Ghostbusters Smashes the Patriarchy One Proton Blast at a Time
“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert reads from a comment in an online forum in the new Ghostbusters, echoing the misogynistic sentiment of Men’s Rights Activists, Internet trolls and other sexist man-babies about the much-anticipated all-female reboot of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film. Well, Paul Feig and company prove without a doubt that badass bitches be hunting some ghosts — and then some — in this glorious and feminist take on the Ghostbusters franchise.
From the get-go, it’s clear that each of the women are negotiating their positions in a man’s world. Erin, Abby (Melissa McCarthy), and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) all at first rely on male approval with regard to their university jobs. Erin’s dean mocks her choice of clothing and sneers at her letter of recommendation from Princeton, telling her she needs a more prestigious university to back her if she’s to get tenure at Columbia. Abby and Holtzmann’s dean gives them the middle finger literally half a dozen ways before telling them to “Suck it!” as he fires them.
After the women post their second video of a ghost online, not only are they unceremoniously trashed by famed ghost debunker Dr. Martin Heiss (Bill Murray), the media also gives them the derogatory moniker of “Ghostbusters” instead of their company’s actual name, Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination. Sure, Ghostbusters is far catchier and rolls off the tongue easier than Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination, but what calling the group something other than their name suggests in this context is that women in the public sphere don’t have a right to define their own identities: their identity will be defined by the media, which, for the most part, criticizes and disbelieves them. The same media that often reduces women to object status, because of myths like “sex sells.”
The layers of social commentary in the new Ghostbusters don’t end there, as the women are newly forced to construct their identities individually and as a group in opposition to the media perceptions of them, to marvelous effect. Each character is well-rounded, flawed and brilliant, without relying to cheap tricks and lazy writing — like fat jokes and the comedy of offensiveness. Instead, the film focuses on situational, character, and physical comedy to pull in laugh after laugh, giving its own middle finger to the men who control all those examples of women’s one-dimensional representation in the media. The lesson: You don’t need to tear people down to be funny.
Which brings me to Kevin, the eye-candy and low-IQ receptionist played by Thor himself, I mean Chris Hemsworth. Many critics lambasted the character of Kevin for being a male caricature, phenomenally stupid and exceptionally good looking, going so far as to accuse the film of reverse sexism (as if that’s a real thing).
Only in a superficial reading of the film is Kevin a caricature at all: Looking deeper, Kevin is far more lazy and opportunistic than stupid. For example, like so many mediocre white men in the world, not only could he keep his job by doing absolutely nothing, he was even clever enough to try to take credit for the women’s work in the end, because he is so ingrained and entrenched in a patriarchal social structure that promotes his success as a white male even when other people did the labor. What a delicious way to insert powerful social commentary on white male privilege under the guise of a dumb blonde character trope that, for once, is worn by a man and not a half-naked woman.
Not to mention, the women who work with Kevin never actually make fun of him; Abby, Holtzmann and Patty (Leslie Jones) all sympathize with his lower intelligence — and Erin is infatuated with him so she overlooks all his character flaws.
There is a massive ideological shift between the original Ghostbusters and the reboot. The original film’s villain was an ethereal god from another dimension attacking NYC. In the reboot, the villain is a lone white male who wants to end the world. Sound familiar? Lone white males with mental health issues are the coding for the majority of mass murderers in this country who never fall under the same kind of religious or terrorist scrutiny as gunmen of color.
Rowan North (Neil Casey) believes himself to be an unrecognized genius, and constant bullying has turned him into a megalomaniac. When the Ghostbusters try to help him, he rants about how hard he’s had it in his life, to which the women each inform him that they were all horribly bullied too, but that doesn’t mean they feel the need to kill everyone. It’s exactly that specific kind of white male fragility that drives many mass murderers, and also the online trolls who specifically target women.
Case in point: the editor of an online magazine harassed and encouraged his followers to harass Leslie Jones with an avalanche of racist imagery in protest of the all-female reboot. The editor has been permanently banned from Twitter, but his followers are still going strong. Where art imitates life, Rowan North essentially throws a temper tantrum as his apocalyptic plan gets going, and even though the Ghostbusters do stop him, he kills thousands and destroys huge chunks of Manhattan in the meantime.
Also in another departure from the original film, the Ghostbusters aren’t interested in only containing the problem of errant ghosts; they also make tools to neutralize them. Seeing the variety of tools in rudimentary form, as well as Holtzmann’s creativity and inventiveness in assembling them, felt inherently feminist; there is no shame in displaying works in progress, and there is nothing wrong with trial and error to find a right fit. Plus, if bitches are gonna hunt some ghosts, they might as well also have the ability to put those ghosts to rest permanently. And if those ghosts happen to be archaic notions of what women are capable of doing, BOO-YAH. Emphasis on the YAH.
While smashing patriarchy is so necessary, the film does another equally important service in exposing the sites through which patriarchy works. The university system, the media, politicians and Homeland Security scapegoat the group of women, even though the women are the only ones with the tools to fix Manhattan’s ghost problem. This white male fragility extends to the fragility of male institutions themselves outside the film, also evidenced by all the Men’s Rights Activists who are boycotting it. By the end of the new Ghostbusters — and on account of the women — these male institutions are exposed as ineffectual, and until they begin taking women into account, they will remain that way.
In spite of its diversity issues (most of the characters are white), Ghostbusters is an important film. When I was watching, I didn’t have to look hard to see women like me. Women who have been bullied because of how they look, what they wear, who they are, the color of their skin. Women who were told that they aren’t allowed to do something because it’s a man’s thing. Women who were reminded that they would never be quite as human as the male half of society, and we should get used to it.
And so, in spite of the lack of people of color’s faces in the new Ghostbusters, I decided that for once I didn’t actually care. Ghostbusters takes the next step forward from Mad Max: Fury Road, giving us 1 hour and 57 minutes during which women are not sexualized at all while doing their jobs and living their lives. Ghostbusters is what the world looks like without the generalized objectification of women to which we have all grown so accustomed. A world where you can laugh your ass off with some funny women and the laughs are at nobody’s expense. Not only is Ghostbusters beautifully feminist and paradigm-shifting media, it is also paradigm-shifting comedy, and these are things that do have the power to change the world and uplift all the women who live in it.
Sadly, because of a claimed $70 million box office loss, rumor has it Sony is shelving plans for a sequel and instead is potentially focusing on future animated films for the Ghostbusters franchise. *Insert sobbing emoji here* Ghostbusters might have smashed the patriarchy one proton blast at a time, but patriarchy — through the very channels highlighted in the movie — fought back, and unfortunately won. Let’s take a moment of silence for Holtzmann, Patty, Abby and Erin, who are destined for cult status rather than the mainstream, and then let us feminists get back to work. There’s more than one way to dismantle patriarchy’s hold on the media, so let’s keep going.
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