Solidly settled as we are in the era of the remake and the reboot, perhaps it's the moment to embrace and figure out not just how to make an old movie new, but an old movie better. And given the extreme inequities in female representation, both behind and in front of the camera, there has never been a better moment to use reboots to flout old gender norms and paradigms. There is hope that this model may in fact be adopted; this coming July, we can anticipate a gender-swapped Ghostbusters, starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. However, the most staunchly conservative studio remains the Disney studio, though it is very, very, very slowly beginning to dismantle its resolutely patriarchal gender models. Given that children's films are, rightly or wrongly (and I would be inclined to say wrongly), regarded as teaching films that instill moral lessons and enact role models, it is particularly imperative that Disney films start to diversify their gender modeling. With an obscene number of reboots and remakes already released, and a solid six more on the way, the Disney studio could consider rebooting and gender-swapping:
The Absent-Minded Professor
This 1961 madcap comedy starring Fred MacMurray as Professor Ned Brainard has already been remade in 1997 as Flubber, starring the more frenetically slapstick Robin Williams, but it cries out for a remake, precisely because the story can be easily bent and adapted to the comedic style of its star. A female Professor Brainard would be unusual in multiple ways: 1) women are rarely depicted as scientists at all, let alone misunderstood genius inventors, 2) women are essentially never depicted as being more engrossed in their vocation than in a romantic partnership, and 3) women very rarely pursue men without being ridiculed because of their gender or masculinized. The story itself - a brilliant professor accidentally invents a chemical substance that simultaneously causes him/her to miss his/her wedding and to attract the suspicion of the government - needs no real revision, but gender-swapping the characters bores a sizable hole in the monolithic gender paradigms the rather misogynistic original film promulgates.
Beauty and the Beast
A live-action remake of this 1991 animated film starring Emma Watson is already set for release in 2017, but it appears that, like this past year's abysmal Cinderella remake, the film will be a fairly straight-forward remake, including the Disney original characters (a live-action talking teapot, anyone?) and that's a great pity. The fairy tales are some of the most difficult stories to reconfigure in accord with contemporary ideas about gender, but I think it would prove a salutary experiment to simply switch the genders without trying to impose some sort of justifying reversal in gendered behavior. In a gender-swapped version, the female Beast would be the tortured, dominating element in the relationship, the one with power and emotional complexity, the one that has to learn to love in order to throw off ugliness, and the one who inspires love despite ugliness, while the male Belle (Beau, perhaps?) would be the good-natured, vulnerable, dreamy, and subjugated element, the one who adjusts his expectations of romantic yearning and loves despite appearances, the one prepared to make quiet sacrifices for the sake of others. I highly doubt that Disney would ever have the moxie to make this movie. If someone ever does, I would bet that it's more likely to be a filmmaker like Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I don't know what bizarre train of thought made someone at Disney think that Victor Hugo's deeply upsetting, gloomy novel about desperation, lust, and religious despair would make a good kiddie flick, complete with farting gargoyles, but somebody did. This 1996 film is frankly lousy, but given that the original novel has already been left so far behind, a remake could do something remarkable and, one might almost say, revolutionary. A female hunchback, heroic and sympathetic, who is ultimately accepted into society and hailed for her bravery and selflessness would break every rule that states how women should be depicted in movies. It would be even better if the film changed the original's ending - in which the hunchback accepts the death of his romantic aspirations - to accommodate those aspirations. Cinema has a terrible track-record of portraying the disabled as fundamentally devoid of healthy sexuality and incapable of inspiring romantic love. A Disney film that challenged that assumption would be a powerful tool for positive change in how people, especially children, with disabilities are perceived.
The Lion King
The inevitable reboot of The Lion King should definitely be The Lion Queen, not least of all given that the lioness dominates leonine social structure. The obsession with monarchy inherited through male primogeniture is an odd one for the All-American studio and it's about time that it was questioned anyway. A gender-swapped Lion King places all the power, for both good and evil, in female paws, while male characters for once fall away into mere romantic partners, peripheral to the action and functioning primarily as emotional support for the heroines. The most radical aspect of the gender-swapping would lie in the total dismantling of patriarchal structure in favor of a radical matriarchy. This movie would be brilliant: Hamlet meets Herland in the African pride lands.
The Shaggy Dog
This popular 1959 film starring Fred MacMurray has already spawned both film and TV sequels and a junky remake starring Tim Allen; a gender-swapped version would deconstruct the majority of the sexist overtones of the film. For one, the nagging wife would become a nagging husband, while the man-child husband would become a (wo)man-child wife, thus reversing decades-old assumptions that normalize misogynistic paradigms of marriage. For another, both heroes and villains become female, while the sexy European teenage girl needing rescue becomes a boy needing rescue, and further needing to be rescued by a girl. Women would hold a diverse range of unusual roles: a brilliant professor with expertise in magic, a horde of non-sexualized spies stealing nuclear defense secrets, two deeply confused police(wo)men, and, all of the protagonists. Men, on the other hand, would be granted only two roles: adorable teenage boys for the protagonist girls to date and the aforementioned nagging husband. All of the fun, the magical transformations, the spy shenanigans, the one-liners and gags, would be reserved for women and girls, in stark contrast to the original.
Swiss Family Robinson
This 1960 adventure film starring John Mills and Dorothy McGuire is one of the best live-action films the studio ever produced. Out of nine named, speaking roles, only two are women, and absolutely all of the unnamed extras are men. The film's primary story concerns how the Swiss family becomes entirely self-reliant, inventing what they need as they need it and learning to survive in a hostile, isolated wilderness. The original novel and the film emphasize a sort of a pseudo-caveman logic that dictates that men are the hunters and warriors, while women occupy the home and create a safe haven for their children; a gender-swapped remake would instead be a story of female empowerment, in which the female children become independent, self-sufficient survivors and even rescue a namby-pamby, coddled English boy kidnapped by pirates, all of whom would be female. A more satisfyingly transgressive film I couldn't imagine.
Disney's first live-action movie was this 1950 Stevenson adaptation starring one of my very favorite actors, Robert Newton, as Long John Silver and much as I adore this film, it would gladden my heart to have a gender-swapped adaptation of the best pirate novel ever written. Every single role would be played by women and that would already put it in the rarefied company of such all-female films as The Women, and to put into perspective how rare it is for a movie to be cast exclusively with women, wikipedia lists only seven. Even better, however, an all-female Treasure Island would completely eschew an obsession with talking about men; in fact, men would essentially cease to exist in the world of the movie, just as happens in the hundreds of movies with all-male casts in which women just aren't there (just to name the first that come to mind: most war films, Reservoir Dogs, 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross minus the girl who checks coats, Lawrence of Arabia, Master and Commander, and I could certainly continue). Gender-swapped Treasure Island would be a quietly radical film, one that offered an entirely alternative view of the universe to every little girl.