Even before its release, Ghostbusters withstood whining fanboys who said the reboot of the franchise with an all-female cast would “ruin their childhoods."
The film’s opening weekend brought in $46 million, hardly a failure by any stretch of the imagination, yet the entertainment media has been quick to call the film a flop at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Sony would lose $70 million on the film despite Sony execs’ own protests that 70 million was an inflated number. Nevertheless, the story caught on and many media outlets began reporting the film was a box office bust. As the box office numbers approach $220 million, Sony still has not come forward to say whether the film will spawn a sequel.
But the whining fanboys and the entertainment reporters who got it wrong can’t take away the fact that Ghostbusters was important, subversive, and awesome.
Ghostbusters' main characters are women who are scientists and badasses.
“It sounds like a small thing that I got to wear pants and have my hair up,” Kate McKinnon said during the Athena Film Festival. “But it’s actually a really big thing because we were playing scientists. Women playing scientists. Wearing jumpsuits, kind of ugly jumpsuits, and they made dolls of this. That has never happened before.”
Indeed, Kate. Indeed. Women are rarely presented as protagonists on the big screen — the official statistic is 12 to 13% of protagonists in movies are women — which means that 87 to 88% of movies star men.
Not only are men dominant on screen, but women are less likely to be defined solely by their careers. Sixty-one percent of male characters are identified only by a work-related role versus 34% of women. By that math, women playing career-centric characters, much less scientists and action heroes, is a rare sight at the movie theater.
The one non-scientist in the film is the sole black woman, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a choice which people were also quick to criticize. Patty is an MTA employee who sees a ghost and asks for the Ghostbusters' help before joining the crew herself. After seeing the film, feminist author Roxane Gay tweeted about Patty being the only Ghostbuster not to have a Ph.D. “You don't need to have an advanced degree to be smart,” she concluded. In the film, Patty proclaims her love for reading, specifically non-fiction, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City.
Fans of the film have theorized that Patty could potentially have a degree in history or literature and be holding down a blue-collar job, because these days, it is hard to find employment in any liberal arts field. Statistically, black women are the most educated and the most likely to have a degree in America.
“Picture Patricia Tolan's master's thesis on the history of capital punishment in New York being the reason she was able to identify the ghost in the subway. Tell me that isn't awesome,” posted a fan on Tumblr.
Ghostbusters subverts stereotypes about scientists
While women make up half the population, only about 24% of women enter the STEM fields. Many shows or films portray scientists as a shy nerd who is simply in need of a makeover or a boyfriend before she's considered worth noticing. If not the quiet nerd, many scientists are defined by their relationships to men, sometimes as a partner in a working relationship in which the woman is the lesser known of the two, otherwise as a wife, girlfriend, assistant, or daughter.
But in Ghostbusters, the women have an actual range of personalities!
First, there's Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), who at the beginning of the film, is up for tenure as a physics professor at Columbia University. Despite her past as a ghost hunter and author, along with Abby Yates, Erin is trying to achieve validation in academia. She dresses conservatively, and while it would have been easy for writers Feig and Katie Dippold to paint Gilbert as an unforgiving stick in the mud, they veer away from that stereotype, instead showing her vulnerabilities as well as her strengths. While men comment on her appearance, she doesn't get a makeover or a boyfriend, because she doesn't need either. In fact, a large part of the film is about Erin not needing validation from academia or men in general, like the New York mayor. She is happy repairing her relationship with Abby and going into business for herself with three other women.
Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is a dedicated physicist who never gave up on her childhood obsession and love for the paranormal. She is quick to defend her ideas, not because she's defensive, but because she genuinely loves and believes in her work. She's a career woman in the best sense of the word. She will go to the ends of the earth to further her knowledge and discoveries, because she is fulfilled by her work and isn't waiting for some man to come along to save her and they can fall in love. In one scene, she is oblivious to Kevin's physical attractiveness, but talks lovingly and in detail about the form of a ghost. Women can be single and genuinely love their jobs at the same time.
Third, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), is a quirky tech weirdo who builds the ghostbusting equipment. Hollywood doesn't feel comfortable calling women “weird” and when they do, they fit them into the manic pixie dream girl type like Natalie Portman in Garden State or Zoey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. These women are stuck in a state of immaturity but help the male protagonist see the happier side of life in exchange for falling in love and taking care of her. Holtzmann, however, is the opposite of all of that. She is confident, self-assured, and even shows off a bit of swagger in the film's big action sequence.
Sony wouldn't allow one character choice for Holtzmann to be included in the film. Holtzmann is a queer lady. (Feig has confirmed this without saying as much.) She flirts with Erin from the moment she appears and seems genuinely baffled by Kevin. She wears whatever she wants, mostly large pants that hide her waist, but she also rocks a crop top and overalls. She doesn't care if her clothes appeal to anyone else, and whatever the situation, Holtz is so genuinely, joyously, physically herself in every moment. Women can be queer and masculine and weird and still be attractive and accomplished.
Last, but certainly not least, is Patty Tolan. She is a social butterfly who arms herself with her knowledge of history and New York City. Even though she knows nothing about the paranormal before joining the team, she's a quick study and will run into danger if her friends are being threatened. When the villain of the film inhabits Abby, Patty is stunned, not sure what to do or how to help, but the moment Abby picks up Holtzmann by the throat and physically threatens her, Patty is running to save Holtz and hold Abby off. Most women who are socially skilled are often portrayed as being stupid, having dull personalities, or being mean to other women. But Patty is supportive and caring with everyone. Women can support other women and possess a love for lifelong learning.
In short, maybe McKinnon put it best when she said, “But his [director Paul Feig] most revolutionary act has not been in casting women as scientists and badasses. We’ve seen that before. Ish.”
“No, his true subversion lies in creating female protagonists who are striving for the universal goals of friendship, connectedness, justice, and personal growth. These golden fleeces have always been the sole province of male protagonists. They don’t call it an Everyman for nothing. By building stories around female protagonists who are striving not for romance, but simply to become their best selves, he has permanently changed the game for us all.”
Ghostbusters gets rid of the stupid stereotypes that have plagued not just scientists, but female characters AS A WHOLE in movies for years. Instead, Ghostbusters gives us a group of women who have unique personalities and demonstrates that talent, skill, and knowledge can occur outside our society's institutional systems. In short, it makes the millennial generation of women spontaneously cry in the movie theater and is inspiring young girls who finally get to see four female role models on screen.
Images and gifs: Ghostbusters
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Lauren C. Byrd is a freelance writer and blogger. After leaving Tennessee post-college, she has lived in Los Angeles, update New York, Queens, and Los Angeles again. She loves to talk about women in film, but also cares about good TV, documentaries, podcasts, true crime, journalism and social justice.