High Fidelity goes female
This isn’t the only reboot to swap gender roles
Why do gender swap movies and shows exist? It’s rare for a reboot to right some pop culture wrong, some bit of sexism so egregious that there’s industry penance to be done.
Most often, gender-swapped media—think the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot—are at best an attempt at capturing a different viewpoint. At worst, they’re a cynical “X, but Y” cash grab that allows a studio to recycle a property.
Luckily, while it doesn’t dive deep into the waters of what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated subculture, the Zoë Kravitz fronted Hulu remake of High Fidelity is the former.
High Fidelity in all its versions is about music-obsessive and record store owner Rob’s soul-searching inventory of loves lost, told through a thread of top-five lists and pop culture references. As a movie, it allowed thousands of awkward dudes to rally around it and declare, “I feel seen.”
To be fair, I too felt seen when High Fidelity, the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel that starred John Cusack, was released in 2000. I was a snotty record store employee then, and I felt the very specific sort of glee that came with recognizing band names on flyers and stickers pasted over every flat surface, and I was smug in the recognition that the movie’s fictional band the Kinky Wizards were in fact my beloved Royal Trux. I knew what it was like to fret over mixtapes.
But High Fidelity has not aged well. It’s a movie that spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test (at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), with barely a trace of a woman that’s not a one-dimensional romantic interest. There’s only one instance of two women speaking to one another, and it’s in silent montage. Most heartbreaking to me, quietly-queer “it” girl actress Sara Gilbert is wooed by a Cusack sidekick lecturing her on Stiff Little Fingers’ influence on later bands. Watching it 20 years on, I felt as if millions of women registering two or above on the Kinsey Scale cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
Those lectures aren’t necessarily fiction. Though we’ve seen the passing of more than one Sacramento-rooted music store chain, independent record shops of the type Rob would own flourish here. (If you’re quick about it, you can hit around a dozen record stores in a day from city center to the suburbs.) And while I have my “home” record store and a handful of others I love, there are still other shops where, as a woman, I feel less welcome—where I’ll browse for 20 minutes unnoticed while a male customer gets an immediate greeting, or where clerks ask if my purchase is a gift for a boyfriend.
So in that sense, the new Kravitz version streaming on Hulu offers a welcome alternative to the heterosexual white dude record nerd experience and fosters a kinder, gentler elitism.
From the treatment of customers to the accessibility of its pop culture references, Disney-owned Hulu has made High Fidelity translatable to those without the Discogs app on their phones. This new version gives depth to a protagonist who believes “what you like is more important than what you are like,” and writes supporting characters with equal complexity.
The music obsessives’ experience is both spot-on and more accessible in this version. In the season’s first episode, “Top Five Heartbreaks,” Rob’s date Clyde admits his love of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” (think of the references to Captain Beefheart in the Cusack version as a counterbalance) and, as music nerds are apt to do, she lets her personal excitement about the topic trump his interest with a track-by-track analysis of Rumours.
He’s engaged in the conversation, interested in her takes, but clearly isn’t prepared for the energy she devotes to a band that she professes to only sorta-like. I have done exactly this. Ask me about King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” at your own peril.
It’s halfway through the season, in an episode titled “Uptown,” when the show directly acknowledges the sexism so common among music obsessives. Rob gets a tip on a holy grail of a record collection being sold for peanuts by a bitter ex-wife. This scenario appears in the novel and was cut from the movie version, but the series diverges here, in part by providing depth and personality in the form of Noreen, played by Parker Posey as an impatient artist and socialite rather than “stock ex-wife.” The end result in the series version is the same, but Kravitz’s Rob decides to put a face to the ex-husband to see for herself if he’s worthy of such a soul-crushing fate.
He is. A blowhard with faulty knowledge of Wings Over America, he ignores Rob’s contributions to the conversation in favor of talking to nice-guy Clyde. It’s a frustrating scene to watch; I’ve had similar experiences of being dismissed, or being ignored in record stores in favor of the male clerk chatting with the dude who “loves to crate dig,” but brings a shrink-wrapped reissue of Eagles’ Greatest Hits to the counter, or—my personal favorite—the I’ll-tell-you-little-girl of a male acquaintance telling me sexism didn’t exist within independent music scenes. Ahem.
Rob holds her own by matching the blowhard’s “actuallys” one by one, whether he wants to hear them or not. It’s not a sparring match every woman would have the guts, interest, or energy to participate in. It should be cathartic to watch. But it’s not, and that may be because it hits so close to home. It’s a scene and experience that resonated with me, and one the writers clearly believed was universal enough to capture.
Why are Rob’s unsolicited Fleetwood Mac run and the blowhard’s Wings lecture so different? Accuracy, for one. Kravitz’s Rob knows her stuff and her Wings defender doesn’t. More to the point, when Clyde opens the door to Rob’s font of musical knowledge, he’s genuinely interested in hearing more. Our unnamed blowhard is just in the game to placate his ego.
If I have a larger-scale criticism of High Fidelity, it’s this: I am a liner note reader and a credit watcher. In a show about a woman’s experiences in and around music, my heart sank a bit to see so few women’s names roll by in the credits.
It’s not that men aren’t qualified to create art about women; I’d just hoped there would be more room for women in the process.