The Problems With Creating a Female “Lord of the Flies”

According to the news site Deadline Hollywood, Warner Bros. announced that they have hired Scott McGhee and David Siegel to write and direct a contemporized all-female adaptation of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.  According to Scott McGhee, “taking the opportunity to tell the story in a way that hasn’t been told before, with girls rather than boys, is a shift that might help people see the story anew. It breaks away from some of the conventions, the way we see boys and aggression.”[1] This planned project has drawn a variety of responses from potential audiences. Feminist scholar Roxane Gay feels that the concept is pointless because “the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women” [2] and is not alone in stating that the original novel explored themes of toxic masculinity which would become lost and misinterpreted in an all-female adaptation. While it would be incredibly simple to take the premise of the novel (schoolchildren stranded on island) and make it girls, would such a story have different things to say about our current society and contemporary gender issues? In order to examine what a contemporized all-female version of Lord of the Flies could say about the world, it is necessary to examine what the themes of Golding’s novel, the differences between society and gender in 1954 versus 2017, and what the directors have stated about their intent to make a statement about “boys and aggression.”

When it comes to analyzing the major themes of Lord of the Flies, these can be found by looking at how scholars have read and interpreted the novel as well as what themes schoolteachers have discussed with generations of students over the years. One major issue the novel deals with is the nature of order in society. According to Golding, “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or reasonable” [3]. The novel presents a situation where the rules governing society crumble and the boys on this island resort to instinctual and savage behavior. One can view this commentary as supporting sociological ideas of anomie and social entropy. Entropy is a theory in Thermodynamics which holds that any ordered system always has a natural tendency, over time, to breakdown to randomness. Similarly, “social entropy implies the tendency of social networks to break down over time, moving from cooperation and advancement towards conflict and chaos” [4]. The end result of this entropy in society would be anomie, a concept defined by sociologist Emile Durkheim where social bonds between the individual and society have broken down sufficiently enough to create a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals” [5]. In Lord of the Flies, society breaks down to a point where children kill each other for survival, where they’ve lost any adherence to social norms. In his introduction to the centenary edition of Golding’s novel, author Stephen King states, “No teacher needed to tell me that Ralph embodied the values of civilization and that Jack’s embrace of savagery and sacrifice represented the ease with which those values could be swept away; it was evident to even a child” [6]. When I was a student in school and made to read the book in both eighth and ninth grades, we were taught the same themes, that the book is about the breakdown of society. The most common readings of Lord of the Flies tend toward the resulting destruction of social and political systems in the absence of norms.

While the social breakdown evident in Lord of the Flies occurs with a society of all boys, gender does not have to be the primary factor. The novel, after all, is taught to students of all genders. In a 1999 article discussing her methods for teaching the novel, Wendy Sunderman describes how she would leave her students (boys and girls) outdoors for consecutive class periods with the expectation that they manage on their own. Through her observations, she saw the children take on the roles represented by characters in Lord of the Flies and witnessed the same breakdown of the social order. Only after the complete breakdown of that social order would she invite the students back indoors to read the novel [7]. Another teacher, Cara Aver, in 2007 described a similar situation as she taught the novel to students. Her co-ed classes would meet in an online virtual world in a scenario like that in the novel. With the expectations of creating order, these students would ultimately experience the same breakdown of the social order [8]. While Golding’s novel involves a group of boys, he was writing about a larger society of men and women. This is why different classrooms in different eras experienced the same social breakdown in classrooms of mixed genders.

While gender may not be a perquisite to the breakdown of a society, it was necessary in order for Golding to tell the story. In his 1980 audio introduction to the novel, Golding recalls how he came up with the idea for the story and told his wife: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not the little saints as they are in children’s books.” In the same introduction, Golding answers a question he’d frequently received about why the novel is not about a group of little girls. The first reason he gives is that, being male, he doesn’t have the lived experience to provide the necessary female perspective. The other reason he gives is that little boys “are more like a scaled-down version of society than a group of little girls would be… this has nothing to do with equality at all. I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior to men and always have been. But one thing you can’t do is take a bunch of them and boil them down, so to speak, into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization” [9].

The reason Golding believes that a cast of all females would not be effective as a microcosm of society has little to do with any inherent nature of men and women but, rather, the roles they play in society. In 1954, when Golding wrote his novel, women held very little social and political power as a result of social mores. In 2017 there is still a great difference between the social power held by men and women. For generations, it was believed that women were inferior in certain areas and were expected to hold certain domestic jobs or responsibilities. Women were (and still are) tracked into specific careers, mostly in the service industry. While society no longer holds a view that women are supposed to maintain a subservient role, that idea still exists within social structures and interactions. Contemporary society is led and maintained by aggressive individuals, historically male. While there is no social idea that men are naturally aggressive and women are naturally subservient, people are still socialized into those specific personalities. In 1954, a group of girls all expected to be subservient would not have expressed the assertive attitudes necessary to build and destroy a microcosm of human society. While there are more assertive women in American society of 2017, they won’t all be found on a plane full of young girls. This why comparing a female-centric Lord of the Flies to the film Mean Girls is not accurate. Mean Girls focused specifically on a group of aggressive women, establishing their dominance beyond traditional gender roles; they were not a group of typical girls who have been socialized into subservience for generations. With Mean Girls, the aggressive girls are shown to be different from a “typical” girl and their aggressive behavior is portrayed as deviant. The theme of Lord of the Flies shows a society that lacks any concept of deviance as a result of taking away social norms.

If we suppose that a group of girls from ages five to fifteen were stranded on an island, we would have an assortment of subservient and aggressive girls, the standard Type A and Type B personalities. In the original Lord of the Flies, the boys were able to survive on the island by virtue of their time and place, as boys they were already taught many outdoor survival tactics, many already knew how to hunt or create fire. While there are plenty of girls in 2017 that have learned such skills, they are not as popular. For instance, while Girl Scouts of America has included outdoor activities such as camping for the past decade, their membership has fallen more than 27 percent since 2003. In response to this, GSA changed their focus away from outdoor activities to more career programs intended to boost girls’ competency in applicable areas of money matters and pursuing careers in science and technology [10]. While education about outdoor survival is generally on the wane, this is even more so for women as a result of presumed gender roles over many generations. A plane full of boys in 1954 would have been full of peers with all the same level of aggressiveness and education in outdoor survival. A plane full of girls in 2017 would have a varying level of assertive and submissive personalities with only a few educated about outdoor survival. In a realistic setting. Society broke down in Lord of the Flies because all individuals had equal ability to fight for resources. A group of women in 2017, because of the nature of socialization into subservient gender roles and generations of limited access to outdoor activities, society would become incredibly reliant on the few aggressive individuals that are capable of survival. The immediate options for capable leadership would be more limited. This has nothing to do with any gender’s capability for independent survival, rather, it has everything to do with how society has socialized different genders into believing they are capable of independent survival.

The directors have stated that their goal with the female-centric Lord of the Flies is to change the way we see “boys and aggression.” Granted, it is difficult to tell a story about boys and aggression without any characters that are boys, one can almost see the comparison when holding an all-female society next to an all-male society. However, an island full of girls competing for dominance and survival says little more than “girls can be aggressive too.” If these were girls that never had any socialization, there would be a quicker shift towards aggressive behavior and the abandonment of social mores. That is not the case, as this plane full of girls would come from some civilized area where generations of gender discrimination and systemic sexism have steered them away from aggressive tendencies and taught them to be subservient followers. Realistically, the motivation to build a society of mutual survival would be greater for a group of girls who have been told not to be aggressive and have been kept away from learning survival skills. A film that is little more than Mean Girls on an island would say nothing about contemporary gender relations and even less about girls in the real world.

Ultimately, the idea to remake Lord of the Flies with a different gender is a poor one. The original story was an allegory about the breakdown of society and required an all-male cast because of the workings of the patriarchal society of 1954. While that patriarchy has been challenged more frequently in the decades since, Golding’s idea that the story would not work with girls still holds. Girls experience the world differently than boys. The society they make (or destroy) away from civilization would too greatly differ to create the same allegory. Having two male writers is a completely ignorant way to tell any story that focuses on girls and their lived experiences. I have little faith that the female-centric Lord of the Flies can be anything more than shameless exploitation from Warner Bros. There is no way the story can be realistic, entertaining, or even socially relevant given the proposed changes.

Works Cited

[1] Fleming, M. “Scott McGhee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord of the Flies’ At Warner Bros.” Deadline Hollywood. http://deadline.com/2017/08/lord-of-the-flies-scott-mcgehee-david-siegel-female-cast-warner-bros-william-golding-novel-1202158421/ 30 August 2017.

[2] Gay, Roxane (rgay). “An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because… the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women.”

[3] Responses in a publicity questionnaire on Lord of the Flies from the American publishers, as quoted in Who Rules?: Introduction to the Study of Politics (1971) by Dick W. Simpson, p. 16

[4] Bailey, Kenneth D. Social entropy theory. SUNY Press, 1990.

[5] Gerber, John J. Macionis, Linda M. (2010). Sociology (7th Canadian ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 97

[6] Stephen King, in his Introduction to the centenary edition of Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (2011)

[7] Sunderman, Wendy L. “Reading, Living, and Loving ‘Lord of the Flies.’” The English Journal, vol. 89, no. 2, 1999, pp. 49–54.

[8] Arver, Cara M. “Are You Willing to Have Your Students Join Ralph, Jack, and Piggy?” The English Journal, vol. 97, no. 1, 2007, pp. 37–42.

[9] Golding, William. “Introduction” Lord of the Flies. Audiobook. 1980 https://youtu.be/vYnfSV27vLY

[10] Associated Press. “Why are Fewer Girls Joining Girl Scouts.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/girl-scouts-membership-drops-sharply/ 10 October 2014

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3 thoughts on “The Problems With Creating a Female “Lord of the Flies”

  1. We live in a world where women re allowed to vote and there are multiple female politicians. How is that “systemic conditioning toward submission”??????????????????????????

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    1. There are significantly more men than women in politics. In the senate there are 80 men and 20 women, in the house there are 84 women and 351 men. Yes, women exist in politics, and that number is growing. However, this is only the result of gradual changes in gender expectations and socialization. There isn’t equal representation because only a few women believe they are capable of leadership. Look at the number of women in STEM fields, look at the number of women CEOs vs male ones. While there are no legal barriers for women entering these fields, girls are still generally tracked and given certain expectations for their gender. Not as bad as in the 1950s, but it still happens because people are very slow to change.

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  2. I guess I’m more possessive of this classic than I thought I was. I wouldn’t mind a reboot of this book, but I think that making it with girls destroys the whole dynamic.It would be a different story. Still savage, maybe even more so, but a very different story.

    Liked by 1 person

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