Transition phases can be awkward, but that’s how we get places.
When I was a little girl, I had at least one book on my person at all times. I read anything and everything, so long as it fits one simple criterion: a female protagonist. Sure, I made a few special exceptions for the Harry Potter series and a few other books, but the general rule remained. I didn’t do it as some sort of intentional feminist statement—I was a kid—but simply because I found female protagonists more relatable.
With movies, I didn’t have the same option. At least, not with the kind of movies I liked—sci-fi and action/adventure, the kind with car chases, explosions, and occasionally superpowers.
There is a fundamental sort of repetitiveness and familiarity that defines Hollywood studio films. To be clear, I’m not stating this as a complaint. The joy of a good Hollywood film is that of slipping into a well-worn pair of favorite jeans. It’s familiar and comfortable. When you buy a ticket you know approximately what you’re getting into, and the real challenge is managing to do that without slipping into the danger zone of redundancy. Most of us enjoy some good old-fashioned escapism; nobody likes feeling like they paid twice for the same thing.
Of course, Hollywood’s love of its familiar patterns also contributes to some of its less admirable qualities. As far as inclusivity and representation are concerned, Hollywood is not known for being on the cutting edge so much as getting there eventually. In this instance, “there” is a place where any little girl who happens to feel like I once did would actually be able to indulge a preference for female-led narratives without sacrificing entire cinematic genres.
I’ve written about the ongoing gender-flipping trend before. As stated there, I have decided reservations about it. Admittedly, one of my major concerns was that Ocean’s 8 would underperform commercially as Ghostbusters did two years ago, potentially making studios gun-shy about female ensemble films on the whole. However, all signs currently point in the opposite direction, with current projections estimating a $42 million dollar opening weekend, a record for the Ocean’s franchise.
Ocean’s 8 is a prime example of the sort of comfortable escapism mentioned before, familiar without being overly redundant. Gary Ross might not be Steven Soderbergh, but Sandra Bullock‘s Debbie Ocean is well able to fill the shoes of George Clooney‘s Danny, backed by an equally capable ensemble cast. And Helena Bonham-Carter’s Irish accent might waver on occasion, but it is undeniably better than Don Cheadle’s infamous “English” accent in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13.
It is, admittedly, not groundbreaking stuff. But outside of a by-the-numbers boy-meets-girl rom-com, the heist film might be one of the most formulaic genres Hollywood has: mastermind has a plan, gathers the team, preparations are made, heist takes place with inevitable complications including at least one game-changing reveal that almost always involves flashbacks. It’s an old genre that dates back to at least the 1930s and came of age during the height of film noir in the 40s and 50s.
One of the things that makes Ocean’s 8 one of the most compelling examples of the gender-flipping trend thus far is that it’s not just a matter of gender-flipping a series, like Ghostbusters was. It doesn’t try to appeal to fannish nostalgia quite like Ghostbusters did, or to make a statement through its female ensemble cast in quite the same way. Debbie explains keeping her team all-female as a strategic choice within the context of the film—”a him gets noticed, a her gets ignored.” Just like most sequels, spin-offs, or entries into a specified genre, Ocean’s 8 is a product, first and foremost, of the fundamental Hollywood method: take a familiar formula, put just enough of a twist on it to keep things entertaining, and repeat. The basic set-up of the film—a spin-off starring a relative of the original protagonist—is itself a familiar device that far pre-dates the current gender-flipping trend.
Hollywood is a behemoth. And like many large, bulky creatures, it shows little aptitude for moving with great speed. While my reservations about gender-flipping remain, with films like Ocean’s 8 I am happy to accept the trend for what it will hopefully prove to be: a transition phase. Hollywood cautiously dipping its toes into the water before, with some coaxing (read: good box office returns), finally starting to wade in. It’s a baby steps sort of situation where many of us would prefer to be running towards our destination—a place where we can get something like a female ensemble Hollywood heist film without it needing to be a reboot or spin-off of an all-male predecessor.
It’s a transition phase. Like middle school or puberty, it is awkward, and many would skip it if given the choice. But hopefully, it leads to something better, a destination that will make the journey worth it.