The Role of Gender in Film Role Switcheroos

I was a little skeptical about Salt when I first saw the preview.  Angelina Jolie in another action flick?

In reading this NPR article on the new film, I stumbled across these fascinating factoids about gender in film casting.  Why do you ask?  Because Jolie’s part in Salt was originally written for a man – a man whose name begins with “T” and ends with “om Cruise.”

According to Alyssa Rosenberg, pop culture writer for The Atlantic, this trend, usually replacing women with men, is all too common in the film industry.

“You can be really tough, or you can be really funny,” says Rosenberg. “If you’re one of those two things, you can occupy a man’s slot in a plot.  I do think women are allowed to have their backs to the wall, but not to go out and conquer things. With men, you’re allowed to be expansionary.”

“Interestingly enough, when you’re dealing with a male protagonist — and now I’m talking about mainstream studio movies — there’s a certain iconography you can use,” Director Robert Schwentke says on the DVD of Flight Plan. “When this was a male character , he was walking down the lonely boulevards at night in Berlin and his coat was sort of blowing and you look at it and think, ‘Yeah, that’s a stand-in for loneliness.” But when you put a woman in that exact same shot, Schwentke says, “You just wonder, ‘What is she doing at 3 o’clock in the morning all by herself on the street?”

NPR’s article provided a neat package of selected famous film roles in which women replaced men.  This text is taken from the NPR article linked above.

That distinction may belong to Sigourney Weaver, who in 1979’s Alien proved women can be tougher than men when it comes to fighting extraterrestrials with acid for blood. Alien’s producers intentionally made Ripley a woman to subvert science-fiction conventions – though the 1986 sequel backtracked by setting up a mechanized catfight between Ripley and the alien queen. When women do replace men, their heroic acts are often confined to small spaces.

As in the case with Flight Plan which was set in an airplane. When women get roles in movies, it’s often because (as with Ripley in the Aliens sequel) the plot requires them to protect someone. In Flight Plan, Jodie Foster gets to sabotage and blow up a plane while remaining sympathetic – because she’s rescuing her abducted daughter.

Giving a woman a man’s role isn’t always empowering. In the 1973 film The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle leads a pagan society that practices human sacrifice, but the movie ends with a Christian appeal and a foreshadowing of Summerisle’s downfall. In the 2006 remake, the Lord has become a Sister (Ellen Burstyn), and the women she leads seduce men and lead them to their deaths.

Gender switches can sometimes make for production messes, too. Jodie Foster ended up at the center of one in 1996, when she sued PolyGram for replacing her in The Game, a movie about a businessman (Michael Douglas), who gets caught up in a dangerous adventure that may or may not be fictional. Foster’s role was originally written for a man, but she and Douglas disagreed over whether she should play Douglas’s daughter (Foster’s preference) or Douglas’s sister (Douglas’s choice). Sean Penn ended up playing Douglas’s brother in the movie.

Fortunately, gender-switching in the movies doesn’t always have to be a deadly serious business. Funnywoman Jane Lynch took a part originally intended for a man in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and transformed the character from just another bro into an insightful mentor with lascivious intentions – who helps Steve Carell’s protagonist find himself professionally as well as sexually.

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