Review: Ghostbusters 2016 (dir. Paul Feig; stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon)
It’s a summer blockbuster film about which there’s been much enthusiastic writing by viewers excited about a big action film starring four women, and a bunch of cranky “stupid-lady-film-ruined-the-original” bitching about a big action film starring four women. So when I decided to pay NYC movie theater prices to go see the new Ghostbusters in the theater (seriously? $30 for two adults on a Sunday afternoon?), it was with a bit of resistance. I’m a miser, and I am not super fond of being near a lot of people who manage neither their cell phones, nor their screaming kids, nor their own dang bodies very carefully.
But I went anyway, mostly because I wanted to see Kate McKinnon lick a gun. She’s sort of like the 1970s Burt Reynolds for lesbians of today, except she comes across as smarter and funnier and way less hairy.
So I probably went for the wrong reasons, but I got completely sucked in anyway. And folks, I actually got choked up at the end of the film. It wasn’t because of the plot, though, it was because of a really smart, lovely ending image.
So, if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters yet and don’t want to be spoiled (and you haven’t already stopped reading), I suggest you quit while you’re ahead. As the kids today say, SPOILER ALERT! (You’ve been warned… scroll down if you want to continue reading.)
Okay, now that it’s just us, let me tell you all about the film. This isn’t just a remake of Ghostbusters with a bunch of women slotted into the male roles. Well, I mean, they’ve re-gendered the Hollywood archetypes from the first film, sure (Lead White Guy, Lead White Guy’s Best White Pal Who’s a Bit Unhinged, White Brainiac and Excitable Black Guy We Threw in So You Can’t Call Us Racist). But the Lead White Guy is now Melissa McCarthy (let’s call her Leader for simplicity’s sake) who, while sexy and admirable in this lesbo’s eyes, is probably not the embodiment of the Hollywood Ideal for a lady on film. The Bestie (played by Kristen Wiig) is not a gal-pal huggy sort of person nor a frenemy in competition for boy attention (the two choices generally available for gal-pals), but a smart and caring person who, yes, has a checkered history with Leader (and THANK you for not including some tearful come-to-Jebus moment of reconciliation between them!) and her own motivations, but finds a way to work with Leader and even care about her because of reasons greater than her own (Science… since when do women care about science? That’s like, hard, as Barbie once said about math). The Brainiac is now played rather…dyke-like (and this dyke do like, yep) by a pretty conventionally-attractive woman and Lesbian Star.
And the Black Guy is… well, still kind of a Black Guy stereotype IMHO (working class job and take-no-crap sensibility and the only person of color among the 4 leads). My wife disagrees about the stereotype, and points out that Patty Tolan (jones) is shown as vital and intelligent, and the film even makes a meta-commentary on the commonness of racism when some of the characters crowd-surf and, while the largely-white crowd catches and surfs McCarthy, they drop Jones on her ass (because while an audience will accept even a fat white woman before they accept a woman of color…that just pushes the demand for recognition too damn far). What’s more, my girl tells me, Patty is also a stereotype of Take-No-Crap New Yorkers of every ethnicity (which is, I grant her, true). But there’s something in me that still revolts against a Black woman being portrayed as the “Oh, HELL no!” Character (at least THIS Black person isn’t afraid of the ghosts?); maybe we’re past that, and my knee-jerking is just being a jerk? Not entirely sure on this one.
The arc of the characters here is toward legitimization and recognition for their work, which the Authorities require them to keep a lid on (and for which the Authorities then take credit) for the ostensible good of everybody. The resolution comes when the four women, despite fighting against the machine that wants to hide their abilities and achievements, literally see their name in lights all across the city. That moment, at film’s end, is when I choked up and tried not to cry like a big ole crazy person. It’s just that I saw the original Ghostbusters in the theater, and I saw lots of popular films before that, and I cannot believe I have lived to see a film in which women are celebrated and thanked for their bad-assery without terrible consequences. The win here is not when one or more of the main female characters scores a legitimating boyfriend (that’s not even in the plot), but when they are recognized as capable and important people.
Add to this the fact that all the main cast members of the original film appear in this one, as if they are blessing the new version, and you’ve got a film about (mostly white) women finally getting their recognition.
This brings me to another point I appreciated about this film: it’s highly citational. There were myriad references to the original Ghostbusters franchise (cameos of all its stars and the original headquarters, for instance) and to the fact that this is a film (like the inclusion of a sign for the now-defunct Woolworth’s (which is hard to see and NOT think about the civil rights sit-ins at those segregated lunch counters… and then to start thinking about all the institutions we cling to that segregate by race, gender, sexuality… like, um, blockbuster action films) among other store signs, some of which were fake and some of which were probably paid product placements). It’s PoMo 101 (which I actually teach, come to think of it, though we don’t put the “101” in the course title): citation used as winking commentary to remind you that (1) this is a mediated piece of art and not reality and (2) it has things to say and should therefore be interpreted for its meanings/motivations. The film won’t let you watch without consciousness; you’re never fully allowed to suspend your disbelief. That, to me, at least in this case, is a really good thing.
McKinnon, I’ve read, was not allowed to discuss her character’s sexuality during press for the film, ostensibly so that she could be read as straight OR queer and thus be an object for everyone and offensive to no one. I don’t know if this is the truth, but it sounds like something agents or producers would ask of an out queer in Hollywood. Either way, her performance produces a kind of gender/sexuality double-consciousness for those of us queers watching—everything she does on screen is read through the lens of Out Dyke Performing a Role with a Wink at the Rest of Us Queers at the same time it plays nice for the str8s and could–if you’re willfully blind–fly under the un-gaydar. Her performance is resistant to the clear limitations of the film; so very much of how Holzman’s sexuality is delivered is done through the performance, in excess of the scripted dialogue.
I’d say McKinnon’s performance produced queer subtext, but it’s not subtle enough, thank god; it’s kind of a queer ubertext readable to anyone who is willing to read it. Though her sexuality, it’s true, is never stated in the film, she eye-bangs the women and ignores the male sex object (Chris Hemsworth), and her performance comes across as so resistant that when she licks her gun, it looks less like a blowjob and more like… preparation… of a device… many lesbians (who are we kidding? many PEOPLE) like to use… that can be attached to any body… you know to what I refer here, friends, don’t make me spell it out where kids might read. Given that one of the most influential theories about film viewership once proposed that film-viewing pleasure comes from identifying with the lead character and the camera (whose gazes coincide) and that the lead and the camera (director/writer) are conceived of as male, and hence The Gaze is almost always male (I’m talking Laura Mulvey, folks), this changes the game for the rest of us.
While we’re on the sexual politics of Ghostbusters, let’s talk about Chris Hemsworth, who’s made his bones as a film star/sex symbol trading on his masculinity (cf Thor). Ghostbusters objectifies him, but not in a simplistic “turnabout is fair play, now shake that booty while us ladies watch, fella” kind of way. One of the main characters actively drools over the dude, one scolds her for being a pig, and the other two roll their eyes at Hemsworth’s character’s stupidity. He’s a stereotypical bimbo, but he’s never shirtless (except in his own hysterically hyperbolized headshots for his acting career). The closest the camera comes to objectifying him is in the b-roll during the credits, when he’s shown dancing and, through his booty-wiggling and arm-flexing, commanding a whole army of hypnotized men in the street to do the same (I could make a comment here about the apparent meta-commentary on everyone’s willingness to follow and imitate sex symbols, but I won’t beat that horse). The sexist treatment of Hemsworth by a camera and one of the main characters, in other words, is the object of laughter and criticism.
Plus, the film was fun. It was at least as fun as the original, and even more so for those of us who left the original feeling demoralized by the way women were portrayed. (it still has a way to go on the portrayal of race, but it’s a pretty big step beyond the original). It had explosions, ghosts, a few jump-scares, some good one-liners, and a pretty crisp pace, but no Sigourney Weaver rolling around in negligee while a (male) devil uses her body to seduce one of the male heroes for the pleasure of the (mostly white, adolescent male) viewers (I get it, that was intended as a “humorous” take on The Exorcist, but the original Ghostbusters happily reproduced the problematic gender politics of The Exorcist).
So I take back all my resistance and skepticism. The new Ghostbusters was fun, it wasn’t mean, and it had eye candy for most of us (even those who fetishize giant blobby white ghosts… like Chris Hemsworth… JK, kids, jk. Hemsworth seems lovely and decidedly not blobby).