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Do female-led remakes like 'Ghostbusters' signal progress or pandering?

Washington Post

Last week, we learned that Sony Pictures is making a female version of "21 Jump Street" on top of their all-female remake of "Ghostbusters."

All we need is one more, and female remakes of historically dudely movies will be Hollywood's newest film trend.

So, is this progress?

It's an odd sort of compliment. Having proven that they can carry movies, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, two of the stars of "Bridesmaids" (and one-half of director Paul Feig's ghost-busting team), are now being asked to helm the same warmed-over cash grabs that we usually associate with male stars, in roles that used to belong to men. Parity at last!

The success of films such as "Bridesmaids," "Pitch Perfect," the "Hunger Games" series, the "Divergent" franchise, and even the troublesome "Fifty Shades of Grey" prove that people will turn out en masse to see woman-led films. "Bridesmaids" was one of the fewtop-grossing movies of 2011 that wasn't a sequel.

But Sony clearly wants the sweet revenue that comes with the success of those films without having to do the work of finding and developing new stories. "Female Version of X" seems like an appealing shortcut.

If it works, what difference does it make in the path to success? Writing for The New Republic in February, Stacia Brown warned of the dangers of saying one character is the female/black/gay/____ version of another, and how it consequently panders to audiences. Brown detailed the problem, referring to the labeling of "Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" creator Issa Rae "the black Liz Lemon":

"Framing characters or performers of color as 'the black or brown' version of a white one not only undermines the artist's originality and narrows the lens through which audiences see a character. It also assumes that audiences of color want a mere facsimile of a famous white performer — or, for that matter, that white audiences only want performers of color who resemble white performers."

There's a similar parallel here with actors being called upon to play "the female version" as opposed to original characters. Try re-reading Brown's passage and replacing the words "black" and "white" with "female" and "male."

Chalk this up to the nature of the risk-averse film industry and its position as a follower of trends rather than a creator of new ones. Success there is defined by finding something that works and then squeezing as many franchises and merchandise out of it as capitalism and attention spans will allow. It's a fairly transparent gimmick, with the added gloss of female empowerment.

But there's another reason for plunking female actors into stories that were originally male that's not necessarily just about appealing to female audiences, which is the perception that men and boys aren't interested in stories about women and girls. Meryl Streep touched on it during a panel discussion with directors Ava DuVernay and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy at the Women in the World summit in New York:

"This act of empathy, that women go through from the time we're little girls — we read all of literature, all of history, it's really about boys, most of it. But I can feel more like Peter Pan than Tinker Bell, or like Wendy. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, not Becky. And we're so used to that act of empathizing with the protagonist of a male-driven plot. I mean, that's what we've done all our lives. You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it's all fellas, you know? But they've never had to do the other thing, and the hardest thing for me as an actor is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That's a really hard thing. It's very hard for them to put themselves in the shoes of a female protagonist, it just is. This is known to the studios, they know it's the toughest suit of clothes to wear."

The question is, do films like "Ghostbusters" and "21 Jump Street" offer a solution? And if so, at what cost? Studio executives are counting on women to see these movies because they have female leads, and men to buy tickets because they are proven franchise brands with familiar titles. That doesn't read so much a solution to the empathy gap as another capitulation to it.

Two writers from "Broad City," Lucia Aniello and Paul Downs, are working on "21 Estrogen Jump Street." With their current work on the successful Comedy Central show, they've demonstrated an aptitude for writing funny female characters who happen to be stoners. No one is mistaking unique, relatable characters like Abbi and Ilana for female versions of Cheech and Chong or any number of characters played by James Franco and Seth Rogen.

On their own, female-led remakes are fairly innocuous. But if they're coming at the expense of original stories, it further exposes the problem that there simply aren't as many opportunities for female actors, something study after study confirms.

"Given the choice, I'd rather not play accessories," Carey Mulligan told Vogue, explaining her long breaks between film roles. "And waiting for the non-girlfriend/wife thing usually takes a decent amount of time."

The obvious solution, then, is to expand the ratio of movies with female leads, which would relieve much of this sort of pressure and would allow for a wider range of stories to be told.

"In terms of the amount of interesting roles there are for women it's obviously massively sexist," Mulligan said of Hollywood in a recent interview with Time Out London. "There's a lack of material for women. A lack of great stories for women."

Mulligan, who stars with Streep in the forthcoming "Suffragette," was incredulous about how long it took to tell the story of women getting the vote.

"The mere fact that it's taken 100 years for this story to be told is hugely revealing," Mulligan said. "This is the story of equal rights in Britain and it took years of struggle and women being tortured, abused and persecuted, and it's never been put on a screen. It's such a reflection of our film industry that that story hasn't been told yet."

 

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