There’s a beautiful irony to the new Ghostbusters. Despite all the hate, vitriol, whining, and crying from a certain sect of the internet about their childhoods being destroyed by “SJWs,” Ghostbusters isn’t nearly as explicitly feminist as anyone was probably expecting. Instead, the movie is mostly content in being an earnestly entertaining romp through an inventive sci-fi/supernatural world with four of the best comedians working today.
If you were able to watch the movie in an alternate universe where the cultural battle that has erupted around the movie never existed, what you would find is a delightful way to pass an hour-and-a-half. The four leads prove funny and engaging enough to warrant sequels, some scenes are bound to be quotable classics (“Mike Hat”), and there’s a genuinely awesome action sequence that could upstage anything in any blockbuster this year (God bless Kate McKinnon). But in this untainted alternate universe, you probably wouldn’t leave the movie and find many thinkpieces or ranting comments about what feminist statements the movie is making.
Ghostbusters isn’t trying to be a “feminist” movie; it just wants to be a good movie about a group of people proving a skeptical world wrong and becoming heroes in the process.
You can see the makings of a more deliberately feminist arc buried in the movie as it is now. Tweak some of the male characters like the dean and the mayor to be more blatantly sexist, have some random New Yorkers say they don’t trust an all-female group doing a dangerous job like the Ghostbusters, and make the villain openly hostile towards women. Then when the misogynist villain turns into a twisted, evil version of the Ghostbusters logo and the Ghostbusters save the city by taking him down with a proton blast to the groin, you’ve got yourself a nice little allegory aimed right at the movie’s online haters.
But these small tweaks don’t exist. Instead, most of the movie’s comments on gender dynamics and sexism lay below the surface, coded into how characters are positioned relative to good and evil, smart and ignorant, and successful and unsuccessful. Yes, the four stars are women working in stereotypically male-dominated fields, the doofus men in their lives get in their way, and there are a few jabs at internet harassment and sad, pale men, but women fighting to get their recognition in a man’s world never feels like the central thematic arc. No one in the movie is openly sexist or misogynist. We never see the Ghostbusters face any kind of backlash specifically because of their gender. Honestly, I think the only gendered insult in the movie is during the final showdown when the villain, Rowan, says the busters “shoot like girls.”
Erin, Abby, and Holtzmann have to deal with inept and stuffy men as their bosses, but the trio is ultimately fired from their teaching jobs because of their belief in the supernatural and not for any outwardly sexist reasons. Rowan isn’t evil because a woman bullied him, he’s not trying to purge the world of women, and he doesn’t hate the Ghostbusters because they’re women. We only get a few hints toward his motivation, but his ultimate justification is that he’s just a bullied creep who wants to rid the world of all the mean people. So the movie veers just shy of making itself a “feminist” movie. It’s rife with implications, but the movie’s narrative arc doesn’t go far enough in any place to fully make itself a metaphor for the harassment the movie and its creators have faced since day one for daring to make a movie starring women.
I can understand why director Paul Feig, writer Katie Dippold, and the rest of the creative team may have gone for a more subtle approach to its feminism, wanting it to come into the movie through its characters’ positions, but never making the women vs. the patriarchy dynamic textual. But even in this there’s a powerful reason for not wanting to make a “feminist” movie. Making a movie starring women and not making it explicitly a “feminist” movie or a “girl” movie is ironically, a statement in and of itself.
It comes down to combating the assumption that men make movies that are universal to everyone, but women make movies that are for and about women. This is a common through line in Western media and art. Straight, white, and male stories are often talked about as being universal stories that can cross boundaries and touch everyone. But when a movie by any marginalized or minority group is made it suddenly becomes a black movie, or a girl movie, or a gay movie. The mainstream narrative tell us that unless you’re a straight white dude, your stories aren’t universal, they have to be for and about your group and people in particular.
But Ghostbusters rejects that narrative.
Now, you can read many of the movie’s encounters as being born from the type of sexist bias that women deal with every day. These scenes are tinged with condescension and mansplaining. Erin faces scrutiny about her wardrobe in her attempt to get tenure at her university; Abby and Holtzmann are shouted at and insulted by their dean; Bill Murray’s skeptic patronizes the women over their belief in ghosts; the mayor dismissively tells the Ghostbusters to stop doing their job. Sexism is inherently coded into these situations because of the characters’ genders and their relative positions to one another. But with these implications existing subtextually, the movie’s feminism feels more like an undercurrent than its central point. What rises to the top is a universal (if generic) story about succeeding in the face of adversity, a story about facing down your detractors and earning recognition and acceptance. And in this universal story, our universal heroes are women.
Ghostbusters pitches its female leads as heroes for everyone, regardless of their gender, normalizing their existence in a stereotypically male-dominated genre. Like the movie’s post-credits scene shows, everyone can be united behind these women busting ghosts. Viewed in this light, Ghostbusters becomes a powerful message on how we gender stories made about women. It says that women can tell stories that appeal to everyone, regardless of the creator’s or the audience’s gender.
So, in the end, Ghostbusters gets to have its cake and eat it too. It has moments that show how women have to deal with sexism and toxic masculinity, but by allowing those moments to exist without directly commenting on their gender dynamic, the movie also lets itself be a universal adventure story with heroes for everyone to look up to. In a world where the movie has had to face screeds of hateful rhetoric for taking a boy franchise and supposedly “making it for girls,” it’s a powerful statement for a group of women to make a movie that says, “Our stories can be your stories too.”