BY JOANNA ROBINSON
One of the more interesting thought experiments when it comes to understanding how limiting roles for women can be is to look at what happens when a role is originally written for a man but is taken over by a woman. The practice of gender swapping often results in some of the best and more nuanced female roles in genres, like action, sci-fi and fantasy, and comedy, which are so often dominated by men. No one is saying a female role has to be typically masculine in order to be successful, but it is compelling to see how often these gender-swapped roles refreshingly break the mold. Makes you wonder why we need a mold anyway. Here are eight great characters originally written for men but played by women.
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen in Game of Thrones: Last Sunday, viewers were instantly captivated by Karsi, the Wildling mother who made a brave stand at Hardhome. Speaking with Vanity Fair about the role, Sørensen said, “I never thought of Karsi in terms of gender. She’s just a warrior defending her tribe as anyone would. Being a woman has nothing to do with that.” Sørensen’s approach makes sense for a number of reasons, but the role was actually written for a man. The episode’s director Miguel Sapochnik told MTV, “She was a guy originally, and then somewhere in the process we thought it might be cool if she were a mother, and show her sending off her own kids to make that moment with the corpse children really resonate emotionally.”
Angelina Jolie in Salt: This role was famously originally supposed to go to Tom Cruise.But when he passed, Edwin Salt became Evelyn Salt. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventuratold the Los Angeles Times, “When you look at it from a dispassionate business point of view, it’s a better way to do the genre. With Mission [Impossible] and Bourne and Bond, you’re going to be the fourth spy guy. We thought, ‘Let’s be the first spy girl.’” This called for a major restructuring of the script, and while Cruise’s Edwin Salt was going to go the Takenroute protecting his wife and kids, the producers thought Jolie’s Evelyn Salt would be too soft in a mother role, so they made her a childless vigilante.
Jane Lynch in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: As Lynch tells it, the character she played inJudd Apatow’s breakout comedy hit was going to be a man until Nancy Walls—wife of star Steve Carell—said the film was too guy-heavy. So Lynch auditioned and landed the role. Lynch said this wasn’t the first time she’s played a part written for a man. Her character in The Fugitive was also originally male, and Lynch said that a lot of the authority figures she has played—“like doctors, psychologists”—were intended for men.
Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday: The classic 1940 film is based on the famous playThe Front Page. In that version, Hildy stands for Hildebrand Johnson, not Hildegaard, and the main relationship at the center of the story is between an ace reporter and his editor. But according to Hollywood legend, director Howard Hawks didn’t have two men to read through the script so he gave Hildy’s lines to his secretary and said the script was “even better this way.” Playwright Ben Hecht gave the switch his blessing and the writers changed the relationship between Walter Burns and Johnson from purely professional to that of sparring exes. As a result, Russell landed one of the best roles of the screwball era. Hildy Johnson is a respected professional who is the equal (well, actually, superior) of every other newspaperman onscreen. Pretty progressive for 1940.
Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer: The character Zula was originally a male Darfarian warrior and the last of his tribe. The role was switched, and androgynous 80s beauty Grace Jones slipped into the role. Zula isn’t exactly the most nuanced character. Mostly, Jones gets to be fierce and show a lot of oiled up skin but, hey, that pretty much describes Schwarzenegger’s character, too.
Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica: Ronald D. Moore, the creator of the popular 2004 reboot of the 1970s space saga, said he decided to make Starbuck a woman in order to skirt any Han Solo-esque associations. ”Making Starbuck a woman was a way of avoiding what I felt would be ’rogue pilot with a heart of gold’ cliche.” Moore also said he thought Kara Thrace allowed him to break new narrative ground. “The whole notion of women in the [U.S.] military is a relatively new idea,” he said. Women’s studies professorSue Brennan, who used Battlestar Galactica for a course called “Gender, Race and Sexuality in Pop Culture” at Ohio State University, told Wired the swap was a controversial one. ”There was all this outrage: ‘How dare they change this very masculine renegade character. How can they translate Starbuck into a female character?‘ But the show has clearly proven that they can. Kara Thrace’s competence is maybe questioned as far as her disregard for authority but never because of her gender.” Sackhoff’s cigar-chomping, hard-drinking Starbuck has been hailed as one of the most popular and layered TV characters of the early aughts.
Jodie Foster in Flightplan: Listen, no one is going to make the argument thatFlightplan’s frantic mother is one of Foster’s most classic roles. But it is interesting that Foster has played roles written for men several times including in 2013’s Elysium. Also, between Panic Room and Flightplan, Foster had the corner on hardcore parenting long before Liam Neeson came along. Director Robert Schwentke originally wanted Sean Penn for Foster’s role in Flightplan and felt he had to make some subtle tweaks to reflect the gender swap. “When you’re dealing with a male protagonist,” he said on the DVD commentary, “there’s a certain iconography you can use. When this was a male [character], he was walking down the lonely boulevards at night in Berlin and his coat was sort of blowing and you look at it and [think], ’Yeah, that’s a stand-in for loneliness.’” But when it’s a woman, Schwentke said, “You just wonder, ‘What is she doing at three o’clock in the morning all by herself on the street?’”
Sigourney Weaver in Alien: Ellen Ripley’s is probably the most famous gender swaps in film history. Director Ridley Scott has described his decision to switch Ripley from a standard male action hero to a heroine as storytelling switcheroo. “I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman? She would be the last one you would think would survive—she’s beautiful.” (Never mind Jamie Lee Curtis survived Halloween just the year before.) But Scott’s choice created a truly unique heroine in a film landscape crowded with muscle-bound heroes. Ripley consistently tops “best film heroes” lists and in their 2009 version, Entertainment Weekly called Ripley “one of the first female movie characters who isn’t defined by the men around her, or by her relationship to them.” It’s no wonder why.