Written by Max Muller
From the profusion of books, films, and television episodes about body swaps it seems that we often perceive our own body as a constraint. By conducting an analysis of such transfers in various media, we might gain a deeper understanding of the way we feel corporeally entrapped. In this piece, I will examine exactly in what ways people long to escape their corporeal prisons, and reflect on why different types of bodily transfers are so captivating to people.
Mary Shelley’s book “Transformation,” published in 1830, can be considered the first story written about a person experiencing the world through the eyes of another person. Since then, many other artists have put themselves to the task of conveying the idea of a body switch in various forms. Just in film, starting with Turnabout in 1940, at least 50 movies on body switches have been made.
This high number of films (approximately 1.35 per year) indicates that this is a popular theme that captivates people’s imaginations. As these movies were made relatively recently, an examination of body switches in this medium is perhaps the most suitable way to find out why and in what sense people in the modern age are particularly enchanted with this idea. Therefore, I’ve focused exclusively on cinematic versions of this age-old story to gain a deeper understanding of the fascination with the “body switch”.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Some of these films involved bodily exchanges with multiple people. Others included animals and other entities. Ignoring these instances and focusing exclusively on switches with two people, we are left with 42 films.
First, it is worthwhile to investigate the gender of those involved in the switch. For instance, 18 Again! (1988) tells the story of David and his millionaire playboy grandfather Jack Watson trading places. This is an example of a male-male switch. Others depict the exchange of perspectives between two women, or between a man and a woman.
We can see that the male / female switch is clearly the most popular one. This is probably an instance of the ancient fascination with the (perceived) dichotomy between men and women. In this case, it is human gender and the limited worldview that it inevitably creates that constitutes the desire to switch. The switch movies provide men with a sneak peek of Venus, and women with a day-tour around Mars. People are often excited about the idea of looking at the world through the eyes of someone with “the other” gender. In movies, the switch usually leads to hilarious situations.
It’s not just excitement and humor that propels people to watch this type of movie. These films by and large have great educational value. By following along with the main characters, the audience learns how those with a different gender think and what their struggles are.
Exchange of Status
An enlargement of understanding “the other” seems to be the overarching theme of not just the gender switch, but of the body-switching concept as a whole. The switch allows for a quick and direct exploration of other people’s daily lives, their responsibilities, and their interests.
Therefore, the switch can serve to enlarge people’s understanding of not just other genders, but also other types of differences. Differences that are also of societal importance are parent/child relationships (8 movies), occupational distinctions (7 movies), and the discrepancy between husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend (5 movies).
In each of these types of switches, it is important that the dichotomy between the exchangers is large. Otherwise, the perspective change is not extreme enough for a person to actually learn something from the experience. With regards to the occupational differences, for instance, it is not interesting enough to depict the switch between a highly paid lawyer and a senior banker. Both of these occupations are demanding, corporate, traditional jobs.
In David Dobkin’s The Change-Up (2011), on the other hand, a lawyer with a family (Dave) and a single adult movie actor (Mitch) make the switch. In this case, the trade is clearly large enough to merit attention. While Dave learns to loosen up by spending less time on his job and more time with his family, Mitch is taught the value of commitment and taking responsibility for his actions.
Thus we have dissected the body switch. Our investigation has revealed it’s an effective instrument to explore differences between individuals that are not like-minded. During the switch, those involved will perceive matters literally from the other’s point of view. At the same time, the swap allows them to discover and improve themselves.
No wonder this is such a popular genre.