Switching Gender in the Movies: As Good As It Gets

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.

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