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Roundtable: What Do Women Think of Hollywood’s New Gender-Flip Movies?

We asked top female critics, writers and thinkers about ‘Ocean’s 8,’ the ‘Ghostbusters’ remake and turning James Bond into a woman

This Friday, the star-studded Ocean’s 8 comes to theaters. But the stars involved aren’t George Clooney or Brad Pitt: This spin-off features an all-female cast headlined by Oscar-winners Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway. The crime caper, directed by Hunger Games filmmaker Gary Ross, is the latest in a recent Hollywood trend of rebooting and refreshing properties with female characters — a trend that, most contentiously, included 2016’s Ghostbusters remake, which prompted a lot of angry men to take to the internet to complain that their childhoods had been ruined.

I liked the new Ghostbusters and haven’t seen Ocean’s 8 yet, but I’m generally of two minds about these gender-flip remakes/spin-offs. On the one hand, I’m glad the industry is trying to shake things up by letting women take over prominent male-driven franchises. On the other, it feels a bit patronizing and cynical: Wouldn’t it be better if Hollywood came up with original ideas starring women?

But I was really more interested in what my female colleagues thought. So I reached out to several of them — film critics, podcasters, television writers, journalists, authors, documentarians and programmers — to hear their perspectives. I asked each the same question:

With Ocean’s 8 about to open, there’s been a new wave of discussion about the whole “rebooting a film property, this time with female characters” question. It started with the new Ghostbusters and continued with actresses like Rachel Weisz and Rosamund Pike arguing that James Bond shouldn’t be recast as a woman — rather, women should be given equally dynamic starring roles all their own. How do you feel about all this?

I encouraged them to venture off onto any tangent that they wanted. Below are their responses.

Sheri Linden, film critic, ‘The Hollywood Reporter’

I wrote about this in 2014, when news of a distaff version of Ghostbusters had fans of the original enthused or mortally offended — overreactions both. Four years later, my views on gender-swap retreads of male-centric franchises haven’t changed. The most I can muster in anticipation of Ocean’s 8 is mild curiosity. I’m curious to see the chemistry among Bullock, Blanchett, Hathaway et al, but I don’t need to be convinced that actresses can hold their own in an action film.

And while it’s good to see women getting sizable roles and perhaps even paychecks to match — and especially heartening to see them sharing the screen rather than being siloed off, with one key female role per picture — it’s hardly the height of creativity or daring to replace male characters with female ones in proven franchises. Essentially, these switcheroos feel like stunts. We can tell the difference when a character is a new conception, female from the inside-out rather than a riff on movie-tough-guy stereotypes. Those riffs can be fun, but they rarely scratch the surface. It would take nerve and vision for Hollywood to make a true swap: Trading in its reliance on formula for full-blooded female characters who have yet to be imagined.

Sandi Tan, director of ‘Shirkers’ and author of ‘The Black Isle

I wish the new Ghostbusters had actually been a good movie so gender (and more) didn’t have to get mixed up in the debate around it — the fact that it wasn’t made it vulnerable to attack, and I agree that James Bond shouldn’t be recast as a woman.

I mean, there’s absolutely no reason why Young M couldn’t be a fantastic, intelligent action franchise on its own in the Bourne way. For years I thought someone like Carey Mulligan could embody something like that, giving the expired Judi Dench’s M a deep backstory with international intrigue, adventure and romance; it would expand the Bond universe in thrilling new ways, kind of like the way the Daniel Craig Bond brought old JB back from the Brosnan dead. I’d love to write a movie like that, and I’d certainly go see a movie like that.

In theory, there’s tremendous room for creativity when it comes to approaching a beloved old property with today’s storytelling. And with execs perhaps being less scared of female-driven stories (at least for now), maybe more projects of this type will get off the ground. Of course, female-focused projects mean they have to be worked on twice as hard so they can be twice as protected from skepticism, scrutiny, criticism and downright lack of faith.

Christy Lemire, co-host of ‘What the Flick?!’ and critic for RogerEbert.com

It’s amazing to me that we’re still having a discussion about whether women are funny in 2018. Women are funny. Women always have been funny. But what’s truly hilarious is how threatened some people seem to be about the prospect of women making headway into a domain that’s traditionally been dominated by men: namely, the raunchy, R-rated comedy. There’s also a powerful nostalgia factor at work: “Don’t touch Ghostbusters! It’s sacred!”

I love the idea of fearless comedians like Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy appearing in original films (which they do, quite frequently). But if a director like Paul Feig — who’s proven consistently that he knows how to get the best out of his actresses — wants to reimagine a favorite title through a female perspective, why not? It’s not as if the original versions of these movies suddenly evaporate into the ether because a female-centric reboot has come along.

Erin Carlson, author of ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ and the upcoming ‘Queen Meryl’

When I was growing up in suburban Chicago circa the early 1990s, my father and I watched an Indiana Jones movie almost every weekend. I was obsessed. And even though Harrison Ford dripped sex appeal, I didn’t want to date Indy. I wanted to be him, zig-zagging to far-flung countries in search of priceless artifacts. While Kate Capshaw had moments of brilliance in Temple of Doom, her character — a damsel in distress — played second-fiddle to Ford; as the hero, he got to be courageous and cunning, dry-witted and wry. I was no damsel in distress! Where were the movies starring badass women adventurers? I had no choice but to identify with Harrison Ford.

My heart sank when the all-girl Ghostbusters reboot received so much backlash in the months leading up to the 2016 election. The online harassment of Leslie Jones revealed the shocking strain of racism and misogyny that would help to install Donald Trump, the ultimate Twitter troll, in the Oval Office. For Jones and her co-stars, the threats and bullying were painful reminders that — while a revolving door of male actors may assume the role of Spider-Man, Batman or James Bond without fearing for their lives — many men will use brutal means in order to ensure that women stay in their lanes as damsels in distress. Apparently busting ghosts is solely the job of Dan Aykroyd and not Melissa McCarthy, a comic genius. Right.

The Ocean’s movies don’t spark the same fandemonium, so the woman-centric Ocean’s 8 feels more like a one-off with a more appealing ensemble (albeit missing one George Clooney). But can you imagine the uproar if Indiana Jones were recast with, say, Charlize Theron (who ran circles around Tom Hardy in the Mad Max remake)? That would be fun for me, but potentially Theron’s worst nightmare — I don’t want to imagine the vitriol. However, it’s a far less dangerous notion to picture Theron trotting the globe, fighting Nazis and dishing out sarcastic one-liners, not as Indiana Jones but in a starring role created from scratch for the actress. Perhaps such a film would achieve the otherwise unthinkable: Make boys want to be her.

Claudia Puig, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, critic for KPCC’s ‘FilmWeek’

If two of the best actors working today — Rosamund Pike and Rachel Weisz — would prefer not to play female versions of established male characters, but rather fresh and original “unexpected, unapologetic, kick-ass, amazing” roles (per Pike), why won’t Hollywood take heed? Instead, lazy, profit-obsessed Hollywood executives figure a masculine reboot with female characters should suffice.

It sounds so obvious — and it’s hardly revolutionary — but I’ll spell it out anyway: Women deserve their own stories with well-drawn, intriguing and complex characters. Why should female actors get remanded to sloppy seconds, or watered-down remakes? Why should they be forced to compare with men who inhabited those roles before? Movies like the femme Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8 — while they may be perfectly competent and even entertaining — feel like a pairing of Hollywood’s worst tendencies: unimaginative reboots and bald pandering for audiences.

These replays would be unobjectionable if Hollywood was also casting women in original, creative and multi-dimensional roles in big-budget films. But when the big summer movie starring a predominantly female cast is a variation of the same movie with a predominantly male cast, it feels like a hollow gesture.

Hollywood has been slow to realize that women make up 52 percent of the filmgoing audience — last year’s Wonder Woman drove the point home — and it’s now trying desperately — if sporadically — to reach this target demographic. It’s not that complicated. And it doesn’t require much risk-taking. How about hiring more women directors and writers who have creative, original stories to tell? Rather than enlisting men to direct movies like Ocean’s 8 and Book Club, why not turn to women who have already created exceptional material in the independent film world or on television and streaming services, with proven success?

Certainly, TV and streaming seem to have gotten it right with series like Killing Eve, The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Jane the Virgin and Orange Is the New Black. Studios just need to call upon those creative women who know how to fashion inventive characters and compelling stories. I’ll bet if top Hollywood studio execs met with just a handful of indie filmmakers, dozens of great films would emerge from those meetings. I’m certain that Lynne Ramsay, Nicole Holofcener, Patricia Cardoso, Lone Scherfig, Debra Granik, Desiree Akhavan, Dee Rees and Jennifer Fox — to name a few — have a wealth of fresh stories they’d love to tell — if Hollywood gave them the chance. How about a Hollywood studio hires The Rider’s Chloé Zhao to make a big-budget film about a kick-ass female character, a latter-day (and more nuanced) Katniss/Ripley/Furiosa set in the rugged West? Just a thought. But I’d go see it.

Stephanie Zacharek, film critic, ‘TIME’

I’d love to see more women filmmakers get work, especially women who have been working hard in the industry for years and going unrecognized. That will open doors for younger women filmmakers coming up, too. But I’m both alarmed and exhausted by the cries of outrage when the mob decides that “the wrong person” has been hired to direct a movie — it should have been a woman; it should have been a woman of color; it should have been a trans person of color.

We absolutely need a much more varied pool of people in the industry. But it troubles me that we all think we know who’s the right person to tell a story before the story is even told. You can hire the wrong woman to tell a “woman’s story” just as easily as you can hire the wrong man. The point is to get the right person. And again, if you’ve diversified the pool of available, talented, trained people — if it’s not all young white guys just out of NYU or whatever — that’s more likely to happen.

But even beyond that, everyone in that pool of people needs to have some understanding of how the sympathetic imagination works. I fear this is what we’re losing. How do any of us get outside ourselves and really connect with people who are, in any range of ways, not like us? I’m just as interested in getting some idea of what it’s like to be a man as I am in spending hours, days, years, thinking about what it’s like to be a woman. My whole lifetime is devoted to living that! But what are men thinking? You can’t tell me they’re all just abusing and disrespecting women and mansplaining all the time. What else is going on there?

I guess I just want more nuance, more specifically, more empathy, no matter who’s behind the camera.

I’m all for reimagining familiar characters in new ways — I guess you could have, say, a female James Bond. But you’d have to rethink everything so drastically, basically rewire the whole character. Why not just write one from scratch? Or even take an old character — a great one, who happens to have been created by a man — like Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise? As O’Donnell wrote her — I’m thinking more the novels, not the comic strip — she’s a fabulous invention, sexy and funny and self-determined. But the movies have never gotten her right. Maybe it’s time for someone else to take a crack at that.

Elizabeth Hackett, TV writer

My general dislike of reboots usually has nothing to do with gender. It’s more, “Wait. I already saw this movie. I have to sit through it again?” I’d rather watch my favorite actresses in a fresh concept. That said, I’ve never watched any of the Ocean’s movies for the intricacies of the casino heists. I can’t tell you what even happens in the heists except that George Clooney looks terrific in a tux. I’m showing up to watch an ensemble of fun talent having what looks like a blast on screen. I’m excited for Ocean’s 8 because of the fun factor: My favorite actresses getting to wear cool clothes and do cool things in a cool setting. It’s like an Oscar-season Vanity Fair ensemble cover photo come to life.

Rebooting James Bond as a female feels wonky to me, because James Bond as an old-school, serial-seducer spy is a very “male” role. Letting a woman play “Jane Bond” feels like getting the privilege of wearing your brother’s old clothes once he’s outgrown them. You want your own new T-shirts for the summer. Make up a groovy female spy with her own brand and persona and skills. (Alias successfully did so.)

As for movies like Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters, I don’t think there’s the same argument. Robbing a casino isn’t a specifically “male” job. Fighting ghosts isn’t a specifically “male” job — or really, a job at all (that we know of). I think people put a lot of emotional stock in movie nostalgia, so when a classic gets rebooted it’s erasing a cultural touchstone from their childhood … and thereby erasing their childhood? I guess?

As for me, all I feel with female reboots is I.P. fatigue from seeing the same concepts get defibrillator-paddled every summer.

Fionnuala Halligan, reviews editor and chief film critic, ‘Screen International’

I wasn’t aware of what Rachel Weisz and Rosamund Pike said — both Brits — but I do agree. I’ve had an instinctive aversion to the Ghostbusters and Ocean’s reboots. I didn’t see the former, and the latter isn’t anywhere close to my wish list — it’s really one of those films where I’d only see it if I need to for work. I think it’s very reductive.

Essentially, when a franchise runs out of steam, reboot it with women? Put women into something that was designed for men, written for men, as a sort of box-office stunt? I’m glad that the actresses are getting nice payouts, but it makes me cringe. There will be acres of press coverage, as if this was something fantastic and revolutionary, and if it fails, it’ll be interpreted as some sort of failure of female star power.

I’d much prefer that women have their own stories — funny, serious, franchise or no. I don’t want to see a Jane Bond, but Wonder Woman was great. So was Elle, Aquarius, Toni Erdmann. I even enjoyed the latest iteration of Lara Croft — would they rather patronizingly recast that one as Larry Croft? Or Wonder Man? I don’t think so.

Alissa Wilkinson, film critic, ‘Vox’

I’m not, in principle, opposed to recycling some beloved properties with women in the lead, provided they’re not just retreads of the original material but rather fresh takes. But that’s more in keeping with my feelings about reboots in general: In an age when I can watch nearly any movie I want at any time, a new version of an old thing needs to justify its existence by bringing something new to the table, and just recasting a male lead with a female character doesn’t automatically do that.

But I think what worries me is that “your favorite movie, but this time with a lady” will eventually just become another example of commodified feminism, where slogans that mean things are transformed into “yasss queen”-style taglines and brands. One good way to avoid this is to create fresh material in which women are in the lead, so that there’s no way to fall back on nostalgia or easy, thoughtless “feminist” versions of things. That also would inject some much-needed fresh blood into a market drowning in sequels, reboots and nostalgia. So while I’m not sure it’s an “either/or” situation, I definitely hope the future takes a “yes/and” stance toward female-led movies!

Monica Castillo, news writer for ‘The Lily’/‘The Washington Post’

Sometimes, these reboots can feel like a consolation prize. The movies can still be good and have their own merits, but we’re always going to know that the original male versions came first and they will be better respected or remembered by most fans.

Hollywood wants to cash-in on feminist empowerment for the sake of business without necessarily putting all of their money where their mouth is. They may see using an established I.P. as a Trojan Horse way of achieving this — revitalizing a fading brand with a shiny, new pink makeover in the process — but it undercuts the sense that they’re telling a woman’s story. It’s like bowling with bumpers on: The studios are guaranteed some sort of an audience will buy tickets because of the recognizable name, but they’re not going to let women (often with male directors at the helm) gamble the odds on their own. It also can depend on the scenario, like in the case of the new woman in charge of the TARDIS of Doctor Who. That news was much better received than the idea of a female James Bond. I think what most viewers want to avoid is a flimsy, pinkwashed story that looks like a cheap knockoff of something familiar.

Angela Catalano, programmer, projectionist and co-founder of Shotgun Cinema in New Orleans

While I appreciate women receiving roles that have historically been associated with men, I don’t necessarily find these reboots of male-driven narratives now starring women to be particularly progressive. Look at both Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8: The leads are still primarily white, cis-presenting and straight, which inevitably feels as if women have supplanted men with no regard for meaningful nuance or diversity in their roles. And while women received half of the screenwriting credits for both Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, men occupy the director’s chair.

Taking this a step further, what’s the makeup of the crew? Are the department heads diverse? It’s a bit too easy to only examine onscreen roles, and while new data emerges each year demonstrating the substantial employment and pay disparity between men and women (with an even wider gap for women of color), these reboots feel more like a consolation prize rather than a genuine step toward inclusivity.

This is sort of a sidebar, but I’ve been discussing diversity and inclusion with my students more frequently since Harvey Weinstein was “outed,” and it never ceases to amaze me how my students don’t realize that all of the directors they cite are men. (This includes my female and trans students — there was sincere anger and feelings of betrayal from my female students after that New York Times interview with Uma Thurman regarding Quentin Tarantino.) During the last class this semester, my students partially defended Spike Lee’s list of essential films because they didn’t think that many women made films. There’s so much work to be done, even in sharing incredible work made by women.

Tara Ariano, co-founder of Previously.TV

Stories about straight white men are empirically less interesting than stories about any other kind of person.

Clemence Taillandier, freelance art house film programmer for boutique distributors, including Film Movement and Distrib Films US

I’m having a radical indisposition toward American franchises, which I regard like the weed of the movie industry. They’re oppressive, superficially pretty and so invasive that it kills pretty much all forms of diversity — and they seem impossible to get rid off.

I wish the trend of making easy money by releasing franchise film after franchise film would fade — that the audience would wake up from their slumber and reject them, whether the protagonists are white, black, female, old, young, ugly or French.

While the gender inequality and lack of diversity in Hollywood is on everybody’s mind, rebooting male-centric franchises with female characters who act like men but with boobs and use their stilettos as weapons isn’t boundary-pushing. In the case of James Bond, though, bringing on screen a female version of a character who is known for his sexism is slightly amusing.

As Dennis Lim mentioned in Artforum, this conversation “could stand to happen more vigorously among those who control the early stages of the chain of production: the funders and agents and labs that, in habitually clamoring for more of the same, do their part to uphold the status quo, ensuring that the same types of filmmakers continue to produce the same types of films.” If Hollywood relies on franchises to achieve gender equality and diversity, it would be such a letdown.

Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis is the example of what I’d love to see on screen when I think of female-empowerment in films. A horror film with a woman’s gaze where the concept of sex and violence is treated with a romantic touch — where a gruesome scene becomes an artistic and meaningful gesture.

Sarah Watson, creator of ‘The Bold Type’ and writer on ‘Parenthood,’ ‘About a Boy,’ ‘The Middleman’ and ‘Lipstick Jungle’

“There’s been a new wave of discussion about the whole ‘rebooting a film property, this time with female characters’ question.”

Well, actually*, I think you can end this statement at the comma since to me that’s the more interesting part of the conversation. There’s been an incredible amount of debate over rebooting films, and my personal feelings are complicated. I love me a fresh idea, but I also love the two reboots I’ve worked on, and I know those shows wouldn’t likely have been picked up without the name recognition behind them. But the fact is, the creative arguments are almost irrelevant since it’s a marketing strategy that’s currently working. So if we’re going to continue this onslaught of remaking films, should we be remaking them with women? My answer to this part of the question is a lot more simple.

YES.

A lot of the films being rebooted were originally booted at a time when people were still saying that women couldn’t be tough, women couldn’t be funny, and perhaps most importantly, women couldn’t open a box office. Fortunately, we have now proven that we can do all those things. Ergo, let’s do those things.

I do think we’re going to reach a moment of reboot fatigue, which is why I think the first part of the discussion is still an important one. Reboots are a trend. Let’s keep talking about trends. But women driving box-office numbers isn’t a trend, it’s a new reality. So why are we still having this conversation?

*I like to start all my observations about women involved in anything with “well, actually….” I call it ma’am-splaining.

Katie Walsh, film critic, Tribune News Service/‘Los Angeles Times’

I’m all in favor of gender-swapped remakes if some thought is put into the way that the gender reversal plays with the representation and power dynamics in the story or inherent in the character. One reason I liked the all-lady Ghostbusters was that it was empowering to see women represented as smart scientists in control, action heroes who save the day. The gender dynamics of the original Ghostbusters aren’t great anyway, so swapping genders is a way to push back on that. I don’t think the gender-swap worked in the Overboard remake because I don’t think the writers put enough thought into the realities of the gender swap there. It just stretches the suspension of disbelief too far.

I think when it comes to something like Ghostbusters or Bond, a straight gender-swap not only works, but it offers a subversive take on an iconic character (which is what pisses off fanboys so much). But that brand name is needed in order for it to work. It wouldn’t have been as relevant to have an all-female Supernatural Fighters, with original roles written for women. It’s that they’re taking up space historically occupied by men that gives these roles extra meaning.

We do have some sexy-lady spy movies, but it’s not the same as a female Bond, a character as associated with gender and sex as he is with anything else he does. He may be an inherently male role, but that would make it that much more meaningful to see a woman step into that. The fact that it’s Brand Name Bond would make it that much more explosive (and obviously controversial), and it’s one way to explore and undermine the tropes of the franchise. So Rosamund and Rachel might not be into it, but I personally would love to see a female 007, as in control of her espionage skills as she is of her sexuality.

Jessie Maltin, cohost of ‘Maltin on Movies

An analogy. I was raised on Ethel Merman. As a child, I learned to imitate her perfectly and was often chided by my choral director for refusing to sing any other way. I committed so many cast recordings to memory, and any time someone else would try to sing those songs I knew so well, I struggled. Ethel Merman was the only Gypsy I wanted to hear for the rest of my life. Then my parents introduced me to the movie (I didn’t realize then that Rosalind Russell was dubbed) and everything changed. Suddenly I found myself questioning life itself. Because I’m dramatic like that.

What about Captain Marvel? From the age of three my dad had 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel playing on repeat. Tom Tyler was the coolest fella around, and damn if I didn’t run around the house shouting “Shazam!” at the top of my lungs. Now I’m being told that Brie Larson will be filling his tights. Part of me can’t quite imagine seeing anyone but Tom…

Maybe that’s how we have to look at all of this. My initial reaction to your question was DO WE REALLY NEED ANY MORE REBOOTS? But I digress. Let’s focus on the positive. If you love a movie or TV show deeply and dearly, odds are you aren’t looking forward to a “new and improved” version. In that sense I feel that changing the players up — choosing a cast that’s completely different — might really work in your favor. Would I want a female James Bond? Sure, why not? Do I care if he’s a man or a woman? No, not really. It’s not like I can’t visit Sean Connery any time I want to. If you grew up emulating the Ghostbusters, perhaps recreating them with women keeps the original sacred. Could any male leads have filled the shoes of their predecessors and made you happy? Perhaps it’s best to take a step back and a deep breath. The new doesn’t negate the old. Your memories are still prized and precious.