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In December, six months ahead of the release of Warner Bros.’ all-female reboot of the Ocean’s heist franchise, star Sandra Bullock warned potential online trolls: “I’ll tell you, we’ve got some feisty women that will fight right back,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
As Ocean’s 8 hits theaters this weekend, it turns out that neither Bullock nor any of her castmates has had to raise a fist. Unlike 2016’s gender-bending Ghostbusters reboot or Disney’s female-led Star Wars films, the star-studded Ocean’s 8 has yet to become a major target of online attacks.
So far, there hasn’t been a prominent “downvoting” campaign on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb to lower the audience score of the film, and 4Chan message boards — where many of these causes gain steam — have been mostly indifferent to the title. In contrast to the online harassment directed at Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones or the racist taunts that apparently caused The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran to leave social media this week, Ocean’s 8 illustrates that not all gender-bent films will be received the same.
Why? “The big movies are more line-in-the-sand moments for the intolerant,” says Ghostbusters director Paul Feig. “I’ve been in the geek community long enough to know the difference between the true geeks and new wave of people who got into geek culture. It’s not even about true fandom. It’s more like not being able to handle the new demographics of the world.”
Accounting for the difference in reception for particular all-female reboots is tricky, but genre may play a role in which female-fronted titles are targets for trolling, says USC Annenberg professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, the author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Movies that anger online trolls tend to fall within “geek genres,” she says, where “there are really intense fans of those shows that also are often in a kind of economic and labor context that has also gone after women who dare to enter into previously male-dominated domains, like technology.”
Remakes of movies with a high nostalgia quotient are particularly vulnerable to angry trolling. “The audiences for those movies are now adult men and they had a particular impact on them as adolescents and teenagers and growing up. Ocean’s 8 doesn’t have that,” Banet-Weiser says.
Based on the 1960 Rat Pack movie, the Ocean’s franchise, directed by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney and Brad Pitt as its leads, first hit theaters in 2001. The third installment in that series, 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen, counted a moviegoing audience that was 71 percent over the age of 25. In other words, kids in the early 2000s weren’t dressing up at Danny Ocean or Rusty Ryan to go trick-or-treating for Halloween.
Anecdotally, on the YouTube, Reddit and 4Chan threads centered on the Ocean’s 8 film, the talk tends not to be focused as much on the franchise being rebooted as on what users perceive to be an unnecessary feminist-leaning feature pushed by liberal Hollywood. Or, as one 4Chan user puts it: “Probably won’t see it but since [menstruating] all over Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t ruin my childhood, I ain’t mad about it.”
The female heist film also arrives as the industry is reckoning with a gender imbalance in many on-camera and behind-the-camera roles. Recent studies from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that behind-the-camera roles in genre films are still heavily dominated by men with protagonists that also are overwhelmingly male. The absence of women from these genres is the inspiration behind the push for more women in genre work, potentially perpetuating the outrage cycle.
“For so long, [men] felt like the giant genre films belonged to them, because they did. If you look at the makeup of those things, that’s what it was. Now that it’s getting changed, they get weird about it,” says Feig.
Sony’s Melissa McCarthy-led Ghostbusters — an adaptation of the 1984 Bill Murray and Harold Ramis classic that became a blockbuster favorite — landed at the cross-section of nostalgia and genre that attracts online vitriol, a case study for why trolls slime studio reboots. (The film opened to $46 million in July 2016 and closed with $229 million worldwide. A sequel isn’t planned.)
Ghostbusters was the forerunner to the trend of gender-swapped or female-fronted reimaginings that is in vogue in Hollywood. Lionsgate’s Overboard, a gender-flipped reboot of the 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell romantic comedy, with Eugenio Derbez and Anna Faris, grossed $77 million worldwide earlier this year. Other such projects in the works include The Hustle, the upcoming adaptation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Taraji P. Henson-starring What Men Want, a Blake Griffin-produced The Rocketeer and The Picture of Dorian Gray from musician St. Vincent.
Jovanka Vuckovic, a producer and director of the 2017 all female-directed horror anthology XX, says that a lack of women in front of or behind the camera in horror was the main inspiration for her film. Though XX received pushback on chatrooms and comment threads, she notes, “The more intelligent people are saying, ‘How can we do better in terms of diverse casting and diverse writing roles with diversity in mind?’ And then the less intelligent people are having tantrums because girls are chasing ghosts in the movies.”
Creators stress that respect for preexisting fan bases is key when adapting a story for a film. “Whatever genre you do, you have to respect the genre. You can’t ever make something cynically,” says Alice Lowe, co-writer of the female-focused serial-killer story Sightseers and writer-director of pregnancy horror story Prevenge. “Whenever I’m making a genre film, I’m respecting the history of that story and that narrative and that structure.”
Backlash to all-female reboots isn’t just limited to trolls prone to misogyny. In August, when Warner Bros. unveiled a female-led Lord of the Flies remake, advocates for women filmmakers and entertainment journalists criticized the planned adaptation, whose writer-directors were both men, Scott McGehee and David Siegel (What Maisie Knew).
The backlash took the two creators, who had been developing the project since 2013 and spent years trying to attain rights, by surprise. The original William Golding book has often been interpreted as a narrative about toxic masculinity — McGehee and Siegel’s idea was to lean into the novel’s themes of self-determination, problem-solving and creativity. “The way we came into thinking about it was down a creative path that was unrelated to any zeitgeisty thing at the moment,” Siegel says, referencing Hollywood’s recent proclivity for gender-bending.
Cautions director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who is making the jump from animation to live action with sci-fi adaptation The Darkest Minds: “It’s important that when we approach films with female leads and characters and a female perspective, that we don’t make it into just about that. I don’t think it should be the main focus whether it’s about women or not.”
In 2018, being trolled may be an occupational risk for creators and stars of female-fronted projects. But as gender-bent properties continue to be developed, directors, writers, stars and studio marketing departments are adapting to the online backlash that can frequently occur. “Mute, mute, mute your Twitter account,” Feig suggests to filmmakers who are pursuing female-focused reimaginings. “Somebody said a funny quote to me recently: ‘Even Beyonce has haters.'”
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