From Ocean’s 8 to Ghostbusters: a history of Hollywood’s gender swap movie trend

Do all-female reboots really help right the movie industry's gender imbalance?

(YouTube, JG)

Steven Spielberg recently suggested that iconic adventurer Indiana Jones could be re-cast as a woman. “We’d have to change the name from Jones to Joan,” he commented. “And there would be nothing wrong with that.”

Advertisement

This comes as Ocean’s 8 steals its way into cinemas, providing a new spin for the dapper-criminal franchise… this time it’s an octet and all female.

The gender-rebalanced spin-off features a to-die-for ensemble, led by Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock, backed up by Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling (creator and star of US TV comedy The Mindy Project), Sarah Paulson, pop star Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter and rapper/comedian Awkwafina.

Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, sister of Danny (played by George Clooney in the Ocean’s trilogy), who’s plotting her own ambitious heist. Exuding the same air of aching cool that made the 2001 film (and its 1960 predecessor) so successful and has since inspired two sequels, it adds a distinctive feminist flavour, reinvigorating a franchise that has, thus far, been dominated by men.

This is just the latest example of a gender-swap trend, whereby male characters are replaced by women. Take the female-only Ghostbusters reboot, for example; Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange; or Julia Roberts in Secret in Their Eyes. Political true story Our Brand Is Crisis and war drama Eye in the Sky were conceived with male leads – roles that ultimately went to Bullock (again) and Helen Mirren.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon. Back in 1939, by switching the gender of ace reporter Hildy Johnson from male in Broadway’s The Front Page to female in His Girl Friday, a story about a fractious friendship turned into a classic of screwball romance. Even Alien’s Ripley was expected to be a man (John Travolta was in the running), although screenwriter Dan O’Bannon felt that all the parts could be interchangeable.

And the fashion isn’t just seen in the film world. On stage we’ve seen an all-female Julius Caesar (Sunday BBC4, see p56), while 2016’s The Nice Guys is set to become TV show The Nice Girls. Most famously, Doctor Who has finally regenerated into a heroine, with Jodie Whittaker making her debut in the 2017 Christmas special.

Given that women are still in the minority on the big screen (campaigning website Women and Hollywood reports that in the top-grossing 100 films of 2017, women comprised 24% of sole protagonists and 37% of major characters), steps clearly need to be taken to rectify the marked imbalance.

One way to do that is for more women to feature unpopular, traditionally testosterone-driven genres, such as action, sci-fi or superhero films.

Ocean’s 8 itself was born of frustration that the caper movie has perpetually been the province of men. “I just thought it was interesting to invade the terrain that always had an off-limits sign,” director Gary Ross told Entertainment Weekly. When asked what it was like working with an all-female cast by People magazine, Bullock said, “It felt like it was a long time coming. Too long.” Co-star Blanchett joked on The Late Show that the film is called Ocean’s 8 because, “There are only eight women working in Hollywood.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna are seen filming 'Ocean's 8' in Central Park on November 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images, BA)
Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna are seen filming Ocean’s 8 in New York (Getty)

But incursions into perceived masculine territory can be controversial. The aggressive response that met the Ghostbusters remake turned into outright sabotage as detractors posted ultra-low IMDb ratings in droves. The toxic nature of the debate appeared to hurt the movie’s box office… despite mostly positive reviews, it underperformed.

Sandra Bullock has responded to questions about a possible backlash to Ocean’s 8, telling Entertainment Weekly, “We’ve got some feisty women who will fight back. There should be a rule: you’re not allowed to say anything nasty until after it’s out. We’re not a reboot. We’re just a ‘this is what’s happening in 2018’.”

It’s not just remakes that prove problematic. Charlize Theron stole Mad Max: Fury Road out from under its title hero (played this time by Tom Hardy), to acclaim but some disgruntlement. And, if a generation of girls have welcomed Daisy Ridley with open arms, her prominence as Rey in the Star Wars sequels has come under attack, no doubt fuelled by the character inheriting the mantle of hero Luke Skywalker. One men’s-rights activist went so far as to release a version of The Last Jedi that largely eliminated the female characters.

The trend for gender-flipping says as much about a tendency for film producers to play it safe, creatively and financially, as any inability to write original roles for women. A number of projects have stalled – a female take on The Expendables and a version of Splash with Channing Tatum as a merman – betraying a lack of enthusiasm for the approach. While there are many advocates of “gender-blind” casting – such as Emma Thompson’s quest to portray Sherlock Holmes – surely it’s preferable that roles speak specifically to the female condition, particularly given that our experiences aren’t always alike.

At the Cannes film festival Jessica Chasten, announced spy thriller 355, featuring a quintet of women, including Lupita Nyong’o and Marion Cotillard. Although the Ocean’s 8 stars are more than capable of following in the footsteps of their male forebears, it’s infinitely more encouraging that Chastain and co wish to beat their own path.

Advertisement

Ocean’s 8 is in cinemas from Monday 18th June


Sign up for the free RadioTimes.com newsletter