Little tiny Hunger Games spoilers in some of the pieces I’ve linked to.
Several months ago, I wrote a piece complaining about the whiteness of the cast of the Hunger Games movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve been paying attention to the response it’s gotten online, and this one thing has pissed me right off. Apparently some people really don’t like the fact that some sympathetic characters are black.
I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been stated. A part of me is actually really surprised. I guess I sort of thought that that kind of overt racism was generally understood to be Not Okay, and that even if people had thoughts like that, they would at least refrain from posting them on the public internet. Maybe it’s better that they’ve stated them outright, because at least that way people can respond to them. Tim Wise spoke on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday about overt and covert racism in the context of the Trayvon Martin’s case (starting at around the 10:40 mark). I guess it’s good to get a reminder that racism still exists and we need to keep working to get rid of it.
But it’s still gross.
Also, one little thing I do want to add: Many people have responded to these racist comments by pointing out that Suzanne Collins describes Rue and Thresh as having dark skin in the book. This is obviously true, and maybe a good way to trip up people who claim to be huge fans of the books but don’t want those characters to be black. But that really isn’t the point, and it actually helps to show just how insidious whitewashing is in Hollywood. If Collins hadn’t specified the colour of their skin, would those racist comments be more justified? Obviously not. But white people have grown accustomed to seeing the characters that they identify with onscreen also look like them, so, unless otherwise specified, they assume by default that the characters they identify with onscreen should look like them. And, even when it is otherwise specified, it seems like some of them still make that assumption.
I’ll start this off by saying that I really enjoyed 50/50. It can’t be easy to write a comedy about cancer that also makes people cry, and this movie pulls it off really well. One of the only things I disliked about the movie, and it’s not even real dislike, was the fact that it made me think of how few similar movies exist about women. Actually, this movie may have been the one that inspired me to start writing about gender flipping in movies. (I’m not sure why I wrote As Good As It Gets first, but I did.) Like before, I’m not giving a plot summary but there will probably be some spoilers.
Very little in 50/50 would change if the gender identities of all the characters were flipped. The central plot, of two friends dealing with the fact that one of them has cancer, would stay exactly the same. The way the Adam and Kyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen’s characters) interact with each other wouldn’t need to change much, although the joke about shaving your head with your friend’s testicle trimmers might not work quite as well. I can think of several easy modifications, though, so I don’t see that as much of a problem. Adam’s mother is almost a stock character (although Angelica Houston does amazing things with it), but it might be fun to see how the overbearing parent trope plays out in a father-daughter relationship as opposed to mother-son. It would also be nice to see a man be overprotective of his daughter for something not related to sex.
I would really enjoy seeing Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Rachael, played as a man. For some reason I think that a man cheating on his cancer-having girlfriend comes across as less bitchy and vindictive than Rachael character did in this movie. (I would like it even more if straight women could do shitty things to their romantic partners in movies without those shitty things being somehow connected to their womanhood, but this isn’t the time for that discussion.) Gender stereotypes are so strongly ingrained pop culture that it’s impossible to talk about straight romantic relationships without running into them. When Rachael cheats on Adam, she’s not just being an asshole to him, but she’s also failing in her womanly duties to care for him. Even if you (like me) absolutely do not believe that women have any kind of inherent nurturing tendencies, you might still find her behaviour jarring because it so strongly goes against the way women are portrayed. A man doing the same thing doesn’t buck any stereotypes, but it takes away that gendered dimension. Also, I really love the idea of a woman shouting Kyle’s line, “I’ve hated you for months, and now I have fuckin’ evidence that you suck as a person!” to her best friend’s boyfriend.
Adam’s interactions with the other chemo patients would show some really nice intergenerational conversations among women. Mitch and Alan’s skepticism about Rachael’s behaviour might be played as more meddlesome and nagging when expressed by women, but it would be quite refreshing to see three women talk about life and death and also get high.
Then, of course, we have Anna Kendrick as Katherine, Adam’s therapist. Her role and her relationship with Adam are written in such a way that neither character comes across as creepy or desperate, although giving a client your cell number is probably not a good idea for any therapist. The only thing that might not be as believable with the genders flipped is how bad Katherine is at her job. I feel like people are more accepting of an incompetent woman in a caregiving role than they are of an incompetent dude, maybe because we see more women than men in caregiving roles in general, and maybe because we see more women than men in movies screw up at their jobs because they’re emotional and don’t know how to handle the stress. Or something. In any case, I would be interested to see if a man in Katherine’s role could still come across as worth hanging out with.
I don’t watch a lot of movies, so it’s possible that something like 50/50 except starring women exists, but I feel like I probably would have heard about that on teh feminist blogz, so I highly doubt it. The closest ones I can think of are Now and Then, which came out in 1995, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, from 2005. I don’t remember much about the publicity for or public reaction to Now and Then, but I do remember that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was marketed to teenage girls and generally perceived as a movie for girls. I knew many people (mostly guys, I think) who didn’t see it because they thought it looked stupid, and a lot of them didn’t believe me when I told them that it was actually a really great movie. They had no interest in seeing a movie about girl problems. Maybe they thought it would be all about tampons and hair braiding?
People have made this point before, but it’s still true so I’m going to say it again: Movies about girls are always movies about girls, and movies about boys are usually movies about people. I would actually really like to see a movie almost identical to 50/50, but about women, not men. If I were in the movimaking business, I might try making it myself, but apparently I’d be told that no one would want to see it. It would be so refreshing, though, to see a friendship between two women explored with such depth and nuance in a serious, non satirical way.
For the past week and a half, I’ve been on March Break, and this year, it means I’ve watched a bunch of movies. I frequently wonder how a movie would change if the gender identities of all of the characters were flipped, and I’ve recently started to think about this while watching movies. So I thought I’d explore that a bit in writing and see what happens. I know that in doing this I’m sort of buying into a gender dichotomy that I don’t actually think exists, and that bugs me a little. However, Hollywood movies tend to portray gender as fairly binary, and I think that one way to challenge that is to take apart the way that each gender is represented, so maybe this is at least a step toward getting rid of the dichotomy.
Anyway, that’s enough of an introduction. The first movie on my list is As Good As It Gets. I’m not giving a plot summary, so this might not make complete sense to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, but there will still be some spoilers.
I remember seeing trailers for As Good As It Gets years ago when it first came out, but I never actually saw it until I caught it on television last week. The friends I saw it with told me that a few scenes were missing, including an apparently iconic one where Jack Nicholson says he writes women convincingly by imagining a man and then taking away all reason and accountability. Or something like that. So this analysis might be a little incomplete, but I’ll go with what I have.
I see a few possible changes in the way Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, would be played as a woman, and I don’t know if those changes would come from the depiction of the character or the audience’s reaction. Mental illness in women has different connotations from mental illness in men, in general popular culture, but maybe more so in fiction. I think that Melvin as a woman might be played as more timid. She might worry more about what people around her think. On the other hand, if she behaves as ostentatiously obnoxious as Melvin does, her behaviour might surprise the audience more, or at least come across stronger than his behaviour did. Women who go after what they want at the expense of others don’t usually fall into the role of the hero or anti-hero.
Helen Hunt’s character, Carol Connelly, as a man breaks a few stereotypes. I can’t think of too many single fathers waiting tables in the movies I’ve seen. Her relationship with Melvin also takes on a pretty cool slant if you switch their gender identities. A rich (older?) woman paying for her favourite server’s kid’s medical care to satisfy her compulsions has a satisfying feel somehow. I’d like to see more women characters do things for completely selfish motivations, and have the general reaction be more along the lines of, “What a weird person,” than “What a bitch!” At the same time, I wonder if a woman saying to a man, “You make me want to be a better woman,” comes across as pathetic and desperate rather than romantic. Actually, now that I think about it, her line would probably get changed to, “You make me want to be a better person.” When Melvin says “better man,” we all know he means a better person. When I hear “better woman,” I think of bigger breasts or more successful at finding an effective work/life balance. So that would be one change that comes almost entirely from the way audiences are trained to think of women. When Melvin says that, it softens him and makes him more sympathetic. If he were a woman, it would take away from the strength she gained from being selfish and obnoxious.
Simon Bishop, Greg Kinnear’s character, in some ways doesn’t change much if he switches gender identities. A wacky gay artist neighbour that the protagonist hates doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy. However, Melvin’s homophobic jokes don’t have the same power in my mind when they come from a woman and are directed toward a woman. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard and seen more homophobia directed at men, and because women showing affection toward each other doesn’t scare people quite as much as men showing each other affection does, but a woman saying the equivalent of Melvin’s offensive “I’m afraid he might pull the stiff one-eye on me” (does an equivalent even exist?) somehow sounds less believable. Just as offensive, though.
I like this movie with flipped gender identities. It would challenge some of the stereotypes regarding women and anger and women and mental illness, as well as some about single parenting and paternalism. It would also pass the Bechdel Test a little more easily.