5 Reasons Gender-Flipped Remakes Never Work
Good news, everyone! Out of the 100 top-grossing movies in 2018, 40 featured female lead characters, an increase of eight from the previous year and double the number for 2007. That wasn't done out of the kindness of studios' hearts; female-led movies made more money between 2014 and 2017 than their male-led counterparts.
Unfortunately, many of those movies (Ghostbusters, Ocean's 8, Overboard, Life Of The Party, Girls Trip) were just gender-swapped spins on male-dominated genres or straight remakes of male-led movies. And there are plenty more on the way. This year alone will see Little (a gender- and size-reversed black remake of Big) and The Hustle (a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Hey, at least producers shot down rumors of a female James Bond.
Hollywood, lovable dumbass that it is, has taken entirely the wrong message from its box office receipts. So if they could just put down the toy trucks and focus for a second, I can explain why everyone is mad at them.
These Movies Set Women Up To Fail
Remakes piss people off just by existing. This is because fans know that they usually range from "forgettable" to "actively ruins everyone's memories of the original." And to be fair, it's an almost impossible challenge from the creative end. A great movie is like a complicated recipe -- there are a bunch of elements and techniques you have to get exactly right, and otherwise you end up with a fine layer of exploded chocolate coating your oven. "Take this unique work of art and do it again, but different, but also the same" is a damn near impossible request. Even if they nail every aspect of it, the cultural context is gone (which is why a RoboCop remake never had a chance).
So right, away you're dealing these women a hand so shitty that there are a few Uno cards in there. It's impossible not to compare Lady Ocean to Danny Ocean, and it would be impossible not to compare Ladyana Jones to Indiana Jones.
Look at those numbers in the intro again. Even a decade ago, only a fifth of the top-grossing movies featured women in lead roles. They had to claw their way up to almost where the men are, and once they get there, they're told, "OK, now you have to be as good as Bill Murray -- nay, better than Bill Murray -- even though Chris Pratt doesn't have to be good at anything." I say "better than" because fans of the original are already skeptical, if not frothing with rage over the gender switch. Then when the movie disappoints -- as virtually every remake does -- guess who gets blamed?
We're Less Tolerant Of Female Antiheroes
It's not just the performers and movies that get held to a higher standard in these situations -- it's the characters too. While many of the male protagonists these women are replacing were allowed to be blustering and rakish and other words that essentially mean "kind of a tool," women have to be kind-hearted and acceptably feminine. (Interestingly, these stories usually retain male villains.) It demands a level of complexity that Ocean's goddamn 8 just isn't up to.
There are behaviors audiences tolerate from a male character that they simply won't from a female equivalent. As this New York Times article points out, you can see it in how they have to alter these plots. In the original Overboard, Kurt Russell's character tricks an amnesiac into thinking they're married (bringing her home with him and his sons) and implies he's going to force her into sex -- an idea that clearly disgusts her.
In the remake, the captive dude is the one who initiates sex, and the woman who's tricking him has to turn him down. If your response is that an Overboard remake would be just as problematic with the genders left the same, well, that's the point. If the writers are saying, "We can't have Lady Danny Ocean do that! People will think she's just a piece of shit!" what does that tell us about the original?
Sure, we could have a female James Bond who actually acts like James Bond -- drinking heavily, carelessly using and discarding sexual partners, shooting first and asking questions later -- but only a specific kind of asshole (me!) would like her. What does that say about James Bond? Speaking of which ...
It Can't Be Used To Fix A Problematic Story
You wouldn't be out of line to assume that Hollywood's entire motivation behind these remakes is to "fix" a classic movie that has maybe not aged so well. Aside from Overboard, you have Back To School, which featured a middle-aged Rodney Dangerfield playfully creeping on barely legal women (barging in on one in the shower, then popping back in for a second look). So to make that less weird, we'll turn Rodney Dangerfield into Melissa McCarthy, because it's not inappropriate for her to creep on barely legal dudes?
Oh, Hollywood. How much cocaine did it take to make you think that's how you address that issue? In the Ghostbusters remake, the primary purpose of Chris Hemsworth's secretary character is apparently to be openly ogled by the busters of ghosts, even though that element isn't in the original. Because that's ... empowerment, I guess? "But see, he wouldn't be made uncomfortable by that, because he has huge muscles! That's how it works, right?"
But no, even after taking a pass at the script to water it down, it's not cute for Anna Faris to kidnap and deceive an amnesiac. It's possibly the only thing it's not cute for her to do.
The Message Doesn't Translate
Obviously, the reason you can't just plop a woman into a man's role and expect the same outcome is that there are centuries of social context there that you can't ignore. A prime example of this is the recently released What Men Want.
Even the title is insulting. In case you don't remember the 2000 instant classic What Women Want for some reason, Mel Gibson plays a brilliant advertising executive who finds himself in need of a crash course in understanding women in order to land The Big Account. The title comes from a question famously posed by Sigmund Freud, who then famously never gave it another thought.
The reality is that no historical figure has ever asked the same question about men. And that's because women have to understand what the men in their lives want if they ever want to get anywhere, especially in the male-dominated field (a sports agency) that What Men Want's protagonist works in. Prior to the events of the movie, Gibson's character never had to think about what women want in order to be successful. For a woman, it just about consumes her every waking moment. Besides, what lesson is she going to learn? That she needs to be more sensitive to the needs of men? In this, the year of our Beyonce 2019?
Weirdly, the movie seems aware of this, and manages to impressively fuck it up anyway. Spoilers: By using her powers to her advantage, she ends up snagging the big promotion she's been after, but she decides to reject it and open her own agency because she's realized she doesn't need men's approval after all. So ... what was the point of that story? What was stopping her from walking away when she was initially passed over for a promotion? You can't say she wasn't a confident woman. That was, in fact, purportedly her problem.
An especially tone-deaf moment concerns the character's behavior in bed. In What Women Want, Mel Gibson finds out that his sexual partners consider him a selfish lover, and he uses his mind-reading powers to learn how to please them. The protagonist of What Men Want is similarly shown being comically aggressive in bed, but what you don't see is the probable years of overcoming passivity and figuring out what she actually likes that led to that moment. What she really needs to be sexually satisfied, the movie tells us, is five seconds of moderately paced missionary. Taraji P. Henson deserves better, on so many levels.
They're Doing This Instead Of Giving Women Their Own Stories
There's a reason everyone was making fun of the announcement of an all-female Lord Of The Flies. It's not that women are better people; we're just bad people in such different ways, for such different reasons, that it's going to be a completely different story. One could almost suggest that they maybe should just make an original story instead. Hey, did you know what the highest-grossing female-led movies of the 2010s all have in common? They star characters who were originally conceived as women.
One of the earliest female-led movies of the decade which was wildly successful, both commercially and critically, was Bridesmaids. It not only wasn't a remake, but was also unique for being built on the sort of raunchy comedy usually reserved for the guys. But at its core, it's a story about the complexities of female friendship and identity, and even the raunchy comedy (getting the shits at a bridal fitting, an uncomfortable sexual relationship the protagonist feels pressured to pretend is just casual) is uniquely feminine in nature.
That, in a nutshell, is why gender-flipped remakes never work. Comedy is based on breaching taboos and subverting cultural expectations, and society simply imposes different boundaries on women. It doesn't matter if you disagree with them; they still exist. If you put The Rock in a frilly dress in 2019, audiences will still laugh. It doesn't work the other way around.
But Hollywood, always taking the path of least resistance, came away from Bridesmaids thinking, "Oh, women like poop jokes? Well, let's see what poop comedy we've got in the recycling bin, boys!" It betrays an inherent distrust in women to have and tell their own stories, even though these movies have proven they can make money. I'm sure it will come as no surprise at this point that while women are starring in more movies, we haven't seen the same increase in women behind the camera. That seems like a good place to start.
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