Over spring break, the CW did a thing. Characters on both “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin,” which air back-to-back on Monday nights, explicitly interrogated whether their women-led stories pass the Bechdel test. Each show’s writers could’ve strung together an episode’s worth of suitably passing moments to present their “progressive” approaches to gender — after all, the Bechdel test is increasingly touted as the feminist standard against which various media should be assessed. But to my delight, both shows unapologetically violated Bechdel’s three cardinal rules, instead using this opportunity to probe the limitations of the test as a whole. It validated my belief that there isn’t — shouldn’t be — a universal rubric for what makes television “feminist.”
Disabusing myself of such rigid expectations has allowed me to recognize feminism in unlikely places, including Sherlock Holmes adaptation and police procedural “Elementary.”
Let’s first deal with the Union Jack-clad elephant in the room: CBS’s casting Lucy Liu in a role Martin Freeman also plays is not, to me, feminist in and of itself. Nor is the fact that “Elementary” strives to be less misogynistic (and racist, and homophobic) than its British predecessor — that’s just common decency.
But deviating from much of Holmes neo-canon by making Watson talented and independent, in addition to fiercely loyal? That’s feminist — and risky. If Watson is no longer the moon, solely existing to establish Sherlock’s brilliance by juxtaposition — is he really so remarkable? Are his adventures even worth watching?
I certainly believe so, because this revamped Holmes-Watson dynamic offers a nuanced, thoughtful take on genius. There’s no denying Sherlock’s keen mind, his appetite for puzzles, his extraordinary ability to see past obvious conclusions. But most compelling are his flashes of humility. Coming to terms with the utter unextraordinariness of his heroin addiction causes Sherlock to see his investigative skills in a new light and recognize Watson’s natural talent for detective work. Over the past three odd years, her evolution under his mentorship and her growing confidence in her new career have been a joy to watch. I’ll never tire of seeing Sherlock and Watson pulling all-nighters tackling giant files together, but Joan’s ability to work cases alone destabilizes Sherlock as the absolute center of this world, allowing for so much added richness in the form of new, Holmes-less relationships, conflicts, and storylines.
For all the ways TV disappoints me, I’m always thankful that Joan Watson — Asian American, no less — exists in all her infinite agency. She isn’t the vessel of Sherlock’s salvation; she pushes him to hold himself accountable and strengthen his emotional intelligence. She can’t “cure” his addiction, but she’ll always be mindful of his sobriety. She sets boundaries, she finds healthy ways to address her insecurities, and despite her regard for others, she always trusts her own judgment.
She is, in short, my feminist favorite, even if she fails the Bechdel test from time to time.
Hidden Gem: Watson and Holmes’ ongoing co-parenting of their tortoise, Clyde.
#RelationshipGoals: Since Moriarty/Watson sparring opportunities remain few and far between (inter-network negotiations strike again!), here’s to Watson/Bell—often overlooked, but always rewarding.
Selectively Forget: That Watson bests Kitty in singlestick without ever really “aiming for the pate.”