Recently I’ve been thinking (and posting) about acting roles in adaptations of existing works, especially of comics and animations. A few months ago, I ventured down the YouTube rabbit hole of fan media commentary channels where the topic is a common one. Fans naturally have strong opinions about their favorite characters.
I’ve long said sexual differences make social gender issues more challenging than social race issues (because race is a social construct). The issue of gender swapping is likewise more challenging than that of race swapping.
Here be dragons of objectification, exploitation, and the Male Gaze.
Biology and most of history factor into the equation. Further confounding matters, women, comprising slightly more than half the planet, are not of one mind. (Imagine that. It’s almost as if they’re individuals or something.)
In particular, many women don’t agree with tenets of militant feminism that deemphasize, even disdain, femininity, relationships with men, or being a stay-at-home-mother. Hollywood, however, apparently is giving militant wokeness its day in the sun. It hasn’t been entirely successful for them. (One might even leave out the word “entirely”.)
Recent examples include She-Hulk (2022) and Charlie’s Angels (2019). The basically male Galadriel (complete with sword-penis) in Amazon’s attempt to capitalize on Lord of the Rings seems another. Looking back a bit, the all-female version of Ghostbusters (2016) offers some interesting parallels and contrasts.
First, though, I want to consider a crucial aspect of gender interaction: the notion of the objectification of women. This is a social icon that political correctness usually weights negatively. On average, rightly so.
Icons are simple, but the notions they encode can be complex and nuanced. Certainly, that is the case when it comes to issues based on sexual differences. The objectification of women requires a lot of unpacking. Much more than I can give it here. Much more than I can give it period, really, since all I have is a male perspective. For whatever that’s worth. (Approximately 50%, I figure.)
Because objectification is negatively weighted, it’s easy to overlook the reality that people are, in fact, objects. We tend to think of an “object” as inanimate, but Wiktionary provides as a first definition: “A thing that has physical existence.” Which people do tend to have. The fourth definition makes the link even stronger: “A person or thing toward which an emotion is directed.” As in the object of one’s affection.
What we usually mean by (correctly negatively weighted) objectification is treating people as inanimate objects in exclusion of their humanity. One extreme of which involves treating women as dolls, chattel, or slaves. It’s the sexual subset of the general evil of treating people as slaves. (As Kant put it, treat people as ends, not as means. Granny Weatherwax simply said, ‘Don’t treat people as [just] objects.’)
Yet people, men and women alike, are objects. A truth of human society is that, from day one, motivated by basic biology, women have been perceived as objects of beauty and home, whereas men have been perceived as objects of strength and exploration. Both objectified, but differently. Yin-Yang polarities.
More crucially, not necessarily in exclusion of their humanity, abilities, or inclinations. We can, and do, admire beauty and strength in people. As we admire intelligence or ability. There is nothing wrong with admiring excellence. Or natural talent. So long as we understand it as a single attribute of a person. People are more than their best, worst, or just most notable, feature.
Further, attractiveness, especially for women, has long been an important axis for performers — actors, singers, dancers, et al. “Looking good” is part of gestalt. With most performers, though, some exceptions aside, talent and skill ultimately determine success and longevity. (I suspect, generally speaking, ability correlates more strongly than beauty.) Combined, they’re a powerful package.
Then there are (super)models and beauty contestants. Not to mention “strip joints” and “adult productions” (from amateur “fans only” websites to commercial media empires). Generally speaking, the skills and talents required — which can be considerable — involve being as object-like as possible. [Eventually this likely will be mostly overtaken by Virtual Reality — no actual humans involved. Which involves some interesting discussions outside the scope of this post.]
Contributing to this, billion-dollar fashion and beauty industries that depend on women wanting to look good, for themselves, for other women, and for men they favor. [Another reality about beauty: If a bar guy who looks like a Hemsworth tells a woman she looks good in that dress, there’s good chance she’ll be flattered and may even allow further conversation. If someone who looks like me says the same thing the same way, odds are she immediately walks away. It’s not personal; the same thing happens throughout the animal kingdom. And in the reverse scenario, although men often have a lower threshold for rejection of approaches.]
We consider how much of this is socially constructed and how much might be innate in biological beings — perceived attractiveness and strength do play a large role in the animal kingdom. And between biology and culture, does intelligence have innate perceptions of beauty? Do societies inescapably have spectrums of beauty?
And in any event, is it wrong to admire beauty? I don’t think so. Given we keep in mind the kindergarten lesson about not judging books by looks. What matters is their contents.
I think it boils down to a mutual social contract involving those who want to look beautiful and those who appreciate it. Which seems to me a fairly large segment of society. So long as no one is unwilling, exploited, cheated, or harmed, it seems a Constitutionally guaranteed happy pursuit.
Beauty is power, and power always has two edges, so intelligence must be part of the pursuit. How many times have I said, “The heart drives, but the head must steer.” Our love of beauty is part of our heart (and possibly also part of our intellectual appreciation of symmetry, shape, and color).
I’ve wandered off the theme of roles for women in movies and TV shows, but I think it’s important groundwork. “Pretty privilege” is a real — and inevitable — social force and a topic I’d like to return to down the road (in contrast to “skinny privilege”, which is fake — an egregious form of goal post shifting).
An element relevant here is the “male gaze” — usually framed as objectifying (in the exclusion of humanity sense). The implication — and general truth — is that the “male gaze” is prurient. Blame basic biology. But basic thoughts, which anyone can have, don’t necessarily reflect our true feelings or opinions. We can have thoughts we don’t intellectually support and would never act on.
In contrast, the “female gaze” (at other women) is seen as intellectual appreciation lacking any prurient aspect. (Gay women aside, perhaps.)
Likewise, any form of “fan gaze” where a large class of people is visually attracted to a single person or single type of person. We might include fans of cars, horses, dogs, airplanes, fireworks, or anything with strong visual appeal. We like to look at things we like to look at. (And ironically, in doing so, can lose sight of them.)
It might boil down to appreciating beauty rather than being obsessed with it. A connoisseur rather than a consumer. (It’s that crucial difference between an idea and a belief. The latter can be so problematic.) Just remember what Granny Weatherwax said.
A complication is that some women welcome, even seek, the (prurient!) male gaze (at least sometimes from some men), while some fear it, and some disdain it. Ideally, all should be fulfilled, but we may have to wait for Augmented Reality to allow for self-labels (and masks).
Yet another complication is the amount of money to be made exploiting the male gaze. “Fans Only” sites have become popular and have become serious income sources for some women (and, no doubt, some men).
As I’ve said, gender sociology seems a Gordian Knot. One size doesn’t come close to fitting all, and we need to try to tread kindly with each other. Implicit in that is: Don’t work too hard making that a challenge. And also, mind your own business as much as possible and leave others to theirs.
Again, I digress. Food to chew another time. The question here is objectification in the context of acting roles. Both biology and history infuse culture with male and female gender archetypes. To some extent, objectification involves the archetypes becoming restrictive. “Women can’t do X because women don’t do X.”
This is a false assertion. The only things women can’t do are things women (literally) can’t do. Those are few and far between. As the all-female Ghostbusters showed, when it comes to fictional characters, gender swaps make the can’t fewer and farther.
Literature, stage, cinema, even television, these all have long histories of Strong Female Characters. They may not equal those of Strong Male Characters, but they’ve increased over time (in number and quality). We may currently be approaching parity.
When it comes to kinds of roles for women, I’m not sure anyone is complaining. Too many great counterexamples exist. And I’m not sure the number of roles is much of an issue, either. I think the friction comes from a combination of a zero-sum approach, a sense of anti-male feminism, and a genuine desire for fidelity in adaptations of beloved, often long-established, properties.
I see a complicated configuration space when it comes to casting previously established characters. In the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman, why does race swapping Rose Walker hardly raise an eyebrow, but race swapping Dream’s sister Death disappoint many fans, me included, of the graphic novel?
More to the topic here, why does gender swapping Lucien to Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) and casting Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer seem questionable? [Why did some reject an all-female Ghostbusters out of hand while I found it okay?]
I think it has to do with character importance and connections to other characters. “Importance” here includes in-story and in the minds of fans. (Sherlock Holmes was so important his creator was forced to bring him back from the dead. Because fans.)
Rose Walker and family are a self-contained unit. They could be white, Black, Chinese, Indian, or Russian, without raising in-story questions. Their nationality or ethnicity has no real bearing on the story and is thus fluid. But Dream’s sister Death is a family member and a very popular (even favorite) character. Casting Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the role was jarring (like Faye Valentine’s costume change), and Death, a supernatural being, certainly could be a mellow Black woman rather than the well-established quirky white goth. It’s just that a lot of fans were looking forward to seeing a favorite character. One can’t help but ask “Why?”
In contrast, Lucifer is a minor character in the original. I suspect they intended to expand the role in the adaptation. Casting Christie in the role seems both counter-feminine and counter-male. For one, I’ve rarely seen Lucifer, Prince of Hell, Father of Lies, portrayed as female. I’ve far more often — and generally with good result — seen God, Creator of Everything, portrayed as female (favorite: Alanis Morrisette). Making Lucifer female is an intriguing change.
Lucifer is a fallen angel, and angels — sometimes seen as genderless, sometimes not — are often portrayed by women in order to convey beauty and a sense of the ethereal to the role. Lucifer, the Morningstar, in particular was the fairest and most beautiful of them all. Casting Christie in the role, given her former role as Brienne of Tarth, is an intriguing choice.
Again, one can’t help but ask “Why? What this change?”
A complicated configuration space indeed. At stake, cultural, critical, and commercial success. These days commercial success often drives the coat-tail riding, virtue signaling, and burger blandness that make many adaptations failures or, at best, forgettable wannabes. Further, adaptations are imitations we inevitably compare to the original — usually a high bar to match, let alone surpass.
Race swaps don’t change the nature of the character the way gender swaps can. A Black Spider-Man, social perceptions aside, isn’t significantly different from the original. A female Spider-Woman, however, implies changes to many other characters. Does Aunt May die instead of Uncle Ben? Who are the love interests and best friends? How does the public react?
In fact, the multiverse allows for Spider-Beings of all types. (I loved the Spider-Verse movie.) And I think that multiverses are well enough understood by the public to offer one option for both race and gender swaps without having to violate canon. Rather than an adaptation, why not tell a similar story but in a different slice of the multiverse?
Another approach is to be blatantly experimental or avant-garde. Such as swapping all the genders. Ghostbusters (2016) offers an interesting example.
Original works seem to offer the best opportunities for roles, though. They’ve always existed, but we’ve become addicted to sequels and remakes. Or we’ve allowed the studio system to get comfortable feeding us that junk food.
This has gotten long, so I’ll end abruptly and pick it up from here next time.
Stay objective, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
October 27th, 2022 at 6:05 pm
I recently got into Amazon Music, which, as a Prime member, gives me access to a lot of free music (same as Prime Video gives me access to a lot of free video). I hate it when evil companies have such great products. I’ve really been enjoying A.Music. I have a rather large music library, but I was still getting a bit tired of listening to the same-old-same-old albums. Nice to explore and listen to albums I wouldn’t buy.
Anyway, point is, while writing this post the other day I was listening to, as it happens, David Gilmour’s album, Rattle That Lock (2015). I think Gilmour is one of the best guitar players around. Skilled but also emotional. His leads sound like vocal lines. He truly makes the guitar sing.
Anyway, point is, one tune in particular caught my ear… And how’s this for synchronicity: I’m writing a post about beauty and suddenly struck by a beautiful bit of music titled… wait for it… “Beauty”
October 28th, 2022 at 2:51 pm
I can’t argue against yours. True enough. Nevertheless I can add something.
We (humans) live in a different world than the one we came to be in. Because we have been so successful there are now billions of us. Add to that we’ve now expanded our world to include almost every human in it. So beauty becomes even more comparative and subjective. Or does it? when it comes to the human form/shape/body? Both male and female.
If, say 200 hundred years ago, one was to ask men to rank the ten most beautiful women – what would that look like? Well, you’d be asking maybe a couple thousand men and they’d be judging about the same number of women. [The pool would be quite limited.] I’d bet there’d be agreement, mostly. Furthermore, if you asked 3 billion men today to rank those same couple of thousand women of 200 years ago – I’d bet the rankings would look similar. [Assuming honest answers.] I.e. some things change and some don’t.
So WHAT has changed? Not the beauty of the human female, nor that of the ‘male gaze’. But the pool of contestants AND THE RULES! Is this progress?
WHO determines the RULES is something that has not changed – that has always been THE contest. The POWER STRUGGLE. Who decides? That is the battle.
So, there is something called “concept creep” wherein the definition of some Thing [object], in this case BEAUTY, is expanded both vertically and horizontally. The result being we get fat, and/or ugly women on the cover of the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE – and are told they are beautiful. If we don’t agree? …? Ha!
We are not burned at the stake, nor have our head cut off, nor thrown in prison. We are cancelled. Socially ostracized.
The rules have changed.
October 30th, 2022 at 8:35 pm
Totally. As we’ve talked about before, not only have things changed a lot in the last, say, fifty years, the rate of change itself has increased. And while we’re still the same half-assed half-evolved chimps we’ve been for 10,000 years, our culture is increasingly unprecedented. We’re pretty clueless and adrift these days. Fifty years of social deconstruction has left a wasteland of beliefs and foundations. No mooring points to anchor our drift. Vacuums many orb-pairs.
It’s a good point that beauty is highly subjective but has objective aspects. Health and symmetry seem to underlie a lot of the objective side. Especially over time I think personal Top Ten lists would vary hugely. I know my own tastes in physical beauty differ from the norm (somehow I’m always on the flats of the bell curve). Far more Sabrina Duncan than Jill Monroe. (We talked about Marilyn recently. For me it was more Becall and Hepburn.)
I wish there was a way to perform your experiment! It would be interesting to see how men from 200 years ago ranked modern women. Would it match modern men’s? Our time machine should visit 400 YA and 600 YA and so on. Helen of Troy was circa 500 BC! The Mona Lisa, a mere 500 years old, is comparatively a modern. But, yeah, some bells ring throughout the ages. No question.
“Concept creep” is a good label. “Skinny privilege” is a manifestation of it. (Or do I mean infestation?) The entitled desire for inclusion in all things leads to redefining the body norm to include obesity. That something that stupidly disconnected from physical reality can exist, let alone thrive, is an indication of cultural decadence.
Very successful societies tend to become fat in lazy in body and mind. Do you remember the humans in WALL-E? Science fiction has a long history of predicting and depicting that decay (going all the way back to The Time Machine in 1895). Science fiction fans aren’t surprised by any of this. Disappointed AF, because SF is mainly aspirational — about the heights humanity could reach. But hardly surprised. It was too obvious. I’ve been ranting about it since the late 1970s. “The Death of a Liberal Arts Education” I’ve called it. A good bit of this blog has been me ranting about it.
I do appreciate the luxury of being largely alone off in my little corner of the interweb. I’m pre-cancelled and pre-ostracized. The freedom of being ignored!
October 30th, 2022 at 7:39 pm
[…] The main focus this past month was on fictional characters in adaptations and how sex and race factor into casting actors in those roles. Gender complicates matters. As controversial as race swapping a character might be, gender swapping raises more questions. And there are separate questions involving objectifying women (see previous post). […]