Established franchises have been opting to swap out their beloved male leads for fresh female faces. But what are the benefits of telling the same story with a different gender?
In recent years, we’ve been seeing character archetypes that have a history of being stereotypically male–spies, assassins, superheroes–be rewritten for female characters. Women are being given a chance to take on roles that were once only allotted to men, helping to shatter gender confinement not only onscreen but in reality. Film is not only a mirror to the world we live in but an influencer in shaping it. Franchises have been taking this one step further: re-writing already-existing stories for female protagonists.
Gender-flipping in film has been occurring for years, but the trend has become a far more frequent occurrence in franchises within the past few years, in particular, the most recent being the much-anticipated Ocean’s 8. The first all-female entry in the Ocean’s franchise boasts a heavy-hitting cast, with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Rihanna. The film is set to follow a heist plot similar to its predecessors, which begs the question: why does the mere concept of a new gender taking on an old story make a film appealing?
Firstly, there’s the novelty of it. If the new Ocean’s film was just another George Clooney/Matt Damon affair, the initial reaction might be excitement at the return of the beloved cast, but it would be rather difficult to create a product that doesn’t feel tired. But with a roster of established actresses, the story automatically gains a quality of freshness that also keeps from being completely alien to audiences. A similar approach was taken with the 2016 female reboot of Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. Even Star Wars followed suit by casting Daisy Ridley as the new trilogy’s lead as opposed to another male protagonist like the previous faces of the saga.
In addition to this, all of the previously mentioned franchises are also gaining a new kind of traction amongst female audiences. It provides to these stories a sense of accessibility for women due to newfound onscreen representation. Of course, Ocean’s, Ghostbusters, and Star Wars each had their own set of dedicated female fans prior to any gender-swapping. But women taking on roles that have for so long belonged to men gives them a new kind of relatability to female audiences, one that didn’t exist before.
In my personal experience, I’d never had too much of an interest in Star Wars prior to the release of The Force Awakens. It wasn’t an utter dislike of the saga, but there was nothing too specific about the films I had seen that personally drew me to the series. When I watched The Force Awakens, there was something so wonderful and empowering about seeing Daisy Ridley portray Rey, who was more-or-less the new face of the series. Something about Star Wars had finally resonated with me.
Having women become central to these stories also re-contextualizes them, and they become laced with a new significance. They promote the idea that gender does not affect a film’s ‘believability.’ These women are not just female characters, but human characters. It is no longer necessary for gender to be static. This was also seen in Tilda Swinton’s casting in Marvel’s Doctor Strange for an originally male character (although this notably incurred backlash regarding whitewashing), as well as Charlize Theron’s attachment to the lead role in The Gray Man, a role initially written for Brad Pitt (although further development on this project has yet to be made). While there are definitely still bumps in the road, progress is being made in terms of breaking gender stereotypes by this continual pursuit of gender-flipping amongst major blockbuster films.
In terms of success, gender-flipping in franchises has been met with generally positive reactions. The Force Awakens was considered both a critical and box office hit. It has a current standing of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and earned a whopping $2.066 billion at the box office, earning rank as the third-highest worldwide gross of all-time. The critical response to Ghostbusters was slightly less enthusiastic but still stands at a positive 73% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its box office reception wasn’t quite as successful, earning roughly only $229 million worldwide against a budget of $144 million. It has yet to be seen how Ocean’s 8 will be received, but considering the gender-flip is more similar to that of Ghostbusters, it is refreshing to see that studios are still maintaining faith in the value of rewriting male roles for women despite the potential risk in the outcome.
It’s safe to say that there can sometimes be consequences to gender-flipping in film, too. But the fact that this growing trend is expanding the types of roles allotted to women is something to be celebrated. By giving women a chance to play parts previously portrayed by men, it promotes the same kind of thinking in reality. If a woman can step into a man’s shoes onscreen, who’s to say the same can’t be done in our own lives?