After several decades of hemming and hawing in the face of the evidence that movies about female heroes and/or starring more than one woman can be financially successful, I suspect that Wonder Woman finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Before Wondy, we had the moderately successful Ghostbusters: Answer the Call; coming next year, we will be #blessed by Ocean’s Eight. However, the thing about the latter two films, both reboots of previously all-male franchises, is that they are movies where the gender of the protagonists is incidental. That’s why it’s possible to reboot them with women; there’s no reason a lady can’t bust a ghost or rob a casino as effectively as a dude.
But of course Hollywood can never get it quite right, and now The Powers That Be have predictably got ahead of themselves by confusing incidental and intentional gendering in lady-led reboots.
We’ve written before about the difference between incidental and intentional gendering in writing, specifically in the gaming world. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem that’s limited to games. First, let me explain more clearly what I mean by incidental vs. intentional gendering, since Dom phrased it differently in the post I cite above. Basically, incidental gendering is a story in which the storyline itself does not deal with any specific coding. For example, as a story about a young magic user being whisked away to magic school, Harry Potter is, for most of its pagetime, not a story that deals with issues that are specifically male. The story as a whole would not have changed dramatically, or necessarily at all, from a starting point where Harry was a girl. Harry’s gender is incidental. Not so something like Mad Max: Fury Road, the plot of which is deeply tied to the recapturing of agency by women who have experienced sexual trauma. If Furiosa had simply been transporting a mixed gender group of captives away from Immortan Joe, it wouldn’t have been the same story at all. The Wives’ femaleness is intentional and essential to the themes and resonance of the story. At the same time, it’s also important that Furiosa is a woman – as the Fury Road director says, if the character had been male, it would have just been a movie about one guy stealing women from another guy.
What doesn’t work is when the maleness of the characters is actually intentional and essential to the plot — as with, for example, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a wonderful historical fantasy YA novel about a wealthy white boy slowly learning about privilege as he travels through Europe with his biracial best friend/love interest and his sister. The story wouldn’t be the same from a different gender’s point of view, because Monty’s (white) maleness creates an essential starting point of entitlement from which he develops as a character. Another example of this might be, say, Lord of the Flies. The headlines essentially wrote themselves earlier this month when it was revealed that two (male) writers and a (male) director were working on an all-female reboot of the classic novel. The problem here? This is a book where maleness is essential to the development of the story.
The story of Lord of the Flies revolves around a shipful of British schoolboys that crash lands on a deserted island. Left to their own devices, they attempt to initiate some kind of order to their new society, but this quickly devolves into a power struggle that throws the island into chaos and leaves more than one kid dead. While the author intended the story to be more of a critique of human civilization as a whole, it has lately been criticized along the same lines as the Stanford prison experiment for supplementing the reactions and behaviors of all humanity with the reactions and behaviors of upper middle class young white men specifically. From a more intersectional perspective, it feels clear that this story is a prime example of toxic masculinity at work, as the boys quickly devolve into reactionary violence, one-upmanship, and devaluation of ‘feminine’ concepts like physical weakness, compromise, or domesticity. William Golding may have thought his gendering was incidental, but from a modern point of view, the gender of his protagonists is essential to understanding the way the story shakes out.
Of course, I don’t want to be misunderstood to be putting femininity on a pedestal. I don’t believe that women and girls are inherently incapable of cruel, horrible things. But the way that women are socialized from early childhood to be forgiving and quiet, to not make waves, to seek conciliation rather than confrontation, would likely make the experiences of a group of women who’ve crash-landed on an island to be far different. A group of girls/young women socialized in today’s society (or even a historical society contemporary to the original Lord of the Flies) shipwrecked on a desert island would simply not behave in the way that a group of boys-will-be-boys would. There’s even already a book about that: it’s called Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It’s a subversively feminist and hilarious story about a planeful of diverse pageant queens whose plane crash lands on a mysterious island, and how they defy expectations by banding together and using their undervalued skills to rescue themselves.
Bray went on record after the news broke about the, er, Lady of the Flies movie about what had happened when her dystopian satire novel was in the movie development process in Hollywood:
…then BQ went out to The Suits Who Sanction the Making of the Things. And that… was eye-opening. I’ll just say that when there is a gross imbalance of men in charge, it’s much harder to get female-centric projects made, which… everybody knows. But even when you do get up to bat, it’s still hard to have those female characters become real people. I saw a script in which every stereotype I tried to subvert in BQ was made real. There was an actual hair-pulling catfight. It’s hard to put into words exactly how I felt at that moment. But try, if you will, to imagine me with lasers coming out of my eyes while my internal organs became as the fires of Mordor. They didn’t get it. And they were legit trying to get it, which made it doubly painful. It wasn’t laziness; it was a fundamental tone deafness. An inability to comprehend and relate to women as real people.
Going back to Lord of the Flies, this quote leaves me wondering just how much of the scrapped Beauty Queens script is going to make it verbatim into this film. The writers seem to think that this will be the Mean Girls of its generation, speaking to the audience about the dangers of bullying and the sinister machinations of the teen girl mind, which we’ve already culturally stereotyped as catty, vindictive, and shallow. But in a world where they’ve so fundamentally misunderstood the source material, I don’t have high hopes that they’ll be able to deliver even that message in a meaningful and non-tropey way.
I love a female reboot, but in the end, a woman’s experience of the world is not the same as a man’s. You can’t create a matriarchy and expect it to operate as just a flat reversal of patriarchy; dropping women into roles intentionally rather than incidentally written for men without acknowledging the difference in circumstances will always feel flat at best and offensive at worst. If Hollywood is going to continue rebooting these stories instead of telling new stories about women instead, this is a lesson they absolutely need to learn.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!