I Ain’t Afraid of No [Critiques of Male Power] | Vol. 3 / No. 40.5

Image: Adapted by This Week In Tomorrow, from Thoth God of Knowledge, CC BY 2.0 (based on the original logo, which is probably © Columbia Pictures)


(Also, forgive me if any of the following information is slightly incorrect—I’m working off of my immediate recollections of the film, rather than the film itself, as people frown at you for scribbling madly in the theater. Also it’s hard to eat popcorn that way. I’m hoping to revisit all of this once the film comes out on DVD, but I don’t have another $20 to spend to make sure I’m quoting things with exact accuracy.)

When they first announced that they were doing a Ghostbusters reboot, I was skeptical. Not because it was an all-female cast, because anyone who is upset about that is stupid. (I’m looking at you, internet.) Instead, I was skeptical because do we really need another Ghostbusters movie? I know the original is an insanely good classic. I also know that Ghostbusters 2 exists, and parts of that movie should be set on fire. If your plan for raising the stakes in a film are “include a baby, make the bad guy a scary living painting, and have Peter MacNicol do a silly foreigner voice” then you need to just never make that movie. Ever. I know that some of our current nostalgia boom has created amazing things (Pokemon GO exists! YOU CAN BE A POKEMON TRAINER) but it has also created terrible things (Michael Bay’s version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exists. You can… stare into the nightmare valley of the turtles’ innie-belly-button-faces).

I remained tentatively hopeful. I lost some hope when I saw the cast list. While I appreciate the contributions that Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig have made for women in comedy, I never totally latched onto them the way I did with Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Aisha Tyler, or Janeane Garofolo. I’m often nonplussed by Wiig’s variety of “strange girls who talk fast/weird” characters, and as a bigger woman I always felt somewhat affronted that basically every comedic role McCarthy has ever obtained involved at least one crack about her weight. (Watch her appearances on SNL, and count the number of times that the characters she plays are anything besides “weird/unattractive larger woman.” Did you count higher than 0? Are you counting correctly?) Likewise, Leslie Jones’ appearances on SNL never seemed to let her explore the role of anything besides “tall angry woman who vaguely acts like a sexual predator towards male cast members and guests.” My one redeeming hope was Kate McKinnon, who has always been, and will always be, a goddess in human form and one of my all-time favorite SNL cast members.

My hopes plummeted even more when I found out that Jones’ character, Patty, would be the only non-scientist of the bunch, a “streetwise” black MTA worker palling along with all the white lady scientists.  It seemed a cruel echo of the original, in which Ernie Hudson’s character of Winston Zeddemore was cut down from being a member of the Air Force and founding member of the Ghostbusters to being a guy who says the line “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say” and ambles in halfway through the film. Hudson was also not included in most of the promotional materials (or, to a certain extent, the memories of many Ghostbusters fans.)  Thirty years later and the only character of color gets to be, in the words of Janessa E. Robinson, the “seemingly intellectually inferior token black woman with street sense and a Cadillac”?  My intersectional feminism was super unhappy.

Now, having actually seen the movie, I can tell you that I was wrong to be so skeptical. Sure, it suffers from some problems. As with any current reboot/sequel it feels it has to make callbacks to the original that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. There’s a tired joke about “Haha that male villain must be a virgin. Get it? Because the fact that he hasn’t had sex makes him less of a man.” There are some incredible themes that, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out, end up as pulled punches.  Someone in power heard the Fall Out Boy/Missy Elliot version of the classic theme song and still let it be in the movie. Fall Out Boy… Missy…. I love you both too much to let you do this to yourselves.

But overall, I really liked it. The cast works amazingly well together. McCarthy and Jones are allowed to transcend their “bigger woman” tropes for the most part (and when Jones isn’t, she makes it a chance to either save the day through over-the-topness or makes it a shout out to racism and sexism). Wiig saves her weird talking skills for key moments, and otherwise does very well as the earnest and anxious Erin. And any time Kate McKinnon is onscreen is a time that is magical, because even when she doesn’t have lines, she does wonders. Watch the scene where literally all she is doing is sipping a soda while listening to Kristen Wiig talk. It’s amazing. The CGI is mostly engaging, as is the pacing. The cameos by original Ghostbusters cast members are fun but don’t go on for too long (with one exception, but we’ll get to you later, Bill Murray) Chris Hemsworth marries chiseled abs to the usually-reserved-for-manic-pixie-dreamgirls characteristic of adorkability. It’s genuinely funny. There is a ghost-punching glove. It’s like if the Nintendo Power Glove was as cool as it was supposed to be, and also could punch ghosts in the face.

And all those whiny man-children who were certain that the film was going to be terrible? Who put on a concentrated effort into making the trailer for the film the most-disliked YouTube movie trailer of all time?  Who declared that the movie had “raped their childhood”? (Which, by the way, isn’t even a thing that can happen, Jesus Christ, stop diminishing the meaning of that word.) Well, all of those men should be super happy, because the film was totally about them. Kinda.

See the heart of the new Ghostbusters isn’t the cool new tech. It isn’t merely proving the existence of the supernatural or the evils of government bureaucracy as in the original. (Damn the EPA and their evil… mistrust of a leaking nuclear reactor and doubts regarding the eternal imprisonment of lost souls…. Why was the EPA the bad guy in the first one again?)  It isn’t “the spirit of New York City,” as it was the most ham-handed symbolism I have ever seen in Ghostbusters 2.  Instead, the main theme running through the newest film is pretty simple: men don’t like not having power, and they really, really don’t like women having power. My friend Vrai Kaiser puts it quite well:

Shaped seemingly from the ground up by the reactions to its production, Ghostbusters has ended up being a movie about women struggling to be heard. The villain is a completely boldfaced commentary on male privilege, opining on how being bullying pushed him into vengeful fantasies while the heroes are constantly beaten down and kicked day in and out and still struggle to do good.

It’s impossible not to notice the trilby hats, the sneering figures of males in power telling the women heroes that their opinion doesn’t count, that nobody cares about them, or that yes these girls have done a real nice job but it’s really for the greater good if they recede into the background and let other (male) characters take credit for things. It’s baked into the movie at every turn, and while it’s the farthest thing from subtle that there could possibly be, I think it’s ultimately to the film’s benefit.

Vrai very kindly did not spoil much of the movie in this discussion; I’m not as nice as they are. So here we go down the super-spoilery rabbit hole of the feminism of the new Ghostbusters.

From the beginning of the movie, the feelings of men are pretty clear: we’ve gotta do something to control all these women-folk. The film starts with a guide giving a group of remarkably well-behaved group of tourists a view of the Totally Not the Rockefeller Aldridge Mansion. He tells the tale of the day that Portrait Man (I forget his name) Aldridge’s servants did not answer his summons, mainly because they had all been murdered by his daughter, Gertrude. (You can tell this is in the past and that she is a bad person because she has an “ugly” name like Gertrude.) You can also tell that she is evil because her father apparently wrote in his diary, “God makes no mistakes, but he may have been drunk when he constructed Gertrude’s personality.” Get it? Because his daughter’s personality is so heinous, it makes her father doubt God’s infallibility. (Notably, besides the whole “murdering” people thing, we don’t learn much more about Gertrude’s personality. Also, if someone is evil, “personality” is an odd thing to complain about. Usually we attribute evil to one’s soul, but instead her dad is basically saying “Gertrude is such a bitch that God must have been drunk.”) Rather than face public disgrace over the fact that his socialite daughter murdered a bunch of poors, her dad decides to lock her in the basement forever. You know. Like a rational person would. So within the first five minutes of the movie, we literally get a man locking up an overly-powerful woman. It kind of sets the tone.

Later we see Wiig’s character, Erin, as she frets over her chances at gaining tenure at Columbia. Her supervisor, Stuffy McAcademia, (I don’t think he had a name. Just elbow patches.) tells her that she should probably have references from someplace more “prestigious” than Princeton, and makes dismissive comments regarding her clothing. It’s not clear what his problem is—is her clothing too sexual? Not sexual enough? Is it the weird shirt/bow thing? In what might be the best-ever encapsulation of a woman’s experience in academia, an elderly man tells a younger woman struggling to be taken seriously in the field that something is wrong with her, then refuses to tell her what precisely is wrong. Erin is left to anxiously tug at her clothing, wondering what it is that she has done to upset the patriarchal powers-that-be.

The hits keep coming. Patty, far from simply being a “streetwise,” non-educated everywoman, is in fact a nonfiction buff with an excellent knowledge of New York City’s history. The Ghostbusters react to mean internet comments. Bill Murray, in the longest cameo of all of the original ‘Busters, plays Martin Heiss, a paranormal debunker. Erin, who is used to academia and the urgent need for patriarchal approval that comes with it, is eager to prove herself, and her fellow Ghostbusters, to the nonplussed Heiss. Abby, who pretty much thinks Heiss is a jackass (which he is) tries to subtly keep Erin from falling all over herself to get Heiss’ approval and validation, and leads Erin to eventually stand up for herself. The main villain, Rowan, is basically a Men’s Rights Advocate. He is a lonely and “misunderstood” man who is upset that the world has never understood or appreciated his genius. Also the waitresses don’t like him and are mean and that hurts his feelings. He essentially decides to destroy the world because he feels he is not receiving what he feels the world owes him. (Sound familiar?) The villain is essentially the same type of entitled, “wounded” individual who would accuse a film of raping his childhood because his characters of his gender are not the focus of it.  The “public and officials disbelieve the Ghostbusters” scenes have an extra twist of the knife as the women are essentially accused of being hysterical, lonely souls who are making up stories to get attention. (Again, sound familiar?)

But, ironically for a feminist analysis, the character that I want to pay particular attention to is Kevin, the beefcake secretary played brilliantly by Chris Hemsworth. As Vrai says, Kevin is in many ways the male version of Ulla from the Producers (if possibly a little bit less self-aware of what his looks actually accomplish for him). I want to pay attention to his character not only because he is the one most likely to be met with cries of “reverse sexism!” but because I think that his character has been somewhat misunderstood, and that he actually becomes a focus from which to understand how certain issues should be treated in the movies.

So first of all, reverse sexism isn’t a thing, any more than reverse racism is a thing. Sexism is just sexism, but sometimes it is aimed at disenfranchising women and sometimes it is aimed at disenfranchising men. Now, in general, I don’t think “they get to do it so I should get to do it!” is a very productive argument, nor is “they make us do it so we should make them do it!” Thus I don’t find “solutions” like balancing the objectification of the female body with objectifications of the male body to be very useful. Though I suppose balanced is somewhat better than imbalanced, it’s all still objectification. On the surface level, Kevin provides a chance for critics to say, “well if women don’t like it when they are objectified, why are they objectifying men?” which would be a fair critique if that was Kevin’s only purpose in the film. But it’s really, really not.

Now this is where I’m going to do something I rarely do, which is take issue with the work of another feminist critic. But when I read a critique of the movie by Madeline Lane-McKinley, something about the way she described Kevin’s role in the film rubbed me the wrong way:

Kevin more specifically caricatures the inadequacies and anxieties of a male work force in the face of feminized labor conditions. With the body of a manicured lumberjack, Kevin sits behind a desk, bewildered by the seemingly simple task of answering the phone and little else. Yet he is continually forgiven for his ineptitude based on his handsomeness. The joke is ultimately on the ghostbusters, as they accommodate him to the bitter end.

Now, part of this is accurate. Kevin does in many ways represent the anxieties of a male workforce being asked to take on female roles. He is, in fact, completely inept. (Though he is also sometimes an accidental philosopher—at one place in the film he points out that aquariums are like submarines for fish. I will never look at an aquarium in the same way again.) But he is not forgiven for his ineptitude due to his handsomeness, and he is not a “joke” on the Ghostbusters at the end. There are a few things about Kevin to keep in mind that counteract this concept.

First, Kevin isn’t hired just because he is handsome, a longstanding trope when the genders are reversed. He is hired because he is the only person who applied. His handsomeness notwithstanding, he is the only candidate. Despite Erin’s obvious lust for him, that’s not what wins him the job; the scarcity of administrative assistants willing to work for a supernatural investigation service is. Second, Kevin isn’t kept around because he is handsome. Ultimately, Kevin is kept around because the others become fond of him, and in his own way, he becomes part of the Ghostbusters family. He is earnest in his attempts to fit in, even buying a jumpsuit to match theirs and trying to echo their supernatural techno-babble on the phone to a client. He tries, to the best of his (limited) abilities, to do his job and take part in the team. When the Ghostbusters rescue him, it is not (or at least mostly not) about trying to get into his pants or sweeping him into a kiss (*cough* Dana *cough*),  but about rescuing a team member who has been put in danger by the activities of his teammates. Yes, the Ghostbusters keep him around even after they could hire a more efficient secretary, but again, at this point he has proven himself, ever-so-clumsily, to be part of the team.

Finally, in a move that very much helps to justify the gender bent Ghostbusters movie’s existence, Kevin helps illustrate just how goddamn creepy the original Ghostbusters could be, and also illustrates what should happen when there is a confluence of an imbalance of power and sexual attraction. If you remember, the original Ghostbusters begins with Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman doing a “psychic power” test with two students, one a nerdy male and the other a blonde bombshell. He’s supposedly testing the effects of negative reinforcement on ESP. He holds up cards and tells them to guess what the shape is. When the boy gets them wrong (and even when he gets them right) Peter shocks him. He gives the girl sultry stares, kind smiles, winks, and paternalistic encouragement. She’s always wrong, and he always tells her that she’s right. He’s invalidating his own goddamn research because he thinks that the student that he is testing is attractive. This. Is. Creepy. (And very, very bad science, which is a direct contrast to the new movie, in which the women are not only attempting to prove the existence of the supernatural but trying to find a way to study it comprehensively). He tries to put the moves on her, touching her arm and staring soulfully at her while comforting her about how the world will react to her “powers,” and is violently upset when Ray interrupts him. Doesn’t it suck when your coworkers interrupt your attempted sexual harassment? Ray, interestingly enough, doesn’t even really react to the situation, too concerned instead with his new scientific opportunities. Yeah bro, don’t bother saying something when your colleague is hitting on an undergrad. I’m sure that’ll work itself out.

But Kevin re-establishes the fact that creeping on someone is still creeping on someone, even if they’re handsome. And creeping on someone that you work with is just not okay. As soon as Kevin comes on screen, Erin is tongue-tied and in instantaneous lust. She holds onto his hand for way too long, stumbles over her words, and won’t stop staring at him. If she were Peter Venkman, this behavior would be rewarded. She’s not Peter Venkman. When she haltingly asks Kevin if he is seeing anyone, Abby says that Erin didn’t really mean to ask that question, because doing so would be illegal. When Erin persists, Abby informs her that she is a walking lawsuit waiting to happen. This is how people should react when their coworkers are being creepy to subordinates. Hell, this is how people should react when their coworkers are being creepy to anyone. Erin has awkward moments with Kevin throughout the movie, but they remain awkward. They remain the subject of scorn and worry from her coworkers. And most importantly, she is not “rewarded” with Kevin at the end of the film, as Peter is rewarded with Dana. She may be keeping Kevin around partly because he is pretty, but at every point the inappropriate nature of her lust is brought to the fore.

Now, you can argue that this is maybe an unfair double standard (another one of those “if men can do it why can’t I?” scenarios) but I think that this aspect of the film displays exactly why men should not be doing it either, and why this trope should not be continuing in narratives, film or otherwise. Likely partly because of the novelty of the situation, the interaction between Erin and Kevin highlights how much the “charms” of Peter Venkman, and fictional figures like him, are reliant on sexually predatory behavior. Erin is on the edge, if not over the edge, of sexually harassing Kevin. She is exemplifying the ways in which the oppressed can, in turn, become oppressors. It is not “more okay” for Erin to be inappropriate to Kevin just because she herself was the victim of a patriarchal system that dismissed her worth. The fact that men are awful to Erin does not mean it is okay for her to be awful to Kevin. It’s kind of an amazing revelation to see happening on the screen.

Again, I’m by no means saying that this is a perfect movie. I’m saying it’s way better than people gave it credit for, or give it credit for now. And while the feminism it displays is also not perfect, it packages really important feminist messages into a franchise reboot, which guarantees that millions of people will at least passively receive them. That is, roughly, a bajillion more people than will ever read this blog. It is a film that turns its critics into its villains, and rips away some of the rose-tinted nostalgia from the original film while also mocking a trope that hurts women as well as men. All in all, not a bad day’s work. A few dozen more movies like Ghostbusters every year, and maybe the idea that women can be the focus of excellent movies will seem a little bit less like a novelty.

Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not picking apart (and generally endorsing) a much-needed dose of feminism in film, she studies gender in popular culture.


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