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.
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?