I was thinking about how I’ve seen a few people express disappointment that Joan Watson wasn’t a military doctor. I’ll admit, I was disappointed too, especially when I heard the rumour that she was a surgeon who’d been fired for negligence. Except she wasn’t - she quit out of a sense of guilt. But I think it’s also important that she wasn’t involved in the military to begin with.
ACD’s Watson was a military doctor of the British Empire. When he joins, he is assigned to a regiment in British India - ie, he is sent to continue enforcing British rule and white supremacy. Upon arrival in Bombay, he discovers “the second Afghan War had broken out”. This phrasing makes it seem as though Afghanistan was the aggressor. So what actually triggered it? Afghanistan refused to allow Britain to establish a diplomatic mission and turned back the party that tried to come over the Khyber Pass. That’s it. The end result was Afghanistan ceding territory to Britain and allowing Britain control over its foreign relations. Again, white supremacy and British control (if not outright rule). And Watson’s heroism is pre-established by his having been in this military.
Sherlock Holmes was written by a white Englishman for white people of the British Empire, and so it is not surprising that Watson’s military career is presented as a good thing.
Elementary is being written and broadcast almost ninety years after the last ACD Sherlock Holmes story was published, during another series of wars in the Middle East instigated by the West, another series of wars meant to reinforce Western control (political and economical) and white supremacy. To have a character’s heroism and strength pre-established by being in these wars would frankly be tasteless.
Joan Watson is definitely not less empowered, or a weaker character, for not directly participating in this. Even outside of this context (which is a massive thing to ignore), there are still two very simple questions:
- Why is it more empowering/stronger to choose to join the army than to choose not to?
- Why is it more empowering/stronger to be forced to retire due to injury than to choose to leave? (Incidentally, ACD’s Watson chooses to give up his practice, as mentioned in The Norwood Builder. Mrs. Watson is never mentioned again, and has presumably passed - perhaps Elementary’s Watson leaving the surgical field after her patient’s death and its impact on her is a parallel to this)
Elementary’s Watson does not need to be a military doctor simply because ACD’s Watson was - the point of an adaptation is not to cohere to every detail of the original, otherwise there would be no point in creating adaptations. Setting Elementary in the 21st century, it’s important to take into account how this time period (and Watson’s gender, and race) changes her experiences.
In the end, I think I like Joan Watson better this way.
Joan Watson is what she is, and Elementary is what it is. Adaptions do not need to be perfectly align with the original, as you pointed out, and obviously Joan Watson is not a man, to highlight this point. I won’t argue that the Afghan Wars, the current war, and white colonialism are all bad: I think we can all be in absolute agreement about this. I am still disappointed that Joan Watson was not a military doctor. Primarily because she is a woman, and American.
I absolutely respect civilians who choose to lead peaceful lives, who condemn the war, and their reasons. But I believe it is unfair to condemn individual soldiers for choosing to serve. Forgive me if I’m wrong in interpreting this tone throughout your essay. What happened in the Second Afghan War and what is happening in the current Middle Eastern conflicts would be so beyond the control of both John Watson and Joan Watson that it is a bit naive to suggest we look down on them for joining the Army (pretending Joan Watson had) and being participants. The vast majority of soldiers, those with whom the Watsons would stand, are powerless as to when a war starts, ends, what command decisions are made during.
Soldiers become soldiers for an infinite variety of different reasons depending on their individual character. College money, honest desire to defend their country, damn those dress blues, family tradition, literally no where else to go, to liberalize the military, to make sure the military remains conservative, and doubtless, yes, there are those who serve because they believe Western ideals should triumph, and for the wrong reasons. John and Joan are both Army doctors, and realistically, they joined the military to help pay off school debts, and out the desire to help the wounded and dying.
Whether or not they were there, young men and women were going to die. Lose limbs and eyes and pieces of their brain and their lives. Leaving behind spouses and parents and children. Joan Watson could opt not to join the Army out of brave pacifism, and such atrocities would continue without her; or she could opt to join and offer her skill in an attempt to save lives that otherwise might be lost without her staffed. I argue that neither option is more honorable than the other.
Also let’s not forget that around ten years earlier the climate surrounding this war was completely different. I hate to invoke 9/11, but this country was attacked by a foreign entity on a scale comparable only to Pearl Harbor. New York was changed forever. Physically, emotionally. A friend who lived there at the time told me that for months afterward she had never heard the city so quiet. A whole city in mourning, going through the stages of grief. Rage. One morning there were 3000 lives, and by the afternoon there were not. A military response to such a tragedy did not seem unreasonable, at all. Many joined in the wake of this with the desire to see punished those who stole from them. Joan Watson is a New Yorker. You can’t condemn those who joined in the wake of such events for what their government decided to do 3-4-10 years later.
[I admit, I am not yet caught up with Elementary so correct me if I’m wrong. Does Joan Watson ever state aloud that she made a conscious ideological decision not to join the Army? If not, then I am hesitant to praise her character for this. There is a chance that the reason she is not a retired Army doctor now is because she never seriously entertained the thought of it, nor thoughts of what her participation in such a war would mean to those non-Westerners who are suffering so horribly. Not because of pacifism, or an interest in human rights. The messages of TV are limited to what we hear characters say, or see them do, and I can not praise a character for something assumed about her outside the canon. It could be apathy.]
All of that aside. As I’ve mentioned, writers of Elementary decided to make Joan Watson not only a woman, but an American. America’s relationship with its women, its media representation of women, is turbulent at best, and as far as I am aware, there are almost no solid media representations of the female American soldier. I am not a soldier (sailor) - yet - so I will not pretend to be an authoritative voice on the experience of America’s lady soldiers, but I will say that as with any male dominated field, on the whole they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and this is a constant fight. I know at least ten people in my life by name who believe that women are too weak to be in the military at all. Women are not allowed in combat, but have been and will continue to be injured in combat situations. When they return home, the medical services available to veterans are often lacking for women in comparison to men. For the most part these are issues that are completely ignored. Being an Army doctor, who was injured in combat, would have put Joan Watson at the center of these very real American problems for women, and the writer’s could have used her as a platform for them. At the very least, she would’ve been a strong, female soldier, so that people watching would know strong female soldiers do exist.
This is why I was sorely disappointed to learn that Joan Watson was never an Army doctor. I think I am justified.
Again, adaptions do not need to be the same as the original. Shirley Holmes and Bo Sawchuck are excellent fun and Victorian Holmes never had a pink cell phone I am sure. Personally I would say that Elementary is worse off for stripping Joan Watson of military service, but that is my opinion, and you’re allowed to say you think the show is better off for it. She can still be a well written female character, which is always desperately in demand, and appreciated by all.
Yes. This is a beautiful and well worded response.
I haven’t had a chance to watch Elementary, yet, and I have no ill feelings towards it what so ever (in fact, I look forwards to being able to watch it once school ends and I have the time). I, like many, were wary of the change in Watson’s gender, mainly due to the way that women are written on television; I was worried how she’d be handled. So far, from what I’ve heard, she’s been handled very well and I’m thrilled.
The only thing that still bothers me IS the fact that she’s no longer an army doctor. I agree with the second argument that the original poster, and anyone who agrees with them, are more than justified in feeling the way that they do. But my issue with Joan Watson not being ex-military is completely with the above argument: it feels like they did it because it was “not believable enough” for a woman to be an army doctor.