The idea of an all-female “Ghostbusters” should have been no big deal.
Ever eager to profitably repurpose their corporate properties, movie studios are constantly on the hunt for past projects to resurrect, capitalizing on nostalgic Baby Boomers and Gen Xers and, just maybe, enlisting a young generation of fans to support a new franchise.
When it comes to a potentially lucrative reboot, “Ghostbusters” – the beloved, albeit far from perfect, 1984 action-comedy starring Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray – checked every box. The prospect was made all the more enticing when it was announced that this one would feature an all-female cast, including Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and “Saturday Night Live” stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.
Surely, Sony, the parent studio of “Ghostbusters,” and director Paul Feig had no reason to believe that their remake would run straight into a buzz saw of sexist backlash. Feig, after all, directed the hugely successful, female-centric comedies “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy” – all of which featured hugely popular performances from McCarthy, whose appeal has transcended gender to make her a global star and a rising commercial force in the industry. She was positioned to dominate her rendition of “Ghostbusters” every bit as thoroughly as Murray had dominated his.
But Sony and Feig were quickly disabused of their optimism in March, when the first trailer for “Ghostbusters” appeared and was met with an engulfing wave of hate, eventually becoming the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube history. This was the work of a small but vocal and well-organized cadre of male fans of the original film who were outraged at the prospect of a worshiped text being rewritten according to new norms, but with no actual, you know, Norms – or Egons or Rays. (Apparently, no one hipped these guys to the fact that a remake doesn’t render the first one nonexistent. Strange but true.)
The backlash has simmered ever since: Aykroyd, who starred in the original “Ghostbusters” and has a writing and producing credit on the new one, received jeers (and some understandable skepticism) when he recently tweeted a glowing response to a preview screening he saw. A few days earlier – just as the “Beauty and the Beast” trailer was breaking viewership records on YouTube – actresses Gillian Anderson and Priyanka Chopra were pilloried for suggesting that there might be room in the world for a female James Bond.
The message, by all these dizzying accounts, was clear: Outside narrowly proscribed channels of acceptability, women still have to fight for the right to claim the symbolic and social space that movies represent. A fairy tale about a young woman falling in love with a misunderstood prince? Girls rule! Long-cherished narratives involving agency, competence and – heaven forfend! – humor? Not so fast, laydeeze.
For 20 years, I’ve been observing and writing about the power of films, which I’ve argued may not have direct cause-and-effect relationships to behavior but exert enormous influence on our values and imaginative identities. I’ve received a fair share of ridicule and anger for that idea – more public on some occasions than others, from, I suspect, the very same men and boys who react to a female-led “Ghostbusters” or 007 film as if their manhood, indeed their very existence, were under prolonged proton-pack attack.
Interestingly enough, just as the “Ghostbusters” debates were raging on social media, all-female and all-male productions of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” opened in New York and Washington, respectively, with nary a peep heard from the he-nut gallery. Unlike plays, which easily lend themselves to myriad interpretations and new stagings, movies become immovably fixed in our psyches. We internalize them – even the silly ones – more intensely, fusing them with our own identities, desires and aspirations. Movies are personal. And the personal is political.
And, in an election year, the political is – inescapably – partisan. Which is no doubt why Ellen DeGeneres decided to book the women of “Ghostbusters” on her talk show the same day that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was scheduled to appear. DeGeneres was clearly tickled at the you-go-girl optics of it all, even as Sony scrambled to position “Ghostbusters” as an not-controversial, general-audience, feel-good summer hit.
“I hope they realize that Slimer is not a registered voter,” Sony chief Tom Rothman gamely told the New York Times in a story about the appearance on DeGeneres’ show.
Rothman’s joke sounded even more like wishful thinking a few days later when author Andi Zeisler wrote in the Los Angeles Times that feminists now had an “obligation” to see “Ghostbusters” when it opens July 15. “When a big-budget movie starring men does poorly, it’s just another dud that’s shrugged off,” she wrote. “When one made by or starring women doesn’t live up to the hype, it becomes a referendum on women as artists and filmgoers.”
Zeisler’s context isn’t the presidential race, but rather the persistent lack of representation of women behind and in front of the camera, and the dismissal of them as an audience and market. Still, it seems like just yesterday that anti-Clinton voters were being given the same marching orders to support “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s amped-up action adventure about the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Now, sight unseen and quality notwithstanding, seeing “Ghostbusters” has taken on the contours of a political act – a development that’s startling but not exactly shocking at a time when the presumptive Republican nominee is a reality TV star and campaigns accordingly. When brand loyalty and consumer choices have taken the place of informed engagement and activism – when politicians and celebrities are becoming increasingly indistinguishable – it stands to reason that the box office has become the new ballot box.
In a culture of politics-as-spectacle, even our most escapist spectacles have become politicized. Whether fans choose to see “Ghostbusters” to take a stand or just for a laugh, the stakes are absurdly high for a film that will either become an unwitting beneficiary of this year’s silly season or its most undeserving casualty.