Gender change in a remake


Superman’s New Pal?

It’s geek debate time again.

This debate is brought to us by the upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel. And it is the time-honored debate of how they are altering a character. In this case the alteration appears to be happing to none other than Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, and the change looks like a big one. Fans were noting that nowhere in the cast list was there any mention of anyone playing Jimmy. This is surprising as there has never been a live action Superman project that did not include Jimmy. He even appeared in the Supergirl movie. Minor character Emil Hamilton is appearing in the Man of Steel, so where is Jimmy?

Then someone reading the IMDB listing for the movie noticed that there is a character named Jenny Olsen, listed to be played by actress Rebecca Buller. Jimmy and Jenny are similar names. So the speculation has started that Jenny is a gender swapped Jimmy. And of course the moment that fans got wind of the story the debates began.

This is not the first variation on traditional casting that Man of Steel has done. Laurence Fishburne was announced early on as playing Perry White, thus changing the character’s ethnicity.  There was not really any noise about that casting, however this could be due to the fact that Fishburne is an actor well known to geek fans and well respected, so news of his casting was more along the lines of “they got a good actor to play Perry”. Buller on the other hand is a newcomer, having only one other acting credit listed on IMDB.

I think we as a society are at a point where altering ethnicity of a character is not as big of a deal. It happened to Pete Ross on Smallville and no one made any noise about it. Gender swapping tends to get more reaction as it can more significantly alter a character’s interactions with other characters. Also there can be a certain amount of homophobia or misogyny. Fans not dealing well due to identifying with the original character and not dealing well with the change or the old “a girl can’t do that.”

The best example of this is Battlestar Galactica.  In the original series, one of the main characters was Lt. Starbuck, a dashing rogue who was clearly meant to remind viewers of Han Solo from Star Wars. Starbuck was a ladies man, gambler, and smoked cigars. For the late ‘70s these traits all said lovable rascal. He was the best friend of our designated hero, Captain Apollo. Like Han Solo, Starbuck became the fan favorite character.

Also in the main cast was Lt. Boomer, who was a more level-headed counterpart. He was the intellectual, and more likely to act as a voice of reason.

In the 2003 remake both Starbuck and Boomer were recast as females. Most of the attention when this was announced was focused on the change to Starbuck. As the fan favorite character from the original show, the fans were outraged that such a change was taking place. All through the run of the remake there were some fans who could not get past this, even though once people saw the show it was clear that all the characters were different from their 70s counterparts.

In reality a lot of Starbucks characteristics were retained in the switch. Both were the best pilot in the fleet, both were brash and challenged authority, both gambled, drank, and smoked, and both really liked sex. In fact outside of the gender change, the biggest difference in the characters was that male Starbuck was always well groomed and female Starbuck was always looking rough and tumble, and that change probably has more to do with era difference than gender.  They were both the fans’ favorite character on the show.

In the end, changing Starbuck’s gender opened up storytelling possibilities that the writers took full advantage of.

Honestly, with the number of changes they did with the character of Boomer, the gender change is almost incidental.

Although it does seem that Grace Park, the actress who played Boomer, seems to have a habit of this. On her current show, the remake of Hawaii 5-0, her character is Kono, who was a male character on the original show. In this case the change was clearly an attempt to get a female character in the show where the original was exclusively male.

Another recent example comes from the CBS show Elementary, which is their answer to the British show Sherlock, placing Sherlock Holmes in a modern day setting. On Elementary, Holmes’ partner John Watson has been recast as Joan Watson and is being played by Lucy Liu. In this case, there are several elements of the traditional Holmes story that have been altered, and ultimately the gender change seems more in line with the Hawaii 5-0 one of providing more cast diversity than anything about the character.

So where does that leave us with poor Jenny Olsen? At this point it is hard to tell, since everything we know about this situation is based purely on speculation. Is she just an attempt to put another female on the cast, like Watson or Kono, or is she a way to open up story avenues not available with Jimmy, like Starbuck?

I for one will be interested to find out. Until then I will keep my nerd rage and knee jerk reaction in check.