Ghostbusters opens July 15, starring Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon in a reboot of the male-dominated 1984 comedy hit. Though the prospect of any action movie starring a strong woman is exciting, are female-led reboots really the best solution to Hollywood’s discrimination problem?
Representation is important. In 2015, less than 25% of top-grossing films featured a female lead. Women of color are 11% less likely than white women to be featured as major characters. Hollywood is in need of a change, and the Ghostbusters reboot is an important part of that change as well as a part of a recurring pattern: Reboots and remakes that recast films starring men with mostly or all women.
Through reboots and remakes, the industry has begun to take tentative steps toward progress in terms of sex equality. Last year, Women and Hollywood revealed studio plans for an all-female version of Ocean’s 11, with a cast rumored to include Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling and Jennifer Lawrence. (Director Gary Ross has announced the title of the upcoming film as Ocean’s 8.)
In a recent social media campaign, actors Gillian Anderson and Priyanka Chopra were both suggested as possible replacements for James Bond following Daniel Craig’s retirement from the role, with Anderson herself re-tweeting a fan-made image in favor of such casting. Even more recently, sources have stated Oscar-winning actor Brie Larson is in the running to play superhero Captain Marvel in the film, currently slated for a 2019 release. But when filmmakers take a traditionally male role like James Bond and tailor it for a woman, what is lost and what is gained?
There are ways in which the concept of a reboot starring women itself could be rooted in the glorification of male behaviors and ways of thinking. When our understanding of gender reboots depends on the flawed interpretation of man as originator and woman as imitator, viewers are left with little more than a contemporary spin on the creation myth. Why are some traits considered inherently masculine, and why is the idea of women doing them seen as more subversive than, say, an original film starring women? What does it mean when we say things like “female Ghostbusters?”
There have been several successful female characters who were originally written as men. Salt, Flightplan and the American remake of The Secret in Their Eyes all began with screenplays featuring a male lead only to be altered after casting. Though still in development, The Gray Man will star Charlize Theron in a role originally intended for Brad Pitt. A 2015 Vanity Fair article reported that crew members in the 1979 horror sci-fi film Alien were conceived as male characters, with the movie’s screenwriters noting prior to casting that “all parts are interchangeable for men or women.”
When we take into account that from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans going well into the 17th century, the majority of theatre performers were men, we realize that even if women were to play 100% of the roles for the next century it’s unlikely we’d be caught up. Following the announcement of a hypothetical female Bond, several male acquaintances of mine complained that women (all women? women in film? their mothers?) were “taking away” men’s historical significance in film and argued that women would cry out en masse if men did something similar with iconic female roles. “What if they remade Erin Brockovich starring a man?” one man asked. Another mentioned the 2009 biopic Amelia and yet another threw out the possibility of John of Arc instead of Joan.
At first I was laughed at how arbitrary their examples were. The women in each of the examples listed were actual historical figures, while James Bond remains a fictional creation. But then, it hit me: These were the examples men provided because they were the only iconic female roles these men could think of.
How do we solve the problem of sex discrimination in Hollywood and to whom should we look for strong female characters? We could start with women filmmakers. The numbers don’t lie: according to a study done by CSWTF, in movies with at least one female director and/or screenwriter, women comprised 37% of all speaking characters. This was contrasted with films with exclusively male directors and screenwriters, where women made up just 28% of the speaking characters. Female actors in films directed by women were also 10.6% more likely to appear on screen, and when both the director and screenwriter are women this number jumped another 8.7%.
None of this isn’t to say that Hollywood isn’t taking steps toward progress. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its new class of 2016 is 46% female and 41% people of color. Founded in 2012 by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, the Female Filmmakers Initiative works to foster equality for women behind the camera which in turn contributes to equal representation onscreen. In addition to researching the issues of systemic sex discrimination, the organization is taking steps to implement a mentoring program beginning in fall of 2016 which seeks to “nurture emerging talent in the entertainment industry by connecting members with established professionals who can offer advice and guidance.”
But lasting change requires continuous effort. Filmmaker and feminist Elisabeth Subrin, on her recent film, A Woman, A Part, sought out women for each role in production. “The status quo will never change on its own, which is why I had to go out of my way to find women,” Subrin said in an interview with IndieWire. “When I look at what films are in the festivals, when I look at the statistics of what is in the festivals, and when I look at the 2016 statistics, it hasn’t changed. I just want to see other stories.”
As consumers, we can and should commit to supporting women in film. By actively countering the problems of inequality within the industry, we begin to break down barriers and create much-needed change. So go ahead, go see Ghostbusters. Let’s just make sure we keep pushing for more for women on screen than simply stepping into men’s shoes.