Just recently I finished a fantasy story in which the protagonist was a female warrior. It didn’t really grab me. The heroine seemed to slash and burn her way through the opposition without much worry, and while consequences resulted, they were plot points rather than shifts in her character development and emotional outlook.
Guy in a skirt, I thought, and moved on.
But lately I’ve noticed that there’s been public discussion of this phenomenon—that is, the “gender swapping” effect. (Check out these essays by Lindsey Bahr, film writer for the Associated Press, printed in the Seattle Times, and Jo Eberhardt, an Australian writer of speculative fiction, printed at Writer Unboxed. A quick Google search will turn up lots more.)
You’ve heard of gender swapping in movies, when women replace men (usually) in key roles (think the reboot of Ghostbusters with an all-female cast). Now there’s also all-female plans for Ocean’s Eight (starring Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna) and Lord of the Flies, as well as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Rebel Wilson, a Rocketeer reboot with a female lead, and in a reverse flip, a Splash remake with Channing Tatum as the mermaid.
The Lord of the Flies reboot proposal has come under attack because the book’s author, William Golding, said the book was about young English boys—not girls or even students—who revert to primal savagery when they’re stranded on a tropical island. Since its publication, the book has been interpreted as an exploration of machismo and the destructiveness of competitive masculinity.
Critics say that if the writers are inspired to write a story about girls marooned on a desert island and the savagery that develops from their isolation and fear, fine. If someone wants to write a story about the toxic nature of female competition, wherever it’s set, also fine.
But casting female protagonists in a story written about men simply says that female characters have no worth of their own. So you can’t just take that story and slap female names on the characters and call it done. That would be, as they say, putting lipstick on a pig.
This whole thing is not usually a problem for romance writers. Love stories are all about emotions as the core story, and women fight for what they want and succeed at the end. Moreover, romance novels do not suffer from a dearth of female writers and producers. Women mostly write, edit, and read our books.
Even so, the upsurge of remakes and gender-swapped characters in movies reminds me that we as writers need to create nuanced, authentic characters whose gender identities are part of their life histories, and not merely window dressing. No more guys in skirts.
What about “gender swapping”? What do you do to ensure that your own female characters are authentic?