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.
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.