There’s a chance that Paul Feig might reboot the Ghostbusters franchise with a team of comedic actresses set for the jumpsuits and apparition-battling backpacks. The news is incredibly premature — so premature, in fact, that it feels a lot like Sony testing a potentially dangerous idea with the public to see whether it floats like a bowling ball or not.
So far the response has been divisive, but it’s not like everyone is reaching for the smelling salts. On the crank end of the spectrum, this angsty ball-grabbing screed seems to have violently burst forth from of the throbbing vein in Mike Fleming’s forehead, which means the idea must have at least some merit to it.
To be clear, an all-woman Ghosbusters bothers me exactly 0% because that’s also my interest level in any return to that universe (be it reboot or sequel). The Venn diagram is a single circle. So, even though the concept conjures images of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne and Sandra Bullock walking in slow motion on a beat-up NYC street, ghost trap smokingly in tow, the far more interesting question surrounding the hook is whether firmly supplanting male iconography with women would be a step forward in terms of gender equality or only look like one from afar.
The first thing to consider is that injecting an all-woman team into a world previously occupied by an all-male team would be (rightfully) seen as a deliberate act of progressive thinking that could also be easily dismissed because of its overt nature. Setting up your team as 100% women instead of a harmless mix is, tacitly or deliberately, making a statement.
But, look at how we’re already talking about all this. “Female-led,” “Woman-led,” “All-Girl Ghostbusters.” We’re using that kind of language because it’s the hook we’ve been fed — the focus-grabbing quirk that will remain a gimmick even if the movie is excellent. Grabbing the public’s attention comes with a cost of singularly defining your project by the thing that excites the marketing department.
This is the existential crisis faced by all minority and underserved storytelling groups. Make a movie where a group of men (say, expendable ones?) band together, and no one raises an eyebrow. Make a movie where a group of women do something — especially if the job is seen as “traditionally male” — and you’ll get all the attention you want while running the risk of having your project wholly defined by its novelty.
The second thing to consider is whether appropriating male culture is really a win. This all comes on the heels of three interesting signs of a cultural shift: a summer box office slump presumably led by low female fan turnout, Amy Nicholson using Lucy to say we should expect more from female-led films and — least interestingly — Marvel turning Thor into a woman.
It’s impossible to say whether that last note (or an all-woman Ghostbusters or female Expendables) is a step forward or the mere illusion of progress. At a gut level, it feels like a hollow victory. Does anyone really want Thor to be a woman? I ask that not in the chauvinistic “All male characters should stay male!” kind of way, but while scratching my head trying to understand why it matters more than Marvel creating a brand new superhero and marketing her to hell and back.
Was Thor being a woman on anyone’s wish list, or is it more akin to getting leftovers and being told to be happy you’re even sitting at the table?
Paris Lees at The Guardian says it’s a good thing because it challenges widely-held definitions of masculinity and femininity, but all of it comes with a large caveat:
“Putting women in men’s roles only gets you so far. Sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers. It’s wonderful that the fairer sex were able to undo their corsets and take on things that were traditionally seen as masculine – whether that be sports, political careers or plain old dungarees – but it has done little to challenge the scapegoating of femininity. We live in a society that still systematically celebrates masculinity while ridiculing all things feminine. Women who adopt masculine clothing are seen as serious and businesslike. Men who adopt feminine styles are sneered at.”
This feels right, but I’d define “so far” as “slightly over an inch.” The reason is that we (read: men) are incredibly good at ignoring the culture we want to, particularly if it’s presented to us too eagerly. Defining a movie like this upfront by its inherent socio-political element is a good way to turn off the ears of the very people who need to hear your message. Plus, it won’t easily be able to shake the label as “The Girl Ghostbusters Movie,” a name that will always imply a lack of genuineness by referencing how the real Ghostbusters are out there somewhere not being women.
Subversion is slower, has to be done in concert with other pieces of art, and it often goes over the heads of those not looking for it, but it’s a far more powerful tool than the force-feeding this appears to be. Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy is an amalgamation of action characters and a bad example of “Strong Female Character,” sure, but at least she’s original in a way that giving Bill Murray a sex change can never be. Some will still write slackjawed articles about, gasp, a woman kicking ass, but treating a female-led action flick as ho-hum is a great way to make others realize that it should be no big deal. That we should be seeing more of it. That astonishment is an incorrect response that should be calmly smacked aside.
The difficulty in doing so is obvious because it’s a matter of scoffing at reality, of blithely saying something isn’t a big deal even though you want people to take notice.
Naturally, the other impossibly high hurdle is shifting toward female leads during a time when Hollywood studios are most attracted to stories we already know — most of which feature male leads. What else are big league players supposed to do besides turn men into women?
Scott Mendelson at Forbes shares this view, stating, “A gender-swapped Ghostbusters matters so much more than it would have twenty years ago when [the big budget fantasy] sub-genre wasn’t the only sandbox on the playground.” What’s frustrating is that he contends that the movie would matter specifically now, following decades where people enjoyed plenty of female-led entertainment without wringing their hands about it. In that sense, we’ve taken a large step backward as studios have narrowed their focus.
For me, a return to normalcy with an increased amount, awareness and respect for female-led movies isn’t going to be achieved by brute force. Regardless of how a new Ghostbusters turns out (if it gets made), it will always be anchored by this limiting identity. Its femininity will be the first question every interviewer asks for a year. Instead of the scope of the adventure or the quirks of its characters, this will be the story. On that front, the smartest thing Feig and the cast can do is completely ignore the 14,562 questions about why they made a movie without leading men. “Oh, is it only women? I guess I hadn’t even really thought about it. We just made the movie we wanted with the talent we thought was best.”
More than treating it as no big deal, it should be treated as a non-question.
A million years ago in 2008, Bill Murray (who still wants nothing to do with this project) suggested that one of the Ghostbusters should be a woman. Now, with the looming possibility that we could get a team of spirit-blasting ladies, I’m left wondering if it would be more helpful to make one of the new Ghostbusters a man.