There are many reasons why Watson being a woman is awesome. Gender-bending itself is an awesome concept because I think at its core it proves that men and women are equally able to serve the same narrative function, as long as gender is not the centre that the narrative revolves around. It can help show us that gender itself is not as black and white as it first appears to us. Watson being a woman actually doesn’t change that much narrative wise. Watson’s maleness is never the point. He is male because he was the first person narrator for a Victorian man with period consistent attitudes towards women. Elementary’s Watson is able to serve the same narrative function because her femaleness has nothing to do with the plot. She just happens to be a woman with all the stuff that comes from being a woman in the 21st century. In this respect Watson being a woman is not that big of a deal.
But actually, when we shelve the narrative concerns and start talking about media representation, it’s actually a HUGE deal that Watson is a woman.
Watson is the story teller. Watson is the conduit into Holmes’ world. Holmes’ world is strange and unusual, as Holmes is himself, so Watson has to be the ordinary, the approachable and the relatable one. The writers of Elementary have made Watson – that relatable, ordinary person – a woman. The character that we are meant to connect with, the character that we are meant to trust to take our hands and guide us further into Holmes’ world, is a woman. And a woman of colour at that; a group that suffers from severe under-representation.
CBS might have seen this as a gimmick, a way to distance itself from the BBC’s series Sherlock, but to many women viewers it is so much more. It is about a white man not being the default. When a reassuring, relatable character is needed, it is presented as a woman of colour, because they are ordinary people too, not something “other”. The fact that Watson is amazing in Elementary is for two reasons. One, Lucy Liu is amazing. She’s a very talented actor who has the ability to say it all with an incline of her head. And two, the character of Watson is pretty great. When well written, the character is caring and compassionate and able to kick a little ass when necessary. A role that a woman of colour can portray as well as any white man could. So why shouldn’t she?
Television is a cynical world, and I am not naïve enough to think that CBS don’t have a hundred ways in which they can mess this up, but I totally love the Joan Watson I’ve seen so far and she’s every bit a Watson as her predecessors.