“My brain is different than yours”: Making Autism and Cripping Romance in CBS’s Elementary

This discourse analysis was originally submitted for the Graduate level course: ANTHROPOLOGY 9228B-001: Language and Power, taught by Dr. Tania Granadillo. While I am the Social Media Coordinator for LAST, this represents my own analysis and may not be representative of either LAST’s stances as an organization, or of the perspectives of other LAST members.

Sherlock Holmes has seen innumerable adaptations since his creation in 1887, and his first appearance on screen in 1900 (Camp 2018, 1-2). Holmes has often been speculated to be on the Autism spectrum. This speculation has sometimes extended to speculation about his author, Conan Doyle, and the man on whom Doyle is believed to have based his famous detective, Dr. Joseph Bell (De la Cuesta and Mason 2011, Kindle Location 7985; Loftis 2014). While the diagnosis of a fictional character may seem facile, the popular perception of Holmes as Autistic has significant implications for the understanding of Autistic people (Loftis 2014). This is all the more true when Autism is, as Heilker writes, “a profoundly rhetorical phenomenon” (Heilker 2012). Given that the aetiology of Autism is unknown and the label is assigned based solely on behavioural traits, depictions of Autism in the media have an impact, not only on how Autistic people are popularly perceived, but also on how the diagnostic category of Autism itself is constructed (Brooks 2018, 161; Camp 2018, 176; De Hooge 2019; Hacking 2007, 303-304; Heilker 2012; Jack 2011; Loftis 2014; Matthews 2019, 57-64).

The television adaptation Elementary presents a wold in which Holmes exists in the modern era. In the aftermath of the apparent death Irene Adler, who represents his only longterm relationship, Sherlock’s drug use sends him into a downward spiral. When the series opens Sherlock has moved from London to New York seeking a fresh start. His wealthy, estranged father has hired Dr. Watson to be his sober companion, who will become his partner as he picks up his career as a consulting detective working with the NYPD. In its fourth season the show introduced the character of Fiona Helbron, first as a person of interest in a ‘case of the week’, and latter as a returning love interest for Holmes (Elementary. 2016a; Elementary. 2016b). The introduction of Fiona as an explicitly Autistic character sets Elementary apart from previous adaptations of the Holmes stories, moving the show from the implicit Autistic-coding of its main character to an explicit exploration of Autism and Autistic romance (Camp 2018, 111). Despite this progressive move, the series does little to radically challenge stereotypes around Autism, particularly when it comes to the construction of the diagnosis as rhetorically white and male (De Hooge 2019; Heilker 2012; Jack 2011).

The phenomena of Autistic-coded characters has been a topic of discussion in Autistic spaces. That it has received relatively little discussion outside of Autistic spaces would tend to suggest that, like the related phenomena of “queer baiting”, it is visible to members of the marginalized group being represented, while remaining largely invisible to broader audiences (Camp 2018, 64-65, 111; Mawson 2015; Mullis 2018, pp). Christa Mullis argues that Autistic coding occurs when creators are unwilling to explicitly define a character as Autistic, despite that character exhibiting Autistic traits because “autism continues to be too big, too scary, too real, too hard, and mostly importantly, too far removed from their world to be included in their fandoms” (Mullis 2018, 151). While Elementary could be criticized for falling into this pattern, as the series never explicitly identifies Sherlock as Autistic, the inclusion of Fiona forces the series to engage critically and explicitly with its representation of neuro-divergence. The parallels that are drawn between Fiona and Sherlock bring the representation of Sherlock’s Autistic traits into the open, allowing for potentially empowering “crip” readings.

Crip Theory in Critical Disability Studies can trace its history directly back to Queer Theory in its disruption of what types of bodies are considered normative. The practice of queer reading has been in use since about 1990, and itself developed out of the tradition of feminist resistant readings. The practice challenges heteronormativity by reading between the lines of presumed heteronormative texts to uncover queer subtexts. The practice of crip reading functions in a similar way. In crip readings a reader takes their knowledge of disability and Disability Culture and applies it to a text in order to uncover a subtext that runs counter to ableist and normative assumptions (Bjorklund 2018, 8;Hartley 2019, 3-4; Lofgren-Martenso 2013, 413-424).

Sherlock Holmes and his many adaptations have been productive sites for both queer and crip readings (Camp 2018, 13; De Hooge 2019; Loftis 2014). Elementary, represents both queer and disabled characters explicitly, but this does not eliminate the need for non-normative readings. The practice of queer and crip reading can uncover nuance in a text that might otherwise present a somewhat stereotyped portrayal of Autism, and a blatant erasure of Holmes’ canonical asexuality (Camp 2018, 13). After all, “queer readings can also involve readings of explicitly queer texts, and in fact, to point out manifest queer themes in a text can be just as subversive, especially since such themes are often ignored by straight audiences” (Bjorklund 2018 8).

In Murder Ex Machina, we are introduced to Fiona through others opinions of her. This positions the gaze of the series as neurotypical, and potentially distances the viewer from Fiona’s perspective, setting her up as ‘other’. We are told by Mason, one of Sherlock’s ‘irregulars’, an informal network of individuals whose skills he calls upon to aid in his investigations, that Fiona is “kind of weird” and that “she’s really into cats” (Elementary. 2016a).

Mason: Mittens. She’s the lead programmer at Pentillion Edge, that big R & D firm up in Chelsea. She posts on coding boards sometimes. Her real name is Fiona something, but everybody calls her Mittens ’cause she’s really into cats. She’s kind of weird.
Sherlock: Weird enough to have taken several lives last night?
Mason: She likes cats, so sure. (Elementary. 2016a)

This initial introduction plays on the perceived link between Autism and criminality (Brooks 2018, 179-180; Lofgren-Martenso 2013, 414-424; Loftis 2014). Several Autistic writers have written responses to these types of portrayals, highlighting that Autistic people are no more likely than people of other neurotypes to commit violence, but we are more likely to be the victims of violence (Asasumasu 2017; Brown 2017; Ellis 2018; Onaiwu 2017b). As the episode progresses this assumption will be subverted. Never the less, in order for this subversion to occur, the stereotype must first be reproduced. This is similar to the dynamic of “hyper-repetition” that Hill describes, in her analysis of how moral panics around ‘gaffs’ leads to the circulation of racist terms and ideas (Hill 2009, 92).

We get more information about what makes Fiona “kind of weird” from her employer, Balsam. He counters the Autistic-as-likely-killer narrative with the equally dehumanizing stereotype of the ‘autistic angel’. On its surface the ‘autistic angel’ trope appears to be a counter balance to narratives of Autistic monstrosity, and is an example of ‘positive’ stereotyping that is ultimately harmful. It builds on the infantilization of Disabled people, and outdated, and demeaning concepts such as ‘mental age’ in order to paint Autistic people as eternally innocent. Sometimes this involves depicting Autistic people as possessing unique insight or unparalleled honesty, that is a product of our assumed childlike innocence and purity (Brooks 2018, 172-173; Elementary. 2016a; Purcell 2016; Stevenson, Harp, and Gernsbacher 2011; Loftis 2015b, 61-78; Waltz 2009).

Balsam: Yes, my secretary told me, she said you were the police. Would you mind telling me why you want to see Fiona?
Sherlock: Actually, we’re here to discuss her role in five murders.
Watson: She wrote some software that was used to take control of a car last night, that caused a fatal accident.
Balsam: You’re kidding.
Sherlock: Can you take us to her or not?
Balsam: Yes, of course. But uh, but trust me, she wouldn’t hurt anybody, she couldn’t.
Sherlock: Well, you might be able to send a rocket into orbit, Mr. Balsam, but please don’t presume to know what’s in your employee’s heart.
Balsam: You don’t understand. I, I know what’s in her head. When I say she can’t hurt anyone, I mean it (Elementary. 2016a).

It is only after framing autism by these two competing stereotypes that the audience meets Fiona herself, and hears in her own words how she identifies.

Fiona Helbron: They say autism is a spectrum, but it’s really an array of different conditions all lumped together. I prefer the term “neuro-a-typical,” because it’s more accurate. My brain is different than yours. I’m atypical, NA. Phil is NT, neurotypical. She’s NT, too. I’m not sure what you are.
Sherlock: Social interactions are, uh difficult for you, are they?
Fiona: I’m better when I write things down, ’cause I can just fix them later. I can make the code work. I like it when the code works.
Sherlock: Do me a favor, tell me the sky is green.
Fiona: But it’s not. It’s blue. To be more accurate, it appears blue because of diffused sky radiation.
Sherlock: Yeah. But I’d like you to tell me it’s green, by way of experiment.
Fiona: No. I don’t want to.
Watson: Fiona, were you involved in making this car crash? The people inside had just committed a murder. The software you wrote for Pentillion’s driverless car was found on this car’s computer.
Fiona: No. No. My code is supposed to save lives. Self-driving cars are safer than normal cars, and I wouldn’t do this, not ever.
Balsam: Thank you, Fiona. You can go back to work now. She’s the best coder we have. I wouldn’t trade her for anyone. And, like I said, she’s she’s not a killer.
Sherlock: Her condition makes it virtually impossible for her to lie, even about something as simple as the color of the sky (Elementary. 2016a)

Shortly after the episode’s release, Autistic bloggers criticized this exchange for contributing to the infantilization of Autistic people, due to its reliance on the stereotype that Autistic people are incapable of lying (Anonymous 2016; Nick 2016). It is still possible to crip the reading of this passage. An argument could be made that Fiona’s reluctance to lie is a product of the exceptional context she finds herself in.

For example it is true that some Autistic people tend to be more blunt. Often this stems from a difficulty reading body language, and therefore a difficulty navigating the minor incidents of social manipulation that are common in neuro-typical communication styles. It may simply be more productive for an Autistic person to adopt a more straightforward communication style in an attempt to bypass the need for social manipulation. It should also be noted that ability to read body language can fluctuate given environmental factors and stress (Cohen-Rottenberg 2012). When we meet Fiona, it is in the context of being questioned by Holmes and Watson, who explicitly identify themselves as consulting detectives associated with the NYPD. Her routine has been disrupted, which we latter learn causes her significant stress. Given this context, her body language and communication style could be read as representative of an Autistic woman experiencing stress and not representative of autism in a more general sense.

Fiona sits rigidly at a conference table with her hands folded in her lap. A view of New York is visible through the window behind her. A subtitle reads: "I prefer the term "neuro-a-typical" (Elementary. 2016a).
Fiona sits rigidly at a conference table with her hands folded in her lap. A view of New York is visible through the window behind her. A subtitle reads: “I prefer the term “neuro-a-typical” (Elementary. 2016a).

Fiona holds her self in a rigid posture, except for a barely perceptible rocking (Elementary. 2016a).The stillness in particular reads, to me, as accurate. Autistic people who experience multiple intersections of marginalization, often experience disproportionate consequences for their natural body language and behaviours. This means that Autistic women, Autistic people of colour, and Autistic LGBTQ+ folks may have different body language and expression than white, cis, Autistic men (Onaiuw 2017a; Milner et al. 2019, 2395-2396). For some individuals this may lead to holding themselves still as they over-correct for their natural movements (Meunier 2017, 426-427). Similarly Autistic people who experience multiple vectors of oppression may experience more trepidation interacting with police, even when given explicit permission to state an untruth “by way of experiment” (De Hooge 2019; Elementary. 2016a; Onaiuw 2017a; Strand 2017). This crip reading of the text requires an understanding of Autistic experience and culture that many viewers of the show are unlikely to possess. Without this context viewers are left only with with an impression of Fiona’s difference. Without this understanding it is likely that her rigid posture and blunted affect will play into stereotypes of Autistic people as “robotic” and unemotional (Loftis 2014).

Fiona’s body language softens and she exhibits more facial expressions when we see her latter in the series in environments where she is comfortable, such as when Sherlock tracks her down at a cat cafe (Elementary. 2016a).
Fiona’s body language softens and she exhibits more facial expressions when we see her latter in the series in environments where she is comfortable, such as when Sherlock tracks her down at a cat cafe (Elementary. 2016a).

An aspect of this exchange that has drawn less criticism is Fiona’s statement that “They say autism is a spectrum, but it’s really an array of different conditions all lumped together… My brain is different than yours” (Elementary. 2016a). Perhaps this is because the statement is not uncharacteristic of definitions of neurodiversity that have been forwarded by some Autistic advocates (De Hooge 2019; Runswick-Cole 2014, 1120-1122). At a first reading it appears to disrupt the essentialized view of Autism associated with the medical model by emphasizing diversity on the Autism spectrum (Baker 2011, 7-24). On closer examination, Fiona’s definition of Autism is more in line with the medical model than it may initially appear. Autism is presented as a biological difference based in the brain, that is categorically separate from the brains of neurotypicals (Runswick-Cole 2014, 122-125). The differences between Autistic people are explained as resulting from the “lumping together” of “an array of different conditions” not as resulting from the socially constructed nature of the Autism diagnosis (Elementary. 2016a). This definition does not undermine the essentialism of the medical model, it simply redraws essentializing boundaries around various supposed Autistic subtypes.

This definition of autism is embraced by some segments of the Autistic community. Its acceptance can be seen in debates around the removal of the diagnosis of Aspergers from the DSM V and the merging of what were previously several diagnoses under the single diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This redrawing of diagnostic boundaries sparked significant divisions within the Autistic community (Belcher and Maich 2014, 99; De Hooge 2019). Fiona’s definition of Autism is an accurate representation of a possible Autistic perspective. However, the choice to incorporate this particular narrative over competing narratives, privileges a construction of Autistic identity that sees categorical differences between types of Autistic people, over an Autistic identity that is focused on political solidarity.

The implications for this definition of Autism can be seen in how the series engages with the troupe of ‘super-powered super-crips’. Beirne defines this trope as a media representation which depicts the Disabled character not only as “overcoming” their disability, but as also having enhanced abilities or that are directly related to their disability (Beirne 2018, 236-237). Super crip narratives have been criticized for attributing value to Disabled people based on their ability to be productive in ways that are narrowly acceptable within a capitalist society. Often this expectation of productivity ignores the additional labour that Disabled people must put in to navigate an inaccessible society, and the ways in which socio-economic, racial, and gendered disparities make the tools and resources needed to compensate for impairments less accessible for some individuals (Beirne 2018, 237; Belcher and Maich 2014 104-105; De Hooge 2019).

The seeds of the ‘super-powered super-crip’ narrative can be seen in the original text of Sherlock Holmes. In the original novels Holmes is seen through the frame of Dr Watson’s writings. Dr Watson is portrayed in contrast to Holmes as sociable, but in awe of Holmes’ intelligence. The original Watson frequently objectifies Holmes, describing him as “inhuman”. The frame narrative distances the audience from Holmes and reinforces the perception of Holmes as an almost superhuman ‘other’, whose perspective is inaccessible to the average human (Loftis 2014; Poe and Moseley 2016, 297). The adaptation in Elementary changes the point of view through which we understand the characters (Loftis 2014). Rather than the frame narrative of the original texts, viewers are presented with the presumably ‘objective’ view of the camera. This opens space for the audience to identify with Holmes’ perspective.

Several authors have written about the ways in which a diagnosis of ‘high-functioning’ autism is disproportionately distributed along gendered and racial lines. These narratives are closely tied to assumptions of white and male superiority. Particularly though the perspective of neuo-typical autism researchers such as Simon Baron-Cohen, and his predecessor Hans Asperger (De Hooge 2019; Matthews 2019, 59-60; Jack 2011). DeHooge identifies this way of thinking as Aspie supremacy, and highlights the troubling nature of this narrative, particularly given Asperger’s collaboration with the Nazi party. She explores this troupe as it is depicted in another Sherlock Holmes adaptation: BBC’s Sherlock.

Sherlock, of course, does not stim. Like other Aspie-coded characters, he is not portrayed as someone with a divergent neurotype, but as the extreme version of an entitled, allistic, white man. In line with this representation, Baron-Cohen does not waste a word on traits like stimming, sound sensitivity or diverging use of vocal tone, but he does explicitly include physical abuse, murder and rape as natural consequences of the male brain. In this manner, Asperger’s is produced as something entirely different from autism. It is this disparity that allows the EMB [Extreme Male Brain] theory, as it relates to Aspie men, to coexist with social skills programs meant to instil gender role stereotypes in autistic men perceived to be too feminine. (De Hooge 2019)

Elementary’s Sherlock does stim. He paces and bounces, listens to odd music on repeat, spends time in his victorian era sensory deprivation tank, in short he is a character who “moves like [us]” (Mullis 2018, 150). His body language and facial expressions also notably mirror Fiona’s in the scene in which they meet.

Fiona sits rigidly at a conference table with her hands folded in her lap. A view of New York is visible through the window behind her. A subtitle reads: "I prefer the term "neuro-a-typical" (Elementary. 2016a).
Fiona sits rigidly at a conference table with her hands folded in her lap. A view of New York is visible through the window behind her. A subtitle reads: “I prefer the term “neuro-a-typical” (Elementary. 2016a).
Holmes, like Fiona makes atypical eye contact and fidgets slightly when he sits (Elementary. 2016a).
Holmes, like Fiona makes atypical eye contact and fidgets slightly when he sits (Elementary. 2016a).

He squints and avoids eye-contact, his posture and phrasing are decidedly odd (Elementary. 2016a). The show spends considerable time in its early seasons exploring the disabling impact of Sherlocks social isolation, and his sensory sensitivities, tying many of his Autistic traits to his eventual self-medication through drug use. This is a significant departure from the typical narrative of Aspie supremacy, leaving room for multiple interpretations of Sherlock’s experience of impairment.The move away from Aspie supremacy is not complete, however. In another example, DeHooge cites the character of Tillman from the Rosie Project. She argues that:

his characterization as quirky and atypical creates the possibility for readers to agree with him without implicating themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, without fearing the ramifications of his beliefs: even if the reader believes that Tillman is right, they might reassure themselves with the belief that social conventions will prevent allistic men from behaving accordingly. Autistic directness (read: Aspie rudeness) becomes a means through which the allistic can temporarily experience exhilarating “honesty” (read: bigotry). In consequence, The Rosie Project was not received as a thematically dark story centered on a misogynist, but as an “endearing romantic comedy” which teaches us to embrace “the differently abled”.(De Hooge 2019).

Like Tillman, Sherlock allows the audience the catharsis of viewing a man acting out socially unacceptable behaviour without having to implicate themselves or their own desires in his actions. An example is the following exchange in Ready or Not:

Holmes: Just going through my theories to the origins of your son’s chronic pain. Not that I’ll ever be able to prove it. I remember there were a few photographs of him in your office. He was very partial to wearing long sleeves, long trousers in warm weather. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but now I’m wondering whether it was to hide bruises. Yes. Whatever chronic back injury he has, it began at your hand, did it not? There are two things you should know, Mr. Springer. First is that I’m going to punch you in the face. Second is that we’ll take your case (Elementary. 2016b).

Holmes’ actions in this scene are more sympathetic than Tillman’s blatant misogyny, but they are still deeply rooted in his privilege. It is hard to imagine an Autistic person of colour behaving in a similar manner without experiencing disproportionate consequences (De Hooge 2019; Onaiuw 2017; Strand 2017).

Elementary has been praised for its willingness to reinterpret characters to allow for more diversity in the show’s cast. The construction of autism as a distinctly white disability can be seen in which characters are open to reinterpretation, and which characters retain their racial and gendered characterization, implying that their race and gender are perceived as more ‘essential’ elements of their character. The role of Watson, is played by Chinese American actress, Lucy Liu. The role of the bumbling Scotland Yard Detective, Lestrade, is minimized appearing only in a couple of episodes as an antagonist. Instead Holmes’ main point of contact on the NYPD is Detective Marcus Bell played by Jon Michael Hill, who is a black man. The roles of Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler are combined into a single character, portrayed by actress Natalie Dormer. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand remains a white, British, male. It is significant too, that the character of Fiona is a conventionally attractive, white woman in a highly skilled career. As a new character written specifically for this adaptation she could have been depicted as any race or gender, and from any socio-economic background (Camp 2018; 71-104; Elementary. 2016a).

The gendering and racing of Autism as white and male is reinforced in contrasts drawn between Sherlock and Watson. Fiona explicitly identifies Watson as Neurotypical in contrast to Holmes: “I’m atypical, NA. Phil is NT, neurotypical. She’s NT, too. I’m not sure what you are” (Elementary. 2016a). Several of Watson’s characteristics play into this reading. Like the literary Watson, Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson is sociable, and diplomatic. She often takes on the role of smoothing over some of Sherlock’s more abrasive comments. In Murder Ex Machina a significant subplot involves Watson accepting a dinner innovation from Sherlock’s estranged father. During the dinner she is poised and polite, expressing concern for Morland Holmes when he does not appear to have much of an appetite (Elementary. 2016a).

Watson expressing concern for Morland Holmes. A subtitle reads: "Are you all right? You're barely eating (Elementary. 2016a).
Watson expressing concern for Morland Holmes. A subtitle reads: “Are you all right? You’re barely eating (Elementary. 2016a).

Watson: Mmm. I don’t care what Sherlock says. This food is not just fuel.
Morland: Tomorrow, you’ll have to tell Sherlock what he missed.
Watson: Are you all right? You’re barely eating.
Morland: Oh, I had a late lunch. This dish reminds me of one I once enjoyed at Le Val Gielgud, one of Mycroft’s first restaurants. I’m quite aware he’s alive, Joan. Also aware that he’s under the protection of American intelligence.
Watson: Sherlock told you.
Morland: Oh, I have my ways. It’s my understanding that you were quite close.
Watson: For a little while. Have you heard from him?
Morland: Not for some time, no. But I understand why it must be. I respect the choice he made.
Watson: I have to admit, I wondered if that’s why you came to New York. He’s gone, so you want to mend your relationship with Sherlock.
Morland: There was another matter I was hoping to discuss with you. For some time now, I’ve been banking my own blood for emergencies, and I found a local facility that provides the service. I was hoping, given your medical background, that I could impose upon you to evaluate it for me.
Watson: Sure. I’d be happy to.
Morland: Oh. Shall we endeavor another course?
Watson: Absolutely (Elementary. 2016a).

This is opposed with Sherlock’s attitude towards his father. In extending the invitation Morland says of Sherlock: “ Sherlock is welcome to join, but it’s hard to imagine him at such an event. To him, food is mere fuel. And he was never comfortable in the crowd ”. Watson echos this perception of Holmes at dinner (Elementary. 2016a).

Sherlock’s animosity towards his father is made clear in his expression and body language at any point when Morland is mentioned. In Ready or Not he makes an offhanded joke equating his father with the devil:

Ronnie Wright: I asked around about your father after you called. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of him before. Impressive circles he moves in.
Holmes: The ninth is his favorite at this time of year.
Wright: I’m sorry? (Elementary. 2016b).

While the show maintains a distinction between neuro-typical and neuro-divergent characters, lines between Holmes and his colleges are not as sharply drawn as they may first appear. Unlike other adaptations, Watson is portrayed as an equal to Holmes (Camp 2018, 98-100; Loftis 2014). By season four, she has honed her skills as a detective through hard work and training. She may not have Holme’s intense sensory sensitivities and eidetic memory, but she brings her own skill set to her role, utilizing both her past experience as a surgeon, and her training with Holmes to make significant contributions to solving cases (Camp 2018, 98-100; Elementary. 2016a; Elementary. 2016b).

Even her exchanges with Morland, which initially contrast her and Holmes, are turned to emphasize her similarity when it comes to intelligence and careful observation. In the final scene of Murder Ex Machina, Sherlock enters the brownstone to find that Watson has been busy assembling a murder board on the wall of their living area. She reveals that she has been observing Morland closely and has linked him to a French murder case. She believes that Morland was the intended target of the killing, and that victim was caught in the crossfire. Morland survived with damage to his stomach (Elementary. 2016a).

Watson 5
Watson actively participates as Holme’s partner in investigations and is shown to possess skills in observation and logic. In this scene she is inspecting a car with a broken window on which blood is visible. A subtitle reads: “None of the air bags have been deployed” (Elementary. 2016a).
Watson reveals her investigation of Morland Holmes to Sherlock. Se stands in front of a 'murder wall' with articles and photos tacked up and covered in sticky notes. A subtitle reads: "Mason left his facial recognition" (Elementary. 2016a).
Watson reveals her investigation of Morland Holmes to Sherlock. Se stands in front of a ‘murder wall’ with articles and photos tacked up and covered in sticky notes. A subtitle reads: “Mason left his facial recognition” (Elementary. 2016a).

A second watching of the episode puts Watson’s exchanges with Morland in a new light. She is not empathizing with Sherlock’s father in ways that Sherlock cannot, rather her responses to him are carefully crafted to elicit more information. In light of Sherlock’s training of Watson, it is harder to read his own skills as a mere matter of innate ‘savant’ like genius. Instead they are depicted as a product of hard work and practice driven by an unusual degree of focus and passion, that builds upon the strengths of his pre-existing sensory differences. Watson is able to acquire similar skills in observation and deduction, and is able to apply them unhindered by Sherlock’s difficulties with social interaction and sensory overload. This leads her to uncover information about Sherlock’s father that Holmes himself has been unable to deduce (Elementary. 2016a).

Much of the subtext which can be read as resisting Aspie supremacy derive from Lucy Liu’s performance. In Ideologies of Legitimate Mockery, Elaine Chun describes the tightrope Asian American performers must often walk in relation to racial and gender presentation (Chun 2008, 78-82). Liu’s performance expertly navigates this tightrope. Her body language is assertive and confident, and she is often impeccably dressed, maintaining a degree of normative femininity without presenting as passive. At the same time the show demonstrates the level of comfort she has sharing a living space with Holmes. This helps to build a world in which Holmes and Watson can be friends and partners with little expectation that the relationship will take a romantic turn. Watson is a full character, and an equal to Holmes, the fact that she is Chinese American, and a woman is part of her character, not its entirety (Camp 2018,71-104).

The characterization of Detective Bell also minimizes the gulf between Holmes’ singular skills and the abilities of the rest of the cast. Unlike Lestrade he is competent, serving to complement Holmes’ skill set rather than provide a comedic contrast (Camp 2018, 71-72, 151-152, 164-166). A viewer with a knowledge of Sherlock Holmes trivia will note that Bell derives his surname from Dr. Joseph Bell, who is believed to have provided inspiration for the Holmes character, drawing an additional, albeit extra-textual, link between the two men (Camp 2018, 2, 71-72).

Detective Bell is shown collaborating with Holmes and Watson’s investigation. Unlike Doyal’s original novels where police are often depicted as incompetent or in the way. Bell is holding a file next to a messy work station in the brownstone. A subtitle reads: "Did it have anything to do with the Zolotov case?" (Elementary. 2016a).
Detective Bell is shown collaborating with Holmes and Watson’s investigation, unlike Doyal’s original novels where police are often depicted as incompetent or in the way. Bell is holding a file next to a messy work station in the brownstone. A subtitle reads: “Did it have anything to do with the Zolotov case?” (Elementary. 2016a).

These parallels provide a bridge through which the neurotypical viewer can access Sherlock’s perspective. As with Fiona, Sherlock begins as an othered character. But rather than maintain his otherness through Dr. Watson’s idolizing gaze, the audience comes to understand Holmes’ perspective through his relationships with people who are his equals. This not only softens the othering of Sherlock, but also means that the perspectives the viewer is given to identify more directly with are the perspectives of two people of colour (Elementary. 2016a;Elementary. 2016b).

The choice to introduce a reoccurring, explicitly Autistic, character who is both a woman and a love interest for Sherlock is a significant one in terms of media representations of Autism. Representations of Autistic women are rare, and representations of Autistic women who are in control of their own sexuality are nearly unprecedented. As with Fiona’s autism diagnosis, the audience is introduced to Fiona’s sexuality through a neurotypical gaze. Viewers are guided through a process of discovery that engages directly with pre-existing tropes about Autistic sexuality, most notably the desexualization of Autistic people (Brooks 2018; Elementary. 2016b; Kim 2011, 481-482; Lofgren-Martenso 2013, 414-424). The audience first becomes aware that Sherlock and Fiona are not having sex from a conversation between Holmes and Watson. Fiona is not present.

Holmes: We’re off the highway now. Rail crossing.
Watson: I have feeling in my butt, too, you know.
Holmes: Mmm. I’m cataloguing the steps on our journey out loud to keep them clear. It’ll help me visualize where the authorities will find our bodies.
Watson: You don’t really think that they’re…
Holmes: I’d say we were on the L.I.E. for 62 miles. Things are quite good between me and Fiona. You expressed some concern last night. I would allow, however, that the uh, the mechanics of the relationship have, you know, left me in something of a mood of late.
Watson: The mechanics?
Holmes: Yeah. We’ve been taking things slow.
Watson: You haven’t had sex yet.
Holmes: We have not. It’s been challenging. I’ve not been exclusive for quite some time. For the last few years, sex has been, uh, a calisthenic performed with like-minded individuals. I can’t, of course, commit to Fiona and, uh, keep up my exercise regimen, so it’s fallen away. Yes, it’s been 47 days since my last act of sexual congress.
Watson: That’s a long time for you. A really long time.
Holmes: Yeah, well, Fiona’s special, so I’ve decided to make a special effort. I actually did some research on, uh, relationships with individuals on the spectrum, talked to some experts in the field. I think she’s worth it.
Watson: I’m proud of you. What, I can’t say that? (Elementary. 2016b)

We quickly become aware that Sherlock has misstepped in his approach to Fiona and she confronts him.

Fiona: I texted you I have something to say. I memorized it ahead of time because it’s hard.
Holmes: Well, I shall endeavor not to interrupt.
Fiona: You’re very considerate of me. I’ve noticed that. Very careful. It’s one of the things I liked most about you at first. When we first started dating, it felt like you liked me because I was a woman that you liked. It didn’t matter that I was neuro-a-typical. That is it mattered, obviously. But, it also didn’t matter to you. And now it feels like you’re not being yourself with me. You’re being careful. You’re doing what you think you’re supposed to do, because I’m different. And that makes me feel like a project or a problem for you to solve. And that isn’t the way I want to feel. So I am breaking up with you. Thank you for the water (Elementary. 2016b).

It is significant that we hear this speech directly from Fiona, and that Sherlock is not given the opportunity to respond immediately. She takes control of a narrative that began as a narrative about her, but without her presence, and asserts her position as an expert on her own experience. In a final scene Sherlock invites Fiona over to discuss their relationship:

Holmes: Please, come in. Thank you for coming. I know it’s contrary to your wishes.
Fiona: I broke up with you, so we’re not seeing each other anymore. But that use of the word seeing is figurative. We can still see each other.
Holmes: I, I know that you appreciate honesty and directness, so, um, I’ll, I’ll be direct with you. I think you’ve misjudged me. I say that without reproach. I just think you should know. You said you’d had two serious relationships in the past. It might surprise you to learn that puts you at least one, and arguably two, ahead of me. I had one great romance in my life. One would be hard-pressed to call her a girlfriend. And even harder pressed to call that relationship a success. I never felt the need beyond that. Part of the reason for that is that relationships are hard for me. You sensed that I was making an extra effort to make things work with you. In that, you were correct. But you presumed that that was because you’re different. It is not. It is because I’m different. And because you are the rare woman I have come across for whom I believe that extra effort is worthwhile. So whatever the future holds, whether we see each other again or not, I wanted you to know.
Fiona: Is Joan home?
Holmes: No. I requested she give us some privacy.
Fiona: Okay. I think we should have sex now. Do you want to have sex now?
Holmes: I, I don’t not want to have… (Elementary. 2016b)

Fiona kisses Sherlock as the screen fades to black (Elementary. 2016b)
Fiona kisses Sherlock as the screen fades to black (Elementary. 2016b)

Importantly Sherlock does not dismiss Fiona’s objections. This cues the audience that her words and perspective should still be given weight, even as Sherlock provides context on his own perspective. At the end of the scene it is Fiona who initiates sex. Sherlock shows a significant amount of respect and empathy for Fiona here. He is able to admit that he has hurt her, and clarify his own feelings without invalidating hers. This contrasts with some of the depictions of his approach to women, even from earlier in the episode, which fall more readily into the “Aspie boys will be Aspie boys” troupes described by DeHooge and evident in the source novels (Elementary. 2016b; Camp 2018, 13; De Hooge 2019). For example the following exchange with Watson:

Sherlock: So what did my father want when he came here last night?
Watson: Let me guess, you can still smell his cologne upstairs.
Sherlock: He was here precisely three minutes, 48 seconds. Not long enough for that particular odor to settle.
Watson: How do you know how long he was here?
Sherlock: I recently connected the Brownstone’s exterior cameras to both the doorbell and the Internet. Someone pushes the button, I’m sent a live feed. So, uh, what did he want?
Watson: Nothing.
Sherlock: Nothing.
Watson: He invited me to dinner. I said yes. You said I should reevaluate him, form my own opinion. I thought this would be a good opportunity.
Sherlock: I, I’ve just got I have one request. There are three surviving Holmes men, and you’ve sampled the carnal wares of one. Two would be a pattern.
Watson: This isn’t a date (Elementary. 2016a)

Watson’s body language and facial expression is often used to underline the inappropriateness of Holmes’ comments (Elementary. 2016a)
Watson’s body language and facial expression is often used to underline the inappropriateness of Holmes’ comments (Elementary. 2016a)

In the source material Sherlocks disinterest in women is underscored by a distinct misogyny. While Elementary nods towards the source material in exchanges like the one above, Sherlock’s relationship with Fiona brings an added complexity, and closes off an interpretation that Sherlock is simply incapable of meaningful relationships with women because of his neuro-divergence. While the heteronormative pairing of Sherlock with Fiona is potentially an act of queer erasure, it also avoids some of the more egregious stereotypes imbedded in previous depictions of Holmes’ asexuality (Brooks 2018, 178-179; Camp 2018, 13; Elementary. 2016b; Kim 2011, 481-487; Lofgren-Martenso 2013, 414-424).

Elementary makes several strides towards depicting Autistic characters with humanity and nuance. Despite these progressive strides, it does little to undermine common stereotypes about autistic people. It reinforces some stereotypes that have been damaging to Autistic people, creating real disparities in our access to support, such as the notion that autism is a particularly white and male experience (De Hooge 2019; Jack 2011). Many Autistic people find Sherlock Holmes to be a rare, positive representation in a media landscape where representations of people who “move like us” are too often dehumanizing stereotypes such as The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, or literally non-human, such as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (Matthews 2019, 65-66; Mawson 2015). Yet it is that very dearth of positive representation which puts an untenable pressure on Elementary’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock’s blend of skills and intelligence, with significant impairment would be a less problematic representation, if we also had stories of Autistic people with different profiles of skills and impairments who were portrayed as having equal value and humanity. The impact of Sherlock’s whiteness would be less pronounced if we had more representations of Autistic people of colour. In the end criping shows like Elementary can be an empowering experience on a personal level, but real change in our media landscape will come only when we stop telling the same familiar stories, and start including content with a greater diversity of Autistic characters, written by a greater diversity of creators.


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1 thought on ““My brain is different than yours”: Making Autism and Cripping Romance in CBS’s Elementary

  1. Manidoo Makwa Kwe July 15, 2020 — 8:26 pm

    Reblogged this on LAST.


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