By now, most people have heard about the plan to reboot the movie Ghostbusters with an all-female cast.
Some people are really excited about it.
Others are really upset.
Like really upset, to the point of borderline self-righteousness, with words like “gimmick” and “pandering” receiving a thorough workout.
Maybe I’m just splitting hairs over semantics, but in and of itself, I don’t consider a gimmick to be a negative thing.
All marketing and media uses gimmicks or “hooks” to attract a target audience, in this case the hook being the casting women where previously there’d only been men, ostensibly to attract – at least in part – a target audience of female viewers.
Which right there may well be the real issue.
I ain’t afraid of no female Ghostbusters
Whether a gimmick is truly a bad thing or not, it’s the sort of talk that only seems to crop up when film and TV executives plan to do something with or for women:
- Female Ghostbusters? Gimmick.
- Expanding Arwen’s role in Lord of the Rings and creating the character Tauriel for part two of The Hobbit?
- Casting Angelina Jolie as the eponymous character in the movie Salt – essentially a female James Bond-esque super-spy and assassin?
- Making Starbuck female in the Battlestar Galactica remake?
- The notion of creating a Bridesmaids part 2, a Wonder Woman movie, a Black widow movie, or almost any movie with a female lead that’s not a rom-com or doesn’t have her playing alongside a male lead who’s an equal or greater box office draw?
You guessed it.
It’s funny how no one ever declares the preponderance of male-led movies (85% of top movies in 2013) as gimmicks jockeying to gain a male audience.
(That must be because men are real people while women are just props to help propel stories about men for men that women can watch too if they want I guess.)
But the minute someone tries to do something interesting – or even something fairly commonplace – with female characters, it’s almost immediately seen as pandering to female audiences rather than legitimate and/or intentional storytelling.
Even if attracting female viewers is a studio’s sole motivation, since when did giving your audience what they want becoming shameful and indefensible rather than the foundation upon which both the production and promotion of entertainment is based?
Despite the at times icky tension between staying true to one’s art and producing something marketable, artists and producers of all persuasions always create with their audience and what they might like in mind.
It’s the only way to guarantee having an audience, and even then, it’s no guarantee at all.
It’s no secret there’s a dearth of meaningful female roles in Hollywood – a dearth of female roles period, truth be told.
Film studios are risk-averse and have been suffering (most likely due to being risk-averse). However, as much some people try to deny it, films with female leads do make money (especially women’s money) as evidenced by the success of movies like Twilight, Frozen, Gravity, The Hunger Games, Divergent and Bridesmaids.
This is not to say I’m some dollar-driven person by nature; I’d much prefer if studios made female-led movies because it’s right thing to do – because women compromise half the planet’s population and deserve to have that reflected in popular culture.
But the fact such films are being produced at all will never draw a complaint from me, especially when I’m one among the countless women out there calling for greater representation.
Old stories made new again
Which brings us back to female Ghostbusters.
For many people, the problem mightn’t be the marketing to women or the use of female characters at all, but rather the use of females to replace beloved characters who happen to be male.
That is an argument I understand much better. I too have favourite characters, who, when I call them to mind, often appear as I first encountered them in their respective stories.
However, I also really like discovering new dimensions of my favourite characters and seeing how the react in new situations. I love a good reboot for this reason. It’s also why I’m so fond of fan fiction writers: they work with the essential core of a character while stripping away all the canon trappings to create something fresh.
(And I don’t just mean either “stripping away” or “fresh” in a kinky, PWP sort of way.)
Even outside of fandom, characters are changed all the time, which is a fact of storytelling as old as stories themselves:
- Robin Hood was changed into a fox.
- The entire crew of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise was made younger.
- James Bond was changed from suave and slick to brooding and brutal.
- Optimus Prime was changed from the supreme leader of heroic freedom fighters to an officer corps washout and a leader of outcasts.
- Katniss Everdeen was turned white.
From male to female is just another change – just another storytelling gimmick to tell an old tale in a new way, like people have been doing since the dawn of time.
Gender (or race, nationality, profession, sexual orientation, species, etc.) doesn’t make a character; character makes a character. It’s something that writers of alternate universe fan fiction in particular have understood for years.
Personally, I view gender swapping as a valid literary device in original fiction as well. Not only can gender swapping offer new insight into characters themselves, it can do so for society by virtue of the gender-based consideration that gain importance when a character is suddenly male or female (or other) for the first time.
It can also challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions about the genders and help lead to an more equitable world, one entertaining story at a time.
What are your thoughts on marketing to specific audiences? What about when characters are presented in new or different ways? Let me know in the comments.