The new movie Our Brand Is Crisis, starring Sandra Bullock, opened in theaters this past weekend. Unfortunately, its success at the box office was rather lackluster. According to Variety, “Our Brand Is Crisis is the worst worldwide release of Bullock’s career, pulling in just $3.4 million across 2,202 locations” over the weekend.
Our Brand Is Crisis is a political satire based on a 2005 documentary about political consultants who take their talents to Bolivia. There, they attempt to use the advertising know-how and political strategy that has worked for them in the United States to help “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, one of eleven candidates for president, get elected.
Bullock’s character, Jane, is, according to Bullock, an amalgamation of many characters in the original documentary. She’s “basically a female Karl Rove,” Bullock said. “But she’s just brilliant at the devious side of politics, of press, of PR, of what-have-you. [She knows] how to convince people they need something and then give it to them.”
What makes this movie particularly interesting, however, is that Jane was originally written as a man, to be played by George Clooney. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bullock explained that the idea for the switch originated when, looking around for new and exciting projects to take on, she couldn’t find any female characters that interested her. “About two and a half years ago, I just put out the feelers saying, ‘I’m not reading anything I’m excited about. Are there any male roles out there that they don’t mind switching to female, as long as it works?’” she said. Clooney was on board, and Peter Straughan (who wrote the film) was on board, so they set out to make Clooney’s character a woman.
Whether or not the movie is good, its development raises a few questions. In the first place, for an actress so established and talented as Bullock, why are there so few female characters that appealed to her? Second, and perhaps more importantly, is it good enough to simply have women play male roles when there are few good female roles to speak of?
I can’t speak to the first question, but I am confident that the answer to the second is a firm no. Women are uniquely interesting. Women are uniquely complex. Women are uniquely intriguing. If current movie roles don’t demonstrate that effectively, if they don’t manifest the complexity and brilliance of the female mind, then the movie industry is failing to capture a full and complete picture of humanity.
It’s great that moviemakers saw that this role could be a woman, even if it wasn’t originally conceived as such, and it’s laudable that someone as successful as Clooney would step aside. But the idea that we need to “convert” male roles into female roles is, I think, a silly concept. This is not to say that it can’t be done and done well; not every story is necessarily a gendered one. But I hope the takeaway isn’t to write men’s roles and then just assume you can feminize the wardrobe. Women deserve more than that.
I like that Bullock refused to settle for crummy, one-dimensional female roles. But I don’t think she should have to settle for playing male roles either.