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Thoughts on All-Female Remakes

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In case you missed it, there was an all-female remake of Ghostbusters this year.

Not that you did miss it. Nobody missed it. I don’t think there’s ever been such a vitriolic response to a movie before. You’d think the film had been remade as a piece of Nazi propaganda from how fiercely people hated it from the moment it was announced. Making the Ghostbusters into women? Absolutely criminal.

Next on the bandwagon is an all-female Ocean’s Eleven, designed as a companion story/sequel starring Danny Ocean’s sister. Maybe people will be less violently opposed to this one, because it’s not such a childhood movie, and it doesn’t replace the original in the timeline. This one does have a supremely cool-sounding cast, to the point that I might actually go see it, even those it’s not my usual sort of thing.

But as cool as the concept of all-female remakes might be, I’ve never been able to get particularly excited about them. I’m not a Ghostbusters or Ocean’s Eleven fan, so I’m going to imagine that someone planned to remake The Lord of the Rings with an all-female fellowship. The concept would be pretty cool, but I still don’t think I would be able to get genuinely excited about it. Because these “all-female remakes” aren’t badass feminism, even if that’s what their critics say. They’re gimmicks. “Super special edition” versions, like “it’s Sherlock Holmes, but with mice!” “It’s Ghostbusters, but with women!” It’s presented as something different, something a bit weird, something not normal.

On the plus side, this trend does allow girls to watch, for example, a Ghostbusters movie where they’re the heroes. After I’d already written the outline for this post, I stumbled across a Tumblr post that made me rethink this topic a lot, arguing that while adults might talk about, for example, Obama as the “first black president,” children just see him as the president, and that these are the people remakes are really for. Adults might see the Ghostbusters remake as the “female Ghostbusters,” but to a six-year-old, they’re just the Ghostbusters.

And perhaps this is what people are actually worried about when they say remakes are “destroying their childhood.” It’s not their childhood that’s being affected. It’s other people’s childhoods. New childhoods. Kids who won’t get the same all-male Ghostbuster experience that they had, but will instead see women in the roles. Boys, perhaps, who don’t get to see themselves as the new Ghostbusters, the way these people saw themselves in the 80s. That, I think, is what inspires so much vitriol.

But I don’t think they have to worry. Sometimes the reincarnation replaces the original in the public’s consciousness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury or Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but in those cases, it’s one more inclusive casting in a context of more traditional choices, and it doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Captain America and Iron Man are still white men. The character change is not the most noteworthy thing about the reboot. But every gender-swapped remake announcement basically confirms that the default is still all-male (or mostly male, one female), and that once you’ve told that story and had it be successful, then you can introduce an all-female story as a gimmicky remake version. The gender swap is the real thing that matters when selling this movie. And sure, they could be cool stories. But I want us to have our own stories too.

Of course, it’s really hard for groups of female characters to avoid that sense of being a “gimmick,” even if they’re in an original story. An all-male fantasy quest is normal, but an all-female fantasy quest would be seen as noteworthy at absolute best, a sign of the domination of women in society and the Fall of Men at worst. But I would love for a story to automatically, naturally have lots of female characters in it. A heist story that’s always about women, not remade to have some women. A superhero story about female superheroes, not male superheroes recast as female ones. There’s something to be said about having female stories from the start and allowing them to become iconic themselves. Like Katniss Everdeen. Like Rey (even though some would argue she is part of a remake).

But of course, it’s hard for these stories to get made, and hard for them to get recognized if they do get made. Star Wars had the benefit of being Star Wars, and The Hunger Games was already a best-selling book series, and even then it was romanced-up in the marketing for the first movie. An all-female remake is a way to get past the “female characters don’t sell” stigma — and even that might be shaky after the vitriolic reaction to Ghostbusters. So I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, or “anti-feminist,” or anything other than “cool but not quite there yet.” I’m still not sure we should heap on the praise for “it’s THIS popular thing, but with women!!” as the epitome of social change. Remakes can be fun. But original female genre stories would be better.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on All-Female Remakes

  1. So here’s a thing. In the original film version of The Lion King, Rafiki was a male baboon. In the stage play musical, Rafiki was re-cast (and has always been cast) as a woman – indeed, the role has been completely absorbed by its female character and the woman who originally created that character. I don’t remember ANYONE objecting to that gender-switch. Why? Because it’s not a lead role, because a stage play is less mainstream than a movie (it’s still pretty mainstream), because it’s not the entire cast? I’m guessing, and this fits entirely into your argument, because it’s clearly not a *gimmick*. The stage play was streamlined, expanded on, and improved on the film; whoever changed the sex of that character thought they were making the show better, for whatever reason. (And actually, it’s a great change.)

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary – I love reading your posts. Cheers, Elizabeth Wein

    1. Thank you so much! That means a lot, coming from you. :) And that’s a really interesting point about Rafiki. As you say, it’s expanding on a secondary character, or bringing a new angle to them, rather than seeming to build the whole thing around that change. I think it’s a change that people could go to the show without knowing about it, or maybe even really noticing it, so it manages to escape all the controversy that might make it feel gimmicky.

  2. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “City of Sorcery” is an all-female quest story, part of her Darkover series. Some of the characters were introduced in the earlier book, “The Shattered Chain”, the first part of which is also an all-female quest. However, I admit they’re not films.

    1. My experience of Marion Zimmer Bradley is restricted to the first half of the Mists of Avalon, but sounds like I’m gonna have to check these ones out!

  3. When I was a girl there was Ellen Ripley, in alien. She’s iconic and It was a really popular franchise. And that didn’t change producers’ opinion about woman-led films. Same with Katniss. When people asked (And they still ask for that) for a Black Widow movie, Marvel CEO said that it was imposible to make room for another movie in their schedule, then when they got the rights for spiderman, they puss back Mrs Marvel movie to make room for spiderman.

    I think that what I’m trying to say is that I’m not sure that the ghostbusters movie would change things that much. Sure, it was fun and there was debate (it’s interesting how many people who whent to see other remakes didn’t go to see this one), but I don’t think producers have changed their minds. For them it’s way easier to produce “sausage party”.

    1. Definitely. People online were really obsessed with making it fail, but even if the movie had been a runaway success, I don’t think anyone would have gone, “Clearly we need to make more movies with female leads!” They’d just have gone “well, obviously it’s riding on the coattails of the original, so REALLY, it’s because people like movies with men in them.”

      Then again, as you said, having a wildly successful original female-led story doesn’t do anything either. So we’re pretty stuck.

  4. I saw the new Ghostbusters and I really liked it. You are right, though: we do need some ORIGINAL female movies. But I think you’d like the new Ghostbusters even if you weren’t a fan of the original. It’s a very strong feminist movie.

    1. I do need to check it out! It’s the sort of movie I’d want to watch and have a running commentary with friends, so I just need to gather up a few of those first!

  5. I honestly think there’s a place for both. You’re right that we need more original female-led franchises, but I think that all-female remakes aren’t just ‘gimmicks’, but – if they are done well – perform a radical function in making us question the assumptions of the previous film. To my surprise, I absolutely loved the new Ghostbusters, and part of the reason for that was because it was a remake; it highlighted sexist tropes in a way that a new story about women and ghosts couldn’t have done. (I think it functions in a similar way to the Man Who Has It All Twitter account, if you’ve seen that). In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be necessary, but we aren’t there yet.

    1. That’s a great point. It’s not something I’d considered before, but I guess it’s like book-to-film adaptations: the contrast gives us the chance to explore the narrative of each in more depth. I’ve been thinking about from the perspective of the remake being constantly compared to the original, but I hadn’t thought about how it might also work the other way.

  6. I didn’t feel like Ghostbusters was a gimmick, personally. Paul Feig genuinely LIKES women, for one thing. And the movie wasn’t at all Look, Ladies Doing Things, it was just…. People. Who happened to be women.

    I didn’t think it was a perfect movie for a few reasons (ex: whiteness), but it never felt like they were there to be a gimmick.

    1. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t comment on how gimmicky it feels to watch…. obviously I hope it feels genuine. What I mean is that, even if the movie itself isn’t executed as a gimmick, or ever seen by one as the creators, people react to it as though it IS a gimmick. It might be marketed partly as that, but even if it’s not, a huge number of people are going to respond to it as The FEMALE Ghostbusters, rather than just as the new Ghostbusters, and that definitely creates a very gimmicky feel around the movie, imo.

  7. I see your point, and it’s disappointing to think that movies like Ghostbusters are made assuming people are more excited about the gimmick than the actual movie. But my husband and I saw the remake this summer when I was ridiculously pregnant with our daughter, and at the end we both looked at each other and said that we couldn’t wait to show it to her. It was funny, thoughtful, and took on the sexist tropes of the original in a lighthearted way. So I think your second point about allowing girls to see themselves as heroes is right on: maybe my daughter will grow up assuming that girls can be ghostbusters or lead heists (and hopefully won’t want to do the latter). Yes, we need our own stories, not just remakes. But at least she won’t have to wait to see herself reflected in big summer blockbusters.

    1. That’s a really good point. I’m glad your daughter gets to grow up with movies like this too! I think one of the highlights of The Force Awakens was seeing little girls captivated by Rey. That’s so important. And in the end, no matter how the internet reacts, this movie still exists, and younger viewers aren’t going to know all the drama around it. I guess I just want *more*. It’s not that the remake is bad, but the combination of people’s reactions and the idea that the female protagonists can only show up after the male characters have made the series successful.

  8. Firstable: There are a lot of studies that show that people actually don´t care very much about the gender of a protagonist/role but far more about the plot. If you look for example at what kind of books boys and girls like, you will find, that both like the classic “hero has to overcome various struggles”-plot, while boys absolutely despise stories that focus mainly on romance and relationships.
    The interesting thing now is, that boys have no problem at all with a female character as long as they can identify with the plot the character is involved (classic children book example would be “Mathilda”), while a male character still won´t do any good, when the whole story is about romance/relationships.

    And this brings us to the core of the problem with stuff like the new ghostbusters: People in general hate getting political/social agendas or statements shoved down their throat when in reality they want to be entertained, and in my view, a lot of the actual shows do just that:
    They create female characters for the sake that they are female or gay characters for the sake that they are gay, just for example as they did when they made Sulu gay (which even pissed off George Takei) or the countless examples of gender/race-changing beloved comic book characters, which obviously extremely enrages the fans of those beloved characters (or franchises in the case of “Ghostbusters”).

    Therefore it´s just that many shows with female protagonists and many female characters are unbearable, at least for me, because the creators obviously cared more about making some sort of statement instead of working out a good plot.
    Prime example for that would be “Supergirl”, which tries so hard to be super-feminist, that it constantly ends up looking completely miserable and ridiculous. I don´t know if they have overcome this by now, but somehow i doubt it.
    Nevertheless there are some notable exceptions, which show, how it can be done right; best example for me would be “Jessica Jones”, which was just great and original.

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