By the exceedingly modest standards of success for women in Hollywood, this has been a good couple of days. Women turned out in large numbers for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” helping make Marvel’s first superpowered woman (and first movie where a woman got a writing credit) a box-office success. Sony is planning a superheroine movie written by a woman for 2017. And “Bridesmaids” veteran Paul Feig, a director who has begun to specialize in comedies starring women, is apparently in discussions to direct a reboot of the “Ghostbusters” franchise in which the titular characters would be women.
My colleague Alexandra Petri has written an excellent meditation on the ways in which such gender- and race-flipping of existing characters takes away from the empathetic experience of reading. “I never thought of myself, the reader, sitting perched on one corner of my parents’ big sofa with fern upholstery, as being a Girl,” she says of her own childhood experience. “I was what the poet Patricia Lockwood calls ‘the eleven-year-old gender: protagonist.’ ”
But I have another, more granular question. It is a wonderful thing to increase the sheer number of women in the entertainment industry, a move that both creates more opportunities for women to tell their stories and takes pressure off of established women to tell only female stories. Yet when it comes to this particular way of doing that, which creates works that inherently exist in reference to each other, what are we saying about what it means to be men and women?
There are two ways to gender-bend an existing franchise, each of which engages with a different kind of feminism. You can change the gender of the characters but essentially nothing else about the film, as a way to argue that men and women are fundamentally similar, capable of performing the same jobs and exhibiting the same heroism. Or you can use a gender switch to nudge all sorts of other elements of the story, exploring the proposition that men and women are fundamentally different but possessed of their own equally useful strengths and insights.
Take one of my favorite examples, She-Hulk and the Hulk. Jennifer Walters, who acquires superpowers after an emergency transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner, was initially conceived as a way for Marvel to avoid losing ground to the Bionic Woman when that character became a television hit.
But she evolved into something more compelling. The Hulk may be stronger than his female counterpart, but he pays for that physical force with a sacrifice of his reason. She-Hulk, by contrast, gets to keep her intelligence but loses some of the restraint that guides her actions in human form. The stories are complementary. The Hulk teaches us about the power and cost of male rage, She-Hulk about the pleasures and consequences women experience when they feel free to shake off expectations.
Or what about Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the interstellar trucker from the “Alien” franchise, and a character who was initially written as a man? H.R. Giger designed creatures for the movies who burst forth from their hosts’ chests in a monstrous approximation of childbirth.
If Ripley had been a man, his battle against the Alien might have pitted masculine ingenuity against feminine reproductive capacity. As a woman, Ripley gains moral stature and action-hero momentum from her gender. She represents a healthy desire to protect new, vulnerable life, whether in the form of a cat or Newt, a little girl, pitted against a twisted version of that drive that equates reproduction with dominance. Either movie would have been good, but some of their strengths would have been in their differences.
Similarly, it will be interesting to see which approach Marvel takes with its latest superheroine, a woman who will wield the hammer and authority of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who has most recently been incarnated as a big-screen, heterosexual hunk. Will the story argue that the office of Thor is larger than the individual who holds it? Or will a woman do different things with said hammer than a man might have? You could smash a lot of irrigation trenches with that thing.
And when it comes to the “Ghostbusters” reboot, which has prompted a great deal of grumbling that it is somehow an inherently male story, Feig might do well to consider what is specifically female about dealing with supernatural infestations and what is not. Maybe ghostbusting has become another routine, low-prestige and low-pay job that is coded as female. Maybe a female team is trying to break into an industry that has become a bastion of macho nerds.
Whatever Feig settles on, we should not forget that getting more women into Hollywood is not just about making quotas. Our real goal should be a broader range of stories.