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question of the day: How can we update archetypal stories and characters (such as Sherlock Holmes) to be more gender equitable?

low gender warning Elementary Lucy Liu Jonny Lee Miller

I love this (via The Sociological Cinema). The alert box reads:

Low Gender Warning

Casting a female actor in a supportive role does not update the ‘Holmes’ concept. A main female lead is suggested. Would you like to diversify?

Elementary has lots of problems, but one of the big ones is that the gender swap for Watson, making the character female, is accompanied by a change in her relationship with Holmes: she’s not a sidekick and a documentarian, and she’s not a decorated military doctor; she’s a disgraced civilian doctor, and she’s his babysitter, there to make sure he doesn’t backslide into substance abuse. Why not just call her “Mommy”?

So, if a genuinely fair updating of the Holmes concept might require a female Holmes, or at least a female Watson who is a war veteran and not Holmes’ nurse, what changes would other familiar stories demand?

How can we update archetypal stories and characters to be more gender equitable? Are there cases where it wouldn’t make the most sense to leave an entire story intact and simply change the protagonist’s gender? Would a better updating be retelling classic stories from the perspective of female characters who would have been on the periphery? (For example, a Victorian Sherlock Holmes told from the perspective of Mrs. Hudson — maybe she wasn’t an old lady, and maybe she wasn’t merely a housekeeper? — could highlight gender issues both of the time and still present today.) Which classic stories would you like to see updated with a female protagonist, and how would you do it?
(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Danielm80

    So, if a genuinely fair updating of the Holmes concept might require a female Holmes, or at least a female Watson who is a war veteran and not Holmes’ nurse, what changes would other familiar stories demand?

    Well, if you wanted to see a female Watson, you could hire Mark Waid to write the story, and you could publish it as a comic book called Ruse.

  • PJK

    I don’t agree with the statement that she is  just there to play his “Mommy”. She may have started out that way in the initial episodes, but there is clearly a plan to move Joan from this role into an active contributor role. This is clearly shown in the later episodes where Joan contributes  more and more to the cases Sherlock is asked to solve.

    There is obviously an intent in place to do this gradually (and you can argue that this shouldn’t be necessary) and I can see why you’d want to do this in a series that needs to fill 22 episodes per season (just to give the characters room to develop).

    As for changing her background from military to civilian doctor, I can understand that. The US military has just opened up the position of field surgeon (a surgeon deployed with combat units) this summer (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2012/02/new-formal-roles-women-combat/48525/), which would make it difficult to have Joan Watson to have filled this role when the series started.

  • RogerBW

    I want stories that are informed by the characters they’re about. If you can drop a different person into the protagonist slot, the premise is so loose that it could be about lots of people anyway; I’d rather read or watch the story that only works because it’s about this particular person.

  • PJK

    Hmm, my problem with your statement is that following this train of thought would make any derived work instantly impossible.

    If you make a movie or a TV series about a character from a book, you will always run into the issue of interpretation by the actor playing that character, even when this derived work follows the original work faithfully.

    There are always aspects of the character that are left up to the actor’s choice, since they are not fleshed out in the original work.

    If you mean to say that characters in a derived work should stay as close as possible to the original character, then I can agree with you, though I do not think that attributes outside of character traits are as important to get correct.

  • RogerBW

    As a general rule I’d much rather see an original work than a derived one, but that’s not what I was talking about. Rather, I think that a story should be built around the protagonist, rather than the protagonist being slotted into an existing story.

  • Bob

    I’d rather new stories were created all together, rather than, say, re-doing Holmes, and changing the gender of Watson. In the society in which the Sherlock Holmes stories were written , and read, the two central characters could only have been men. However, if any of your readers are interested in discovering a Victorian mystery, which features a smart, brave and determined female protagonist in the role of ”detective”, look for a copy of Wilkie Collins’ ”The Law and the Lady”. It’s a cracking good read, with a genuinely creepy villain. I’d rather see an adaptation of this classic novel, than a doctored version of something already over familiar.

    Another recommendation would be the great Joyce Carol Oates’ ”The Mysteries of Winterthurn”, a pastiche of Victorian detective fiction, slyly subverted by the fact that the male detective frequently gets things wrong, and only the female characters-notionally peripheral to the main plot, and largely ignored by the rest of the male characters- seem to know what’s really going on. Lastly, I think Christopher Fowler has written some short stories about Sherlock Holmes, from the point of view of the long suffering, but quietly observant Mrs. Hudson

  • Tangeu

    I am against fundamentally changing any established character, be it gender or race or personality.  And if you are not changing the character at a fundamental level and they are exactly the same in every way except their genitals (barring the case where that plays an integral role), why bother?  For me, changing such things clearly shows that the base character doesn’t matter, but rather the bankroll of the pre-installed fanbase of that character.  Maybe I have a different perspective because as a comic fan I have seen my favorite characters disrespected or destroyed over and over again through film, tv, and reboots all in pursuit of the fabled wider audience, ignoring or taking for granted the current one.

    If you want a lady Sherlock Holmes, create one.  Maybe she grew up reading and admiring Sherlock Holmes and routinely “put in her place” for being too smart and unladylike.  There, I just made someone way more interesting than a simple gender-bent “Sheryl Holmes”

  • Kathy_A

    There have been some interesting stuff done on stage that gender-swaps roles. For example, several years ago in the Chicago area, there was a concert presentation of 1776 which had a female John Adams and a male Abigail! According to the reviews, it was a very successful interpretation (I wish I had seen it, but I was unable to get tickets before it closed).

  • bronxbee

    the Irene Adler books by Carole Nelson Douglas makes Irene a detective with a female “watson-like” companion; they worked very well and would be great for adapation to televison…

  • KEAplin

    Interesting, because I’ve been pondering doing a series where Della Street is the real mastermind behind Perry Mason. She & Paul do all the work and cogitation and Perry is just there impressive ‘front’ in court.

  • http://twitter.com/RothAnim Jonathan Roth

    This is a good point. Holmes as a woman does completely alter the character’s relationship with the world, especially since this wasn’t all that long after the start of the Suffragette movement.

    That said, I don’t entirely agree that a character should not be changed in adaptation: after all, making a modern-day Sherlock Holmes is as drastic a change as a Shirley Holmes. Showing what someone as brilliant as Holmes would have had to struggle with in 19th century England could be very illuminating. I just think that there needs to be the same level of care and attention in the adaptation of race and gender as there is to a modern setting. 

  • Tangeu

    I don’t disagree with you, properly done it could be an interesting new look at a character.  I guess I just don’t trust them (a proverbial all encompassing them) to take that kind of care and have that sort of attention.  It’s a terrible thing and I wish producers cared about their creations as much as fans do, but it’s dollar signs all the way down.  With that I can’t think that any switch to a female lead would give us an interesting, unique new perspective into a character but rather (at most) give us advertisements with more “sex appeal”.

  • Bracyman

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Watson in Elementary is not a disgraced doctor, she’s a doctor who walked away from surgery after she made a mistake. Not the same thing. Also, she takes a far more involved role in the detection process than the original Watson. She’s already starting to pick up some of his techniques and in one episode solves a case when Holmes gets it wrong.

    I think (<– opinion indicator) that if you want to update a classic with an eye towards gender equality then Holmes is not a good choice anyways. He's barely even human in the original stories: practically infallible, superhuman capabilities, no real flaws. His penis is practically vestigial, except that it possibly caused him to dismiss Irene at first.

    How about Warehouse 13's adaptation of HG Wells as a woman?

  • Damian Barajas

    Though the question is a good one, I’m not in favor of just updating arechetypical stories since the ones we have are fundamentally male centric, I mean, chick-flick is not a term of endearment, the plot usually revolves around a “man obsession” in some way, this is probably the reason why men are able to sit through these movies, because at least pleasing the man is the most important thing for the women in the movie (Hey, that’s the way I see it anyway).

    I don’t know what they are, and I don’t think that modern dramas about real life are elligible for what I’m talking about, but there must be aspirational female stories to be told, not just the hero’s journey with a female character, but a type of story that speaks to the human experience and that can be best told from a woman’s point of view.

  • http://twitter.com/misscelista Celista

    I suppose we have Nancy Drew and Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher….>.<

    A simple gender change is not enough, men and women are socialized differently (for good or for bad) and experience the world in different ways, all of which has an effect on our character. 

    I would love to see a female Sherlock Holmes, although the female mystery-solver is not a novel concept to either literature or cinema. However, I would prefer that with a gender change for Holmes came new depth to an old character, rather than just an arbitrary gender swap.

  • Gee

    When I really think of “archetypal” stories, I tend to think of things like Robin Hood, the Lone Gunslinger, the trickster character, etc.  Sherlock Holmes has become one of those, because there is something universal in him.  That’s why some stories get remade and retold a bajillion times.  How many Holmes adaptations have there been, after all?   When a character is universal, they kind of transcend gender to my mind, and are just human.  I think if you changed the gender of characters like that, but kept them otherwise the same, it would have little to no effect.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is any real reason to do that (why not write original female characters?) — other than to give girls a badass representation to look up to, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
    I’m actually a pretty big Holmes fangirl, but there is no reason to my mind to be precious about gender when it so clearly doesn’t matter.  That’s kind of the fail of Elementary. It isn’t that Watson is a lady, it’s that Watson isn’t very Watsonlike. 

  • http://mistermunshun.blogspot.com/ Carl Eusebius

     There was also a gender-swapped stage version of one of my favorite films, A Clockwork Orange, that I would’ve loved to see, but its run was over before I even heard of it. =( I wonder how female Alex did “Singin’ in the Rain”…?

  • Sugaredwhimsey

    I think it’s actually much easier than you’d think, to alter some of these archetypal characters. Hell, they did it with Starbuck.  Switching a gender can and will change aspects of a character’s history, but personally? I’ve seen Robin Hood a bajillion times as a dude. I’m interested in seeing some of these archetypes meet the challenges they faced as women, because in all honesty, it stacks even more adversity against them and therefore makes them exponentially more badass.

    I think a lot of the problem now is we’re in some weird feminine power back lash. Additionally, The Powers That Be in Entertainment- mostly men- seem to know that there is some kind of need they aren’t fulfilling, and yet they also have no idea how to fill it.  SO we get something like the Beauty and the Beast reboot which misses the whole stupid point entirely. Female characters are still massively outnumbered in film mediums, and the high profile success of things like Twilight means that to money men, success basically apes the idea that females want  ambition-less, personality devoid proxies with a lot of men grasping at them. As long as they’re sexy. Someone explain to me how it is that at a movie made for women aimed at a female (and probably presumed heterosexual) audience still needs the woman to look beautiful? And why they they confused when it flops and every name in the credits except the costumer designer was a male?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    When a character is universal, they kind of transcend gender to my mind, and are just human.

    Do any female characters transcend gender to you?

    Because this really *is* the overarching issue: Male characters can be perceived are archetypal and universal, but female characters never are.

  • mortadella

    Helen Mirren as Prospero in the film adaptation of “The Tempest” worked really well.

  • Damian Barajas
  • Gee

     That is sadly true.  Many specific chracters (like Holmes) have transcended their origins to become archetypes, but they are almost always male, even if their defining characteristics have nothing to do with gender.  It’s even more the case in more generalized characters like the trickster, the mentor, the warrior, etc. 

  • Bracyman

    There are a few cases that were major movies at least. Salt was pretty awesome, and you could easily compare Evelyn to Jason Bourne. But what I’d like to see is a female version of Die Hard. Retired military cop, 2 kids and a rocky marriage.  Works for a security firm like Brinks or similar, and stumbles onto an elaborate terrorist/robbery while getting the kids for Christmas from Dad(Clive Owen?) in the Tory Park office complex. The kids are in the minivan in the parking garage watching Spongebob when the gates come down.

    BOOM! The “Iranian” terrorists crash the party, rounding up the guests (including the unfortunate man trying vainly to cover his nudity when interrupted in flagrante delecto with his boss). Sharon Gladstone is in the bathroom fixing her makeup after the argument with Dad (Bradley Cooper?) when she hears the unmistakable sound of automatic gunfire. A quick glance reveals the situation and she’s moving.

    No handgun to start with, but a tour in Iraq is enough for her to be familiar with improvised weaponry and the effectiveness of sabotage. I won’t give it all away, but the tour in Iraq is also going to make it easier to see through the “Iranian” disguise. The kids are a constant worry, but become an asset when she gets a cell phone and connects to the Microsoft system in the car. The final confrontation between the Blackwater VP who masterminded the plot to find and destroy documentation of his shady behavior in Afganistan and Sharon is the most intense scene in the movie, as the villain is holding a gun to her husband’s (Jeremy Renner?) head. I won’t give away the ending, cause I haven’t thought of one.

    I don’t think it’s really necessary, but you could also have a sidekick cop struggling to convince her superiors they have an asset on the inside. Hell yes, she could get the kids out when Blackwater McBadguy discovers they’re in the building and she commandeers the SWAT van to go through the security gate! The kids are piled underneath kevlar vests and a ricochet takes her in the shoulder, but the van flattens the second in command and scatters the rest of the terrorists on its way out the exit.

    I would watch this. Or they could try and make the Honor Harrington series into movies. I’m good with either. I honestly think some of these action guys would welcome the chance to be in a movie and not have to run all over the place.

  • PJK

    I read somewhere that Salt was originally pitched with Tom Cruise in the title role and only after he passed on the role did they approach Angelina Jolie.

  • RogerBW

    Yup – the original script was by Kurt Wimmer, and Brian Helgeland rewrote it for Jolie. (Cruise passed on Salt to do Knight and Day!)
    Also remember The Avengers – the TV series from the 1960s – where many of the scripts in the early seasons were written before the production team knew which of the various sidekicks would be involved in that episode. So they couldn’t put in stereotypically female stuff… which is why Cathy Gale, unlike almost all TV heroines of that period, ended up with interesting things to do. Then they repeated the effect with Emma Peel.

  • Bracyman

     Aaaaaand now the whole site is sad cause we all remember The Avengers movie.

    Although, it does bring up question that someone else mentioned earlier. Rather than “updating” a classic by just replacing a guy with a girl, something else would have to change. Action movie, not so much, but wouldn’t something like Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood would need a change in motivations or behaviour to make it more than just a gender bending remake? It seems to be the point the original referenced article was making. But damned if I can think of what it would be.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given that the mystery genre is one of the few literary genres–apart from romance, natch–that attracts as many female writers as male writers–and better yet, rewards such writers–one would think we had more than three female characters worth talking about in that genre.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Depends on your definition of “archetypal” and “universal”.

    After all, Xena is considered more than just a female version of Hercules, Buffy is popular all over the world and even female Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary have managed to find popularity with cultures way distant from the Middle East.