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Allow Us To Explain
As you're about to see, there are many reasons why a writer or director might want to change the gender of a character mid-production: a change in actor, a change in social mores, or simply a sudden good idea. To our mind, it almost always makes the character more interesting if you know that their particular personality was considered fine for any gender.
With many of these characters you also have to wonder: would their character arcs have been different if they'd stayed the originally planned gender? Would Ripley have had a love interest, would Dory and Martin had some on-screen chemistry, would Luke and Han have remained just friends?
Gender roles aren't so rigidly defined as they once were, and thank goodness for that.
When the first
Alien script was written, it featured a crew that was explicitly referred to as “unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” And since Fox was said to have been looking into action films with female leads, the role of Ripley was made female and the part was given to Sigourney Weaver. And then it changed history. No, seriously, it had a massive effect on how women were potrayed in suspenseful stories, whether it was science fiction, horror, action, or all of the above, which Alien was. Because she was written as gender-neutral the character of Ripley was proactive, a fighter, and not “suddenly vulnerable.” Weaver says that she was “a thinking, moving, and deciding creature.” Ripley has been celebrated as a woman who was not shaped by the men around her. They all simply co-existed. And then, in the second movie, she dusted off her inherent maternal instincts while simultaneously walking into the war that was the showdown with the Alien. Would a man have done the same? Sure. But is there something different about how a man views a child and how a woman does? It certainly seems to when we watch Ripley.
Mr. Spock was not the original second in command of the USS Enterprise: in the pilot of the show the role was filled by a character called Number One, a cold, logical, and efficient woman played by Gene Roddenberry’s second wife Majel Barrett-Roddenberry. Except at that point, she was only the lover that he’d taken outside of a failing marraige, and NBC’s executives were... concerned that she had such a vital role, and that the second main character of the show would be a woman. They also didn’t much like the cold, logical alien known as Mr. Spock, and according to Barrett herself, Roddenberry "kept the Vulcan and married the woman, 'cause he didn't think Leonard [Nimoy] would have it the other way around."
So, Mr. Spock was installed as the logical second officer of the Enterprise, and Barrett was given the more secondary (and emotional) role of Nurse Chapel. However, you can still see a bit of Number One in the episode
The Menagerie which re-purposes much of the footage from the unaired pilot for Star Trek: The Original Series.
Jean Grey (
Okay, so maybe this one isn’t a complete example of the trope. But Neil Gaiman does his best to use the
existence of the trope to fool you into thinking it is for a while. Marvel 1602 takes place in an alternate universe/timeline where all the famous costumed heroes of the 20th century appear instead in the 17th. Spoilers ahead!
Professor Javier’s College for the Sons of Gentlefolk is up and running, featuring the original X-Men lineup: Iceman, Cyclops, Beast, Angel, and Jean Grey. That is, Roberto Trefusis, Scotius Summerisle, Hal McCoy, Werner, and John Grey. Gaiman doesn’t let you sit in the assumption that the small, slight, high voiced John is anything but a Jean in disguise for too long. Werner innocently tries to make friends with “John,” and Scot is obviously interpreting his overtures as Angel moving in on his girl because Cyclops has always been a big fat jerk.
But just when you think you’ve evaded his trap Gaiman pulls another swap on you. When Scot eventually figures out that Angel never realized Jean’s true gender, he apologizes for assuming that he was hitting on her, but Angel turns right around and tells Scot to keep his apology. Scot was completely correct in his assumptions, he says, except for one thing: Angel was hitting on Jean precisely because he though she was a guy.
When a then-23-year-old Katee Sackhoff was cast as Lt. Kara Thrace, better known as Starbuck, in the series reboot of Battlestar Galactica, fans of the original series were less than thrilled. They were upset. No, they were raging.
Like, Katee-Sackhoff-got-a-death-threat raging. And the original Starbuck, Dirk Benedict, is also
still unhappy with the casting.
All of this seems so weird in retrospect, considering how extremely popular the female Starbuck became. But the fact that she threw so many gender stereotypes out the window as her role progressed makes the change an even more brilliant idea. The original Starbuck was a cigar-smoking, sex-loving, alcohol-pounding ruffian with an innate talent for flight. And so was the female Starbuck. Why change it? This was a character who never questioned himself, was so (dare I say it) cocksure -- why shouldn’t she be the same exact way? She was, and it fracking paid off.
Here’s news that will drive the fan fiction world insane with glee: In early versions of the screenplay for the original
Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was written as a girl named Starkiller. Oh yes.
This was not an idea that lasted very long, along with casting the entire team of good guys with little people, Han Solo as a man-sized lizard, and making Yoda a giant. (The surname Starkiller lasted until Fox execs decided they didn't like it, but lives on most famously in apprentice Starkiller of Force Unleashed) According to the book , Luke was a girl. While there’s nothing in the review of the book about why this was changed, we’re sure there is slash about somewhere. Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays
Lex and Tim
Right, so all the dinosaurs on
Jurrassic Park switched their genders from female to male. BAM, BLURB DONE. NEXT!
But seriously folks, despite being a huge fan of Jurassic Park the movie, I didn’t get around to reading the book until I found a used paperback of it for 75¢ at my college town's five and dime. It was a revelation, not only because book!Grant liked kids, and book!Muldoon was several notches more badass than movie!Muldoon (a thing I had not thought possible), but because the kid’s ages and interests had been swapped.
In the book, Tim is the older sibling who is into computers, and Lex is his younger sister. The swapping of their roles (to Lex being the computer savvy teen and Tim being the younger brother) happened not because of altruistic concerns about promoting gendernormativity. It was because Stephen Spielberg really wanted to work with Joseph Mazzello, the nine-year-old actor cast as Tim, and having an older Lex would allow him to have a subplot where she had a crush on Grant. Such are the origins of one of our favorite nerdy girls, even if this looks nothing like Unix and is actually fsn.
This is the story of two hugely famous actors, looking for the next role to define their stellar careers. Tom Cruise didn’t want to take on a role that was too similar to his role in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Angelina Jolie did not want to be a Bond girl -- she wanted to be Bond. What Cruise skipped turned out to be Jolie’s gain as she took on the role of Evelyn (formerly Edwin W.) Salt, a role that was written for a man, then altered for a woman. However, they didn’t have to give the script a major overhaul, and as a result, an action role for a woman was written without the tropes and stereotypes normally attached to women. (One major change to the story was whether Evelyn would have children as Edwin did in the original story. It was later decided, by the producers and Jolie, that no woman who leads such a risky lifestyle
would become a mother. Really? I think that’s open to debate.)
Basically, the team behind Salt ended up writing a gender-ambiguous action character who was no longer a man, but not just a woman, just a really kickass human being who ended up being played by a woman. Hey, how about that, huh?
It’s hard to imagine the character of Dory in
Finding Nemo as anyone other than Ellen DeGeneres, and that’s precisely the reason why Dory wound up as a female character and not, as originally planned, a male one.
Director Andrew Stanton happened to be drafting Finding Nemo’s script at home while his wife was watching the Ellen Degeneres Show, and decided immediately that Ellen Degeneres was the only voice possible for Dory and that he’d have to change her gender to make that fit. So it was pretty lucky that Ellen was available to do the voice in the first place.
In the movie version of
The Lion King, Rafiki (‘friend’ in Swahili) was the weird, wise medicine man baboon character who gave Simba the guidance he needed. A godfather, if you will. But when The Lion King came to Broadway, Rafiki became a female.
Why? Well, before the show’s producer Julie Taymor got to ruining Spider-Man, she came up with a brilliant Broadway version of The Lion King. However, she felt that the story lacked a strong, prominent female character, so she switched Rafiki’s gender to female. (Simba’s mother Sarabi was pretty tough stuff and Nala was hardly submissive, plus the lionesses did all the hunting, but anyway …) So, Rafiki was now a wise, crone-type figure, still providing guidance, still bestowing wisdom, still kind of eccentric, but now taking on a slightly more prominent role onstage. Because now Rafiki sings “The Circle of Life” instead of a pleasant, disembodied voice.
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, creators of
The Last Airbender, originally planned that Toph’s character would be a big, hulking, loud-mouthed dude, to contrast the quiet, intelligent, goofball of Sokka. But then somebody joked about a little girl who could teach a bunch of muscley earthbenders a lesson single handedly, and writer Aaron Ehasz proposed that Toph be re-purposed as a girl. DiMartino and Konietzko were against the idea, but Ehasz pushed the issue, changes were made, and Toph became one of Konietzko’s favorite characters in the series.
The series itself referenced this earlier version of Toph in one of its last episodes, where the main characters go incognito to see a play about their own adventures. In the play, the role of Toph is played by an enormous man, to which Toph is absolutely and obviously delighted.
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