving the character surgery to become female is a nigh impossible thing.

My gut didn't say I was gaining a Joan, just losing a John. And a John who had been an old and beloved friend at that. And plugging Joan in his space was erasing him from this new universe of Sherlock Holmes.

Now that we're hearing Joan Watson may be replaced, even temporarily, by Kitty Winter, a female partner for Sherlock Holmes who was a female partner to him in the Canon (albeit so very briefly), it makes me wish they had gone with Kitty from square one . . . and bring a returning John H. in to threaten her position two seasons later. Wouldn't that have been a lovely tale?

Creators have been a little more reticent to alter Sherlock Holmes's gender than that of Watson, whom we've seen go female a number of times over the years, because they apparently see Watson more important as a role than an individual with a specific personality. Sherlock Holmes, however, is not only a unique and specific individual, but surely the moneymaker to most . . . and you don't mess with the goose that lays golden eggs . . . well, any more than you think will bring you more golden eggs.

So I'll leave the question to you: Is John H. Watson a role or an individual? Should we miss him when he's gone, or just embrace his replacement and move along? We hope creators don't give us that choice, and masterfully move our emotions in whichever direction they chose in their creation. But if you were the creator, which path would you prefer?


  1. Watson's character should remain 'the one fixed point in a changing age.' To me he is an 'untouchable.'

  2. Now I see why I've got so strange feeling watching Elementary. The good old John H. Watson is strongly missing in that series. I't a bit awkward to see him replaced by some other character. Actually not just a bit. Screenwriters won't bring him back, I'm almost sure, but... well why one just can't dream about that? I'd like to see the meeting of the main characters at least ;)

  3. John H. Watson is a person who fulfills a role; Holmes himself called Watson his Boswell. There's also BFF, roomie, and maybe just a touch of someone for Holmes to look after, at least at first.

    Joan Watson and Mr. Elementary have an entirely different relationship. She looks after him, challenges him, anchors him. I don't like it. I don't want to see a damaged man being taken care of by a woman; it's an old stereotype, and every episode I dread they're going to take it to the next trite level, because it's created, written, and directed by men, as is the vast majority of what's on the boob toob, and isn't that how the story goes? It's the old Tracy and Hepburn scenario, right?

    I could go on, but this is threatening to turn into an essay/whine. Thanks yet another thought provoking post, Brad.