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"Ghostbusters" stands on its own

Ghostbusters 2016

I never saw the original Ghostbusters movie. I know and care very little about the actors, storyline, or concept of the 1984 horror comedy. To some, that may be heresy, but I think that it helped me to judge the 2016 reboot more fairly—and ultimately appreciate it more—because I was able to do so without comparing it to the original. Not only is such a perspective essential in the face of malcontents whining that the makers have somehow violated their childhoods by daring to place four women in the lead roles, but I think it’s also the most feminist way to approach the movie. Otherwise, we're still just defining women's contributions to media by reference to what men did before them.

Sadly, we inhabit a media landscape where having four women in lead roles is still a noteworthy occurrence. It’s depressing for those of us who can’t believe we’re still having this conversation in 2016; however, for the upcoming generation of girls, it could be the new normal, and that’s fantastically exciting. We would do those girls a great disservice if we let the online carping of grown men eclipse that opportunity.

There will be plenty of viewers like myself—male and female, old and young—who go to see Ghostbusters unburdened by the weight of history and, as I did, simply find it a hugely enjoyable summer action movie. The strong opening weekend stats ($46 million in the US, $18 million international) confirm this; the theater I watched the movie in was packed, and its audience was predominantly adolescent girls who were likely born a decade or more after the original came out. These young people, plus Ghostbuster-newbie adults like myself, can enjoy the movie on its own merits, and it has plenty—dizzying pace, electrifying special effects, sparkling cast chemistry, and a witty script that doesn’t take anything too seriously.

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Since it was first mooted, the concept of a Ghostbusters reboot has been attacked so misogynistically that director Paul Feig admitted he was shocked at the vitriol aimed the film.

What’s so joyful about the new movie is that it takes all this dudebro bitching, rolls it into an ectoplasm-coated ball, and bowls it gleefully straight back at the haters. Lines such as “You’re not supposed to read what crazy people write in the middle of the night online” clearly have one eye on dissenters. And the villain of the movie, social outcast Rowan, seems to be an amalgam of every insecure white man who considers himself uniquely oppressed. The storyline arc—Rowan’s delusions of grandeur result in the undead being unleashed on New York, and the four Ghostbusters having to clean up his mess—could be read as a powerful metaphor for the havoc wreaked on society when male inadequacy turns into violence.

The green slime left all over New York by malevolent ghouls could also be a euphemism for a new kind of foulness infecting the modern world—racist and misogynist online trolling. Leslie Jones, the sole lead of color in the movie, has received such vile abuse on Twitter that she shut down her account rather than endure any more of what she has described as “personal hell.” In a critical Washington Post review, Alyssa Rosenberg accuses the movie of making “tired riffs on geek misogyny,” yet it’s hard to see how this is an old issue when Jones’ ordeal happened in the last 48 hours. Personally, I can’t think of another recent movie that tackles the insidious influence of bigoted keyboard warriors (“It’s always the sad, pale ones,” Melissa McCarthy’s character, Abby, sighs) with both humor and dignity.

Rosenberg also castigates the movie for not dealing with enough “explicitly feminist” issues. Firstly, I disagree—there is obvious and poignant symbolism in Erin’s (Kristen Wiig’s) childhood tale of being disbelieved, mocked by her peers, and placed in therapy when she claims to have seen a ghost. In fact, much of the movie is ultimately about women not being believed when they are right, and of course this speaks to millions of women’s stories both now and throughout history. But is it really fair to accuse a PG-13 action/comedy movie of betraying of feminism if it doesn’t shoehorn in a graphic storyline about sexual violence, child molestation, or racism? As Andi Zeisler puts it in her more positive review for Bitch, asking Ghostbusters to be “a referendum on the health and vitality of feminism as a movement” is a lot to ask of a movie “whose first joke is about queefing.”

Zeisler’s point echoes my own thoughts; why should Ghostbusters have to be perfect, anyway? Imperfect movies featuring men are never taken as evidence that men are not funny, make bad actors or lousy directors, or that the public simply aren’t interested in watching films about dudes. Yet female-led movies are still such a damn rarity that the focus on each new one is necessarily forensic; the day most of them pass without comment is the day we know we’ve truly achieved equality.

I think that for all its slapstick and poop jokes, Ghostbusters buzzes with an energy that you only get when female characters are treated as people with personalities, not window dressing. Three of the Ghostbusters are scientists—a crucial image, considering the underrepresentation of women in STEM and comments like those of British scientist Tim Hunt (last year he complained “the trouble with girls” working in laboratories was “they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”). And the most “girly” thing the Ghostbusters do? They always have each other’s backs. They take time even when they’re slaying ghouls to thank each other for support. If that’s not feminist enough for some, so be it—but it was enough to make me like a franchise I never cared about until now.

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