Elementary Racial Privilege, My Dear Watson

Courtesy Wikipedia

By Guest Contributor Sylvie Kim

When I first skimmed Joanna Robinson’s Pajiba post on the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson in Elementary, CBS’ upcoming remake of Sherlock Holmes, and her call to have Liu play the titular protagonist instead, I thought, “Right on.” Though mainly staffed by white writers, I’ve always considered Pajiba to have a fairly critical sense of race and gender in their film and television reviews for a site that’s … mainly staffed by white writers.

But then I really read Robinson’s piece.

Robinson’s main rationale for Liu taking the lead in the modern reboot is that she’s too sexy to play Watson. While I understand her angle that traditionally Watson is the more amiable, less aesthetically pleasing counterpart to a more fly-yet-caustic and emotionally detached Holmes, perhaps there was a cultural competency oversight or two in her analysis of Liu’s sexiness:

Hell, I’m all for Asian women getting prominent roles.  Lord knows Grace Park, Sandra Oh and that fake Hot Topic punk on “Glee” could use some company.  But this is the most ill-fitting casting news since they announced Jonny Lee Miller as their Holmes.  Listen, you TV executards, we all know sex sells, but Holmes is supposed to be the icy, removed sociopath.  Not Watson.

Liu is a sexy, charming performer, but sweet she ain’t.  Anyone who watched her try to Manic Pixie Dream grind her way through “Watching The Detectives” will understand.  You know what Liu does well?  Chilly.  She’s like sexy ice water in your veins. Seriously, cast her as Holmes, make the doughy-featured Miller your Watson and I am fully on board.

And a new thought replaced my previous endorsement: Again?

First, “sexy ice water in your veins” is completely nonsensical. Is ice water in your veins sexy? Like hypothermia and frozen snot are sexy? Second, it’s a straight up rearticulation of Dragon Lady and Yellow Peril imagery if I’ve ever seen it (and trust me, I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it … we’ve all seen it). As if these stereotypes weren’t, by themselves, reductive enough, the writer infers that Liu has no ability as an actress to transcend her supposed innate Sex Tundra qualities to play someone sweet and affable. Robinson bases this on Liu’s past roles (Ling Woo on Ally McBeal, O-ren Ishii in the Kill Bill movies) and while I agree that her entrée into Hollywood relied heavily on playing these stereotypically chilly characters, I’m frustrated that there is no mention of the Hollywood market profiting from its own continued legacy of racializing people of color, particularly women of color.

Does Robinson know that Liu initially auditioned for the role of Nelle Porter on Ally? The role went to Portia DeRossi, but creator David E. Kelley and producers liked Liu enough to create a role for her. A role where she plays a bitchy automaton who uses sex as a weapon and has a law degree. And her name is Ling-motherf-cking-Woo. It’s like creating a Mrs. Potatohead, only the detachable arms, limbs, and organs are terrible racial and sexual stereotypes.

Many people–Asian Americans in particular–have questioned the quite obvious pattern in Liu’s filmography but no one can ignore the dearth of nuanced roles for actors of color in Hollywood (Not even Robinson, who acknowledges the few Asian American actresses currently on TV, albeit in an obnoxiously dismissive way by not even directly naming Glee’s Jenna Ushkowitz). Robinson facetiously refers to Liu as a “true chameleon” with a “variegated” career, though it’s hard to see how one can reasonably assume that Liu’s acting range is limited to how she’s been typecast (that is, anyone with a vague understanding of an institutionally racist Hollywood) no matter how well she may pull that off in previous roles.

Courtesy TNT.tv

Liu’s current guest arc on Southland is a perfect example of her range. Her character, Officer Jessica Tang, is a funny, competent cop who endures racism and sexism on a daily basis from her coworkers, fellow officers who ostracize her after watching a surveillance video where she gets brutally assaulted by an outsized man she’s trying to arrest. She’s equally tough and compassionate and manages to get her curmudgeon of a partner (Michael Cudlitz) to warm up and chuckle occasionally. And in a cop uniform, no makeup, and her hair in a bun, the frosty foxiness inextricably embedded in Liu’s DNA somehow manages to not make her break character.

Robinson refers to Officer Tang as “sullenly butch” which makes me believe that by this point in the article, the writer had completely forgotten what exactly her argument was in regards to Liu’s sexual presence on screen. Too sexy to play a sweet crime-solving assistant but not too sexy to play a plain, buttoned-up cop? Here’s where my people would simply insert an emoticon to express confusion: 0_0

To sum it up briefly, I think Liu has the potential to put in a great performance as Watson and she could probably do the same as Holmes, with or without sex, ice, or the overarching racial privilege that associates those elements with her very being.

No shit, Sherlock.

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  • Pingback: Race + TV: NBC (And The Rest)–More Colorful! | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()

  • Resa Haile

    Hi, I loved your article. I just started a Facebook page called Pro-Liu: Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson, and your article is one of my links.

  • refresh daemon

    I have to admit that Jude Law doesn’t come across to me as sexy, but I have friends who differ, so I respect their attraction.

  • kim

    I’m an Asian female, no fan of Lucy Liu, and to me this is more problematic than just Joanna Robinson’s post. For the 15 millionth time we have an (notoriously stereotypical) Asian female who is there to prop a white male (Holmes) in the media. No thanks. I don’t know if they are planning to make it a romantic thing but I can only assume so. I will not be watching to find out though.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/RS4KY6RKMZWNEIEJR3AOKRFUUM ThomasS

    This piece’s description of the “Dragon Lady” stereotype and Asian-American women in the media reminded me of two paralleling stories: Michelle Rodriguez and typecasting, and Hattie McDaniel’s “mammy” roles in the 1930s. 

    On one hand, you have three prime examples of women of color breaking into an industry dominated by men and white folks. Hattie McDaniel pioneered the way for black women to enter the entertainment industry; her mainstream success paved the way for black women to gain more prominent roles in media and gave white folks a taste of racial diversity. On the other hand, all three of these women are accused of taking on roles that perpetuate stereotypes. Michelle Rodriguez has primarily portrayed “tough girl” roles and has been accused of pidgeonholing Latina actresses. 

    As  you can see, there’s two double-edged swords here. Taking on typecasted roles – “Dragon Lady” ones for Lucy Liu and “tough girl” ones for Michelle Rodriguez simultaneously perpetuate aged stereotypes about domineering women of color, while challenge other stereotypes about submissivity in women of color. And taking on these roles both increase exposure for women of color – which we all want, right? – while prioritizing typecasted roles – which we also agree is problematic. 

    There’s no easy answer here. While McDaniel was heavily criticized by the black community for always taking on subservient roles in the media, she is now widely celebrated as an icon who made it easier for other black women to take roles in films. And denying these women their agency in doing what they think (in my opinion, justly so) will bring positive change for women and women of color is problematic. Rodriguez takes pride in portraying non-submissive women in leadership positions; McDaniel took great pride in her rise in industry. 

    I think it’s fair to critique discourse on women of color and media – Robinson’s post had a great deal of problematic language and assumptions. Going into the gray area of the roles that these actors take, however, is much more difficult. Liu may very well enjoy taking on roles that require her to be “icy”, “cold”, “sexy”, or “sullen”. Maybe she just wants to pay her bills and live a nice lifestyle. For me, I’ll just sit back and (hopefully) enjoy the presence of another woman of color on my screen, while keeping in mind that pushing for a variety of roles for women, women of color, people of color, and any other typecasted community, is worth doing. 

  • Guest

    Uh, have you seen Lucy Liu in the Lifetime movie, Marry Me?  It’s my fiancee’s favorite movie and she makes me watch it whenever it’s on – much to my chagrin.  Liu plays a normal, sweet, wholesome woman.  No sexy time in that movie.    

    I’m not saying I’m a fan of hers, but she does have range outside of the Asian sex kitten roles.  Robinson has been brainwashed by the White Media Industrial Complex to think Liu can only play the sexy parts.

  • Roundelay78

    Personally, I’ve always liked Liu since I saw her on ALLY MCBEAL back in the day—granted, she’s always played problematic characters that are dark and disturbing, which is why I came to like seeing her in films in the first place. She’s always gone for the difficult,prickly, somewhat challenging roles to play–particularly the action roles, which she’s great at, BTW—-but to say that’s all she can play based on her history of those kinds of roles is ridiculous, because she has done a few non-badass roles—for example, in the gangster flick LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN, she actually plays a sweet,thoughful foil to the main male character–not a sidekick or a helpmate, but just a small but significant low-key role. It was interesting to see her NOT play the badass for a change, plus her previous try at a T.V. series involved just playing a regular person—it didn’t last but a minute though. Yeah, she can do sexy, but within the limited range of decent roles she’s been able to get as an Asian-American actress working in Hollywood, she’s shown ( at least to me) that’s she’s capable of doing other things. More power to her–I’d love to see her on a weekly T.V. show, just like my other fave Taraji Henson on PERSON OF INTEREST.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Javan-Nelums/696759111 Javan Nelums

     Ok I read mystery mangas (I love Detective Conan). But I think that Lucy
    Liu should of been Sherlock or Mycroft and have someone else be Watson
    or Sherlock. I don’t like the fact a WOC is a second fiddle to the male

    Ideal casting:
    If Liu is Sherlock
    Watson: Alexa Vega (Spy Kids fame), America Ferrera or Noah Gray-Cabey
    Mycroft: Morena Baccarin

    If Liu is Mycroft
    Sherlock: Gabriel Union
    Professor Moriarty: Neil Patrick Harris.
    Watson: Alexa Vega.

    Instead of Watson being a war Hero, S/he’s a medical student trying to
    pay for college and moving out. So Watson Character sees an ad for a
    roommate and a job. So Watson meets Sherlock (Liu).

    again I don’t think that Lucy liu should play a sidekick or a love interest. I
    think she’ll do well as Sherlock. Plus I role my eye if the female
    sidekick is the romance fodder for the male hero.

  • Anonymous

    While I can’t speak to Lucy Liu’s acting range (I’ve seen maybe two of her films?), which I do see as your main contention with Joanna’s article, I’m with her in a big way on one thing: I’d much rather see a woman, especially a woman of color, play Holmes than Watson–and I would LOVE to see a woman of color play Holmes. Seriously, that would make my life so much better. But a lady Watson makes me kinda nervous. Not because I don’t love genderswapped casting, or because Liu should play Dragon Lady instead of sweet, but because I anticipate this new Holmes show being an unceasing messy slew of chauvinism, sexism, and male privilege justifying itself with a female Watson who’s never smart enough or quick enough and feeeeeeelings and emooooooootions because she is a laaaaaaaaady and she stays by her man through thick and thin. I think it’s possible to do a male Holmes/female Watson well, with grace and thoughtfulness, in a way that won’t make me scream with rage…but I just don’t think it’ll happen. I’d love to be proven wrong!

  • refresh daemon

    Robinson’s argument is also flawed in that, if sexy Jude Law can play Watson, then why can’t sexy Lucy Liu?

  • Anonymous

    As a long-time Holmes aficionado, I really wish this whole Watson-as-bumbling-sidekick trend would die a swift death. Conan Doyle wrote Watson as a swashbuckling, courageous, handsome bloke whom the ladies swooned over. Truth. Don’t believe me? Read the books. So anyone contesting Liu’s casting on those grounds can just STFU right now. Interpretations of Holmes and Watson have been numerous and varied over the years, with the exception of the racial homogeneity of the actors playing them. Well, it’s 2012 and we need an upgrade I say! I’m choosing optimism about Liu’s role and how it might play out.

    • Anonymous

      This. I mean, I feel kind of bad that my first thought was “Wait, Watson was the handsome one with game” and not something about the substantive issues, but… There is something to be said for pointing out Fractal Wrongness.

    • http://www.facebook.com/erikakharada Erika Harada


    • miga

      http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=210  I’m going to leave this here.  I have a feeling you might enjoy it :)

  • Anonymous

    It never ceases to amaze me the lengths people will go to complain about actors of color taking roles that “should have gone to white people.”  It was the same thing with the Gwen character on Merlin.  I’m excited to see Lucy Liu in this role.  It shows someone is willing to do the same old story we’ve seen a million times in a new way. 

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MQEC5FUPX6GT5FFCFG3RK3LUOI Rebecca

      This. Why do white people throw a fuss when the role is given to someone outside the tended race? Unless if it head serious relevance to the plot that that character was white (It wouldn’t make much sense if Lucy Lui was a plantation slave working to be freed on the under ground rail road or if you try to cast  Tyler Perry as the King of England in a historical piece.) then shut up! 

    • RVCBard

      But then they turn around and talk about “the best person for the job” when it comes to casting White people for roles that people of color can do real justice to.