Reboots and the gender remix in storytelling

There’s been a lot of fuss lately about a certain movie and its choice to reboot the original story with all female leads and a male subordinate character. You probably know the one I mean. It rhymes with “toast musters”.

Oh alright, here’s a clip, why not.

I want to talk about this, about gender reversals and the trend for rebooting stories. I want you to understand why it’s very, very human. Oh, and I get a little sweary sometimes. You have been warned.

There was a lot of fallout over the decision to gender swap Ghostbusters (which, incidentally was a decision taken and executed, at least partly, by men). The arguments ranged from “Why do we need to do this when the original was perfectly good?”, to “You’ve ruined my childhood!!!”, to the insane, “Women are trying to oppress men!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and all points between.

Arguments were made from the other side: “Why shouldn’t we have female leads? What’s the problem with it?”, “Isn’t it about time to put the power into female hands occasionally after all the shit we’ve been through?”

I’d like to address some of this. I want to ask “Why do we need to play with gender in stories?” and “Why do we even need to remake old stories in the first place?” And you will hopefully see by the end of this article why the arguments made above from both sides, while emotionally resonant, are missing the point. (All my own opinion, as an observer. Probably not scientific, but I will try to be dispassionate.)

Gender remix is the new black?

The Ghostbusters reboot isn’t the first controversy about gender swapping a role in recent times. Not too long before, there was the “Jane Bond” outrage with the accompanying cries of ruined childhoods, unnecessary BS and females trying to get in on everything once more. Social media viewpoints included the banal, “Listen, he was a bloke. That’s the character,” to the faux defensive, “You disrespect the writers / tradition / the audience [delete as appropriate] when you do stuff like this”, to the traditional, “It’s political correctness gone mad!” Strangely enough, there weren’t as many howls of outrage when certain black actors were mooted for the role, although the character is clearly written as white, privileged male. At one time, race swapping the role would have been controversial, but now, not so much. Progress, in its own way.

I had thought about writing this article at the time, but the thoughts weren’t fully ripened yet, so I waited.

“Get out your bard!”

Before the Jane Bond controversy, there was Hamlet, played by a woman, the talented Maxine Peake. Not surprisingly this lead to fewer tsunamis of hatred on social media. Not so many cries of “You’re ruining it!” or “You’re disrespecting the Bard!”. There are two reasons for that as I see it.

1) It’s the theatre. People who create Twitter storms about controversies aren’t always as aware of this entertainment format.

2) People have been messing with Shakespeare since the beginning. And this is the important part to my narrative here, Shakespeare has been the playground of creativity for actors, directors and all manner of production people since the get-go (other playwrights may also apply).

Shakespeare wrote few real notes and directions into his manuscripts and over the four hundred years or so people have been staging his plays, they’ve variously cut or shuffled scenes, changed location and time period settings, modernised the language, changed the presumed race of the characters, used special effects and tricks to emphasise or even invent a plot point not readily available from a surface reading of the script or just ignored the original script entirely and invented their own story using its general themes. Really, gender swapping characters is JUST ANOTHER in the long list of fiddles, remixes and Fun With Shakespeare people have been enjoying for centuries.

And why not? Shakespeare could probably never predict the explosion of interpretations of his work, but do you think he would object? “No! I refuse to let King Lear be transplanted to feudal Japan. Stop it, Akira Kurosawa!” I think he’d be damn proud his stories were still alive and kicking. And maybe puzzled but impressed that so many people bothered to learn the 16th century way of speaking just so they could get to understand him a bit better and preserve his original works. And gender swaps? In his time, female actors were banned from the stage, so all his young, beautiful ingenues were played by boys. What do you think he’d say?

If my work has even one millionth of the longevity of Shakespeare’s, I put it here in writing: Do what you want with it. I don’t give a fuck. Just remember me at some point.

So gender swaps – why not? It’s just another way of playing with a story and opening it out into a new direction. It doesn’t ERASE the original. It does not destroy your childhood memories. For a start, watching any entertainment is an elective activity, in a democratic society anyway. And picking gender as the one reboot aspect you object to is disingenuous at best. Let’s just take a look at some of the other reboots we’ve had recently, shall we?

Rebootarama

This year we have had or will soon be seeing a reboot / refresh of Dad’s Army, Tarzan, Ben-Hur, The BFG, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, The Magnificent Seven, just taking a random glance at listings. And this does not include the series sequels, moves from graphic media or game format to film, or variations on a theme that’s already well-trod ground. Let me see if any of these ring a bell: a horror where ordinary people have terrifying things happen in their one safe bastion – their home; an action film where the dangerous hero with a heart of gold must save someone while fighting against impossible odds; the romance where the feisty, independent chick falls for the one person she didn’t expect. Maybe I should write for Hollywood.

It appears there is a psychological reason why popular films are so uncreative. Familiarity feels good. Themes that give us the warmth of recognition tend to do better in the cinema. Rehashing a perfectly good story from its original time / location setting to our world makes it EVEN MORE familiar, and comforting. Even if it’s about London getting destroyed by aliens again. “Look, it’s the London Eye getting blown up. I’ve been there!” Seriously, they should be looking into some defence tech mounted onto Big Ben.

Movies that don’t do so well in sales, even after a massive critical acclaim tend to include plots that are novel or complex, actors who are lesser known and / or some device that makes it less familiar. There are exceptions, of course, but let’s face it, one of the most popular and best selling films ever, Titanic, had  a fairly predictable ending. People knew what would happen BEFORE they walked in the cinema, and yet they still did, in thousands. Another huge seller was Avatar, which could be argued to be alien, at least in literal terms, but there’s a reason it was nicknamed “Dances with Smurfs”. Its themes were incredibly familiar.

If you’re going to complain that we don’t need a reboot, then don’t see the latest James Bond, or DC / Marvel comic book adventure, go out and see that hip new indy film that you know nothing about. In a free market society, the way to get fresh material is to try to get out of the familiar groove, to challenge yourself and GIVE YOUR MONEY to the new voices out there.

What’s my opinion?

In fact, I don’t mind some reboots. I like what they’ve done with the Star Trek franchise, for one. On the other hand, I had a dry chuckle when I saw they were redoing Dad’s Army. Some things capture the zeitgeist. Some do not. I really enjoyed Sang-il Lee’s remake of Unforgiven with a Japanese cast. I’m all for gender swapping, too. In fact, I’d quite like to see some gender swapping in the opposite direction. How about Pride and Prejudice with Elijah Bennet? How about the Stepford Husbands? Pretty Man? Stephen’s Choice? Or how about Elizabeth I being played by a man without removing any of the other gender markers (e.g. consternation regards his staying single, lack of an heir, doubts in his ability to lead a country etc). It would be weird. It would force us to think.

I’m all up for it. I can imagine there might be protests as some feminists might feel historically they have had too many things appropriated already, but I think that if you want equality, at some point you have to cut ties with the past. I say equality now. Cis gender or transgender, able or disabled, black, white or any other colour. Let’s get characters out of that rut of sameness.

I’d love entirely new stories, of course, but if there’s only seven stories in the world, maybe this riffing on a theme is what we can do. Like music: there’s only so many notes, but it’s how you play them that counts. Or you could say there’s only so many colours in the visible spectrum, but it’s how you paint them. And further to this point, great art isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s a response to its environment, the artist’s interpretation of a style or movement, a moment in time.

So, final word on gender swapping controversies. My message should be clear by now. We play with our favourite stories in a lot of different ways. Picking gender as the one reboot aspect you object to is disingenuous at best. Fucking downright sexist bullshit at worst. It shows a lack of any knowledge of history or art and worst of all, a lack of any kind of thought process other than the knee-jerk, spoon-fed response.

As to the quality of the film itself, now that it has actually been released, I can see that as a valid concern. But not a reason for it never having been made. I don’t believe its quality would have been as aggressively picked over if there had been no gender swapping. In fact, if it had been a scene for scene remake, it would have been unremarkable. But there’s been plenty of remarks about this film now.

Huh, maybe the film makers knew what they were getting into, after all.

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