In the wake of the Ghostbusters reboot there have been a spate of announcements of gender-swapped remakes. Rebel Wilson is set to star in a new version of the 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and a new female-led version of Ocean’s 11 (embarrassingly titled Ocean’s Ocho) has had eight of its cast announced, including Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter. It’s undeniably a trend that puts women at the forefront, and both the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake and Ocean’s Ocho have female writers (Jac Schaeffer and Olivia Milch respectively). So why do they feel like a cop-out?
Changing the gender of already-established male characters makes female characters out to be the afterthought. Instead of having our own characters written, we are lazily shoehorned into roles already culturally established, in order to tick off a representation quota and cash in on the current mainstream trendiness of feminism. Instead of bringing new female characters to our screens, and attempting to represent the diversity not only of women but of the concept of gender as a whole, a quick switch is done and we get to sit through the same plots we already know, but with more jokes about kitchens and boobs. A woman doesn’t need to be a female version of a male character in order to be smart, or to fight crime, or to be a hustler. We can already be all of those things.
While I’m loath to judge a film before it’s been made, and am sure that Schaeffer and Milch will create well-developed characters for the stars signed up to these projects, the fact that studios want to produce movies like this at all says a lot about what they think about female roles. Instead of putting the money into developing screenplays which focus on female characters, women are left to portray the roles that the men have already had a go at. We are seen then as simply gender-swapped men, as though all it takes to write a female character is to change a name from Sam to Samantha. It also makes for a strange trend of giving women their own films – starring women and supposedly for women, cutting us off from the rest of the film industry, as though to have both male characters and realistic female characters in a film is too much for any one audience too handle.
Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters was seen by some as a failure after it made $46 million at the box office on its opening weekend – for a film with a budget like Ghostbusters this is pretty low. Combined with some average reviews, and the knowledge that Feig’s previous directorial work like Bridesmaids and The Heat had credible opening weekends for non-franchise and non-blockbuster movies, it now seems a bad move to the movie industry to invest in big female-led franchises. When films like Ghostbusters don’t do as well it’s easy to attribute that blame to the fact that it’s female-led, setting back our fight for better representation, and making women in movies seem like a curse.
The controversy that surrounded Ghostbusters in the run-up to its release also perpetuated the suggestion that female-led franchises are a bad idea. With complaints of the film “ruining” people’s childhood memories of the original, it was already off on a bad foot. In contrast, standalone films led by female casts are not quite at the heart of such hate storms. Trolls or internet misogynists should in no way be dictating what we do and the way we represent women, but by choosing to gender-swap high profile films, those internet misogynists have a pretty clear target at which to aim their anger. It makes female-led franchises seem like a risk.
It all comes down to the fact that female-led films, and prominent female film characters, shouldn’t be newsworthy. Gender-swapping remakes shouldn’t need to happen, because, theoretically, there should be female characters in movies anyway. “Films with a strong female lead” shouldn’t need to be a category on Netflix in 2016. Films should have characters in them that just so happen to be female, and it shouldn’t matter. Maybe gender-swapping is a step towards this, and getting more women on our screens, but it feels like setting off on the wrong foot.