Apr 29, 2015

My Issues with Gender Swapping Franchise Movies

Left to right: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street
I have tried to remain silent about this issue, largely because it was only a small case until this past week. It is something that makes sense within the idea of franchises in cinema culture, but is inevitably another win for those choosing to call Hollywood creatively bankrupt. I am not in that camp, as the studio is in the business of making money and will do so at any measures. However, when the news was released of a female-lead 21 Jump Street was in the works, I immediately groaned and felt the need to state something: this is a bad idea. It's not because of my personal disinterest in said franchise, but because it seems wrong to solve the problem of having female movies by putting them in previously male roles. This is actually kind of regressive.
Shailene Woodley in Divergent
There's a lot of things that could be better about Hollywood movies. There could be more female directed movies. There could be less shame in promoting a movie like Frozen with its actual female characters. There could be less movies like The Other Woman that reduces the gender to pitiful revenge monsters. There could be less sexualizing. I am not writing this to solve all of those issues, but to address that these may all actually be banner ideas located within this problem. As we live in a world where Frozen and Bridesmaids have been box office successes, there's a growing recognition that women can be compelling protagonists in film. There has been a large swath of proof with the Divergent and The Hunger Games franchises continuing to perform well at the box office. However, I do think that the desire to have positive enforcement movies is being a little misconstrued here.
The simplest comparison is that this is the equivalence of gender blackface. Around the turn of the 20th century, African American performers were often replaced by white men dressed up in make-up resembling a race located far from their DNA. As a result, they could only presume the role that they were playing and the results have been well documented as being mostly offensive stereotypes. While this has grown to become unacceptable, it seems like the same is still happening for women. Instead of playing strong confident women, they are playing an idealism of what "strong" means. In the case of actors like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson or Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious franchise, this means punching people and explosions. They have gotten their own set of female strongmen with the likes of Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez. However, it still feels like this is fitting into a heavily male gaze that makes any female counterpart more "one of the boys" than an individual.
While it could make sense in a stylized landscape, it is inevitably a facade that doesn't bode well for progressive minds. Everything about these films are masculine. We may see these women as attractive or confident, but that's only the visual component. There's hardly any depth to this. There are rare examples like Ripley in the Alien franchise that mixes maternal instinct within the action, but it is often that female roles feel reserved to an attractive androgynous zone. They are strong, but do we care about the rest of their lives like we would Diesel or Johnson? Not entirely. While the men play into their own sets of stereotypes, they at least get a more conflicted story that paints them as heroes.
For the sake of argument, let us flip the dynamic and stick a male figure into a female role - which has its own taboo with phrases like "You hit like a girl" and the more blunt insult "Pussy." These imply inferiority and a sense of frailty. Femininity is seen as more quaint and elegant. There have been some who have shattered this aspect such as Lena Dunham, Whitney Cummings, Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, but even those remain outliers whose juvenile humor spawns from character motivations. 

Lily James in Cinderella
Where films geared towards men are action-packed, females are given romance and drama. For the sake of argument, let's choose Cinderella, which is currently the third highest grossing film of 2015 behind Furious 7 and Fifty Shades of Grey. She is the typical Disney princess. She wishes to escape her job as a slave to her sisters and mother and meet a prince with the help of a fairy godmother. Now if that was flipped and it was a male slave who falls in love with a girl at the ball after fantasizing about her, how would that play? He wouldn't be more feminine. He would simply be seen as a romanticized stalker who was a little weird for being unable to get a princess prior to faking his way into high society. However, if the tropes were applied, he would be a little flamboyant and the femininity would be more humorous than serious character traits. Compare that to Rodriguez in Furious 7 and you'll notice that being masculine isn't all that funny.
Most of all, I want to also note that the original spark that started this debate was the Ghostbusters reboot with an all-female cast. While the original film is fine, it was an all male central cast just like 21 Jump Street. The issue here is that we'll be doing just like they did with black performers in the 00's with the films Who's Your Caddy?, Soulplane and The Honeymooners. We'll simply be transplanting them into a familiar pallet. While it is best to judge each entry on its own, it will be hard to not say that "the original was better." This leads into murky territory when race or gender is involved since most of them are predominantly lead by white males. While I am fine with the studios admitting these are cash grabs, it inevitably will have an opposite effect that reinforces negative stereotyping. We won't see 21 Jump Street or Ghostbusters as these female empowerment films, but just inferior sequels. We'll be distracted by their better versions. It is an era of gender blackface unfortunately.
Bette Davis in All About Eve
So what's the answer? Do we do more male versions of Cinderella and Frozen? Do we integrate masculinity into female properties in order to justify a sense of equality? This is just as stupid, if not more so. It is always a terrible idea to pander to progressives by making something that happens to represent someone in a "positive" light. Let me simply note that The Hunger Games is not successful because it's a woman in a man's role. It's because the character has her own motives and is strong without molding into a specific idealism. She is allowed to have romance in between her conflict. She is allowed to be conflicting within the tropes. If anything, what we need to accept is that characters are most interesting when they are flawed and not within the confines of a stereotype. The men don't need to be masculine and the women don't need to be feminine in order for the story to be compelling. They just need to feel honest. Bette Davis famously played dozens of despicable characters, yet films like All About Eve still made her an icon. Why? Because she felt real. Forcing someone to be in gender blackface doesn't make them feel real, but more cartoonish and as dated ideally as how we feel watching The Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer. It just seems silly and insensitive.
So while I cannot stop this 21 Jump Street reboot from happening, I don't necessarily have to support it, either. While it will likely sound in shorthand that I am against women playing male roles, I am simply against women forced to play male roles to be socially acceptable. We get nowhere by doing this. If The Hunger Games or Frozen proves anything for us, it's that women can be interesting protagonists, if we allow them to be. I don't think that female Ghostbusters is the answer. I think that something more original like Paul Fieg's previous films Spy, The Heat and Bridesmaids is the way that we should be going. Alas, we're in the age of franchises, so I may not get my wish. However, it isn't too much to ask that we at least consider an alternative that at least better shapes how we perceive each other instead of humoring ourselves into feeling like the stereotypes are the norms. 

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