Is Gender-swapping really the answer to Hollywood’s sexist reputation?

With the upcoming all-female reboot of the 1984 cult classic, Ghostbusters, featuring Bridesmaid’s Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, alongside Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, and a similarly all female take on Ocean’s 11 recently announced, gender swapping of casts seems to be the new Hollywood craze. However, the announcements of these remakes have been far from well-received. The announcement of the all-female Ghostbusters was received with hostility, despite being backed by the stars of the original: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson.

Regardless, this gender swapping trend is becoming widely spread in other upcoming releases; Tilda Swinton is playing the supporting role of The Ancient One in the Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange – an initially male role in the comics – and Julia Roberts will be taking on an originally male lead in the thriller remake of The Secret in Their Eyes. With a drought of female leads in Hollywood, have these ladies found the secret to great roles?

It is easy to think that the reason that women are so underrepresented in film is because all the most talented actors, directors, writer and producers in the industry are male, but the current state of Hollywood is a result of a systematic problem built on enduring practices of gender discrimination. This is all happening at a time where sexism and the gender pay gap are front and centre as more and more actresses speak out about the issues.

A study by the University of Southern California found that less than 2 percent of the 100 highest grossing films from 2013-2014 were directed by women. Only 14 percent of 3500 episodes of TV released between those dates were directed by women. Another study by The Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film released a report on Hollywood gender equality appropriately titled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World”. It found that in 2014, only 12% of all protagonists were female, additionally only 29% of major characters and 30% of speaking characters were played by women.

Some would see the gender swapping trend as a move in the right direction as it is creating more roles in the industry for women. It allows women to play the leading roles in well-loved classics and show that women are able to play the same iconic roles that their male predecessors. Julia Roberts’s role in The Secret in Their Eyes, was cast after an inability to find a suitable male alternative. When Roberts agreed to the script the role was still written for a man, so only minor changes had to be made to the script to incorporate Roberts. This almost means the role of gender is blind, with a lack of script modification needed for a male lead to be played by a woman allowing for fewer clichés.

The political satire Our Brand is Crisis – to be released in the UK in January 2016 – follows the same lead, with Sandra Bullock taking the main role, one that was originally written for George Clooney. The award winning star of Gravity and The Blind Side seems to be at the centre of this gender-swapping frenzy, with the actress set to star in the aforementioned Ocean’s 11 remake for which Bullock will be reuniting with Clooney- who produced and starred in the 2001 remake of the film- once again.

Bullock herself stated that her character in Our Brand is Crisis was “basically the same, other than the sex”. The gender blindness of these roles may make way for gender neutral casting of leading protagonist roles in the future. These all-female remakes may be seen to be giving women more opportunities in the film industry, but instead they may be masking Hollywood’s lack of original roles for women. The latter seems more probable. This up and coming trend is avoiding the real problem: the lack of diversity in the industry.  It is relatively unheard of for a man to take a part originally written for a woman.

Screen writer Billy Ray; co-writer of Flight Plan, the thriller starring Jodie Foster as the female lead, and the brain behind casting Julia Roberts in The Secret in their Eyes, is no stranger to gender swapping in film. Ray stated “I don’t think that Hollywood truly cares about equality. I think Hollywood cares about commerce”.

With female led films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens coming out this winter, both of which are set to be blockbuster hits, it should be evident that female heroines are popular with the public, but still these films are still in the minority.
Instead of rewriting women into roles intended for men, Hollywood needs to actually represent women as individuals. How often has a reboot of a film been considered better than the classic? This leads to female actors looking subordinate in comparison to their male counterparts. Taking an old film and changing the cast does not change the fact that women are underrepresented in films. Films also need to be written for women by women whilst being directed by women. Gender swapping; by contrast, may lead to even more division of opinion. It is naive to think that these actresses will be given merit for their own performances, they will forever be critiqued by comparison to their male predecessors, and opinion will be split like a school yard row as to whether girls or boys are better.

Despite the mixed views towards the female reboot of Ghostbusters, it is one of the most anticipated films of 2016. It has started a domino effect of interest in the gender swapping of old classics; Anna Kendrick is wanted to take on Indiana Jones, an all-female Goodfellas, and more calling for estro-centric reboots of previously male movies. But Hollywood’s lack of originality may lead to an unsatisfactory replacement for original female leads in film, and I believe that audiences and actresses everywhere should not have to settle for that.

Image: David Torcivia; Flickr.com

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