Melissa McCarthy is leading an all-lady cast in the remake of Ghostbusters.
These facts, taken together, have engendered a lot of hate. But, less trollishly, it’s also has lead to the inevitable and seemingly reasonble: “Why you gotta genderswap? Just make a girl spy/girl paranormal comedy!”
The answer, as in most things, is complicated. But it’s to do with Narrative Weight.
(And, because many things that apply to feminism also apply to racial issues, most of this applies to people of color, too. But I will speak mostly about the feminism issue because I know more about it. I’d love a link to a thoughtful essay about race swapping if you can find one, though.)
Narrative weight is a term I just made up this very second but it’s immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in literature or pop culture. A well-known character has more weight than an obscure one. A character who has been interpreted many times weighs more than one who is singular. A character gains more narrative weight the more times they are referenced in other works, parodied, copied, or analyzed, whether that’s an analysis in a literary class or on Tubmlr.
So Captain America has more weight than Ant-Man. Falstaff has more weight than Antigonus (the guy who exists, pursued by a bear, in Winter’s Tale). Debating the relative weight of Captain America v Falstaff is an exercise that I will leave to the reader.
Narrative weight takes time to build. And that’s why we need genderswapping.
Choosing Chaucer as a totally arbitrary date, English-language works have about 700 years of history. Most of the characters in those works for the past 700 have been white men. They have had seven centuries in which to build up narrative weight. The inertia of history gives these characters more heft and they distort the fabric of narratives, making all stories roll into their gravitational fields.
Let’s take James Bond, to come back to Ms. Chopra.
Since his debut in 1953, Bond has had 20+ movies, 50+ books, several spin offs. That alone gives him an enormous narrative weight. Add in the nearly infinite pastiches, jokes, quips, imitations, and references. Kingsmen and XXX were directly framed as responses to Bond, and thus were pulled into his orbit, adding to his weight. By now, he’s acquired a presence in spy movies so deep that even choosing not to reference Bond is, in and of itself, a reference to Bond.
Bond has enormous narrative weight.
Even if we stopped making all James Bond movies right now, by dictatorial decree, he would continue to get heavier just because he’s so thoroughly embedded in the canon. And, of course, we’re not going to stop making Bond movies. Or writing those books. Or fanfics. Or jokes.
So if we just “made a female spy who isn’t Bond,” she could literally never catch up to him. Not even if we decided to make three movies and five tie-in-novels a year for the next 70 years. Which means that he continues to distort the narrative landscape . Part of this distortion is the fact that no one thinks that people would watch those Female!Spy movies, because we never have because Bond…..
So, when feminists agitate for a genderswap and want to cast Haley Atwell (or Priyanka Chopra or Gillian Anderson) to play Jane Bond, we’re trying to claw away some of the narrative weight that dudes have been hoarding for the past 700 years.
If we manage to get enough narrative weight, we can change the landscapes that shape our narratives and regularly exclude women and girls and people of color. It’s not the only way to do it, but it’s one of the thousands of approaches that we’ll need if we want to approach equality in representation.
I mean, even if we stopped making white dudes the leads in all books, movies, and tv shows right this second — and I don’t know how we’d do that — it would take about 700 years to build an equal weight.
Sometimes these are head canons and that’s important, too. When mothers edit on the fly to make Bilbo a woman, we’re combating the way that girls feel when they are systematically excluded from the vast vast majority of English language books. If you get used to seeing yourself as a main character, it’s easier to act like a main character.
And I think that’s what the people who object to genderswapping are really angry about. They don’t want anyone to take their role as the lead character.