“How do you write women so well?” gushes a female fan to the not-exactly-feminist Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, in “As Good as it Gets.” “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability” replies Udall. Whether that’s the approach taken by the majority of screenwriters is questionable (one would sincerely hope not), but the idea of “starting from” a male character to “get to” a female is certainly one that many more have been contending with recently. Last Thursday we exclusively broke the news that a female-led “Oceans Eleven” reboot is actively in development, with Sandra Bullock attached to star and Gary Ross slated to direct. And it is only the very latest example of Hollywood’s gender-swapping trend, in which roles originally meant for men, or played in their original movies by men, are being rewritten for female actors to play.
The biggest noise in this arena happened around the announcement of Paul Feig‘s all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot (and the accompanying backlash against the idea, much of which, as Feig pointed out, was pointedly misogynistic in tone). But with Charlize Theron taking on the lead role in assassin thriller “The Gray Man” that was earlier earmarked for Brad Pitt; Ronda Rousey stepping into Patrick Swayze‘s shoes in the new “Road House“; Tilda Swinton‘s part in”Dr Strange” being based on a character who is male in the comics (as is Carrie-Ann Moss‘ character in the “Jessica Jones” TV show) ; Julia Roberts cropping up in the near future in “The Secret in their Eyes” in a part played by Ricardo Darin in the original; and the newly opened “Our Brand Is Crisis” featuring Sandra Bullock where at one time George Clooney was attached, the gender-swap trend is picking up pace.
On one level, and perhaps it’s the only level that really matters, this is heartening, and anything that increases the number of women in diverse, complex and interesting roles in Hollywood movies (that is, movies that will benefit from the marketing and distribution push that only a major studio can marshall) must surely be a good thing. And with the representation of women in film, the gender disparity in terms of behind-the-camera positions and the systemic nature of unequal pay between male and female co-stars being ubiquitous hot topics in 2015, it feels like a straightforward, and very welcome reaction to a sizable cultural shift. So whatever one may feel about the individual projects outlined above, as a general trend it’s one to be embraced.
Sometimes it makes a significant difference to the narrative, as in everything from historical examples like “His Girl Friday,” to Angelina Jolie taking on a previously-Tom-Cruise role in “Salt” to Judi Dench becoming the Bond franchise’s first female M and developing a different, almost maternal relationship with Bond as a result. And other times, especially recently, participants are at pains to point out how little has had to change as a result of casting a female actor in a “male” role. Sandra Bullock told Glamour magazine that rerouting the “Our Brand is Crisis” script for a woman was unproblematic: “It was so beautifully written for a man. It wasn’t one of those things where you go, ‘Hmm, how do we change it to a woman?’ You just change the sex; that was pretty much it. She’s human. She deals with addiction; she deals with mental illness. She’s brilliant at what she does, and she gets lost in the fact that all she cares about is a win.” Similarly, speaking to The Guardian, Billy Ray, writer/director behind “The Secret in their Eyes” remake said “I made only minor changes to the character – that was important to Julia [Roberts]… behaviourally, the character stayed the same.”
But aside from the impact, or lack thereof on the final creative product, there are less-explored facets of this phenomenon that also deserve some scrutiny. For example, three of the aforementioned Oscar-winning stars with gender-swap movies in the pipeline (Bullock 51, Roberts 47, even Theron at 40) are approaching an age when Hollywood has typically had fewer leading roles for women, but at which male stars were historically considered to be in their prime. And so with the realization that these women still have substantial star power that can be exploited (Bullock, after all, was the front-and-center star of the 2013 Oscar-laden hit “Gravity“) but few vehicles written specifically with them in mind, we can expect to see more of the Pitt/Theron or Bullock/Clooney-style switcheroos. (Incidentally, in light of the ongoing comments about pay disparity from Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Bradley Cooper, Patricia Arquette, Amanda Seyfried and more, wouldn’t it be interesting to find out if, and by how much, recasting these films with women has lowered projected salary bills?)
But that switches like these, however welcome, are necessary, is a symptom of the ingrained sexism (and sexism-related ageism) in the Hollywood system starting right at screenwriting stage. When around 90% of produced screenplays are written by men (based on the top 250 films of 2014), and when men are less likely to feature female protagonists in their scripts (2014 figures further suggest that only around 11% of lead roles in major films were female), then of course we reach an impasse in which even when studios do decide they’re amenable to the idea of a female-fronted big movie, there are few projects to choose from.
Furthermore, if there’s one thing riskier than a female-fronted film in the Hollywood mindset, it is a female-fronted original film, which is why so many of these gender-swap movies are remakes or reboots. In the “reduce, reuse, recycle” Hollywood culture of today, recasting male roles as female is a simple way to repackage existing properties with a gloss of newness on them, and even take some credit for being progressive at the same time. But for those of us who prefer new and original to tried and tested, news of a female spin on an existing franchise comes pre-tarnished. Is anyone actually excited for an “Expendables” variation that’s going to be called “Expendabelles” and feature women who have to pose as — sigh — high-class call girls in order to save the day)? Will it make a jot of difference to anyone’s indifference that Universal‘s “The Mummy” reboot may have a Mummy mummy as opposed to a Daddy mummy?
For sure, any steps, no matter how small, in a positive direction, should be applauded. But while we’re overall happy that the gender-swap trend is occurring, it’s a phenomenon that we have to hope and trust is only temporary: a necessary phase to get us over the hump, but one that, in its faint ridiculousness, will hopefully encourage more female-centric screenwriting to happen in the first place.
That, surely, is the endgame: a scenario in which this Adam’s-ribbing — i.e. reverse-engineering female characters from male characters — is no longer necessary because the female roles are already there and waiting. In fact, let’s put the champagne on ice for the moment, until we hear the first reports of the opposite happening: of there being so many well-written, exciting, complex roles for women that the Pitts and Clooneys of the world have to petition the studios to have them reworked as men. Which should be easy enough: we can just add “reason and accountability” back in.