Jackie Hedeman on genderswapping
YOU'VE HEARD THE outcry. Ghostbusters has been remade with an all-female cast—been genderswapped, to use Internetspeak—and people are pissed. An equal or greater number are surely delighted, but this reaction is both quieter and seems self-explanatory, at least to me (fan of adaptations, unthreatened by the steady march toward gender parity). I am far more fascinated by why a person may have greeted this news with outrage.
Perhaps if I were a diehard fan of the original, I would have responded differently. I’ve seen the original Ghostbusters maybe seven times, but still I would consider myself only a casual fan. It’s a good time, but it never transcended, never hopped the ranks of the enjoyable to become one of those movies I turn to when the going gets tough.
It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which someone, let’s call them a man, might feel differently, and this might compel him to voice objections. This man has loved Ghostbusters since 1984. He wrote letters to Dan Ackroyd and Sigourney Weaver, in that order, and received signed photographs in return. He claims to mind the new Ghostbusters on the grounds of superfluity, (though he liked all the Hobbit sequels). He says he just doesn’t believe an all-female version could be as good. Really, he’s terrified that it will be better.
And it might well be (CGI has come a long way, it’s a great cast). Though it could also be a flop: the script might be bad, or the chemistry might not be there, or it might look like it was filmed through cheesecloth. Either way, none of the reasons why a Ghostbusters remake might hit or miss will have anything to do with the decision to reimagine its characters as female.
The original Ghostbusters was only recognizably “male” in the sense that it impeccably performed a particular brand of normative heterosexuality as its male heroes weathered 24-hour romances, ghost wet dreams, workplace sexual tension, and not-so-subtle visual and verbal innuendo. Though these elements are overlaid on the Ghostbusters story, they are not fundamental to the characters or their motivations. This brand of masculinity—prevalent but inessential—is exactly why Ghostbusters is perfectly designed for genderswapping. Despite the (ultimately impotent) human EPA antagonist, systems of power in Ghostbusters are largely irrelevant, forces to be ignored. The true threat to our protagonists is supernatural, nondiscriminatory, and genderless. Making creative character changes does little to influence how those characters react to, or interact with, that threat.
This is where our hypothetical fan reinserts himself into the conversation. “That’s my problem,” he says. “If the genders don’t matter, then it really is just remaking the same movie over again. So what’s the point?”
Because we’re not there yet. We might like to think we are, but we’re not. Case in point: the outcry against literally one of the most effortless cases of genderswapping I can think of. The resistance itself is proof of the swap’s necessity.
Ultimately, the power of the genderswap is its simplicitly. Ninety percent of the script could remain the same, but the visuals tell a different story. A paradigm shift can be as quick as a name change here, a pronoun change here, and presto. New life. The story of four men swaggering in to kick ass has been told a thousand times. It’s neither hard nor harmful to ask the very simple, very obvious question: what if they weren’t men?
In fact, let’s try harder. Let’s genderswap everything. Let’s do it until it becomes so commonplace and run-of-the-mill that it’s greeted with the same resigned sigh as the latest Peter-Parker-as-Spiderman movie.
If I were to have my way, I’d start with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Helen Mirren as Smiley—think about it). Imagine the changes that would have to be made to a story more reality-bound than Ghostbusters. To do a credible Tinker, Tailor—to create a tonally accurate adaptation that was true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original—you would have to adjust the setting, the circumstances, a portion of the origin of the traitor’s entitlement and dissatisfaction. The film would—could—no longer be set in the old boys’ club secret service of the 1974 novel, 1979 miniseries, and 2011 film. The film would have to identify and problematize a privileged female space for its characters to first inhabit and then space. The stakes would be very different, but the tension and humour might remain the same. It would make for a fascinating adaptation.
Fascinating and worthwhile. Adaptation happens for a variety of reasons, but these radical genderswaps I’m proposing would force adaptors to consider the source material carefully, and just as carefully approach their new work. They would be forced, immediately and at every step of the way, to ask why. Why this place. Why this motivation. Why these people. Why this story. This level of attention and close reading is, in fact, a form of appreciation arguably more ardent than the swap-resistant fan. Besides which the answers could only prove illuminating. To genderswap or raceswap stories that tell the very particular tales of white men would be to challenge authority. So let’s do it, not as toothless thought experiments, but in order to make art that has to try harder. Let’s do it even when the swap necessitates a shift in story. Let's do it in a way that makes inequality impossible to avoid.
WHEN I WAS six or seven, one of my favourite movies was Gunga Din. My grandfather, a film buff, sent me the VHS for Christmas and I wore it out watching. At the time, I was largely focused on how hilarious Cary Grant was. It would be a few more years before I recognized it as the deeply racist movie it is. But even then I must have sensed on some level that the film was ripe for change, because I woke up one morning having dreamed an all-female Gunga Din. All the roles previously occupied by male actors had been given new names and backstories and cast with dolls I owned. There was one exception: Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s part was filled by my small, pyjama-wearing stuffed rabbit, Baby Bunny, a pith helmet jammed down over his ears.
Compared to that, the Ghostbusters remake is easily envisioned, unproblematic in the extreme, no threat to the original. No films have to tell wholly different stories to remain unique. It may be sufficient that the how and why of their telling differs.
JACKIE HEDEMAN, contributing editor to Partisan, is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station, and on stage with Available Light Theatre. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University.