Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender

In the slick summer action movie Salt, the sexy CIA heroine -- who may be a double agent -- was originally a hero. Evelyn Salt was first imagined as "Edwin," and the role was written for Tom Cruise. When he dropped out, the equally glamorous Angelina Jolie took the part.

Such Hollywood swaps generally go in just one direction, says Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote about the phenomenon on her pop culture blog. And that's male to female.

And if you want one of those slots?

"You can be really tough, or you can be really funny," says Rosenberg. "If you're one of those two things, you can occupy a man's slot in a plot."

Take Jane Lynch: Her screwy store manager Paula in The 40 Year Old Virgin was originally named "Paul," and a lot of guys read for the part. Casting Lynch was actually the brainstorm of Nancy Carell, the wife of star Steve Carell. Lynch's performance was largely improvised, and now it's hard to imagine anyone but her as the bad-boundaries boss.

Similarly, Sigourney Weaver so owns the role of Ellen Ripley in Alien that it boggles the mind to believe Ripley wasn't specifically female from the first.

"The idea of making the hero a heroine was a masterstroke," says director Ridley Scott in the DVD commentary. "Because we truly expected Sigourney to be the first one to go."

The traditionally gendered meanings and symbols in Hollywood movies meant that director Robert Schwentke had to change certain scenes when he couldn't get Sean Penn for the starring role in his 2005 film Flightplan. He cast Jodie Foster instead.

"Interestingly enough, when you're dealing with a male protagonist -- and now I'm talking about mainstream studio movies -- there's a certain iconography you can use," Schwentke says on the DVD. "When this was a male [character], he was walking down the lonely boulevards at night in Berlin and his coat was sort of blowing and you look at it and [think], 'Yeah, that's a stand-in for loneliness."

But when you put a woman in that exact same shot, Schwentke says, "You just wonder, 'What is she doing at 3 o'clock in the morning all by herself on the street?'" So Schwentke opted for a montage that set up Flightplan's implausible plot -- Foster's little daughter vanishes during a transatlantic flight.

It's noteworthy that all the action in Flightplan and Alien takes place in tight, enclosed spaces. Blogger Alyssa Rosenberg points out that in both movies, the heroines aren't out roaming around -- they're defending a tiny, confined piece of turf.

"I do think women are allowed to have their backs to the wall," Rosenberg says. "But not to go out and conquer things. With men, you're allowed to be expansionary."

And when roles written for women have been switched to male actors, they're often smaller parts. Interestingly, the characters tend to be lawyers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.