It’s not hyperbolic to say that Ghostbusters is significant in the current landscape of Hollywood. It is both an example of the cinematic malady of reboots, remakes, and “reimaginings” of previously existing franchises as well as the agonizingly incremental shift towards female-led movies as viable properties regardless of genre. Unsurprisingly, then, that a lot of people would find “issues” with it, the reasons of which range anywhere from “Another reboot?” to “They’re ruining my childhood!” to, my personal favorite, “[insert expletives about women here.]” But whether you think Ghostbusters is the next step in the vast conspiracy of women taking over the film industry or it managed to “ruin your childhood” – somehow – I can’t stress just how important Ghostbusters is to the next generation of moviegoers. Yes, the 1984 film means a lot to the young men and women who grew up imagining themselves as Peter Venkman, Egon Spangler, Janine Melnitz, or maybe Slimer, but this new generation of girls and boys will be spoiled for choice as they get to pull from two casts of funny, smart, and competent Ghostbusters to emulate on the playground or dress up as for Halloween.
Having those options is a huge deal. Huge. As a tomboy who watched the gendered cartoons of the 80s and 90s, I often found myself gravitating towards the “boys’ cartoons,” which included Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters. On the playground, however, I was still “the girl,” so I could only be a girl character because playground logic sucks. But it’s that basic kind of logic kids latch on to and when girl characters are ditzy blondes, secretaries, or the sexy evil counterpart while the boys get to play quippy heroes and awesome villains, it sends a message. Thankfully, some of us grow out of the gender binary as law mentality, but giving kids that ability to see male and female characters in similar roles goes a long way to ensuring they see equality as the norm. And if Ghostbusters can contribute to those future generations’ acknowledgment of women as comedians, action heroes, scientists, and yes, Ghostbusters, then the film is a success in my book.
What I find most interesting, though, is the way Ghostbusters addresses the “controversy” surrounding its main characters without really addressing it outright. It starts with a short, to the point question Martin Heiss (Bill Murray) asks of the Ghostbusters in the wake of their first successful capture of a monstrous apparition:
Why are you pretending to capture ghosts?
It didn’t really hit me until that moment, about halfway through the movie, that Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig and co-written by Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold, is held up by a spine of subtext most women recognize immediately. The “controversy” surrounding the film being what it is, it’s impossible not to see the through-line that informs the Ghostbusters’ most prominent threat outside of actual ghosts: skepticism.
It makes sense, then, that Heiss, a skeptic, asks the question in such a condescending manner. He, along with the main antagonist Rowan North (Neil Casey), are part and parcel of the misogynist culture that continually thwarts women where matters of respect and legitimacy are concerned. While the movie itself never flat-out makes gender an issue within the plot or the story – save for an added scene blasting YouTube commenters and a quick, “You shoot like a girl!” towards the end – it’s constantly present in the external forces acting against the team. To wit, it isn’t a coincidence that these external forces are male. Heiss, Rowan, the ‘Buster’s secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), and the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia) all present minor and major hurdles for the team as they try to prove themselves in a city determined not to believe them.
The most fleshed out character arc in Ghostbusters concerns Dr. Erin Gilbert’s (Kristen Wiig) struggle to be taken seriously as a scientist. At the beginning of the movie, she’s obsessed with getting tenure at Columbia University because tenure equates to status within academia. When her book written about the paranormal with childhood pal, and fellow scientist, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) resurfaces, she seeks Abby out to keep anyone at the university from finding out about her dalliance in pseudo science; thus the plot begins. The importance of those early scenes, however, feed into the movie’s subtext. Erin wants to be acknowledged by her peers and her university; she wants the pride associated with legitimacy and the respectability that comes with it. Her concerns and actions are deeply rooted in how she wants to be viewed by the rest of the world, which keeps her from throwing herself into her true passion. This is reinforced throughout the film as the media questions the veracity of their first paranormal catch, the Mayor’s office’s actively calls them frauds despite knowing the city’s ghost problems are real, and Erin’s personal trauma of seeing a ghost as a child only to ridiculed by other children with the moniker “Ghost Girl.” With each new development, Erin’s frustration and her desire for legitimacy become more apparent.
It makes the scene with Heiss that much more significant within the narrative. Everything about how Murray plays him is a reminder that women are scrutinized far more than men when it comes to verifying their work, actions, and words. Protection of female sex workers, reporting domestic violence and sexual assault, and even the concept of “Fake Geek Girls” are only a few examples of how women rarely get the benefit of the doubt. We’re liars until proven innocent and even the truth doesn’t guarantee anything. To put it another way, when Venkman says, “Back off, man, I’m a scientist,” he says it cooly and with smarmy confidence. When Erin says, “We can figure this out. We’re scientists!” it’s said desperately, as if everything’s riding on proving themselves as such. And for Erin everything is riding on proving that, as scientists, the Ghostbusters can fix the problem. Her confidence and her self-worth are tied up in her credibility more so than Abby, Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), and Patty (Leslie Jones) so her departure from the team after being called a fraud, yet again, rings true.
It’s unfortunate, though, that the scene in which Erin leaves the team is missing from the theatrical cut of the film. One of the consistent pieces of criticism towards the movie is its pacing issues, which I agree is problematic. The story has been building to Erin’s crisis of confidence and departure from the very beginning, so to lose it and what I assume would be an emotional moment between her and Abby as long-lost friend reunited, then torn apart again, is an odd choice. It’s a pivotal moment and the loss of it adds to the messiness of the third act. Her return to the group feels less triumphant and less emotionally resonant when we’re not really sure she left the group at all.
Erin’s return to the group is similarly an important moment because of the message sent. Yes, it’s okay to doubt yourself. Yes, the world may constantly try to weigh you down and question everything. But it’s through the strength and resolve of friendship, of a community, that keeps us going. Erin is the most like herself with Abby, Holtzman, Patty, and even Kevin. She’s more confident, self-assured, and she pushes herself to do things she never would have done before – because her friends are there to help her succeed and lift her up if she fails. She, in turn, will do the same. If you take nothing else away from this movie, at least let that be the one thing that sticks.
If you’ve been on the fence about Ghostbusters, I’d encourage you to go see it because it is a fun time at the theater. There are plenty of homages to the original film, but this new batch is doing their own thing and carving out a new branch of the Ghostbusters franchise. Hopefully, a sequel will give Feig and Dippold more time to flesh out the characters and give us an even more entertaining story starring these hilarious women. More importantly, Ghostbusters is a step in the right direction for women in Hollywood. We can bust ghosts with the best of them and the more chances we get, the more this won’t seem like a “big deal.”