After what feels like several centuries of furious debate over what this release means for the future of the representation of women in film, there was no possible way that Ghostbusters could have lived up to any of the expectations placed on it. We’re still debating now, and will continue to do so until another shiny cinematic object comes along for us to get angry about.
For now, I am happy to report that Ghostbusters is…fine! Not the disappointing kind of fine, but—despite its thin plot and occasionally lazy writing and boring direction—a perfectly satisfactory experience. It’s quite different from the 1984 original, with a cartoonish vibe borne out of replacing snippy sarcasm and boy’s-club bantering with a reliance on silly puns and visual gags. Though both movies have similar “us vs. them” themes, the stakes in 2016 are higher: They fight for their right not just to be taken seriously and own a small business in spite of The Man, but also to be treated like human beings. Kate McKinnon is a magnet whose gestures and expressions draw the audience’s gaze even when she’s in the background. Kristen Wiig plays the same hilarious and endearingly pathetic single woman she has many times before (the way she contorts her face with childish desire every time she sees Chris Hemsworth is delightful); plus, her monologue about why she became interested in the supernatural is the film’s most genuinely affecting scene. Melissa McCarthy does a fine job as a relatively straight-laced nerd who has plenty of decent lines and goofy visual gags weaved between her moments of passion and a drive to succeed. Leslie Jones, bound by the script’s horror-movie stereotype of a Black woman who gets hysterical every time she sees a ghost, still proves herself to be a smart, capable, and enthusiastic addition. All four women work their asses off to give each character a few moments of real emotion in a movie without much room for sincerity, and for the most part, they succeed.
But as fun as it was, I still think women deserve better movies than this. I ache for the privilege to laugh and not come away thinking “that was funny; it’s too bad none of the female characters were treated like human beings” or, “I’m glad that movie treated women like human beings, I’m crushed that it was a crummy movie.” I want a great movie starring women to come in the wake of every terrible movie starring women, just so I have a choice.
After the backlash to the movie, there was the requisite backlash to the backlash…and then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash. Faced with the rotten comments from anti-feminists, reasonable people with a conscience understandably reacted with a delighted support that quickly rose to ridiculous levels. The third wave of response came from people who had no issue with a gender-flipped reboot but a disdain for those blindly supporting a money-hungry franchise. I can sympathize with that group of people—those fed up both with the fact that this was a discussion we were even having and with a culture that has placed so much importance on a corporate Hollywood product. But the truth is, women don’t have much of a choice. There isn’t a tidal wave of summer blockbusters starring powerful women, though some progress has undoubtedly been made. Until people start hiring women to direct big-budget films that aren’t part of some franchise, we have to walk a line between appreciating the tiny advances we get without wholly settling for an inferior product.
Not that Paul Feig hasn’t done his best to help. Over the past week I’ve watched Feig’s other comedies—Spy, The Heat, Bridesmaids—and though I enjoyed all of them, the overwhelming feeling I had afterward was exhaustion. I wanted to watch a movie and laugh. I didn’t want to think any more about how the women were represented and what it said about feminism. I didn’t want to think about Spy‘s progressive portrayal of a fat woman as an actual human being; I didn’t want to think about The Heat‘s progressive and tough buddy-cop dynamic; I didn’t want to think about Bridesmaids‘ progressive female-friendship-centered twist on the typical romantic comedy. Besides, I don’t agree with the anti-masculine humor that runs through all of Feig’s films in the form of constant jokes about men being virgins or having small dicks or this weird idea that the penis is the source of all our problems. If modern feminism is to thrive, it’s important to understand that these arguments all come from the same misogynistic culture: Shaming a man for physical inadequacy is viewed as an insult because it is bringing him down to the level of a woman. It upholds the idea that to achieve equality, women must behave like men to rise to a superior level. It erases and disrespects all the people who don’t fit within the societal expectations of the gender binary. This isn’t the kind of feminism I want to take part in, but I feel I have to settle for a picture that does just enough correctly that I don’t feel like shit after watching it.
Along the same train of thought, it’s unfortunate that dissenters have drawn the conclusion that males are somehow forbidden from enjoying this, when obviously plenty of young women who grew up with the original loved it. Yes, all the men in this reboot fall into three categories: 1. those who condescend and discourage women; 2. those who are gorgeous and/or painfully stupid, or 3. those who are psychopaths obsessed with destroying humanity. Well, as a child, my only options in Ivan Reitman’s 1984 Ghostbusters were a shrill and sassy secretary, or a powerful woman who gives into an asshole stalker and turns into a sexy demon. That didn’t stop me from loving it, and it didn’t even stop me from finding things to relate to and admire. Sure, this movie is about a specific struggle, but to label this For Women Only is to do a disservice to the young men who will be smart enough to understand that being kind and respectful to women is a good thing. If they look up to women in this movie, they don’t have to grow up to be the kind of assholes who try to keep women down. They can still dream of being ghostbusters. What’s vital about this movie, though, is that men don’t need this. Girls need it. They need something beyond a light-hearted comedy or melodrama about relationships or getting married. They need something that doesn’t idolize violence like the poorly executed dime-a-dozen YA dystopia sagas.
The reason why this movie has drawn so much heat isn’t only because it’s a rehash of a beloved property. It’s because this film makes room for women in the mostly male-dominated action/science-fiction/comedy genres. Whenever this is brought up, plenty of “helpful” people point out that the Alien and Terminator movies starred women and nerds loved it, along with a list of 10 or 20 other movies and TV shows with great women in starring or supporting roles. Consider, though, that Alien is now almost 40 years old and still considered progressive. A woman who grew up being inspired by Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor has almost the exact same handful of choices to show her own daughter today. There isn’t a vast sea of genre movies starring capable fat women or funny female heroes, and so we’re cornered into hanging on for dear life to what are essentially Hollywood’s table scraps. Any young girl who doesn’t care much for romance is left with precious little in terms of options. And if she doesn’t care about Marvel or DC or Star Wars or Ghostbusters, she’s out of luck.
I know this because I was that girl. I loved science-fiction and action and old gangster movies and offbeat comedies, and as I grew into teenhood, I loved Tarantino and Fight Club. I was so consumed with these universes that it wasn’t until my daughter was old enough to start watching movies that I realized I grew up with very few female role models in the media I loved. Men are still rabidly possessive over these genres, from complaints about the PC-ification of comedy to corporate executives who thought every character from Star Wars: The Force Awakens except Rey deserved an action figure. Read any review of Ghostbusters and you will inevitably find at least 50 comments from men who claim that the hatred for this movie has nothing to do with the fact that it has women in it, but because it looked awful, or they were sick of reboots, or Paul Feig’s career is a conspiracy to attack a misogynistic culture that they don’t believe exists. To that I say: Why do you care? For every brilliant woman on Saturday Night Live, there are 10 Wedding Crashers. For every Ripley, there are a hundred Luke Skywalkers. We aren’t asking to completely dominate every aspect of media. All we’re asking is for the same chance to make a great movie or a complete failure, without the weight of being the bible of fair representation hanging on it.
This generation deserves its own mediocre comedy to worship. They deserve to have nightmares about goofy ghosts. They deserve to have the same bizarre unidentifiable sexual stirrings over an attractive male secretary or attractive women getting blasted with ooze that we did when we saw Dan Aykroyd get a ghost blowjob or Sigourney Weaver writhe around. They deserve to laugh at generation-specific stupid jokes. They deserve to love something now and dissect the problems later. Perhaps Ghostbusters 2016 will become as much of a classic as the original, or it’ll fade into obscurity and no one will remember or care about it five or 30 years from now. Either way, I’m glad that, for at least one brief moment in this soul-crushing year, some young girls and boys found something to get excited about and treasure, a light from the magic of film to bask in, completely unaware that thousands of screaming adults wanted to ruin it for them.