In Ocean’s 8, the new Sandra Bullock-Cate Blanchett heist movie, there’s a scene set in a suburban garage. Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is recruiting for a big jewel theft and has come looking for Tammy, a former fence now passing as a regular civilian. Her garage is packed to the rafters with unopened boxes of stolen household appliances, and Tammy is trying to convince Debbie she is no longer in the business – while shooing away a demanding kid. How do you explain this to your husband, Debbie asks, gesturing at all the stuff that has fallen off the back of a truck; “eBay,” Tammy replies.
It’s a scene that stuck with me because, in the midst of a story about a million-dollar necklace and a celebrity-studded gala, the humour is based on a familiar domestic situation: Tammy, nicely played by Sarah Paulson, is a soccer mom struggling to make space for her career. Replace fencing stolen goods with some more legitimate gig, and she seems like a real woman.
If the rest of the characters in Ocean’s 8 don’t feel very real, it is not only because the Ocean’s franchise specializes in fantastical, but also because the characters are being dropped into a format that once belonged to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. That’s the odd thing about recent attempts to recast all-male franchises with female characters: there’s often a certain blandness or two-dimensionality to these newly minted women.
Whether they are battling paranormal activity in Ghostbusters or lifting diamonds in Ocean’s 8, the women are so gingerly placed in the films: there is to be no disruption of the original film’s format nor pandering to gender stereotypes. Ghostbusters, that reboot greeted with outraged howls from misogynist trolls in 2016, largely avoided jokes about gender. Ocean’s 8 has lots of girly trappings in its high-society plot but its criminal characters simply recast familiar types – the nerdy hacker; the manic pickpocket; the suave boss – in female versions.
Most of all, these all-female reboots avoid romance. Never let it be said that the new Hollywood only sees women as creatures of their relationships. Well, it does actually: a study of 2017’s top grossing movies from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University shows that male characters are more likely to be shown at work and more likely to have goals related to their jobs. Female characters are more likely to have goals related to their personal lives, and were almost twice as likely as male characters to be shown exclusively in their personal-life roles.
The reboots, however, are determined to differentiate themselves. Most of the women in Ocean’s 8 don’t have an identifiable marital status and the only spouse-like creature who actually appears is Debbie’s scheming ex. Ocean’s 8 passes the Bechdel test – women must talk to each other about something other than a man – with flying colours.
And yet it is a rather lifeless thing, as Hollywood so very consciously seeks out female protagonists, but doesn’t question traditional genres. Recent survival movies, including Reese Witherspoon as a lone hiker in Wild and Shailene Woodley as a lone sailor in Adrift, also reveal a concerted attempt to find female-driven action: these are based on real-life stories, but give a new female twist to the long tradition of movies about men surviving everything from hurricanes to bear attacks. Wild was the more successful innovation partially because it featured a more complex lead character.
Occasionally the shoe is on the other foot, and female roles are turned male. In the recent comedy Overboard, starring Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez, a cleaner takes revenge on a wealthy yachtsman with amnesia by convincing him he is actually her working-class husband. The concept dates to a 1987 movie of the same title starring Kurt Russel as a carpenter and Goldie Hawn as the belittling heiress who falls from her yacht, gets bashed on the head and must learn to do housework and look after his kids. The gender-reversal is crucial – who today would accept a comedy about a mentally incapacitated woman tricked into a fake marriage? – but doesn’t seem to have done anything for the movie artistically: it has received scathing reviews and there’s no word of a Canadian theatrical release.
I wonder, as Faris falls into the drink and Woodley survives it, as Blanchett waters down the vodka while Melissa McCarthy spikes the ghosts, if we will not all look back at this moment in a decade or two and giggle dismissively. Was it really enough to just flip genders on any male ensemble piece? Weren’t there any stories to tell that originated with women? Asked about the 2016 Ghostbusters controversy at the Ocean’s 8 premiere, Bullock was scathing about the attack on its stars and announced what is apparently still news in Hollywood: “The women are here – we’re not going anywhere.”