Joan Watson Deserves Better: Audience Reception and the Gender Politics of TV Sidekickdom

Curator's Note

After Elementary’s strong and critically well-received first season, Dr. Joan Watson (played by Lucy Lui) has become a much beloved TV character, especially amongst women viewers. Fans took to social media to express their love of all things Joan Watson, especially her stellar fashion choices. But more than that, fans gravitated towards the relationship (and its evolution in the first season) between Joan and Sherlock because it moved away from the canonical Holmes/Watson dynamic. In Elementary, Watson becomes firmly established as Holmes’s partner – not his sidekick or assistant – as seen in her transition from sobriety counselor, to protégé and finally to Sherlock’s professional equal. More than that she is assertive, confident, and is more than willing to challenge Holmes's ego and eccentricities.

However, while season one mostly delivered on this promise of a "new" feminist-inspired Watson, season two seemed to struggle at times with how to locate Watson in relation to Sherlock, even as a major narrative arc dealt with their growing professional rift. As the accompanying clip from “An Unnatural Arrangement” illustrates, Joan becomes increasingly frustrated with Sherlock’s way of running their consulting partnership, and she sternly reminds him that “partnership implies equality.”

This unevenness in storytelling prompted many frustrated tweets by fans who criticized the writers for sidelining Watson in service of furthering Sherlock’s character development. Audience dissatisfaction prompted the hashtag Joan Watson Deserves Better which was used on social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter to bring attention to the problem (and hopefully the Elementary writers’ room). These concerns were exacerbated by a rather unbelievable romantic plot development between Watson and Mycroft (which fans disparagingly referred to as "Joancroft"), Sherlock’s estranged brother, and the general feeling that Watson had become nothing more than Sherlock’s sounding board or moral compass. The general sentiment of the #JoanWatsonDeservesBetter discussions has been that fans want more Joan, not less, and a more fully fleshed out Joan who embodies all of the complexities that Sherlock does. I want to suggest that this negative response to season two Joan offers interesting insights into how Elementary fans, fiercely protective of Joan Watson (and what she symbolizes), actively resist the traditional concept of the sidekick as less than or inferior to the hero. Gender politics are clearly an important part of this discussion, reflecting the appetite for sidekicks who transcend convention and challenge the status quo.


Elementary was one of the series that I chose to binge-watch over the summer. And I agree with both of your points: Joan was written as Sherlock's equal in the first season but was written as less than his equal in the second. Now in the third season though I'm noticing some rather dramatic shifts that may actually end out tipping the scales more in Joan's favor (such as [spoilers] having Sherlock seek Joan's permission to rejoin the NYPD as a consultant). Part of me wonders if this is the writers attempting to make up for poorly writing the Sherlock/Watson relationship last season or if they are doing this to demonstrate that the balance of that relationship will constantly be shifting. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the potential implications of this kind of relationship where there really is no equality, the power is just always shifting.

Great points Liza-Anne and I was thinking the same thing re: the writing of Joan for season 3 as a response to season 2. More and more, I also think that the writers are purposefully exploring the power dynamics between them, and it certainly does look like it has shifted in Joan's favour this season (although I'm a bit behind!). As for the "equality/power" issue, from a feminist perspective, a relationship that is not "equal" is clearly problematic but "equality" is also still an ideal, something we are striving towards everyday (we still live in white male-dominated society). I think Elementary actually acknowledges these challenges as seen through the evolution of Watson/Holmes. Right now I have more questions than answers: What do we even mean by "equality" within the context of the show or the politics of gender representation? That women can do the same jobs as men? That they are as smart, etc? Or are we saying there is "equality" if they work on the same number of cases and so forth? What I love about this show is that unlike other detective/crime shows, the main partners actually talk about, negotiate and constantly define the terms of their relationship, professionally and personally.The status of their partnership is not taken for granted and nothing is assumed. For me, this seems more authentic somehow. Does it matter if the power shifts, so long as it does so "equally"? Isn't that a kind of equality? However, just based on some of the comments I've read about this season, some women viewers are still unhappy, and perhaps the constant back-and-forth will continue to frustrate them. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those fans who think that Joan already has too much representational power (i.e., tweeting things like "this isn't the Joan Show!").

This is a fascinating examples of audience/fan research. I’ve done a bit of this looking at the queer fandom that has gathered around NBC’s Hannibal, but what you’re presenting seems a bit more subtle: on the one hand, the fans are calling for simply better storytelling (it seems to me), but, on the other hand, there is a clear feminist impetus underlying the fan criticism. Can you say how representative the #JoanWatsonDeservesBetter contingent is within the Elementary fan community? (I'd be interested in any sense of the community you might have—or even if we could speak of a specific fandom.) I recently started looking at the #Elementary Twitter postings on the nights when the show airs, and I was struck by the ambivalent discussions around Kitty, specially in her relationship with and positioning to Joan. How do you see the addition of Kitty relating to the #JoanWatsonDeservesBetter discourse?

Thanks Jeff. I was pretty involved on Twitter during the first season but it's gotten a bit more difficult over time, so it was nice to revisit these convos, and hopefully use this post as a springboard to develop a larger piece. I would have to say that I don't think the #JWDB discussion caught on the way I was hoping but most of the fans who took part seemed to have a saavy take on gender politics and TV representation. Although, I wonder if the Tumblr discussions are more pervasive which I am less familiar with (I prefer talking about TV on Twitter). Clearly, there is a strong if minor contingent of feminist Elementary fans who are not afraid to get vocal on social media. Given the construction of Joan, this doesn't really surprise me at all. I think that there are many women out there who, like me, never cared much for the original series, like at all, but were drawn to the show because of Lucy Lui and the creation of Joan Watson. Ah Kitty. I have to say I really like her and think she's a great addition to the show. However, I'm sure she'll take some flack from fans who think she's taking attention away from Joan, which is what happened with Moriarty. Some fans argued that the writers were more attentive to her character than Joan's, illustrating how these discussions are inflected with gender and race issues (the white woman side character getting more attention than the racialized woman who is a co-lead). So that adds another layer to these discussions. Kitty's relationship with Holmes feels quite different than Watson's which might have to do with her age - she is much younger - but she was [spoiler!] also a victim of a sex crime. This creates interesting power dynamics between the 3 of them - Holmes wants both of them to be involved in Kitty's training while Watson seems more reluctant (i.e., her comment "we're not her parents") will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out and whether she too will resist the sidekick conventions. btw, if you're interested in queer fandom readings, I've seen quite a bit of stuff on Tumblr about Moriarty and Watson.

Interesting. I'm fascinated by the way that "progressive" voice fit—or do not fit—into the broader fan communities. For example, there is apparently a substantial homophobic rejection to the queer Hannibal fanfic subgenre. With your post, I immediately thought of GamerGate and how virulently anti-feminist the online world can be, and how feminist advocates can be subjected to relentless harassment. But did you ever detect an anti-feminist backlash on Twitter to #JWDB, or was it simply ignored by the majority of the fans? I was rather struck by the way that Joan and Sherlock's relationship did quickly become parental with Kitty. Specifically how Joan's therapeutic relationship with Sherlock was transferred to Kitty. For me, one of the pleasures of the series is its renegotiation of the norms of heterosocial friendship (a quarter of a century after the declaration that "men and women can't be friends" in When Harry Met Sally...). In the first season, the series played with the will-the-or-won't-they trope but pretty clearly shut the door on that possibility in the second season. Sherlock certainly sees their relationship as a superior to heteronormative coupling. The mentor/therapist relationships with Kitty creates an alternative family structure (a recurring motif in contemporary American television with series, e.g., Friends, Will & Grace, New Girl, Happy Endings, etc.). Sherlock similarly imagines a sort of a familial threesome between John, Sherlock, and Mary (with Sherlock as the asexual husband/son). #joaniarty! That's amazing. Thanks for the tip.

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