Gender-swapped and race-flipped remakes aren’t living up to their potential
In the new comedy What Men Want, Taraji P. Henson plays a high-stakes sports agent who, after a slapstick-y mishap, gains the power to hear the inner thoughts of the men (and only the men) in her immediate vicinity. She immediately decides to use her power to get ahead at work. The premise and title may sound familiar: What Men Want is a remake of What Women Want, Nancy Meyers’ 2000 comedy starring Mel Gibson. This isn’t the first recent story to riff on a previous project by swapping protagonists’ genders or races — 2018’s in-continuity franchise installment Ocean’s 8 and the 2016 separate-continuity reboot Ghostbusters are two high-profile examples — but the practice goes back at least as far as 1940’s gender-swapped cinematic take on the stage play The Front Page as His Girl Friday or the 1943 stage musical (and later, film) Carmen Jones, which added a black cast and a contemporaneous flavor to the 1875 opera Carmen.
What Men Want won’t be the last protagonist-swap remake, either. Later this year, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson’s The Hustle will redo Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of Bedtime Story). This year’s Sundance film festival saw the debut of a gender-swapped version of 2006’s After The Wedding, with Julianne Moore in the Mads Mikkelsen role. And there are still plans for a remake of the 1984 mermaid rom-com Splash, with Channing Tatum as a merman and Jillian Bell as the human woman he loves.
But remakes based on identity flips still cause consternation, and not exclusively among reactionary shut-ins outraged that four women would attempt to bust ghosts without a dude to hold their hands. (Though this group does tend to be the loudest.) Some of the people who complained about the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, sight unseen, insisted that they didn’t object to the female cast; they were just generally angry about remakes and reboots and the cynical notion that audiences might flock to a money-grubbing rehash under the guise of gender parity, rather than supporting original films. (It’s certainly possible to dismiss remakes and reboots out of allegiance to more original movies, but doing it in good faith requires some due diligence — like, for example, seeking out accessible but underseen movies like Tully,Widows, or Leave No Trace.)
On the opposing side, some people feel that if audiences want to see a group of lady movie stars pull off Ocean’s-style heists and Hollywood actually bothers to make that movie, it’s a long-overdue net positive. These kinds of remakes typically offer two major opportunities, either together or separately. One is simply offering the surface pleasures of a mainstream movie that fills major or multiple roles with members of underrepresented groups; watching, for example, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, and Mindy Kaling play off each other, rather than squeezing one of them into the token “girl” role in a male-driven ensemble. That sounds like a bare minimum for progress, but considering how few movies place women in leading roles (less than half as many as those starring men), movies with four or five female leads, aimed at general audiences looking for a good time start to look revolutionary.
At the same time, cast-flipped movies have a unique opportunity to explore ideas about sexual or racial roles and politics by placing characters of different backgrounds in familiar, often male-dominated contexts. His Girl Friday became a celebration of a working woman in addition to a comedy of remarriage. The 2016 Ghostbusters was more of a lark than a serious statement, but younger audience members seeing four women kick ass through a sci-fi / fantasy adventure took it as seriously as so many young people took the 1984 original. No one wants flipped remakes to take the place of incisive, original stories about marginalized groups, but incisive, original stories are endangered either way, and some of the best big studio entertainments are able to smuggle some intelligence and insight into a multiplex. If familiar brand names can be used to tell stories that don’t only reflect a white, straight, male point of view, that’s more justification than most remakes can boast. Both the fun and the serious aspects of flipped remakes lend them some built-in creative interest exceeding, say, a pointless redo of Robocop.
What Men Want doesn’t feel pointless. It has an opening to address gender and racial politics in a comic setting, and it isn’t risking much ill will by tinkering with What Women Want. It’s flipping the script on a creaky, kind of dopey comedy, rather than a beloved fan classic. So when this particular remake falters, it’s even more disappointing. The problems may have begun with a behind-the-scenes swap. Instead of a woman directing a movie about a man learning about women, it has a man directing a movie about a woman learning… well, by the end, it’s not entirely clear.
Henson’s character, Ali, has a relevant, relatable dilemma at the start of the movie: she’s a woman working in a male-dominated field, often left out of “locker-room talk” (the movie pulls several phrases from recent national news, with a wink) because of her gender, but she’s also quietly vilified for acting too much like one of the guys. Her newfound psychic abilities let her cut through office maneuvering and appeal straight to the desires of hot potential client Jamal (Shane Paul McGhie) and his mercurial dad-manager (Tracy Morgan). Despite her skill as an agent, she has to literally read minds to compete with her male colleagues.
Yet the reconfigured movie’s gender politics are muddled, even more so than its source material. Ali’s powers enable some funny side revelations about guys walking around with mindless tunes or ridiculous questions bouncing through their heads. But mainly, she “learns” what she basically already knew: that a lot of men privately and unfairly think of her as a ball-buster. It also implies she shouldn’t care so much about what men think.
Except the movie makes it clear that men do affect her opportunities at work, whether she cares about their thoughts or not. What’s more, her stereotypically “male” aggression doesn’t seem like a front she can drop to be more authentically herself. It seems to be part of her personality, but the movie still implies it needs to be fixed. She does learn to be kinder to a sweet-natured bartender / love interest and to her faithful assistant, but those changes don’t come with any realizations about gender, or about how to navigate sexism and the glass ceiling. What Men Want pays mild lip service to the fact that Ali isn’t just a woman in a male-dominated space, but a black woman in a space where white men compete to serve a number of black clients. It just never digs into those racial dynamics.
That’s a shame because Henson is obviously game for both righteous fury about inequality and goofing around with bedroom farce. What Men Want has clever moments where it goofs on masculine fronts: there’s a running gag where the male characters act laconic and chill on the outside, while their thoughts reveal that they’re secretly exploding with childlike glee about, say, meeting their sports heroes. But the film often lets the guys off easy, providing a token good dude who Ali has misjudged and, only briefly, lightly poking at the idea that a white guy’s forthrightness is called “bold,” while a black woman with the same qualities is tagged as “angry.” This material is always kept toothlessly at the margins of the movie. But why evoke a real, significant social problem in a satire, then refuse to grapple with it?
Doubtless, there are plenty of filmmakers, male and female, who could have pulled off a delicate balance of comedy about gendered expectations, conscious and unconscious discrimination, and workplace politics. But director Adam Shankman of Bringing Down the House and several ineptly staged musicals doesn’t have the comic chops to reimagine this material. He and his writing team seem to expect that flipping enough details from the original premise will be inherently comedic. But intentionally or not, they often just follow the original script.
The filmmakers behind Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters were also content to riff on their predecessors’ work rather than recontextualizing it, but those films at least had a glow of female camaraderie and a lot of star chemistry. The conceptual laziness that rankled some viewers also allowed those films to fit comfortably alongside their predecessors. Paul Feig has a different comic approach than original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and Gary Ross can’t match the style of Ocean’s trilogy director Steven Soderbergh, but they do carry on their respective series’ traditions of making goof-off hangout movies disguised as big-budget missions.
So far, the contemporary practice of identity-flipped remakes or sequels has produced more disposable fun films than great or even memorable movies. It would probably help if more of these films were directed by women and people of color, rather than just starring them. People who’ve actually experienced racism and sexism may be bolder about addressing it in fiction and less inclined to play it off for light, easy, disposable gags. But it’s still fair to say that any remake or continuation of, say, Ghostbusters (including the planned Jason Reitman-directed version) is unlikely to fully recapture the original film’s magic, and a gender-flipped Dirty Rotten Scoundrels sounds more fun than revelatory. The business of remaking and sequelizing is always going to be mostly that: a business.
The remake business isn’t going away anytime soon, whether genders flip or not. Even outside of the big-budget franchise world, the fourth version of A Star is Born just came out to acclaim, big box office sales, and multiple Oscar nominations. (Wouldn’t it have at least been interesting to reverse the naïve starlet / industry-veteran-guy dynamic at play in all four iterations?) The affable mediocrity of What Men Want is disappointing mostly because a gender-reversed, race-adjusted version of What Women Want has a lot more satiric and observational potential than taking another crack at Total Recall or The Terminator. It could serve as a corrective to everything clumsy and old-fashioned about its source material or at least outdo it on a simple laugh level. Certainly, women and people of color deserve more than endless remakes, but they also deserve to play catch-up with the kinds of popcorn movies white dudes have been starring in for decades.