- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Authentic Female Characters vs Gender-Swaps

Photo by Flickr user Craig Dennis

It’s recently been announced that there is a new adaptation [2] of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies in the works. This isn’t a huge surprise. In the modern era of remakes, re-imaginings, and even more remakes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), it feels like half of the new Hollywood movies released aren’t so much “new” as repurposed. Besides, the most recent film adaptation of Lord of the Flies was all the way back in 1990. That’s basically the dark ages. (At least, it is if you ask my children.)

This announcement has been met with a whole passel of outrage from every corner of the internet. Why?

Because apparently Lord of the Flies is due for a gender-swap, with this movie to include an all-female cast.

Yes, the classic tale of young English boys who revert to primal savagery when they’re stranded on a tropical island is currently being rewritten into the tale of a group of young English girls who, we can only assume, revert to primal savagery when they’re stranded on a tropical island. Never mind that this novel is taught in high schools around the world as a way of exploring the destructiveness of competitive masculinity and machismo–it’s clearly the right time for movie-goers everywhere to watch the sweet, spiritual Simone burn to death in the middle of a ritual of competitive femininity. Whatever that looks like.

Personally, I don’t necessarily buy into the rhetoric being thrown around on Twitter about how a group of girls shipwrecked on an island would all just get along and build a utopian society based around friendship, ponies, and rainbows. Pre-teen and teenage girls are just as cruel and barbaric as their male counterparts, albeit often in different ways. Rewriting the characters in Lord of the Flies is not as simple as changing their names from Jack, Ralph, and Piggy to Jane, Rebecca, and… uh… Piggy, and considering it done.

Characters don’t work like that. People don’t work like that.

Here’s the thing:

Slapping a new name and gender-identity on a pre-established character doesn’t do a whole lot of correct the gender-imbalance in films and TV. (And, as you may remember, I’m just a tiny bit passionate about the importance of female characters [3] in fiction.) But not only does gender-swapping established male characters–especially male characters who exist specifically to highlight the dangers of unbridled competitive masculinity–not help the overall problem, it often makes it worse.

I’m going to take a slight side-step here, and talk about 2016’s Ghostbusters remake. Bear with me. I promise to get to how this affects us as writers soon.

For anyone living under a rock, last year saw a remake of the incredibly popular Ghostbusters movie–this time with gender-swapped characters. Corners of the internet exploded when the announcement was made, with scores of men proclaiming that female Ghostbusters would “ruin their childhoods”. I didn’t necessarily have a strong opinion at the time. It was a novel idea, and I was curious to see how it went.

When I finally saw the movie, my response was: “Yeah, okay, it was fun.”

It was a good movie, with good acting, and a fun (albeit repurposed) premise. I can’t imagine it having the same nostalgia-driven cult-following as the original, but… it was fun. I watched it, and then I promptly forgot that it existed. (In all fairness, that’s my response to most Hollywood movies.)

I was reminded of Ghostbusters recently, first by the announcement of a gender-swapped reboot of Ocean’s Eleven, and now by this week’s news of a gender-swapped Lord of the Flies. And, in retrospect, I hate last year’s Ghostbusters.

Hang on, put the pitchforks away.

Hear me out.

It’s not because female ghostbusters ruin my childhood. Nor is it out of a sense of misplaced nostalgia. No, I hate it because it’s a remake. Or, rather, I hate it because it could have been amazing, but it was just good.

Imagine, if you will, if last year’s Ghostbusters wasn’t a remake. Imagine if it was a continuation.

In 1989, the Ghostbusters made the Statue of Liberty walk through the streets of New York City to defeat Vigo, the angry painting. Over the next few years, ghost activity in New York decreased until the Ghostbusters finally closed up shop during the GFC. Now it’s thirty years later, and the ghosts are back. New York needs a new team of paranormal investigators. Somebody call Melissa McCarthy.

That movie would have been awesome. Imagine, if you will, the cameos from the original Ghostbusters… The comparisons with the “other guys”… The fact that the team of female ghostbusters grew up in a world where everyone knew ghosts were real…

Imagine, if you will, a world in which movie executives actually think female protagonists can be authentic characters in their own right, and not merely gender-swapped versions of popular male characters.

Back to Lord of the Flies

If a couple of writers are inspired to write a story about a group of girls marooned on a desert island, and the savagery that comes of it, I applaud them.

If someone wants to write a story about the toxic nature of female competition, whether it’s set on an island or a suburban high school, I say: Go for it.

But you can’t tell me that taking a classic novel about well-known male characters and changing their names is creating–or even respecting–female protagonists. All it’s doing is saying: “Female characters are only worth writing if, underneath all the window dressing, they’re simply male characters with new names.”

Reality check

I’ve just spent close to a thousand words talking about movies and Hollywood, but the majority of us here don’t write movies–we write novels. How is this even relevant to u?

It’s relevant because art imitates life, and life imitates art, and more important than either of those, art imitates art.

In an age of remakes, re-imaginings, and gender-swapped characters in movies, we need to be even more careful than usual that we’re writing nuanced, authentic characters; characters whose gender-identities are part of the life histories, and not merely components to be added on some time after the plot is finished.

For all my desire to see more female protagonists, I’d really like to see more female protagonists, not merely a string of male characters in drag.

How do you feel about Hollywood’s current “gender-swap” trend? How do you go about ensuring your own female characters are authentic, and not gender-swapped versions of male characters?


About Jo Eberhardt [4]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.