On Gender Swapping
When it comes to gender swap characters, we generally hear about …
- How Ripley was originally a male character
- How Lara Croft is a female Indiana Jones
- Or a single female in a team is THE GIRL CHARACTER
(The Girl Character is invariably “There can be only one!” HIGHLANDER-style. So, there is a woman in this storyverse but her FEMALE-NESS is what defines her, whereas individual men can be The Funny One; The Clever One; The Hard Nut; The Geeky One and so on and soforth. UGH).
In other words, it’s the same-old, same-old and frankly I am bored even of myself talking about this shit.
But what if I told you there was one gender swap that could make ALL THE DIFFERENCE to your story, whether you’re writing a screenplay or novel?
MORE: How NOT To Write Female Characters
Strong Female Characters …
… How I loathe this phrase. Don’t get me wrong, the intention was good. But it’s come to mean what I call the Kickass Hottie – or, if you want to get a little controversial – me?? – “men, with boobs”.
Doing a straight gender swap, ‘just’ a female lead substituted for a male lead DOES NOT WORK ANYMORE.
On Kickass Hotties
But you know what? I like Kickass Hottie. She’s fun. I like to see a leatherclad gorgeous femme destroy stuff and kick men in the face. Why wouldn’t I like that?? I don’t watch action movies to be educated, FFS. I’m in it for the explosions and – le duh! – the action.
So Kickass Hottie is simply a straight gender swap, male for female, no *real* change. Which is all well and dandy if this happened just in daft movies about exploding stuff. Except it doesn’t. MORE: As The Token Member Of This Action Team, I Kick
It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World …
As I’ve said before, I think the biggest issue is not any *type* of female character is BAD. Regardless of whether Kickass Hottie is an inherently “male” fantasy figure or not, she is not responsible for keeping women down the world over. Audiences both male AND female obviously like her, else she’d have faded away a long time ago.
However, the fact female characters are sidelined so readily by storytellers and makers IS symptomatic of one thing and that’s patriarchy. We live in a man’s world and this is reflected in the stories writers tell, 9/10 – and more often than not, unconsciously. Before anyone gets hot under the collar, let me be clear: this is not a judgement. But it is what happens. Think about it.
… The Ultimate Gender Swap
In comparison then, storyworlds can be whatever a writer wants. So your characters could live in a woman’s world, for whatever reason. It could be overt, but it doesn’t have to be. And guess what: even a male protagonist could still live in a woman’s world, like Bellamy in The CW’s THE 100.
What If It Was A WOMAN’S World?
THE 100 is a matriarchal storyworld. Most of the main characters and figures of authority are female: Clarke is our ultimate protagonist (with Bellamy right behind her) … but every woman in THE 100 is important: Abi, Raven, Octavia, Lexa, even smaller characters like Indra and Maya. Women are good AND evil AND somewhere in-between. They are warriors, politicians, soldiers, commanders, mentors, mechanics, mothers and geniuses. Women might be the solution, yet they also make the problems too – just like their male counterparts in other stories.
Yet most interestingly, THE 100 does not sideline its male characters as standard, like so many patriarchal stories sideline women. Bellamy has had a complex arc across both series, moving from the antagonist role function, to weakest link, to hero.
Other male characters such as Finn, Lincoln, Murphy, Kane or Jaha have mimicked Bellamy’s journey too, or gone in the opposite direction. All these men are complex characters, with their own needs and desires, creating solutions and problems every bit as much as every female character. MORE: Women Outnumber The Men In Main Roles In THE 100 – And Why Not?
And THIS Is It …
… This is the gender swap I’m talking about, that could make all the difference in your story:
What if women were in charge of this storyworld (whatever that means)?
What could you, the writer DO with that? Where could you take us?
It’s up to you.
So what are you waiting for?
MORE: Why I love the female characters in THE 100, by the show’s @TeelaJBrown
For more on female AND male characterisation and role function in genre screenplays, click on the pic or HERE, to look inside in the front of my book, Writing And Selling Thriller Screenplays.
The 60′ – 70’s had an enormous amount of women kicking ass. Crime sprees like Russ Meyer’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” to movies like “Alien” and “Foxy Brown.” I think that movement was sidelined with the increase of muscle and octane movies with Arnold and Stallone. Now we get women in charge in spurts… As long as we keep writing 3 dimensional characters it shouldn’t matter who is in charge, but people need to vote at the cash register, and concession stand as well, and support well balanced movies when they are made.
I love gender swap. I did it with the pilot that you read. The new “starter” was originally meant to be a guy grieving after his girlfriend, but that felt a little Nicholas Sparks-ish (whose stories I don’t mind so much when the movie adaptations star Kevin Costner or Richard Gere: but I still hate his endings:D) But then I made the star a young woman, who is successful, big on friends and loves life who’s just not enjoying her particular situation at the moment. And sure, she is romantic and emotional, but she also loves racing and partying. She’s not about candles or roses.
And instead of making the love interest a nice, understanding and patient guy, I made him an ass (who will turn out to be a bit more complicated than that, obviously). Did I mention I also love swapping situations? That’s also so much fun and makes the story take fresh turns…:)
Gender swap can be very interesting, but I think it has to be done well or it comes off as obvious satire, or caricature at best. In the modern zeitgeist, the characters you’ve describe don’t sound original anymore but actually pretty story-standard (party girl falls for complicated bad boy).
I was trying to think of what type of characters would be original, but I think the reality is that all permutations have probably been done to some degree. It’s the rest of the story that begins to make it unique.
The example I’ve found most interesting is with the series Being Human (UK title), feature a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living together in a modern urban setting. The creators said originally they were making a fairly standard rom-com, but it just wasn’t working. They reworked the script over 50 times before they grabbed the left-field, ‘what if we did this’ idea and brought in the paranormal.
lol, I just thought – what if both your characters were aliens from different planets living on Earth, but didn’t know the other was an alien – brings in a kind of literal ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ type thing, with lots of room for subtle comedy. Anyway, just a thought.
Thanks for the comment. The thing is, I oversimplified my characters not to give too much away. And they’re only two of the characters, and they’re not simply good vs. bad. The boy isn’t really bad. He’s not misunderstood either. The idea here is that they think they are too different from each other, but they have more in common they think. It’s what you choose to see vs. what you choose to show vs. what’s actually there.
Your suggestion could make a good comedy. Maybe you should write it:)
I watched the first season of the American version of Being Human, and absolutely loved it! I can’t believe it was meant to be a romcom originally. Weird.
What I’ve noticed in the modern zeitgeist is that everyone seems to want all the stories to be about ‘them’. Since women are now the dominant voices in society, we’re hearing more cry for female-based stories in all genres. Fair enough. But that’s no reason we can’t have other types of stories too. There is still a large audience that also enjoy the caracturized-larger-than-life fantasies too, as evidenced by the superhero genre’s box office success, including 2D and 3D characters both male and female.
For example, as a novelist, I’ve been to panel discussions on the state of YA literature populated entirely by middle-aged women who now no longer associate with the strong female protagonist as in Hunger Games or Divergent and were seriously asking why there were no domestic female teen protagonists who enjoy knitting and cooking (while this could be made to work, there is a social reason why we’re in the age of heroes, and it’s difficult to imagine ‘domestic YA’ becoming a stand-alone genre – at least until the next social restructuring).
But my point is really, why do we have to critisize what exists in order to feel justified in making something else? What I love about the modern age is that there is room for everything and there is the opportunity and resources to make it. If others like it, then you’ll find an audience. So let’s enjoy our diversity, watch the movies we want to watch – write/make them ourselves if they don’t exist – and live and let live, without crapping all over the stuff we don’t like.
I love the idea of swapping any socially entrenched ideas but, at least for me, it must be done with thought.
If one is gender-swapping an entire social order, it’s crucially important to come up with good reasons that the swap happened. All the dominant human societies (and most primate ones) are led – at least overtly – primarily by males, so we can assume this has evolved for a reason. Especially because these male-dominated societies destroyed most of the matriarchal cultures whenever they met (Europeans vs. American natives, for example). This is not a personal judgement but a statement of historical fact. Therefore, for any author working with a human, gender-swapped social structure, it’s crucially important they determine why they think our current social structure arose (if non-agenda-driven, then their reasons should be defensible by biological and social facts) and what changes in that evolution could result in a swapped social order.
For example, we could look at nature and our closest ancestors – chimps and bonobos – to try and determine a reason. Chimps are aggressive, territorial, and patriarchal. Bonobos are sexually free, fun-loving, and matriarchal. You can draw your own conclusions on how control is exhibited in these societies (although it would do well to consider that a male’s drive to control resources is in direct response to his drive to acquire and support females). Personally, I don’t think a version of the bonobo society as the ideal matriarchy would go over well in modern human society. In addition, for story telling, you’d have to consider what would happen if these two societies met.
For less specific examples, you could consider what would happen if the average size was gender-swapped and women were physically larger (biologically speaking, in this case we would expect men not just to be smaller, but to be much smaller – otherwise nature would see a huge waste of resources in growing a creature that is only a sperm resevoir to even modest size – think ants and spiders).
Or, if they’re similar sized, women could rule due to vastly greater numbers. Or, in an interesting twist, perhaps, vastly fewer numbers – so that there are queens, each with her harem of knights and serfs, selecting the best mates for producing heirs. Then there would be the political infighting between queens, and among knights vieing for favour, and from the rare patriarchal monarchy.
Going sci-fi, humans could have evolved like sea horses, and the males carry the young. Or perhaps the young give added strength/resiliance to the females in a hyper-symbiotic relationship. Or we could extrapolate the social-shift happening in modern society but take it in a different direction than Margaret Atwood in A Handmaiden’s Tale.
Just a few thoughts. Can you tell I love world-building?
It’ll be interesting to see how this is handled in the Y The Last Man TV series. (If it ever gets made). The premise that one human male has survived a plague and left him to find his place in a female society will undoubtedly make for some very interesting world building.
It’ll still be a male protagonist but the balance of casting will be inverted.
If you are interested in a take on this, try Poul Anderson’s “Virgin Planet” which has a single male character and the rest women. Of course, it is a bit of a satire, but nevertheless and interesting take on the subject. Has dated a bit, of course. 🙂