The Gender-Flip

photo courtesy Radius/TWC
photo courtesy Radius/TWC

In Trainwreck, Tilda Swinton steals every scene she’s in as Dianna, the editor of a crude men’s magazine and boss to Amy Schumer’s semi-autobiographical character. When the film premiered last month, many expressed surprise upon learning that it was actually Swinton — she’s virtually unrecognizable in the role. Seeing it, I was reminded of her equally stellar turn in another train-related movie: as Minister Mason in last summer’s Snowpiercer. I still haven’t forgiven the Academy for failing to recognize Swinton’s work in that film — and, incredibly, she might never have had the opportunity to play the role in the first place. In Snowpiercer‘s source material, the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Minister Mason was a male character; but when Swinton expressed interest in the film, director Bong Joon Ho gender-flipped the role so that she could play it.

The move represents but one marker in a growing trend. Paul Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters remake is set to star a group of women (Melissa McCarthy among them) as the titular crew. Two of this fall’s releases, David Gordon Green‘s Our Brand is Crisis and Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, are likewise based on existing material and have gender-flipped key characters from male to female. Green’s film will star Sandra Bullock in a role that was originally intended for George Clooney, while Secret (a remake of 2009’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos) features Julia Roberts in a part played by Pablo Rago in the original.

Why is this happening now? A better question might be: Why doesn’t it happen more often? Hollywood’s dearth of interesting roles for women, particularly those over 40, is no secret. While male stars like Tom Cruise can still be expected to headline multimillion-dollar franchises, actresses of similar age are all too often shuffled into the wisecracking-mother-in-law bin. It’s refreshing to hear that filmmakers are willing to think outside the box in order to accommodate the growing pool of talented performers who have aged out of the ingénue phase — but on the other hand, it’s unfortunate that such a box exists in the first place. Why aren’t there more solid, textured roles out there that are written for women originally? Stars like McCarthy, Bullock, and Roberts shouldn’t have to wait around for the leftovers.

Speaking of McCarthy, it’s worth noting that she is offered lead roles in box-office hits like the recent Spy — a movie that wouldn’t have been the same without her. But comedy operates under its own set of rules. Last year’s St. Vincent, for example, which featured McCarthy in a less cartoonish part, received a lukewarm welcome. Presumably, it’s all right for a woman to drive the vehicle, as long as we’re allowed to laugh at her while she’s doing it.

Perhaps the current gender-flipping trend will mark a turning point, so that in the future, when such changes are made to a script, they’re not even worth mentioning. Ideally, when people watch Snowpiercer, they won’t think about Minister Mason’s gender at all, but will only admire Swinton’s performance for the gonzo delight it is. In the meantime, it would be encouraging to see a flip take place on a more fundamental level — more screenplays with roles tailored to women in the first place, instead of women merely stepping in to pinch-hit.



While earning my BFA in creative writing at the University of Maine at Farmington, I clerked part-time in a video store (which, against the odds, is still in business to this day). After graduation, I traveled across the country and then moved to Hawaii for six months. When the Pacific sun began to fry my delicate New England sensitivities, I returned to Maine, where I continue to feed my cinematic addictions.