Gender Flipping in Hollywood

9424767218_af9014c605It’s no secret that this summer’s movies suck for women. It’s been mentioned on Vulture. NPR did a story about it. The New York Times covered it. Even Fox News ran a piece about it.

Yet Jodie Foster has a leading role in the new action movie Elysium. How’d she score it? Foster makes a point of having her agent specifically seek out leading-man scripts that can be flipped. Her role in Elysium was originally written for a man.

More actresses might want to do the same, because the Movie Insider database of films in development and pre-production contains films in which there really is no reason that the main character can’t be a woman.

A third installment of Night at the Museum is in the works, for example, but Ben Stiller is not yet signed on to reprise his role. In the first movie of the series, much of the plot and humor relies on the fact that the main character is new on the job–in fact, one could argue that deviating from this set-up is why Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian grossed only half of what the original did in its opening weekend. The film’s subtitle, Brother From Another Mother (seriously), indicates that Night at the Museum 3 will return to its previously successful formula and introduce a brother to Stiller’s character who has taken over for him at the museum.

Other than the dated and possibly offensive reference in the title, not much would have to change to make the new character a sister. After all, the job of the watchman is essentially that of caretaker, which is a job women do every day. The style of the film does require an actor capable of the kind of comedy for which Stiller is known, but there’s no dearth of female comedic geniuses around these days. The role could be played hilariously by Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig or Sarah Silverman, to name a few.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who recently told The Daily Mail that she has become invisible compared to younger female actors, could play the lead in When the Starlight Ends, in which “a novelist finds himself with the ability to rewrite his past,” an ability he uses to try to reunite with a lost lover, or in Tomorrow, in which “a man travels back and forth in time trying desperately to prevent the murder of his family.” It shouldn’t be hard to sell audiences on a woman whose primary motivation is, in the first example, love, or, in the second, saving her family. Gender-swapping these roles would also make the films the first major movies in which the female character is the one who can time travel.

To suit Hollywood’s penchant for the heteronormative, wives would probably be flipped to husbands, but that’s part of the fun of cross-sex casting: Not only do women get to play characters who are ambitious and powerful, but men get to play characters who are compassionate, domestic and invested in their relationships above all else. In reality, some men actually are. In this way, the practice has the potential to dismantle deeply held assumptions about the inevitable relationship between gender and sex.

Producers are unlikely to take my suggestions for several reasons:

A) Hollywood has little to gain from subverting the patriarchy.

B) Hollywood relies on international markets, where “woman-centered movies don’t sell,” or so the wisdom goes.

C) American storytelling is still driven by the assumption that is at the heart of the Western canon: The male experience is the universal human experience, whereas the female experience is specialized, driven by biological factors, the absence of which prevents men from being able to see themselves in female characters.

This is, of course, total bullshit. The assumption persists partly because stories in which a male character is defined by his reproductive organs are relatively rare, so biology does not constitute a barrier to empathy, whereas many–if not most–female characters are written as driven by their biology, usually made manifest in characters focused on finding a mate and/or having and caring for children. In the absence of roles written for women in which they desire other things, too–like power, money or justice–gender-flipping provides audiences with female characters designed to represent the universal human experience.

3799345378_8d68996aa0Being able to imagine “men’s” roles being played by women requires practice, but once you get going the possibilities are endless. Imagine a gender-flipped Weird Science (yep, Universal is remaking Weird Science), in which two geek girls use their technological expertise to create the ideal man–played by Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling, natch. Such a choice would provide a powerful antidote to the original film’s overt male gaze and reveal that the media’s narrowly defined representations of who is beautiful distorts women’s desires as much as it does men’s.

Game of Thrones fans might like to see Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) in the reboot of another ’80s classic, Highlander. Ryan Reynolds is currently slated to play the sword-wielding immortal who spends centuries fighting and finding other immortals and taking their power. Many people would consider the character too violent for a woman to play, but Lucy Lawless and Miranda Otto have proven that women can handle swords, and Christie’s background in gymnastics would make her a formidable foe in any century.

No doubt a producer brave enough to flip Highlander would face intense backlash from the largely male fanbase of the original. But science fiction and fantasy are perfect genres for gender-flipping: In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.

Gender-flipping introduces the possibility that women can represent the human experience, leading eventually to more parts written for women that do that. As more creators include women characters who are complex and universal, more people will realize that this makes entertainment better, not worse. Eventually, we won’t even be surprised by it.


Photo from Weird Science courtesy of Caca Joucias via Creative Commons 2.0.

Photo of Jodi Foster courtesy of Zinemaniacos via Creative Commons 2.0. 

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.


  1. I love the gender-flipping concept. I wish for that specific role in Elysium that they hadn’t though – I wish they had flipped the protagonist instead of the villain. Because the movie is a commentary on poverty, and because 70% of the world’s poor are women, I wish the protagonist trying to subvert the class war in the movie were female. And I wish the face of the oppressive force wasn’t a woman’s face… because that’s not’s what happens in the real world. Poverty and wealth and the gap in between are so entwined with gender issues that they should have been accurately drawn in the movie, too.

    • That view seems directly opposed to the spirit of the article, to me. Surely the point is there should be more characters who are people that happen to be female shaped, rather than them being a symbolic representation of all women?

  2. I still remember when they cast Frances Sternhagen as Dr Lazarus in “Outland” who was originally meant to be a man; she was the best part of that movie. That was in 1981 and they still consider such casting to be unusual after 3 decades *sigh*

  3. It’s interesting that you mention gender flipping (in scifi no less!) and fail to mention BSG. That I not just a fantastic example of gender flipping, but also a great instance where the introduction of a female lead was originally met with backlash from the male-fan community, which later came around and embraced the role of Starbuck as a female character.

    • Actually at first I didn’t care for the change primarily because Starbuck was already previously “established” as a man. If Starbuck had originally been a woman, somehow I doubt it would have been opposed nearly as much if at all. But you’re right in that the actress made the role her own and brought those that kept with it to accept the alteration. I did. If Sarah Connors (Terminator) were recast as a man, you’d likely find the same opposition.

      In reply to the comment in the article on changing the gender of the character in the Highlander remake, I think that’s an ideal suggestion… and possibly just what the story needs to be more accepted as something other than “just another remake”…

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to read a follow-up article “What Hollywood has to gain from subverting the patriarchy.” Anyone have the link to such a thing?

  5. No mention of Elementary? Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson is a great example of how successfully it can be done in television as well.

    • I’m not convinced. They made Joan Watson a surgeon, when John Watson was a doctor with extensive military experience. They watered down Watson’s biography in the gender-flip, which kind of undermines the point of a gender-flip.

  6. No doubt a producer brave enough to flip Highlander would face intense backlash from the largely male fanbase of the original.

    Y’know, I’m not entirely sure that even matters. Reading about that, I assure you, my revulsion was entirely centered around the idea of a remake of Highlander. Gender-flipping the protagonist is probably the least fanbase offensive thing Hollywood could/will do to that movie. 🙁

    Actually, thinking about it for just a little while longer, that might even be a good way to avoid pissing off the fanbase. If Connor MacLeod became Colleen MacLeod, there’s almost no way to make the same movie, and so differences between the two become much more readily explicable. Sure, there’s going to be a certain crowd contingent that’s going to be pissed that it’s not a swing-for-swing remake of the original with better CGI, but you’re not going to make them happy no matter what you do.

    • I actually think that would make it better. It would make it different enough to not just be “another remake”. 🙂

  7. I would love to see Gwendoline Christie in Highlander. I love her as Brienne.

  8. Another very old and very successful example for gender flipping in Hollywood is of course HIS GIRL FRIDAY, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, from 1940.
    “His Girl Friday was originally supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of The Front Page, with both the editor and reporter being men. But during auditions, a woman, Howard Hawks’s secretary, read reporter Hildy Johnson’s lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female and the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns. Most of the original dialogue and all of the characters’ names were left the same, with the exception of Hildy’s fiancé, Bruce Baldwin.” (from wikipedia)

  9. Even outside of casting, this is excellent advice for writers who want to avoid cliche. Gender-swapping at the draft stage can also help shake up a script and make it fresh again without damaging the integrity of the story.

    Oh, and a gender-swapped WEIRD SCIENCE is one of the most brilliant ideas ever.

    • I agree with this completely! Well put. I don’t think filmmakers are intentionally sexist in their writing. I feel like they are mostly men who know how to write what they want to see. Gender-flipping seems like a great way of liberating them from their ideas about what makes a good female character and would give them better insight into women. The biggest mistake is thinking we are so very different.

      The gender-swapped Weird Science sounds amazing!

  10. Sigourney Weaver’s character “Ripley” in the Alien franchise was originally written as a man, or at least was never specified as a woman during writing.

  11. The Alien Series! Best ever!!!! Sigourney Weaver made that series.

  12. Weird Science with Channing Tatum.. not sure if its a step forward for women in Hollywood but might provide more butter for the popcorn

  13. Kevin Boyle says:

    I LOVE the idea of gender flipping but I do not love the massive remake industry and am pretty much to the point of boycotting *any* remake that’s source material isn’t at least 50 years old.

  14. You’d think *MS.* magazine could spell the names of female actresses correctly.

  15. Hamilton-Lovecraft says:

    @Chris — actually, I think *all* the characters in the original “Alien” were originally written to be playable by either a man or a woman.

  16. I get the gender thing. I wish this article also included the race thing. In fact, you can put gender/race over this entire article and then really see whats going on in Hollywood.

    The default lead is : male, white, heterosexual, attractive, friend to minorities, lover of beautiful women, fearless and confident. Who writes these characters? By and large its close minded balding nerdy middle aged white men who dont get out much. And they pretend like “this is what the public wants to see” when the public has proven them wrong time and time again. They then say “well thats the exception to the rule” when we all know its not. We know what we want to see.

    So yea, the gist of this article is great, I just think it would be a lot more powerful if it spoke to everyone. I mean….all the women you mentioned were WHITE women. You realize women of color exist too, right? People of color in general?

    Think about it.

  17. I think this article misses a major issue within the industry as to why there are so many more leading male roles than female ones. The fact is, the majority of writers within the industry are male. In IMDB’s list of top 100 screenwriters, 5 of them were female. If you look at the stories written by the female authors, there tended to have female leads. When I write, I tend to write from a male perspective and have lead males in my stories. It isn’t that I am misogynistic anymore than those female writers are showing misandry. When people write stories, they write from what they know. The fact that most leads tend to be white males shows who usually writes these stories. Waving a finger of contempt at Hollywood for having male leads is misused energy that leads to nothing other than trying to start a pointless gender war. A much more productive way of spending this energy is trying to figure out how to encourage more women to become screenwriters so women’s stories are shown. As a man, I can promise you I will never do true justice to any story about a woman, not like a woman can

    • I agree and disagree with this. The only thing I disagree with is a man not being able to write a complex female character. I feel like we assume that the genders are so very different and it’s simply not the case. Take Harry Potter for instance. J.K. Rowling wrote a complex male lead and tackled his close friendships with both male and female characters. Harry was written beautifully and could easily have been swapped out with a female name. We have out cultural and physiological differences but in the end we all feel the same feelings. I’d say that if your writing a female lead, write her how you’d write any character and then have a few women read it over and correct anything that may seem off. Give it a shot. You may find yourself with a truly dynamic female lead.

  18. Yeah, I agree with Randy above…if we want to move forward in society its time that white women be taken out of the important lead roles of the type discussed in this article, because there is really no reason for white women to have all of the important gender flipping roles. There should be a concerted effort to make sure that does not happen and that women of color are given the majority of such roles.

    • With all due respect to *every* race and gender-African American/European, Asian, Hispanic, Aboriginal (The Sapphires was a wonderful film!), *whatever*-I believe the most talented person should get the job. Why should women of color be given the majority of roles over white women, Robert? Just because they’re “women of color”? Obviously, I would award a role to a Viola Davis over a Lindsay Lohan, but color of skin shouldn’t be the deciding factor. If it were Kathy Bates or Meryl Streep up against Oprah Winfrey or Viola Davis, then let the best *person* for the role win, not just the woman of color.

      • mpaciorkowska says:

        With difficulties resulting from systemic oppression, women of color often do not have the same possibilities that white women do, regardless of how big your respect is.

        PS. In case you don’t get how what you’re writing is problematic, look at what you wrote and exchange “women of color” with “women”, and “white women” with “men”. Rings a bell?

  19. And what of Oprah Winfrey’s role in, “The Butler”?

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