Tomorrow I’ll going to see the new Ghostbusters movie, and I want to talk about how I decided I was going to. This is less of an essay with a point and more of a personal narrative, but it’s one that taught me a lot, and I hope can offer some insight to others.
It started a few months ago, when I was going round and round with a lot of conflicting thoughts about whether or not I would go. Let’s review for those playing along at home:
First off- Hollywood needs, NEEDS, more movies about, for, starting, written, and directed, by women. I want to see more movies with women as heroes and as villains, as astronauts and pirates and ghostbusters and everything else men get to do on screen. I want to see women as romantic leads who get the guy/girl/person and women who get to have powerful story arcs without a word said about their sexual or romantic interests. I want more of that, and I think we NEED more of that.
I also have come to loath remakes and reboots. It feels tired and clichéd, and one more sign of a media industry that is built on funding what is safe and established, instead of developing something new and original. It also feels like a way to exploit nostalgia without having to do the world building and narrative work it takes to tell a story that is set in the same world as an earlier one, just 10, or 20, or 50 years later. This, I acknowledge, is just my own personal bias- I’m not saying reboots are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ and my desire to see less reboots doesn’t carry the same weight or importance as my desire to see more women-led movies, but it is a strong personal preference, and its one reason I was less enthused than I wanted to be about this new Ghostbusters.
I also struggle with the idea that there are things I ‘should’ like and if I don’t, I’m a sexist, or racist, or what have you. I deplore the misogynistic idiots who keep crowing about how women can’t be funny, or an all-female Ghostbusters movie would ruin their childhood, and every time I saw one of their posts, it made me want to see the movie just to spite them. Let alone, I knew that the more successful this movie was, the more likely we would be to get further movies like it in the future.
But there was one problem. The trailer made the movie look really, really bad. Clichéd characterizations. Bad jokes that didn’t land. I don’t think I chuckled once during the trailer. After I’d seen it a few times, I started to feel pretty nervous. How do you talk about a movie that is Important with a capital I, and that is getting attacked for all kinds of dumb, hateful, reasons, but that you don’t feel that excited about yourself? How do you, or perhaps better, should you, divorce a discussion about the quality of a story and how its told from the discussion that happens around whether that story should have been told at all? Is it possible to say, I want more all women movies, but not when they suck?
Here I’ll admit something I’m not terribly proud of. When the trailers painted a picture of Leslie Jones’ character as a racist stereotype, I jumped on that narrative, hard. Not without good reason- the little we got of her portrayal from the trailers and other marketing seemed deeply problematic, and for me, that’s a damned good reason not to see a movie. I may well skip the new Dr. Strange movie for similar reasons, and I’m a huge fan of all things Marvel as well as Cumberbatch. So to me, this was a perfectly good reason to not want to see Ghostbusters. But when I really looked at my thinking, I have to admit I was also jumping on that narrative because it gave me a little cover. A way to say, I’m not excited for this movie, but its ok. I don’t hate it because I have anything against women as action/comedy stars. I have a ‘good’ reason to not want to see this movie. Look, I’m still a good activist, right, can I have a cookie?
So, I was already confused and unsure of what I thought about it all and who I could discuss it with. And then, a little while ago I re-watched the original Ghostbusters, from 1984. Like many of my generation, the movie was foundational to my childhood, with a VHS tape as well-worn as that of my first copy of Star Wars. Re-watching it let me remember all the reasons I loved it and why it meant so much to me. The off the wall and still intelligent, humor. The special effects- cutting edge for the early 80’s and, to my tired old eyes, a lot more effective than the CGI we’ve all gotten used to. The ridiculously cheesy music and 80’s fashion and hair. New York City as a central character, and a beloved one. It’s still one of my favorite movies of all time.
And re-watching it let me see that amidst all of that awesomeness, it has some deeply cringe worthy sexist elements. The romance is a classic ‘he’s not a stalker, he’s just goofy and likes her” story, where the Bill Murray Character, Venkman, continually ignores the rejections of Dana, played by Sigourney Weaver, taking advantage of her fear and confusion after a ghost sighting to tell her that the only way he can help with her problem is as part of a date. Nor is it much better on the question of race. Ernie, the black ghostbuster, is presented as a down on his luck, average Joe, who just needs a job, in stark contrast to the three white guys who are all scientists. He provides some funny lines and some moments of every-guy wisdom, but it’s a pretty classic stereotype, and not that far from the one Ms. Jones seems to be portraying. Throw in a pretty transphobic depiction of an androgynous demon and you have a few things to be troubled by.
I don’t think the movie went out of its way to be sexist or racist- it was a product of its time, and you could easily find movies from the same year that were far worse on both issues, let alone related ones. But that doesn’t make it any better. It’s important to be able to look back and take off the rosy glasses of nostalgia, and let us see the things we love in all their complexity. To remember that a movie can be hilarious and innovative and engaging, and also have some elements that are deeply problematic. All the more so when we look at them after 30 years of advancement on those issues.
It got me thinking about the standards we hold our media (movies, TV, books, games, etc.) to, and when we do or don’t apply them. Part of what happens when a movie or the like becomes Important the way an all women ghostbusters movie did, is that we start holding it to a different standard. It’s tokenism writ large- asking that particular piece of media to be a model minority, proving to everyone else that Women Can Be Funny, or what have you. When the problem is the whole premise that something like that should ever have to be proven, or that you can ever ask one particular movie to do so. It creates a burden of proof that no movie about, starring, written and directed by straight white cis men has ever been asked to uphold.
Bill Murray is a comic genius, and I will see almost anything he is in. But he has the luxary of having nothing to prove. For every Ghostbusters, Scrooged or Caddyshack, there’s been a Garfield or a Kingpin. And yet, no one ever questioned if a bad movie or two proved that men couldn’t be funny.
Just as important, I didn’t need the original movie to be a hit to believe that I, as a man, could be a ghostbusting hero with a super scientist brain AND a cool ghost-zapping laser gun. I could go see a crappy movie about people who looked like me doing awesome stuff, and know that another, hopefully better, movie about people like me doing cooler stuff was coming out next week, with another the week after.
And the fact is, I LIKE crappy movies. Warcraft was hands down one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years, and I had a wonderful time howling in laughter at the awful dialogue and 2-dimensional characterizations. And while I love anything that moves me with top notch acting, dialogue, plot or effects, I’ve also spent many an enjoyable few hours munching on salty, greasy popcorn and watching a cheesy movie with bad acting and huge plot holes, and had no regrets.
So, I thought, why not do the same with the new Ghostbusters. Go into it, not looking to see the Great Female Action-Comedy, but instead be open to enjoying one more fun, silly, summer popcorn movie that also happens to challenge some stereotypes and sexist tropes that could use some challenging. And maybe it will be just another popcorn movie, or maybe I’ll walk out shaking my head at the racist steryotyping or maybe it will be so great I’m telling people about it 30 years from now and hoping it’s never turned into a reboot. The latter would be great, but it’s not the standard we should hold it to. Justice isn’t getting one all women movie a year and having it be awesome- justice is when we get so many stories about superheroes and ghostbusters and anything else of all genders that we don’t have to define them by one charecteristic alone. Some of them great, some of them terrible, some of them just a good popcorn flick, but none of them judged solely on the gender of their stars.
So it’s easy to find a reason to not want to go to this movie. It’s a remake, it doesn’t look very good, its possibly using a racist stereotype. And I continue to think that all of those are legitimate reasons not to want to see something, and I’ve got no problem with someone who chooses to give Ghostbusters a pass because of it. I will rail against the haters who yell and scream about the Ghostbusters being all women and I will rail against the idea that anyone who doesn’t like this movie must be one of those sexist idiots, because no other reasons to not be excited about this movie are deemed legitimate. But tomorrow night I’m gonna stop trying to analyze a movie I’ve never seen, buy a big tub of popcorn, cover it in enough fake butter and salt to make a cardiologist cry, and watch the damn thing. Maybe I’ll love it. Maybe I’ll groan at the bad jokes and walk out wanting to hop on Facebook and talk about the huge plot holes. Either way, I’ll be glad I did. Because justice isn’t just about how many Oscar worthy roles are written for women. It’s also when women get to star in bad movies too.