Does a Character’s Sex Inherently Matter to the Story?

Recently there has been a lot of discussion around the new all-female led Ghostbusters movie. One of the comments that I have seen from a few people is that they have a problem with switching the characters from male to female because it was not originally intended to be female characters. The problem I have with this mindset is that it seem to say that the sex of a character inherently matters to the story, but this is not always the case. I think there are times where the sex does matter, but a lot of the time whether the character is male or female is not in and of itself important to the story. Some of the problem with this mindset, in my opinion, is that it kind of says there are certain characteristics, roles, and actions that can only be played out by one sex or another. Now, again, this is sometimes true, but for the most part I really don’t think it matters.

If Sex Matters

Some of the problem is that if the sex matters then certain roles and parts can only be built for either men or women / male or female. Now some people may not see this as problematic, but you are basically saying that women and men can only have certain traits. What does it mean then if you do not fit into this mystery box that has been created? All this mindset does it creates limitations instead of opening doors. When it comes to a story we should not limit ourselves by what has been done or what people in general think should be done, instead we should open ourselves up to all the possibilities.

Making Sex Not Matter

When thinking about the stories that we are trying to tell we need to not get stuck in things that have been done before. One thought experiment that is interesting to do is to think about what would change about a story if the main character was the opposite sex. If Harry became Harriet or Marty became Martha, would that really change the story so much as to make it a different story? There are some details that would need to be changed, but for the most part the heart and soul of the story is still the same.

It would be interesting if we could write a story without actually picking the sex of any of the characters and then figuring out the sex later, you could have all the traits figured out. Then you could see how you might need to tweak the story or if there is something inherent to the story that the sex would matter. An interesting example of where sex tends not to matter is in comic books where they often create a character with similar traits of the opposite sex; Superman and Super Girl, Batman and Bat Girl, Spiderman and Spider Woman. In many ways it seems that the female versions could easily take the place of their male counterparts, meaning that the sex of the character does not affect the story as much as some might think.

Where Sex Does Matter

Now there are times where the sex of a character matters to the story. This can happen when the story takes place in a specific time in history or if the story is somehow related to a specific biological aspect. For example, Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman who believes she is pregnant with something not normal. This story does not quite work the same if you try and switch the lead to be a man. Another example is the character of Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged. The story seems to be taking place in the ’50’s or ’60’s America, which is a time that women were not seen as successful at business. This plays into how Dagny is treated and the fact that she is pushed aside by many of the men who have different values. The men that do admire her do not care that she is a woman because it is her actions that speaker for her. There is an important essence to her relationships and opinions that would have not had the same resonance if she had been Danny instead of Dagny. This is the same idea with a story like Game of Thrones. While it is not in a specific time in history it is using our medieval history to inform some of the decisions, which means that there are certain ways that roles can be played, including the sex of some of the characters. It would be hard to turn Jon Snow into a Jane with where they took the story. At the same time it would be interesting to see what someone might do with a story in that time period, but switching the gender roles.

Conclusion

It is just an interesting thought exercise to really question our assumptions about what sex a character is or isn’t. For the story that Ghostbusters is telling I personally do not see why the story could not work with an all female cast. There are some things that would have to be tweaked, but the main story would not have to change that much. I think these type of arguments really just reveal some of the cultural paradigms that we live in today. What are some stories where you think the sex of the characters matter or don’t?

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12 responses to “Does a Character’s Sex Inherently Matter to the Story?

  1. Yes and now. I think that there is a difference between a female and a male character. But I also think that for a lot of stories, it doesn’t really matter in the end. I would argue, though, that for a Ghostbusters reboot female characters might be an even better fit than male ones. Because in the core, the Ghostbusters are a couple of misfits. Now back in the 1980s, the expectations were that males had to act “responsible”. They were not supposed to follow crazy theories. But nowadays it is socially way more accepted to be nerdy and a little bit strange. Unless you are a woman.

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    • I agree that there are some differences but I don’t think those differences speak to the heart of most stories. I like the interpretation of Ghostbusters. In doing any reboot you have to think about bringing the ideas into the modern time and think of how that translates. I love Ghostbusters and it is a classic movie, but I am nervous and excited to see what they might do with it especially with an all female cast.

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  2. Well, I think that some stories might be retold with the rolls revearsed. Take for example Shakespher’s classic Romeo and Juliet. Now if Romeo was Romea and Juliet was Julius, or something I think the story would still end up were it were but the switch may be interesting.

    In essence I think that while I do believe in equal rights of men and woman, we must not discourage that which makes us different. Variaty is the spice of life.

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    • We cannot just drop a woman into the role that was a man. There would have to be changes to interactions and other pieces but I think it is about looking at the heart of the story and whether that swap changes the story being told. Romeo and Juliet is a great example of one that could probably have reverse roles.

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  3. On the one hand, except for, as you said, biological or historical reasons, all “job titles” and roles can go to either sex. I try to have as many women as men in strong roles in my stories and often end up having more women in those roles. On the other hand, once a sex is picked, it would often be hard to change. Even getting beyond sexist stereotypes men and women often behave and interact differently. I know, there are no absolutes and there are counterexamples for every “law” I state about behavior. The story could, of course, have be written for either sex, but it might turn out very different.

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    • I agree that there are some differences and that you most likely have an idea of your characters before you write your story, but I think it is important to examine our stereotypes. I am not a story writer and I appreciate the work that goes into it. Maybe you have an idea of what the story is so you want mostly men or women and that is okay. I just think if we say that something has to be one sex or another we should examine our assumptions.

      Also, to change the story after the fact would be a lot of work so you should think about that before you get into the smaller details of the story. At the same time you could have the general story arc and cast before figuring out those smaller interactions and details, I feel like. Again, I am not a story writer.

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  4. There’s a sci-fi book called “Ancillary Justice” that is written about characters on a planet that doesn’t distinguish genders. The entire book is written without gender. Quite an interesting piece. I believe it won a bunch of awards.

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  5. Interesting post! I’d think changing an existing character’s gender would make a difference in a lot of cases, there could be a lot of characters that would be dramatically changed. Agent Carter would be totally different if it was Pete Carter instead of Peggy Carter, for instance. But then again… maybe that’s more about reception than what the character is actually like.

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    • I think there are times where it matters. Agent Carter is definitely about the time in history that it exists in and some of the sexism inherent in that time period. Pete Carter would be part of the boys club, but the story is about the underestimated woman.

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  6. Pingback: Mad Max Fury Road: Feminism and Movie Review | Comparative Geeks

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