Essays · Movies

The History and Consequences of Hollywood’s Gender-Flipping Obsession

Sometimes the lower-risk option is also more rewarding.
By  · Published on September 8th, 2017

Sometimes the lower-risk option is also more rewarding.

Last year, Paul Feig’s gender-flipped Ghostbusters reminded us, just on the off chance that we had somehow forgotten, that misogyny and sexism are both alive and thriving in what we might call the nerd culture landscape. The huge debate that ensued across the social media sphere did not ultimately translate to box office dollars, and while not a true crash and burn scenario, the numbers were disappointing. Yet, between the girls’ club Ocean’s Eleven spinoff Ocean’s Eight and the newly announced ladies-only Lord of the Flies adaptation—which will somehow also be, according to David Siegel, one half of the male duo writing and directing the film, “a very faithful but contemporized adaptation”—it seems that Hollywood will not be so easily deterred.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with gender-flipping, but if the intent is to pose gender-flipping as the justification for a reboot—the thing that supposedly keeps the film from being just another unnecessary remake, the latest and greatest version of “darker and edgier” since the DC Extended Universe well and truly killed that one dead last year—it is a swing and a miss of epic proportions. It’s emphasizing a difference in “woman-ness” or whatever the hell you want to call it, which is exactly what many of the people who keep on screaming into the void of the internet about female characters are screaming about. It’s the very problem that the gender-flip meme “The Hawkeye Initiative” points out.

But wait, some of you might be thinking, you’re saying there’s an issue with gender-flipping, and then positively citing a gender-flip meme? How does that work? While it might sound paradoxical, the implications of gender-flipping a character are more or less opposite of gender-flipping a whole film. Gender-flipping a character says that gender is of secondary importance, that when it comes to identity and ability to fill a role the line between men and women is not an insurmountable obstacle; fewer men are from Mars, women are from Venus, more of what George R. R. Martin put so beautifully when he said “you know, I’ve always considered women to be people.” This is not just important, but something that many films even today seem to either struggle or flat out disagree with. But that’s a big claim, so let me back it up.

The majority of male characters are not really defined by their being male. You could have a woman read their lines and people would not automatically know the role was conceived as being for a guy. But the inverse is not also true. While there are exceptions, the majority of female characters presented to us have “femininity” as a defining character trait. They are sweet, doe-eyed damsels in need of protection or badasses who lure in targets with their womanly wiles and then choke them between their catsuit-clad thighs.

Look, catsuits and womanly wiles and even damsels in distress are all fine in moderation, but what we actually get at the moment would more accurately be called oversaturation. And, just like doing all-women gender-flips of an entire story, this reiterates the idea that women are somehow different and “other”. Once you have two parties with an emphasized boundary between them, it’s just a baby step away from making comparisons between them and putting them into conflict. And then you have to deal with one side or the other claiming victory and trying to get the other to concede defeat.

Setting up an us vs. them with men and women in movies is just about as old as the movies. The battle of the sexes was—and this is only slight hyperbole—the heart and soul of classic Hollywood. And yeah, its legacy still hangs around—just think of the upcoming film literally called Battle of the Sexes—but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be. And that’s largely because of, ironically enough, what we might refer to as yet another “gender-flip” trend. Starting in the earliest days of cinema, the most revered actresses were more in demand and higher paid than their male counterparts. As you might have heard, this is no longer the case in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it is now news when actresses make the exact same as their male counterparts. So what happened? Well, as I just alluded, it was a gender-flip—New Hollywood came in and decided that bromance trumped romance, and the power couples of the big screen became male buddy duos. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turned into Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

The gender-flipped adaptation/spin-off/everything-ad-nauseam thing is a trend. Trends can be reversed, even backfire. As I discussed back in February, that’s what happened to female filmmakers back in the early days of cinema. They brought domesticity and respectability with their refined womanly virtues and delicate artistry—which was exactly what the industry wanted at that point—but then the movie business gained respect and turned into a bonafide money making machine, and then it was decided that what the movies needed were manly men capable of working efficiently and ruling over cast and crew with iron fists, so female filmmakers got the boot.

The newly announced Doctor, Jodie Whittaker

Gender-flipping individual characters can be seen as a trend, sure, but more importantly, it sets a precedent. Unlike a trend, a precedent cannot be undone. And the thing is, though gender-flipping known, popular characters sounds like a more riot-inducing premise than a women’s reboot, the evidence disagrees. Gender-flipping Ghostbusters was like picking up a heavy boulder—it revealed all the creepy-crawlies that lived underneath to the daylight. Sure, I suppose it shows your strength, but now you have also got all these pests crawling over your shoes and are also carrying a goddamn boulder. Nobody wins.

But gender-flipping characters is another matter. When it’s done well, it’s something worth fighting for because it actually means something. And to top it all off, thus far it’s actually brought less of the social media vermin out of their hidey holes. The controversy over Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One was not about her being a woman, it was about whitewashing. The announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor Who did not inspire an ear-splitting chorus of fanboy banshees. Sure, there was some groaning and grumbling, but that was easily overshadowed by heartwarming reaction videos of little girl Whovians. On the whole, as these numbers right here show (boy, do I love numbers), most Twitter reactions were solidly neutral. And that’s fine. Actually, it’s even more than fine: neutrality is how we treat normal things. The Doctor being played by a woman being normal and absolutely fine is what I, for one, am rooting for.

That said, this idea of moving away from female characters being so defined and separated and boxed in by ideas of femininity is something that slowly but surely seems to be seeping into our media scene in promising ways, and gender-flipped characters are just a part of it. At the Telluride Film Festival this past weekend, Natalie Portman took part in a panel where she responded to a question about her art having a “feminizing” point of view, Portman responded by saying, “I don’t really think there’s such a thing; there’s different point of views, and every human being has a different point of view[…] There’s not a male-female difference. There are differences in the way are socialized.” When talking about her inspirations for her role as Mildred in the upcoming film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand named John Wayne her main cinematic reference point: “the one that I latched onto the most was John Wayne. I used John Wayne’s walk. I can do a good John Wayne.” Even looking back a few years (though also forward a few months), think about Rey (Daisy Ridley) in The Force Awakens. This still below is how we first meet Rey:

She could be male, female, even an alien for all we know. It’s a far cry from the beautifully coiffed, elegantly dressed, wow-isn’t-she-pretty introductions of the two major female characters the Star Wars cinematic universe had given us up until that point (Leia Organa and Padmé Amidala).

What some complain about as being repetitiveness between Luke Skywalker and Rey is actually progress. Everybody’s favorite Time Lord being played by a woman—and not inciting a fanboy riot—is progress. Rehashing old stories with gender-flipped casts to try to make them seem shiny and new is not progress. And that’s if it goes well. Because if the gender-flip trend goes flop, its failure could have consequences. Audiences speaking with their money and saying, no thank you, I would rather keep The Lord of the Flies locked away in hazy memories of 10th grade English, where it belongs, could be misinterpreted to mean that audiences don’t want female ensemble dramas. And that could be a misconception with a long recovery period.

The gender-flipped narrative trend is a double-edged sword with no handle. Perhaps you might be able to stab some stuff if you don’t mind the searing pain, but you would be much better off just letting it go.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.