“I ship it” is probably one of the most common phrases you’ll hear in a fandom. If you’ve ever consumed media in any form, then you’ve probably shipped characters together, regardless of whether you knew the term “ship” or not. If you wanted Harry and Hermione to get together, then you shipped them. Or maybe Draco and Hermione. Or Draco and Harry. There can, and will, be numerous ships in one fandom, despite the existence of canon. Shipping in itself is tricky business, but it gets even trickier—but nevertheless interesting—in the midst of gender politics.
And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Not Harry Potter, unfortunately. But Sherlock Holmes.
We all know Sherlock Holmes. We all know his trusty assistant Watson. And we’re all familiar with the long-standing war being fought as to who the best Sherlock Holmes is. However, what cuts through all these shenanigans is the glaring queer subtext between the detective and his partner. People have shipped Holmes and Watson since time immemorial and it has only been strengthened by the re-emergence of the pair in newer media. For the longest time, JohnLock has been JohnLock—an m/m ship. But with the appearance of Elementary, the audience now has JoanLock, an m/f ship*.
What makes JoanLock incredibly interesting to me—apart from the fact that I love Elementary and Lucy Liu in suits to bits—is the effect it has on the Straights. As a fandom-participating wlw, we have always craved for representation. Tweets have been made justifying m/m or f/f ships asking for writers to make them canon. And when gay canon ships do appear, we flock to them, like birds, in what we call The Gay Migration. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if a show has a canon gay ship in it, then we probably have already seen it. M/m and f/f ships are so rare in a sea of heterosexual ships that every bit of it that appears is a big deal.
And then JoanLock… JoanLock makes the Straights crave. I have never seen them crave. In terms of romantic representation, heterosexuals have never want for anything. Their romance is handed to them on a silver platter while the Gays need to bang pots and pans like Oliver Twist asking for more. Yet here we have JoanLock, possibly the healthiest depiction of Sherlock and Watson, but nothing. Is. Happening. JoanLock who treat each other as equals, who trust each other with their lives, who live together and were willing to co-parent a child, who say things like “we are two people who love each other”, and they’re not…they’re not getting together. Devoid of the possibility of “pandering to the gays” or being “too political”, JoanLock would have been a viable ship to further the re-imagining of the pair or as an “exercise of creative liberties”. And yet.
I would be remiss to say that there is not a bit of schadenfreude on my part because of all this…straight-baiting, but the Elementary writers being adamant about Joan and Sherlock’s friendship opens up another avenue that is also rarely explored in media: platonic love between a man and a woman.
We’ve all seen how the story goes: if a woman so much as looks at a man, they are bound to fall in love. Or bang. In my experience, the only times a man and a woman are ever just friends are a), when one of them is gay, or b), when there is a third person in the group. The media we’ve been consuming has been peppered with these interactions time and time again that the existence of one man and one woman in a completely platonic relationship just doesn’t seem to sit right. There is that anticipation that they will get together at some point, as if their being buddies somehow is not enough.
However, this dynamic doesn’t always work. For instance, season 2 of the popular series Supergirl introduces us to Mon-El, a Daxamite prince who crash lands on Earth. Now, we’re familiar with this story but this time, it’s some pretty boy. This effectively puts Kara Zor-el, our protagonist, and Mon-el into a set-up of familiarity, sharing that feeling of being literal aliens in an unfamiliar world. Add the fact that Kryptonians and Daxamites are two warring alien races and you have extraterrestrial Romeo and Juliet. They do get together eventually but it’s one of the vilest relationships I have ever seen on TV. It would take some time to get into but the Kara-Mon-el arc of Supergirl was pretty good proof that sometimes…things that follow The Formula…are worse.
Elementary, meanwhile, shows the audience a relationship that grows gradually and together, through mutual understanding, support, and respect, from the literal muck of Sherlock’s heroin addiction. They value each other’s boundaries and are proud of each other’s abilities. Joan and Sherlock’s relationship shows us how a partnership should be while also making a point that one does not have to be in a romantic relationship to attain it. JoanLock shows us that sometimes, a friendship is infinitely better—and healthier—than a romance. JoanLock shows us that platonic love between a man and a woman is possible and valid. And let’s be honest, Joan and Sherlock’s partnership is what romantic relationships aspire to be.
The politics of shipping has now evolved alongside the discourse of its audience. It has become more…controversial, I suppose, more exposed due to the advent of social media, but at the same time more embracing. More inclusive. More conscious. It has become an avenue for discussion of numerous subjects that viewers didn’t find in TV shows before. Fandom and shipping wars can get out of control at times but it is undeniable that, in the right places, it has birthed nothing but knowledge, understanding, and acceptance among its community.
And that is how it should be.
*There’s also WatoLock, an f/f ship, from Miss Sherlock but that’s a different ballgame.