The Case of Lucy Liu and the Unasked Question

This impassioned open letter to the Sherlock Holmes fandom and the broader community is written by our guest contributor, Athena.

I’m angry. I had a bad day this week and it’s smoldering in the back of my brain. When CBS announced that Lucy Liu is going to play Joan Watson in Elementary, the new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, I was just happy to see a WOC, and an Asian woman no less, get a major role in a major TV production of a popular story. However, the Internet – predictably – had a conniption. While there are those who are happy about the new show and casting choices, there are also people who insist that Watson can’t be anything but a (white) man, and there are those who worry that changing Watson’s gender would allow the network to convert the implied homosexual subtext to an explicit heterosexual text.

Yet, in all of the apprehensive conversations about CBS trying to hetero the homoerotic through gender-bending, there was something glaringly amiss: the topic of Liu’s race. So this is a post – more precisely, a rant – about these conversations and about how it really feels.

For all the fretting that the homosexual subtext in the relationship between Sherlock and Watson would be transformed by the heterosexual formulation, why is nobody worried about how her position as an Asian woman affects this dynamic? Representations of Asian women in popular culture are almost always problematic – why is nobody asking those questions? Why isn’t there a concern that Watson might be exaggerated as care-giving or supportive in a demure-Asian-woman way, instead of a “girlfriend”/heterosexual way? Why aren’t more people pondering if CBS can do a decent job and avoid exoticizing Liu? On the reverse of that, shouldn’t there be serious concern about the de-sexualization of Asian women in American culture, unless they’re being passive-giggly-sexual or are Suzy Wong, in which case it’s a-okay? I have a whispering feeling that had Watson been cast as Black, Latina, or (the most unlikely) Native American, people would have been immediately discussing how the show would treat her race.  The question is how CBS might portray an interracial relationship – romantic or otherwise – since it’s a relationship that is extremely fraught with racial, sexual, Orientalist, colonial, imperial histories and inflections. Why the fuck aren’t more people wondering what might happen to an Asian woman in a white man’s show? Somehow, the idea of a potential mistranslation of a homoerotic subtext is causing more anxiety than the fact that the new direction might perpetuate a story WE don’t want to hear anymore.

Yes, “we”. I use “we” very deliberately because I want to indicate those of us who are literally hurting every time people we thought were allies are uneven in their engagement. Why is it resting on us to ask why people aren’t talking about this? I, as an Asian woman living in America (and note that I said Asian, not my specific ethnicity because this culture doesn’t make those distinctions in positive ways), am tired of the invisibility, the elision, the assumption that we are doing just fine and that the model minority stereotype is “gentler” than others.* We are not fucking fine.

Think of the representation of Asian women on American television. Think of any interracial Asian/Caucasian relationships on television. Think of what kind of Asian woman is on TV (by that I mean, you will never see one as brown as me or anything less gorgeous than Lucy Liu – where’s our range, our representation?). I don’t think these things are separate from the fact that people always ask me what type of Asian I am, or if I’m 100% Chinese. When men harass me it’s almost always about my race (“Sayonara!”, “Are you Korean?”, “Hey Nepali girl!”), and people do ask me if I’m good at math or play the violin or if my parents pressured me to do well in school. We aren’t seen except for our racialized sex, and then we get told it’s because we’re doing just great.

You may think I’m reading too much into this. If you do, you should go back and re-read what I wrote. This is as personal as it gets because this is every damn day. To be honest, I fucking hate how hurt I am, because it would be easier if it didn’t feel so personal. This is not the oppression Olympics; I am not trying to be a martyr or accuse anyone in particular of being a bad agent for social justice. I’m pleading, begging for everyone to read this and to hear where we are feeling the burden fall; to listen to each other so everybody can learn and it can finally stop hurting every time it feels like we’re the only ones remembering Lucy Liu’s race.

* Here seems as good a place as any to note that this isn’t about who-has-it-worse-in-America. I reject any ranking of suffering because it’s not productive and it isn’t how racism and patriarchy work.

About Athena

Athena is a Chinese-English part-time geek living in New York City, concerned with feminism, TV, food, and other such serious things. She can be found at Suga Butta.
This entry was posted in guest post, open letter, race, television. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Case of Lucy Liu and the Unasked Question

  1. ceejeemcbeegee says:


  2. Claire says:

    I wonder if part of the reason this hasn’t been discussed is because Lucy Liu has been coded as a “kickass” Asian woman, not a “nurturing” one (sort of like Samuel L. Jackson is always coded “badass” in pop culture). I don’t think this stereotype is any better, necessarily, but with Charlie’s Angels and the Kill Bill franchise, Lucy Liu has been set up as a sword-wielding, fighting, wise-cracking “one of the guys”. I’d be surprised if this TV show didn’t hire her for the role because of that (and, y’know, cos she’s pretty).

  3. Bailey says:

    Thanks for writing this. I wanted to write something for ABPW, but I knew I would miss some things, so I just left it. This is perfect, and expresses so well the biggest potential problems with what’s going on at CBS.

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