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Review: Switch (1991)

It’s unfair to compare a mainstream production that has TG/TF/Genderbending themes to the multitude of works produced by those within the online subculture. We’ve had years to focus-test ourselves to determine what works, what’s overdone, and what has yet to be tried. When you are part of a major motion picture company – whether in 1990 or 2020 – you have to skew toward the mainstream. The material’s inherent risque-ness will have to carry it through as it plays out the expected beats, hoping to wring a few laughs out of the subject and maybe make one or two observations about the differences between men and women.

When I was a kid, internet-searching “What are some movies where men turn into women?” Blake Edwards’ 1991 comedy Switch was the top result. Even now it would probably still be up there behind a teen romp like It’s a Boy Girl Thing and I suppose the Rob Schnieder comedy The Hot Chick (which I wish would have followed the Rachel McAdams character a little more, but it was a Schneider vehicle after all.) I never saw it as a kid, although I did often check for it in video rental places (I was too squeamish to rent it, in case whomever I was with asked “Why do you want to watch that?”*)

*I did rent Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde though. It was OK.

Seeing it as an adult, I had to at least respect it for what it was – a dancing bear. Have you ever heard the expression, “It’s not that the bear dances well. The attraction is that the bear dances at all.” (We here at Liam Slade Dot Com do not endorse animal cruelty for any purpose of amusement.) Does Switch have to be a great movie about a man being reincarnated as a woman (especially in the years before the discourse really exploded online)? No. It was really enough just to get this story to the big screen.

You know the story, even if you don’t. When Womanizer Steve Brooks is shot and killed by three women he has wronged, he arrives at the pearly gates as a unique bubble-case. Seems that overall, he was a really good guy, but every single woman he has ever met hates him. That means he’s not really fit for above or below. God – represented by a pair of disembodied voices that read as one male and one female (a neat touch) – sends him back to Earth to find one woman who doesn’t hate him. The Devil interjects: He’ll only use his charms on some unsuspecting chippie to gain her approval. So God permits the Devil to twist the deal a little bit by giving Steve the body of Ellen Barkin.

The setup is a little clunky – we don’t see much of Steve’s “good works” that would qualify him for paradise, and it’s hard – albeit not impossible – to believe no woman has ever not-hated him. I also don’t know about the logic leading up to the sex-change, but whatever, we have to get to the movie somehow.

Brooks wakes up in his condo, sans-penis, and we get the predictable scramble to figure out what to do next. Dubbing himself Amanda (“A man… duh,” I guess.) he goes to see Margo, one of the women who killed him (!!) and extorts her into teaching him the feminine ways that will help him get into heaven. Pretending to be his own half-sister, he talks his way into his old job in advertising (by blackmailing his old boss about his hookup pad) and promising he can get one of the top accounts, a cosmetics company run by Sheila Faxton (Lorraine Bracco). He also re-befriends his fellow card-carrying sexist buddy Walter (Jimmy Smits with regrettable early-90s hair).

The movie proceeds. Amanda stumbles in heels, complains about her new hair, gets catcalled everywhere, and has a male colleague take credit for her ideas. Meanwhile, she woos Faxton – literally, as she learns Sheila is a lesbian. This turns out disappointingly for Amanda since although we don’t know the exact nature of her new sexuality, she finds herself un-attracted to Sheila, with Margo’s interpretation being that deep down Steve/Amanda remains a sexist and homophobe – I suppose she’s just not prepared to deal with an altered relationship power dynamic between herself and another woman.

In establishing Margo as a lesbian, and Amanda’s conflicted response, the movie raises questions it’s not really prepared to answer. If you are a man in a woman’s body who is homophobic toward lesbians, do you like men? Does the internalized fear of intimacy with a man that a guy like Steve would feel dissipate once he is wearing a pair of panties? It doesn’t help that Sheila is not stereotypically lesbian in appearance or manner, being basically indistinguishable from Steve’s usual type, only maybe slightly more assertive. I’m not saying there isn’t room for variation of course, all people are unique, but this is a movie that mostly trades in easy archetypes anyway.

The movie misses out by not having Sheila be straight and teaching Steve what woman-to-woman friendship is like, and in fact it could have gone that way with Margo (who I remind you, is Steve’s murderer) but doesn’t. Which is weird because that’s ostensibly the point of Steve being sent back to Earth.

This all leads to a chaotic and problematic final act where an intoxicated Walter and Amanda have sex – although the movie has the good taste to skip to the morning after when Amanda realizes she’s been “deflowered” and considering she was in no state to give consent, the event was fundamentally date-rape. In virtually the same breath, she is arrested, tried and found guilty of Steve’s own murder. In prison, she discovers she is pregnant with Walter’s child, and dies while giving birth. In the afterlife, she is given the choice to be a male or female angel, which she says she’ll have to think about, while Walter visits her grave with their daughter (they made up and even had a quickie wedding.)

I always judge scenes in movies like this by what they have to do with the movie’s main reason to exist – what does railroading Amanda for murder, and having her to give birth before dying, have to do with Amanda’s arc, or the movie’s observations about the lives of women and the “battle of the sexes”? It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, really, to get us to the conclusion where Amanda can die having become, briefly, a mother – to abruptly bend her character arc at the end of the film because the running time is coming to a close.

There is definitely room for improvement structurally, but on the whole there will probably never be a mainstream TG movie that isn’t like this – it will pretty much always be a sexist getting his comeuppance, the player, the archetypal alpha male, to maximize contrast between “he” and “she.” That’s definitely one way to do it and one that I have written myself from time to time. Rarely do we see a put-upon beta male who is ill-served by the masculine world getting to feel liberated by entering the feminine one, which is another theme I like to use and that I think many of us enjoy. Sneakily though, that is where these movies usually end up, in this case with afterlife-Steve/Amanda pondering whether to be male or female in Heaven (you have to choose?) The idea that it would even be a choice could be considered subversive, albeit only dimly. Steve has learned something, but have we?

Although the movie hurries through its premise without really saying much or wringing too many laughs out of an ostensibly comedic scenario, there is a joy in watching it play out and that’s largely thanks to Ellen Barkin as Amanda, who plays “sexist man stuck in a woman’s body” with just the perfect notes of panic, frustration, and evaporating male privilege. She’s the reason this bear dances as well as it does, because I can write all day long and try to put pictures in your head about what a scenario like this might look like – or a talented artist can put pictures to it – but there’s a different feeling when it’s a real human being playing it out, especially this well.

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