The Help Desk: On gender-swapping the classics

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I had some friends recently talking about how great Columbo was, and that led to wondering if that character could be played by anybody but Peter Falk. Notably, if we rebooted Columbo, what woman could play the detective?

It led me to wonder what other books would be amazing with girls or women as the protagonist. Haden Caulfield, say. Call me Isabel. Phyllis Marlow. See where I'm going? What book would be just as impactful and great if we gender flipped the lead? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Diane, Brentwood

Dear Diane,

Your question was a great exercise in considering my personal favorite novels and why they stuck with me. Many of my favorite male protagonists could easily swap gender without significantly compromising the story – Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Pip in Great Expectations, Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all of the flies in Lord of the Flies. The same cannot be said of my favorite female-driven novels: Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Kindred, The Scarlet Letter — even short stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" or "The Waltz."

The signifiant difference is that, at least with regards to the stories on my list, novels with male protagonists are concerned with finding themselves, coming of age, or embarking on grand adventures that pit themselves against Society or Mother Nature Herself, while books with female protagonists (or people of color) are fundamentally about navigating society in very mundane ways: by making an advantageous marriage, being taunted by home decor, or simply by surviving. These are books that could not be written if the protagonist were a white male, because white males aren't burdened with the same societal constraints that women and people of color are.

I don't often get into arguments about white privilege – or even more specifically, white male privilege – for the same reason I refuse to speculate on the shape of the earth: it is an exercise in stupidity for the very stupid. The earth is round and white privilege/white male privilege exists, period. Great works of literature, much like photos of our orb-shaped earth, have illustrated this over and over and over again.

Fortunately, some authors are already rewriting classic tales to reflect more points of view than just the dominant. For instance, Fifty Shades of Grey is really just Of Mice and Men with a smarter hot chick and spankings. Take comfort in this.