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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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Gender Roles in Sex in the City 2

I’m going to be honest – I was never a fan of the show nor did I ever even see the first movie nor religiously watch the show.  I can fully assure you die-hard Sex in the City fans that you do know more about the show than I ever will.

That being said, the new movie is kind of fucked up on multiple levels.  Read the plot summary here to get you caught up.

There’s so many issues we could address in the movie, from ethnic exoticism to classism, but today I’m going to tackle gender.

The ladies karaoke Helen Reddy's feminist anthem "I Am Woman" - supposedly a shout-out to feminists, but generally just confusing and frustrating.

The following is an excerpt from Jessica Bennett’s review of the film for Newsweek.  What I really like about her article is how she examines the series’ effect on the public.

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No Sex in This City:

Just a whole lot of tradition and taboo. But if the girls of ‘Sex and the City’ can’t shake gender roles, can we?

Two years ago, NEWSWEEK ran a story about over-the-counter sex lubricants that were taking suburban retailers by storm. Wholesome, family-friendly chains such as Walmart and Target were shoving aside toothpaste and Q-tips to make room for Durex mini-vibrators and a lube called Wet—products more commonly found at the likes of the West Hollywood Hustler store. What prompted the sudden demand? One thing, retailers said: Sex and the City.

The show, finally on TBS, was flowing like an aphrodisiac into small-town living rooms across the country. It made independence sexy; casual sex empowering, and rejecting tradition the norm. (Or something like that.)

But don’t expect to get your usual fill of women power when SATC 2 hits theaters Thursday—just the opposite. It may begin with a big, fabulous, gay wedding, tackle the insecurities of marriage, and culminate in an over-the-top girls vacation to “the new Middle East,” but SATC 2 is more 1950s gender roles than lipstick-and-Manolos feminism, from the moment Carrie and Mr. Big cuddle up, five minutes in, to watch It Happened One Night, circa 1934.

The girls don’t lack their usual spunk, but the film leaves us with the sobering view that even the most independent of women will fall back into traditional roles and needs: diamond wedding rings, stay-at-home-moms, husbands’ last names. It’s telling that the ladies sing “I Am Woman” in a karaoke bar, and badly at that.

The film’s promising premise is that each character must define her womanly role: as Mrs., mother, working woman, and single gal. Carrie is battling with the title of “wife,” wondering if—after two years or marriage—her relationship with Mr. Big has fallen into a mundane routine of take-out sushi and shoes up on the couch. She’s caught off guard when the doorman starts calling her Carrie Preston, and she’s really caught off guard when Mr. Preston announces he needs to spend two nights a week alone.

Miranda, the resident workaholic, is suddenly faced with a terrible, sexist boss, but rather than stand up to him, she walks out the door and into her son’s science fair, among other domestic delights. Charlotte, the eternal traditionalist, is already caving under the pressure to be the perfect mother when Samantha wonders if her young, braless, bombshell nanny is really a good idea. She should know: at 52, Samantha is fighting aging with a fury—and with handfuls of hormone pills and Suzanne Somers health advice.

I must say that for most of the movie these women looked abso-fucking ridiculous.

Remember the old, boundary-breaking, taboo-toppling Sex and the City? Forget it. Neither sex nor the city plays any role in this film. The primary dramatic tension actually comes from a split-second kiss, between Carrie and old-flame Aiden, whom she conveniently meets in an Abu Dhabi market. That’s when the roaring women turn into pathetic, squeaking girls. Charlotte falls off a camel trying to get Harry on the phone, scared he’s sleeping with the braless nanny.

Carrie immediately reveals her kiss to Big, who ultimately forgives her because “I took a vow”—and gives her a big fat diamond ring to “remind her that she’s married.” Charlotte and Miranda bitch about their kids, then raise a glass to the hard work of stay-at-home mothers who do it all—and without help. When all is said and done, only Samantha is true to her former libido—and look where it gets her. Pumped full of botox, popping hormones like Tic Tacs, she gets kicked out of Abu Dhabi for promiscuity, narrowly escaping an angry mob. After all those years of redefining female sexuality, we’re suddenly back to the beginning—Samantha has become a slut.

It is admittedly hard to keep a show relevant after all these years, especially one that defined the cultural zeitgeist as SATC did. But it’s still sad to see the characters go from trailblazers to conformists, suddenly telling us that work and child-rearing actually don’t mix, that it’s a bling on a ring finger that will prove a union to the world, and that we must worry—no matter how stable a marriage—that a husband will cheat. It’s fiction, we know. But these characters, like the lubrication they inspired, helped legions of women embrace their own fierceness—and here they are, 12 years later, nothing more than stereotype and cliché. Of course: no woman raised on SATC would ever believe that’s really how it all ends.

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Regina Barreca on Gender and Sex in Twilight

This post is dedicated to my mother who drug me to the movie theater to watch this god-forsaken movie.  And to all my friends who love Twilight and Edward especially  –  sorry to rain on your parade today.  🙂

So yeah, I saw Twilight, and really hated it.  I thought it was a bad case of abstinence porn – a great phrase I learned while reading this article in BITCH magazine.  Despite the fact that the vampire genre has always been about sex (the stake as a phallic symbol, the sucking of women’s blood as, well, sex, Dracula sneaking into your bedroom in the dead of night – how can you deny this?), Twilight has brought the genre to young women by making vampires (the good, sparkly, white ones) abstinent.

Christine Seifert from BITCH explains how Twilight is abstinence porn:

Twilight actually convinces us that self-denial is hot. Fan reaction suggests that in the beginning, Edward and Bella’s chaste but sexually charged relationship was steamy precisely because it was unconsummated—kind of like Cheers, but with fangs.”  I, for one, spent the whole movie thinking, “Oh MY GOD, just DO IT already!”

Agreeing with Seifert, I wondered as a woman, as a feminist, and as a non-abstinent person, despite all the hot “virtue,” is abstinence porn as uplifting as some of its proponents seem to believe?

In an article for Psychology Today, Regina Barreca (who also wrote a really funny book on the gender dynamics of higher education in the 60s) gives five funny and thought-provoking reasons for hating Twilight.

Here’s part of her article; read Barreca’s entire article here.

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As far as I’m concerned, the least scary parts of Twilight concern blood-sucking vampires and/or unborn babies chomping on a teen-mom’s cervix to get free. Those are the fun parts compared to the latent, covert lessons of feminine subjection, abjection, and erasure of self inherent in the novels.

Okay, ready? Here are the five best reasons to hate Twilight:

1. The ONLY real reason young women like Twilight is because of Edward. That is sad.

Why? It’s sad because vampire Edward is NOT who you want to end up with, especially for eternity.

Stuck with Edward’s family in a sunless, airless, dull mansion, having conversations that hint at the possibility of ancient patterns of potential incest now repressed, not having sex, and eating game meats? It would be like being married to an Englishman but without the cute accent or the trace amounts of humor.

2. Let’s get back to the sex, or lack of it, which is what hooks girls on the first volume: female readers love that Edward sleeps beside Bella and apparently only wants to kiss her neck.

Why do they like that? Because most real live (i.e. not-dead, not 100 year-old-plus) guys who come within touching distance (so to speak) spend their time lunging almost randomly at breasts and buttocks. The amateur kisses of actual boys taste of gum and burritos, and they breathe audibly through their noses while they slip their tongues down the girls’ throats like they’re lizards hunting for flies.

3. We should be appalled by Edward because Edward takes away Bella’s keys to her very own car saying “You’re intoxicated by my very presence” whereupon she says–wait for it–“There was no way around it; I couldn’t resist him in anything.”

Fifty years of the women’s movement and that’s what we get: “I couldn’t resist him in anything”?

How nuts is this? Lucy Ricardo showed more backbone! Lambchop the Puppet showed more backbone than this “Lamb” does!

How about if Bella kept her own keys–and her own integrity–and drove away from the narcissistic bastard?

By the way, the runner-up for this position was a line from an earlier chapter where Bella exclaims “I couldn’t imagine anything about me that could be in any way interesting to him.”

For all those folks who say we’re in a post-feminist generation: guess we still have a teensy bit of work on the whole self-esteem-building business for our girls, yes?

4. Back to the self-description of the characters as specific members of the food chain: girls, remember that if you’re the lamb and he’s the lion, you may lie down together,but you’re still an entrée.

5. Drum roll, please, as we get to the finale: “About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him – and I didn’t know how potent that part may be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

So the big reason to loathe Twilight? Fear of your lover should not be an aphrodisiac. Ever.

Let’s sum up, shall we? Why is Twilight scarier for a grown-up woman than it is for a younger one?

Because we know that even as a romantic fantasy, it’s a damaging one; that even for a trashy book, it’s a lousy one; and that even – or especially – as an for escape for a young woman who’s longing to break out of her everyday confinements, it’s a trap.

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I’d love to hear from other women who found positive representations of women, gender, sex, in Twilight!  And no, I’m not picking on TwilightSex and the City 2 is about to get hit next.

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