…And he’s back! Some of the more regular readers will have noticed that I’ve been absent for the last few weeks. It’s partially because I’ve been running around doing lots of other things. It looks like I might not be around that much for the forseable future. So many rods, so many fires, yadda yadda yadda. Anyway, here’s a little article I threw together for a website. They didn’t like it, so here you go.
From novels and comics to television and films, flipping the gender of a character is becoming an increasingly common way to breathe fresh life into an old idea or bring in a new audience. Characters are increasingly considered to be gender neutral in the early stages of planning a show or film, and it’s rare for a character’s story to be tied to their gender. In most cases, the gender of a character isn’t that important to who they are as a person, so altering it doesn’t affect them to any great extent.
Many well-known characters have changed gender several times before they reach their intended audience, most commonly on the jump from page to screen. It may be that the creators of a show, film, or book are looking to diversify their cast in order to appeal to a wider audience. Other times, the change can happen mid-production as a result of an actor becoming suddenly unavailable or a last minute change on the writer’s behalf.
While many people don’t like their favourite characters being messed with unnecessarily, altering a character’s gender often opens up new possibilities for writers and fans alike. It forces you to look at the character in a different light, to re-asses their roles and their relationships. Here are ten examples of famous characters that have had their genders altered, for better or for worse, at some point in their history. Some of them are well-known, while in other cases you may not realise that there was ever a change at all.
In the original Norse myths, Loki is known for his shapeshifting abilities. Among other things, he has become a salmon, a seal, a fly, and a woman during his time as an ally and enemy of the gods. At only point he even gave birth to an eight-legged horse while he was disguised as a mare. Yeah, myths are weird.
Marvel Comics picked up this aspect of the character and ran with it in their comic books. In 2008 the original Loki died and was reincarnated in the body of Sif, the lover of Thor. As you can imagine, being trapped in the body of your brother’s wife caused issues all around. Loki spent several years in this form, often acting as Marvel comics’ only major female villain, before eventually returning to his original male body.
The ongoing Loki: Agent Of Asgard series has kept up with Loki’s gender-changing practices, with the character appearing as a woman in several issues. The book also confirmed that the character was both bisexual and gender-fluid. While Marvel isn’t known for sticking religiously to source material (Loki was originally the blood brother of Odin, not his adopted son), the shift in what was previously a heterosexual male character has been praised by most readers.
So far Loki hasn’t used these skills in the films, but more than a few fans would like to see Lady Loki putting in an appearance.
9. Dr Watson
One of the key elements of the Sherlock Holmes mythos is the friendship between Sherlock and Dr. Watson. For NBC’s Elementary Watson was transformed into a female character. The most obvious reason was simply to set the show apart from the other adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, particularly BBC’s Sherlock series.
Another reason for the change, however, was to disrupt the usual relationship between Sherlock and Watson. While many fans view the original relationship as a friendship which borders of the homoerotic, introducing a female companion for the detective was meant to bring Sherlock out of his comfort zone. The original stories, and subsequent adaptations, have always been pretty light on female characters, and there has always been a sense that the detective wasn’t terribly comfortable around women.
In spite of many fan’s fears, the show managed to sidestep any romantic connection between the two, posing them in a friendly professional relationship
For as long as there has been a James Bond, there has been an M telling him what to do. The original M was based on Ian Flemming’s commander in World War II, and appearances in the novels established him as an old-fashioned gentleman spy. In many ways, M an older and more experienced version of 007.
M’s role in the novels is so large that he has also been featured in the majority of the James Bond films. Like Bond, M’s character has remained a constant despite the changes to the actors playing him. While the first four incarnations of the character were men, staying true to the novel, GoldenEye cast Judi Dench in the role.
Dench’s M was introduced as an antithesis to the previously male-dominated secret service, and is thought to be based on Stella Rimington, the real-life head of MI6 between 1992 and 1996. The female M was initially cold and blunt, with a distinct dislike for Bond and the old ways he represented. The character mellowed over the next few films, developing a more maternal relationship with Bond. As a result, Dench was able to redefine the role of M several times over, introducing new facets to what had previously been a largely stagnant character.
Following her death at the end of Skyfall, a new M, once again male, took over MI6, establishing the title as an inherited one.
The third Ghostbusters film has endured a long and difficult development process, with a series of rumours, speculation, and announcements that basically went nowhere. The film was left in limbo for years largely because of the difficulty in securing the original cast. Oddly enough, the death of director Harold Ramis, rather than hampering production, actually seems to have kicked things back into action.
Paul Feig signed on to direct the film in 2014, and the project then became a reboot starring an all-female cast. The announcement that the Ghostbusters would be recreated as women caused a stir among fans to say the least. While many welcomed it as a shift away from the normally white-male dominated action-comedy, others saw the change as pandering.
As the film is still in its early stages, and has been announced as a reboot rather than a direct sequel, nobody knows how far the new gang will be based on the original cast.
Ellen Ripley was one of the first female sci-fi protagonists to be treated as a hero in her own right rather than a secondary character or a love-interest. The lead in the Alien franchise, Ripley continues to be the benchmark against which other strong women, such as Furiosa and Buffy, are measured. However, the woman that most people see as the first female sci-fi hero was originally written as a man.
Early drafts of the project, originally titled Star Beast, focused on the Alien itself rather than the human characters. As a result, the crew were given largely unisex names and identified using male pronouns. Subsequent notes attached to the earliest scripts made it clear that they could be cast as either men or women depending on the strengths of the actor. As a result, Ripley had no first name and was referred to as male until Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role in the latter stages of pre-production.
5. The Doctor
The Doctor’s gender has been a constant source of debate since Dr Who returned in 2005. In particular, the question most often rears its head when a new incarnation is due to be announced. Fans have long theorised that the Time Lord could regenerate into a female body despite the fact that he has always been played by male actors. The Doctor’s Wife introduced an unseen character called the Corsair. A fellow Time Lord and friend of the Doctor, the Corsair is said to have switched genders over the course of several incarnations. Most recently, the latest incarnation of the Master was renamed as Missy, short for Mistress, because the original title no longer suited her new female form.
However, new viewers may be surprised to discover that the Doctor has already had a female incarnation in The Curse of Fatal Death, a 1999 Comic Relief parody. Over the course of the special, the Doctor managed to get through all of his remaining regenerations in the space of a few minutes before finally dying in the arms of his fiancé. Moments later, against all known laws of Time Lord science, he regenerate a thirteenth time. While the previous Doctors (played by actors including Rowan Attkinson, Richard E. Grant and Hugh Grant) were all men, the new Doctor was a woman played by Joanna Lumley.
The Doctor’s companion (and fiancé) was understandably rather disturbed and disappointed by this change. The Master, on the other hand, was rather keen on this new version of his nemesis.
4. Mr Spock
Everyone knows Mr. Spock as the second in command of the USS Enterprise, serving under James Kirk in the original Star Trek series. To this day, the character remains one of the most popular in the franchise, remembered for his emotionless, logic-driven mindset, his fighting prowess, and his trademark Vulcan salute.
The original Spock, featured in the unaired pilot of the show, was a very different character. Here, Spock featured as the youthful, and much more emotional, science officer of the Enterprise. In his place, the role of second officer was filled by a female character called Number One. Like Spock, Number One was a cold, logical, and efficient woman played by Gene Roddenberry’s second wife Majel Barrett-Roddenberry.
However, at that point the pair were dating despite the fact that Roddenberry was still married to his first wife. The NBC executives were, understandably, a little concerned that personal issues would get in the way of Majel’s role. They also didn’t seem to like the idea that the secondary protagonist of the show would be a woman. Mr. Spock was installed as the second officer of the Enterprise, keeping many of the mannerisms and backstory of Number One. Barrett, meanwhile, was given a smaller role as Nurse Chapel. Footage of Number One can still be seen in the episode The Menagerie, which re-purposed much of the footage from the unaired pilot.
One of the most memorable characters introduced in the Lion King was Rafiki. While the eccentric healer/priest/prophet only appeared in a few scenes, his role was vital to the story as he guided Simba towards his destiny. Oh yeah, and he was a brilliantly crazy baboon. When Julie Taymor adapted the film for Broadway, she felt that the story lacked a strong, prominent female character. Because the large cast of strong female lions that do all of the hunting weren’t enough. It was decided that Rafiki’s character would be the easiest to change without having to drastically alter the plot.
As a result, Taymor switched Rafiki’s gender to female, transforming him into a wise, crone-like figure. The Rafiki seen on stage still provides guidance and is still bat crap crazy, but actually takes on a slightly more prominent role onstage, singing The Circle of Life at the film’s opening. Because the film version has the song performed in voice-over rather than by a character, giving it to Rafiki, who has an important role to play in the opening scene, actually makes a lot of sense.
2. The Ancient One
A principal character in the Dr Strange comic books, the Ancient One was born in Tibet roughly 500 years ago. The character spent years amassing a wealth of magical knowledge in order to become the Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful magic user in the world. The Ancient One accepted Dr Strange as his apprentice after Strange seeks his assistance to cure the nerve damage in his hands. Once Strange’s training is complete, the Ancient One leaves him as the protector of magic, transcending the mortal realm to become one with the universe.
At least, that’s what happened in the comics. The Marvel cinematic universe caused a stir earlier this year when they announced that the role of the Ancient One would be played by Tilda Swinton. This isn’t the first time that Swinton has played with gender in a role. She portrayed the angel Gabriel, presented as an asexual character, in Constantine. She was also the leading model for menswear brand Pringle of Scotland a few years ago. Very little is known so far about the version of the Ancient One that Swinton will be playing in the upcoming film. Presumably, the idea will be that the character is so old that s/he has reached an asexual state.
There’s been no official word yet if Swinton will have a beard for the film.
Julie Taymor struck again in her 2008 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Any actress will tell you that Shakespeare didn’t write good female parts. The most interesting roles invariably go to the male leads, such as Hamlet or Othello. So Julie Taymor decided to shake things up by casting Helen Miram as the lead role when she came to adapt one of his best-known plays, The Tempest, for film.
The original play focused on Prospero, a sorcerer and the exiled Duke of Milan. Prior to the start of the play Prospero loses control of the city and is ousted by his brother because he is more interested in his studies than ruling. In Taymor’s version, Prospera is accused her of killing her husband with witchcraft and banished because the patriarchal society couldn’t accept a female ruler. The rest of the cast, and the plot, remained unchanged.
The initial decision to make Prospero a woman was put down to Taymor simply not being interested by the male actors who auditioned for the role. A closer examination of the script revealed that changing the character was mostly a simple matter of altering the pronouns. This allowed Taymor to recreate Prospero as the female victim of a male-dominated society, adding an entirely new dimension to a centuries-old play.
As a result, the decision to change Prospero’s gender has been a godsend to Literature students the world over.
What were your favourite gender swapping incidents? Let us know in the comment section.