Kay: Writing Authenticity, not Gender Swapping

The all-female cast of the “Ghostbusters” reboot. From left: Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon. (Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures, Sony via AP, File)

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?



3 thoughts on “Kay: Writing Authenticity, not Gender Swapping

  1. After working in a male-dominated field for 45 years, I have a lot more trouble writing relateable female characters than I do male. That’s something my beta readers and editor help me with, by pointing out when my females are too straight-to-the-point and prioritize outcomes over feelings.

    Now if I just had someone to do that in life.

  2. Every time I read about genderswapping in fiction, I remember something I read in a book about Jane Austen: apparently, she’d take the characteristics of a person, and then genderswap the person and let those characteristics play out in the new character. I find this fascinating. We are taught there are so many differences between men and women, and I don’t know what to think. Maybe it’s true.

    But when it comes to insecurity, or bossiness, or any number of other traits, both genders can be equally obnoxious.

    I haven’t been reading fiction lately, but I have been reading a lot of advice columns, and the men who write in have a lot of the same problems as the women do — “How do I know if s/he really likes me? How do I set boundaries about sexuality?” Some women complain a lot in the comments about their partners not having as high of a sex drive and the men are very embarrassed that they don’t come up to society’s definition of masculinity — which comes out in weird ways. They blame them women for being oversexed, or say that they don’t want the woman to think the man just wants her for her body, or various lame excuses for avoiding sex.

    I thought Ghostbusters’ reboot was pretty good. The original was very close to my heart — the first movie I ever paid for and watched on my own. It wasn’t as good as that, but I’d love to watch it again. I think the treatment of the sexy secretary was very interesting. In many ways, it was total “he’s brainless, but he’s so fun to watch that I think we’ll keep him” — just like the ditzy blonde secretary that was a mainstay of humor in the 1960s and 1970s (Mrs. H-Whiggins, anyone? From The Carol Burnett Show?). But, it was believable to me that women would objectify a man like that. I don’t know about objectifying him to the point that they’d actually keep him around just to decorate the office, but yeah, friends and I have definitely appreciated masculine beauty before.

    I really don’t have a firm belief about where the “man” spectrum starts and stops, nor the “woman” spectrum, either. I think it must depend a lot on the individual person, and we just write ’em as we see ’em. Let the chips fall as they may.

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