There's an all-female Ghostbusters – how about a male Thelma and Louise?

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Hollywood has suddenly decided that the key to promoting diversity while ensuring safe box office is to gender-swap old movies.

In 2016, the remade Ghostbusters will replace Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis with Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon. An Ocean’s 11 reboot will replace George Clooney with Sandra Bullock, and the male team of heist specialists with a female team of heist specialists.

There are tons of other classics which could easily be retooled in the same fashion. Reservoir Dogs is another male bro heist drama which could switch to female sis heist drama. This is Spinal Tap could have an all-female band. Star Wars, Fellowship of the Ring, The Untouchables, The Guns of Navarrone … there are countless movies with men teaming up to be manly together.

But what about the inverse? Are there any films with a female ensemble cast that could be changed to an all-male one?

Obviously you wouldn’t actually want to remake female ensemble films as male ensemble films. Men have plenty of roles in Hollywood as it is, without giving them other people’s. But it’s an interesting thought experiment, because it forcibly reminds you just how dominant men are already in Hollywood, and how few movies focus on female friendships and female relationships.

In part this is because movies with female protagonists geared to female audiences tend to be romances … which means that men get important roles. There’s not much point in gender-swapping When Harry Met Sally; you’d just end up with When Sally Met Harry. Pitch Perfect would give you an all male a cappella team struggling to defeat a slicker, all-female team – in terms of casting, and even in terms of substantial parts, it would be mostly a wash. Films like Sixteen Candles, or the classic Bogart/Hepburn vehicle Sabrina (1954, remade in 1995), actually have more prominent roles for men than for women. Gender swapping wouldn’t tip the gender balance more male; it would do the opposite.

There are some films that feature female ensembles – but they’re often about women’s experience of patriarchy in a way that would make gender swapping awkward, offensive, or nonsensical. Gender swapping Thelma and Louise would strip out the feminist anger at rape and violence against women, leaving just another male outlaw buddy movie. Similarly, replacing women with men in 9 to 5 would create an MRA paranoid fantasy in which female executives oppress and sexually harass the mostly male office staff and secretarial pool.

Movies like Steel Magnolias or Waiting to Exhale or the all-female The Women wouldn’t have precisely these problems – but it’s still hard to imagine them with a male cast. The Women is a comic drama about wealthy wives getting beauty treatments, going to fashion shows, and gossiping endlessly about each other’s husbands, lovers and divorces. “Oh, l’amour, l’amour, how it can let you down. Hmm. How it can pick you up again,” the Countess DeLave (Mary Boland) moans and/or exults extravagantly. The film is all scented frills, melodramatic flourishes, and catty snark. “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society … outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!” declares the scheming man-stealer Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) in one of the film’s many venomous put-downs.

What would an all-male version of The Women look like? Even if you changed the fashion show to a car show and the beauty parlor to a gym, it’s hard to imagine how you could take the camp out of the script. If a guy declared with hyperbolic fervor, “Oh l’amour, l’amour,” that guy is going to come across as feminised and flamboyant. A woman placed in the role of an action hero or a criminal adventurer is empowered, heroic, raffish. Her gender isn’t on the line. But when a man is placed in the role of a woman talking to other women, his masculinity is called into question. He becomes ridiculous, frivolous … womanly.

Alyssa Rosenberg has argued that gender flipping male roles can only help women in Hollywood so much. She worries that Ocean’s Eleven and Ghostbusters may “result in movies where women are determined to be interesting and admirable only when they act like men often do in films: when they’re decisive, physically forceful and confident in their sexuality without fear of consequence”.

Another way of phrasing that could be to say that Hollywood may be more willing to use women actors, but remains wedded to celebrating masculinity. And that’s a problem because, if masculinity is the default, men are ultimately going to be the default as well. It can be a novelty to have women in men’s roles, but when you’re looking for a stereotypically masculine story, you’re always going to be looking for men to be in that story first – and, as Rosenberg suggests, you’re probably going to be looking for men to direct it.

As long as male roles are the best roles, for men and women, men are always going to have more opportunities, and more representation, in Hollywood. Alongside of the Ocean’s Eleven reboot, Hollywood needs more films in which women play roles that couldn’t be played by men. And, maybe, some more films in which roles that couldn’t be played by men because they are too vulnerable and too feminized are played by men anyway. Because as long as it’s empowering to have women play men, and ridiculous to have men play women, women are going to have to struggle for good roles in Hollywood.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Noah Berlatsky, for theguardian.com on Friday 13th November 2015 19.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010