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Ghostbusters and the Questionable Idea of the “Movie for Women”

on July 13, 2016, 4:30pm

A summer would-be blockbuster has morphed into a big fat controversy. There are some really loud, angry men out there — for just a few examples, see this gem from The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife. (Full disclosure: I am also an A.V. Club contributor.) Some of them will tell you they’re just mad because anyone is daring to remake Ghostbusters, and many — though not all — of them are being truthful. Paul Feig acknowledged as much in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year: “Some of it is that people don’t want an old property touched – I’m sympathetic to that. But the ones who are hating it because it’s about women? That’s just a non-starter.”

There’s the rub: The rest of those loud men are pissed because the Ghostbusters are girls now. That anger, understandably, made some other people angry in return. That made still others defensive. And poof, you’ve got a controversy wholly out of proportion to the movie from which it leapt.

Yes, some of the people up in arms about the new Ghostbusters are sexists. I repeat: Yes, some of them are sexists, and if that’s not something that seems true, ask a woman who has opinions and shares on the Internet what she has to say. Perhaps start with Manohla Dargis of the New York Times. Here she is on the day her Ghostbusters review was published:

Of course, most aren’t sexists. Five minutes on YouTube will find you many, many trailer reaction videos in which the subjects — mostly men — tear apart that first trailer without saying anything overtly misogynistic. Here’s the Consequence of Sound reaction, not positive, which I also wrote. Still, the world is full of bad movie trailers, and yet the mildly disappointing Ghostbusters trailer became the most disliked trailer in the history of YouTube.

Ghostbusters isn’t a perfect movie. Some people are going to really dig it, and I’m in that group. Others won’t. But whether it’s good or not, one puzzles over why this film is being treated so differently from other movies about which people disagree.

Oh, right. It’s because a classic, predominantly male comedy is being remade, rebooted, or adapted — take your pick — into a predominantly female one.

Many people are very tired of talking about Ghostbusters and gender. To some, remaking a comedy classic with women instead of men seems like a cheap gimmick, a pandering cash grab that takes advantage of both the people who cherish the original film and the women hungry for representation on the big screen. Many of them are understandably concerned that not being excited about or enjoying this film will get them labeled as misogynists, and that’s frustrating. They feel constrained by their gender in this way, and they’re right to be concerned. Many women feel so regularly burned by the disdain of men that it’s difficult to read a negative opinion of a female-fronted property without getting one’s dander up. I do not blame my male colleagues, or male critics in general, for their frustration. Being judged or attacked for your gender never feels good.

Here’s a secret: Not one of them is as frustrated as the women who feel themselves obligated to point out the bullshit. I should not feel obligated, but here we are.

Here’s how I’m constrained by my gender. If we were talking about the original Ghostbusters, which I love, no one would assume it was because of my gender. If I didn’t love it, there’s a decent chance someone would say it’s because I’m a feminist killjoy. And that’s fair, because I am, in fact, a feminist killjoy. That would not be true of a male critic, because most of the time, a male reviewer is just another reviewer, and a summer blockbuster is just another movie.

None of those things will be true of this Ghostbusters.

In remaking Ghostbusters with a female cast, Paul Feig is taking a movie that was made for everyone — meaning a movie predominantly starring men — and turning it into a movie that, based on how we react to such things, was made for women.

Here’s my attempt at anecdotal evidence. My partner is a thoughtful, kind, outspoken, and forward-thinking person who also loves movies. He convinced me to see Frozen, if that gives you an idea of how open he is to things that seem to others like disposable fluff. When we started dating, he had not yet seen Bridesmaids. Neither had his roommate, the biggest movie nerd I know. They are lovely people. They are not sexists. They love movies, especially funny ones. And they had no interest — none — in a movie that received quite a lot of critical acclaim and did huge numbers at the box office. It’s oversimplifying to say that it’s because they all wore pink dresses in the ads, but it’s not far off.

I talked them into it, which wasn’t hard, because they’re kind and open-minded. They both loved it, because it’s a great fucking movie. Even with the pink. Even with the sparsity of dudes. It’s great because it’s funny, and smart, and well-written, and well-cast, and because Wilson Phillips is in it at the end. Then I had to talk him into seeing The Heat. Then Spy. Then I had to convince him to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show I cover for The A.V. Club, with me. He said no. He sat in another room. Halfway through the pilot, he heard me laugh uproariously for something like the 10th time and walked in, and we started the whole thing over.

Unconscious bias is real, and in some ways it’s even more damaging than the conscious kind. Here’s your get-out-of-jail-free card, gentlemen: It’s what the world has taught you. Hell, it’s what the world has taught me. An all-female Ghostbusters has to be bigger than it really is. An all-male Ghostbusters? That’s just a movie. A good movie. A great movie, even. But it stars primarily men, and that’s fine. When it stars women, or predominantly women, or it looks like it was somehow made for women, it becomes somehow less valuable. It becomes a controversy.

The fact that Ghostbusters stars women means something to me, for several reasons. It means something to me because it takes one of the biggest sources of conflict in the original — that no one believes the main characters when they say ghosts are real — and gives it a completely new context without ever being overt or preachy. It means something to me that they thumb their noses at the sexist backlash from time to time, as when Wiig’s character reads comments on Reddit (“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts”). It means something that they openly acknowledge how poorly women are treated, consciously and unconsciously — as McCarthy’s character puts it, “People dump on us pretty much all the time.”

But here’s the biggest reason. It’s seemed for a long time that movies always existed in three categories:

1. Movies made for me
2. Movies made for groups that do not include me
3. Movies for everyone

Many films in that last category predominantly feature men, and men serve as the leads in the vast majority. Most of the movies in that first category are romantic comedies or dramas. The second category includes films that are obviously marketed for men and films marketed to a specific religion, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or another cultural group.

There’s nothing in the world that says that I can’t enjoy movies in all three of those categories. I do. Good movies are good movies. The issue is not that some films are aimed at a specific subset of society. The issue is that if a movie is made that stars only men, it can be for everyone. If a movie is made that stars only women, it’s usually a “chick flick” — and please, let’s get rid of that term. Men can, and often do, enjoy such movies. Some will love such movies. Some will do so only after a mother, sister, partner, or friend drags them to the theater. In our world, movies that star women are for women, no matter the content, no matter the tone, no matter who may see it and fall in love.

That shouldn’t be the case, because that limits us all. Here’s a line in the sand we can all draw: If a movie that stars only men can be for everyone — and you will pry the original Ghostbusters, or the countless other movies that star only men, from my cold dead fingers — then a movie that stars only women can also be for everyone. To suggest otherwise? That is sexist.

That’s why Ghostbusters is a powder-keg. This isn’t a movie marketed toward women. It isn’t, like Trainwreck or Bridesmaids, a comedy with a few little trappings of romantic comedy thrown in. It is not remotely pink. That defies what we’re told a movie for everyone should or can be. That breaks the rules, and anything that upsets the status quo is bound to ruffle many, many feathers.

Many people dreading this Ghostbusters are not sexists. Most people are fundamentally decent. But to anyone who finds themselves thinking that an all-female Ghostbusters remake might ruin your childhood or thinks making it with women at the center somehow transforms an ‘everyone’ movie into a movie that’s not for you: This would be a great time to check that particular impulse. Buy yourself an Ecto Cooler. Take a seat. Take a sip. And give yourself the time to wonder who told you that’s how things should be.

Besides, this isn’t the first childhood-ruiner in the franchise:

 

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