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Ghostbusters: popular culture, misogyny and racism

By: 
Faline Bobier

July 20, 2016

You wouldn’t think a reboot of a popular but anodyne film of 32 years ago, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, would occasion such a torrent of abuse on the Internet and blogosphere.

The original Ghostbusters movie of 1984 tells the story of three and eventually four eccentric parapsychologists who start a ghost-catching business in New York City: Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson, a Black actor who is recruited to their team.

The film was a critical and popular success, which is why it’s no surprise Hollywood would want to cash in. The remaking of popular movies from the past has always been a way for studios to try and recreate past blockbusters and avoid having to think up original ideas.

Sexism

And generally it has never created this kind of uproar…except maybe in the case of Mad Max: Fury Road, released last year. That movie committed the same sin, which was to put actress Charlize Theron in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively, rather than the Mad Max character, originally played by Mel Gibson.

Similarly in Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig, we have four kickass women who take on the role of the ghost catchers: Melissa McCarthy (who is a favourite of the director) and three other comedic actresses who are either SNL alumni or present cast members – Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

From well before the opening of the movie there has been a concerted campaign on the Internet to discredit the whole enterprise, based solely on the notion that casting women in the original male roles is a betrayal, mainly of white middle-aged males for whom the Reitman film seems to have figured as some kind of bizarre rite of passage.

There was a campaign to make the new Ghostbusters trailer the least watched trailer on Youtube, which was largely successful. And this was based solely on sexism, on the notion that women shouldn’t be allowed to be funny in their own right or that they don’t have the “balls” to fight the supernatural on their own.

This may seem a silly controversy to some but it speaks to the deep misogyny in the culture and the way that mainstream ideology is fed to us via all forms of popular culture—all the accepted “common sense” notions that dictate the roles that women can and cannot play.

Racism

The other fault line that has been exposed by the reaction to the release of the movie is that of racism. Leslie Jones, who plays an MTA (transit) worker in the film, is a Black actress who has come to prominence through her work on Saturday Night Live. She has spoken before about how difficult it was to get a chance to be on nation-wide television because she is an older Black woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of “feminine” beauty.

At six feet tall Jones is a force to be reckoned with and her particular brand of slapstick, wacky humour is anything but “ladylike.” There was some criticism of the film since the three white leads are all scientists. Jones is recruited to their team as a New York City transit worker.

But as Jones herself tweeted, in response to some of the criticism: “Regular People save the world everyday so if I'm the sterotype!! Then so be it!! We walk among Heroes and take them for granted.” Jones received a letter from a MTA worker thanking her for creating the character:

“Hey Leslie, thanks for being you. A question was asked by a news writer about your role on your new movie...This was my response: I work for the MTA in that role as a Token Booth Clerk and I was happy to see my job, something which provides me with plenty of jokes, a great perspective on society, and a birds eye view of horrible shit that I witness everyday on screen…the fact that my position as a clerk is the most abused by society, I feel this may give us a semblance of humanness.”

Since long before the film was released Jones has been subject to a stream of racist and misogynistic commentary on Twitter, so much so that she finally decided to delete her Twitter account. Many of the tweets were orchestrated by known racist trolls and contained racial slurs, accusing her of being ugly and likening her to the recently-slain Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe.

In a society riven with sexism and racism, which is encouraged and promoted by mainstream media and right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and others, it is no surprise that the responses to popular culture, when it challenges, even in a muted fashion, those same prejudices, can be reactionary and hate-filled.

Ghostbusters is not a masterpiece of cinema but it is an entertaining, clever and feisty summer movie, which allows the four women leads to be smart, strong, funny and independent. That is why women and men are going to see it in large numbers, no matter what the haters will say.

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