I pull a lot of my punches on social media when it comes to “things I’m supposed to (but don’t) feel a certain way about by virtue of being liberal.” I do this because I tend to get shot down pretty thoroughly whenever I do speak my mind. Generally these topics are limited to feminism and breastfeeding. I’m not even going near the latter right now.
My feminist counterpoints tend to be received as the equivalent of “not all men” or garbage of equal caliber. But, my opinions on most feminist issues tend more toward “lets make women equal on their own, not just by taking power from men.”
To this end – and let me start by saying I’m completely aware that this entire discussion is somewhere in “the first worldiest of first world problems” – I want to try to articulate WHY I am generally opposed to gender-swapping roles in theatre and film.
The idea of genderswapping a role is to examine how differently the character would behave, address scenarios, and be perceived if they were the opposite gender. Now, in theatre, the character is static. It’s written. The lines are written. You can certainly attempt to bring a different subtext and motivation to the role, but you are limited. And, in a lot of cases, the genderswap really doesn’t work in context.
Take Hamlet – because a friend of mine pointed this role out, specifically. I’m going to get a lot of flack for this, but whatever. Hamlet has been genderswapped on stage numerous times, but from a historical standpoint, it doesn’t work. The Princess of Denmark would have a very different role, different place in the hierarchy in the Middle Ages than the Prince does. You can suspend disbelief, as you do, to pretend that anyone would be entertaining a Princess’ thoughts and opinions on anything, that she would be spending her time doing anything other than training to be the wife of the monarch of some other kingdom or – best case scenario – the Queen of Denmark.
If you genderswap Ophelia, you create a male character that simply wouldn’t be allowed to exist in Medieval Europe, and certainly not as an acceptable love interest for the possible future Queen of Denmark. If you keep Ophelia as female, it absolutely doesn’t work because…I mean come on…a member of royalty having an ACCEPTED openly homosexual relationship in Medieval Europe? This isn’t Game of Thrones. Denmark isn’t Dorne. Yes, there have been homosexual – and even trans – European monarchs, but their relationships were generally considered scandal or quiet dalliances. Additionally, if the only heir to the throne was female, the King and Queen would be working on creating a male heir. You can certainly take the general plot and write a story with a female protagonist, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a man for a lot of reasons.
There has been some genderswapping in books as well. Recently, Stephanie Meyer attempted to remain relevant and get more money with “Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined.” I haven’t read it. I admit to enjoying the Twilight books, even though I’m aware of ALL the issues with them. I enjoyed the Fifty Shades books as well. Judge. I don’t care. I know they’re terrible, but I was entertained for a few hours. BACK TO THE POINT. I honestly should read it, because I need to see if I’m right about how weird the abusive, controlling relationship is swapped. And then I need to address why I’m apparently comfortable with the original. All of the psychiatry needs to happen. I’m rambling. So maybe it kind of works with Twilight, maybe it doesn’t. That was a bad example to use. I’ll try again.
People have been asking J.K. Rowling to consider Harriett Potter (and the subsequent swapping of all the other roles). Here’s why I hate that idea: Harry Potter already challenges gender stereotypes. A lot. Swapping all the roles weakens nearly every character and affirms gender stereotypes in most cases. With the exception of Harry. But, even though Harry is the protagonist of the series, as a character he has a lot of weaknesses. Harry isn’t particularly smart or creative on his own. In fact, most of Harry’s success is because he has Hermione (and, to a lesser extent, Ron) there to educate him and help him along the way. Swap the roles, and you have a female protagonist who relies heavily upon a male to help her throughout the series. You have the female’s best friend falling in love with a smart, confident, strong male. Groundbreaking, right? Draco becomes a “typically” catty female bully. Honestly, I could write a book about why it’s insulting to swap all the Harry Potter roles. Would it be “interesting?” Sure. But it wouldn’t improve the story. Rowling knew what she was doing. In order to swap the roles and still make the story empowering to women, you’d have to rewrite the story and the characters entirely. In which case…why not just write your own story?
In film and TV, where you can take more artistic license with a story, with a character, in order to change their gender, it’s easier to make it work. But this is where we run into a “you can, but should you?” argument. You CAN make The Doctor female. You CAN make 007 female. You CAN make Sherlock female. If you do, the entire dynamic of the show changes. I get why that’s appealing. I do. I would watch the hell out of Emma Watson as the 13th Doctor – and it works a lot more easily with that show because of how regenerations work. But here’s my argument. Those characters are written to be strong. And they are written that way because they were written to be male. (The females on those shows are also, increasingly, written to be strong and hold their own. BUT, they are still almost always “saved” in some meaningful way by the male protagonist.) STOP RAMBLING. If you take those characters and make them women, their strength is borrowed. It changes from “badass female character” to “badass in spite of being female.” Because that’s how we address the change. There’s a subtle way in which I have seen my staunchly feminist friends talk about these roles that makes this character shift clear. “Think about how different a female Sherlock in Victorian England would be perceived.” Yes. I know. It would be a huge challenge to accepted gender roles in Victorian England. Sherlock would be a badass detective who surprises everyone because women aren’t badass detectives. Of course, much in the way of the female Hamlet, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit, because it would be very unlikely that a female detective would be taken seriously in that time – especially an arrogant, condescending female.
If you rewrite these characters to make your female version work in the universe they’re set it, then you’re essentially just using the name. At which point, why not create your own character with their own backstory and plot?
You know why I like Buffy so much? The dialogue and storylines are a huge part of it – thank you for that, Joss – but it’s because the women are so bad. ass. And they are not badass because of or in spite of being women. They are simply powerful, dynamic, strong women who make no excuses or apologies for who they are. Buffy’s backstory is simple, her story unique. I don’t even think there is an explanation as to WHY Slayers are always women. They just are. The weak characters on the show are typically male. But it’s not beaten into your skull “WOMEN STRONG, MEN WEAK” it just…is. Dollhouse is the same way. Echo is strong, and we don’t need a lengthy explanation of why she’s strong so that we can justify it. She just is.
A male Buffy (…Muffy…)? Not as successful. Angel was an ok show, but it was lacking. The major draw to the show (for me, at least) was the dialogue and storylines and how they played off what was happening in Buffy’s world. But it wasn’t Buffy.
Buffy’s badassery was such because she was written that way from the start.
If the topic were reversed, if men were wanting to take on female roles, we’d be up in arms. Let’s redo Frozen with a male lead. How about Buffy? Let’s redo Kill Bill with a male lead. We’d completely lose it. Why? Because you’re taking iconic female roles away. Yes, part of that is because women, historically, have fewer iconic roles. BUT THAT’S THE POINT I’M GETTING AT. Let’s CREATE more. We don’t have to steal them from men!
We need more Buffys (Buffies? No that sounds weird and fetishy). We. Need. More. Buffys. More original female characters that are amazing. Period. Not “amazing BECAUSE they’re women.” Not “amazing IN SPITE OF being women.” Just amazing characters who happen to be women.
If you have to rewrite the story to accommodate a female as the iconic male character, you’re better off writing your own story.
Let’s make more Buffys.