It’s a Mel Brooks classic – perhaps not as much of a cult favorite as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, but The Producers is still much beloved by its fans. A trend that I’ve seen in recent years among fan communities is gender-bending or race-bending the main characters of their favorite works. I don’t know when exactly the idea of gender swapping The Producers came to me, but I suspect it was when I was in middle school and I tried to sing along with “That Face” without “sounding gay” (hey, it was middle school; I bet you said and did ridiculous things then too). What started as a simple idea lead me to some interesting realizations about how it would change the story and its reception.
One of the immediate problems I ran into was the fact that The Producers takes place in the late 1950s. The simple fact is that women did not serve as producers, accountants, screenwriters, or directors in those days, at least not publicly. As a viewer, I have a very high level of willing suspension of disbelief, but I can just imagine hordes of manchildren rolling their eyes in disapproval. One way of fixing this would be to just set it a decade or two later, in the late 60s or 70s. My personal problem with this is that it would change the aesthetic, which is one of my favorite things about this movie. Not to mention, it would change the dynamic of having an ex-Nazi in the group, and the shock of making a musical about Hitler, the wounds of WWII still being fairly fresh. The other most obvious solution that presents itself to me would be to write a small explanation into the backstory. I like the idea of Bialystock (Maxine Bialystock, perhaps?) being such a washed-up, boozy reject because she’s a woman, and even worse, a woman who only collaborates with other women, leading them to be shunned by the male elites of Broadway. This does move the show into the realm of alternate history, but I think not enough to distract or bother viewers.
Another issue I saw was trying to avoid the gender stereotypes present, only to fall into others. One of the main plot points is that Bialystock raises the funds for his musicals by, as the movie charmingly puts it, “schtupping every little old lady in New York”. Part of that humor comes from the fact that this is already a subversion of the stereotype of younger women having sex with old men for their money. I originally considered changing the ages of the conquests, having Maxine charm the money out of wealthy young trust fund heirs. I do like that idea, but I would love to have Bialystock unapologetically use old men for their money. She knows she’s not a nice person and doesn’t pretend to be. She doesn’t glamorize this behavior, but she’s just doing what she has to in a male-dominated industry. I could see either idea working within the story, but I think the first is probably more audience-friendly.
The other most blatantly problematic scene that immediately comes to mind is the famous “Keep it Gay” scene. What I’m having trouble deciding is if the humor there comes from the blatant and over-the-top fulfillment of stereotypes about gay men and lesbian women, or if this is something that needs to be changed. The two main ideas I had were to keep the stereotypes exactly the same – have the one clad all in leather and spikes, the prim-and-proper one, and the flamboyant one in skintight spandex be women, with the butch lumberjack-looking man OR switch them to more prevalent stereotypes – have all butch, masculine women, and one super campy, femme man I genuinely have no idea which one would be better, and I really think I don’t know enough about LGBT representation to make that call. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
The most fun role to gender-swap, I think, is that of Ulla (or maybe Hans?). I love the idea of the pretty-but-brainless eye candy running around in skimpy outfits being a man. I like that it would be the hot dumb guy falling in love with the smart, nerdy woman, and neither of them have to change themselves for the other one. They just really love each other as they are, and it’s wonderful. It also makes the story about two women who don’t ever let a man come between their friendship, and that’s great, and there’s not enough stories where that happens.
Although the humor in this movie mostly does not stem from the genders of the leads (instead relying on the Brooks hallmarks of absurd situations, breaking the fourth wall, and great wordplay), it was really interesting how a few small changes made a difference. A positive example is that having a hot man in skimpy clothes as opposed to the reverse would probably piss off a lot of dudebros (my favorite audience to piss off), similar to the Hawkeye Initiative. It was at this point in writing this post that if I were actually making this movie, I would almost certainly go with all the more straight-male-alienating ideas, because I think being ignored as an audience is something more of them should have to experience.
The dark side of that, I think, is the jokes about sex and arousal. One line that sticks out is, “Even though we’re sitting down, we’re giving you a standing ovation”, as Max and Leo both obviously cross their legs. Because who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned, family friendly boner joke? But if you change that to a joke about female arousal (a friend suggested something about “the splash zone” that made me laugh until I cried), you’re instantly opening yourself up to an R rating, or even NC-17. The 2005 movie was rated PG-13, for reference. I think it’s fair to say that the R would have adversely affected this film’s success, much like The King’s Speech, which was rated R for one swear-heavy scene in a film which otherwise would have been PG. Since 1995’s Showgirls, the NC-17 rating has been a death sentence, an almost guaranteed flop. The MPAA is pretty well known for their bias against female arousal as opposed to male arousal, and I think we can all agree that that’s pretty messed up.
In the end, I think we all know that gender-bent and race-bent versions of existing films are not really going to get made, except in the realm of fan-made versions on Youtube. But it’s a useful tool for examining media through a critical lens. I would like to note that a gender-bent The Producers would pass both the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test, while the original passes neither. It’s useful for making arguments about the representation of women and minorities, which I know too many people think doesn’t matter. I could go into all the reasons it does, but 1) it would be a whole separate post, probably twice as long as this, and 2) there’s plenty of POC and LGBTQ individuals already writing great, insightful pieces about representation. But if you ever want to argue that the race/gender/etc of characters doesn’t matter, take your favorite movie, flip it around, and see how much of a difference it would make.
Side note: in my mind, this is one of the few things where I have clear casting in mind. Maxine Bialystock is Sutton Foster, Leah Bloom is Carey Mulligan, and Hans is either Aaron Tveit or Jonathan Groff.