Last month, Slate writer Michelle Nijhuis wrote about reading The Hobbit aloud to her 5-year-old daughter and, at her daughter’s request, making Bilbo a she instead of a he. Nijhuis had some interesting observations and insight about the way male and female leads are often portrayed in fiction, and about how imagining the same character with a gender reassignment can provide some balance.
I found out about the Slate piece this past weekend because of this article in Barnes and Noble’s blog, in which Kat Rosenfeld speculates about gender-flips in other classic novels. Since
I’m bored and I can’t think of anything else to write about this week it struck me as a thought-provoking writing exercise, I’ll play along. Here are five literary classics I’ve reimagined with some switches in preferred pronouns. Unlike Rosenfeld’s list, I’m imagining these stories with absolutely nothing changed except the gender of one or more major characters.
1. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Who gets flipped? The whole cast
In a world where only women can inherit, Ellis Bennet is the second-eldest of five unwed brothers. His emotionally erratic father schemes to marry off James, the handsome but timid firstborn, to wealthy neighbor Miss Charlotte Bingley. Meanwhile, Ellis’ wise but withdrawn mother stays holed up in the library all day and ignores the antics of her husband and her three younger sons, whom she’s already written off as a total loss. Then Ellis meets Miss Bingley’s hotter and richer friend, Miss Darcy Fitzwilliam, heiress of Pemberley. Darcy thinks James Bennet is just another handsome, charming douchebag out to seduce her BFF. She dismisses Ellis as merely tolerable, lacking many of the qualities she requires in an accomplished man, though he does have fine eyes. Ellis finds socially awkward Darcy unapproachable, intimidating, and basically a stuck-up bitch. He prefers the company of the charismatic, vivacious Georgina Wickham. Ellis thinks Miss Wickham is going to be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but it turns out she’s a gold-digging whore with designs on Ellis’ youngest brother. And she’s a Mean Girl, with Darcy as the target of most of her cattiness. In the end, Darcy accepts that James Bennet truly does care for Charlotte and encourages them to reunite. She also sees to it that Miss Wickham makes an honest man out of young Lewis Bennet, who has no problem whatsoever with the arrangement. And last but not least, she becomes Ellis’ Defrosting Ice Queen and they live happily ever after.
Who gets flipped: The whole cast
This is actually the best way for a modern audience to experience Lysistrata the way Aristophanes’ audience would have. The original plot is that the title character ends the Peloponnesian War by locking herself and the rest of the soldiers’ wives in the Athenian treasury and declaring that they wouldn’t have sex with their husbands until peace was made. In Classical Greece, women were thought of as hornier than men. Men were complex, sensitive beings. Women only thought about sex and wine. So, imagine a comedy (directed by Judd Apatow, maybe?) in which a group of men want a thing, and determine to get that thing by withholding sex from their wives and girlfriends until the women give them that thing. Have you picked yourself up off the floor and resumed breathing yet? Okay, good. Anyway, that’s exactly how classical Greece reacted to the idea of women withholding sex because there was something they wanted from their men more than they wanted sex.
3. THE GREAT GATSBY
Who gets flipped: The narrator
Nell Carraway moves from Chicago to West Egg in New York, next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby and across the harbor from her cousin Daisy Buchanan in East Egg. Nell makes observations like this about Daisy’s husband, Tom: “Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body.” When Nell sees Gatsby smile for the first time, she muses, “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” Nell is rumored to be involved with pro golfer Jordan Baker, but their relationship is more a matter of social convenience than anything else. One day Nell, Jordan, Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby all go for a drive into the City…
4. LITTLE WOMEN (Part One)
Who gets flipped: Josephine “Jo” March
Turn Jo into Joe, and instead of a story about a teenage tomboy frustrated by society’s limitations on girls, you have a story about a teenage boy frustrated by living in a house full of girls. Interestingly enough, though, while Jo comes across as masculine for a girl, Joe would come across as somewhat feminine for a boy. Joe is theatrical and loves writing and starring in plays with his sisters. Joe locks himself away for hours writing fairy stories. Joe’s hair is his one beauty. Joe may or may not have a thing for Laurie, the boy next door. Joe likes to sit alone in a corner and cry over trashy novels while eating apples. In either case, I think Jo(e) March’s progressive feminist parents would be proud of hir for ignoring expectations and just being hir awesome self.
5. THE HOBBIT
Who gets flipped: Gandalf
Bilbo is still a boy. The dwarves are all still boys. Every freakin’ character in the book is still a boy. Except the awesome old grey-cloaked wizard with the silver scarf and the epic hat. If I may paraphrase Nijhuis’ article, Gandalf, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, self-assured, funny, and is too focused on a world-changing quest to be jelly when her friend snags a ring. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.