What Hillary Clinton and the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake Have in Common
Right out of the gate, Ghostbusters — the original — seemed like a gambit. While the two leads had household-name charisma, wit and a deep catalogue of comedy and dramatic pedigree, it was still a well-trod group buddy story cliché that’d been done a thousand times over in Hollywood. But this movie, inconceivably, met their ghosts head on, a counter-narrative to what we expect. There, the ghosts were jokes and props for the characters to run to when the conventional pop culture wisdom has been to run away from such things. And they lived to laugh about it.
While much of the original has been imported into the updated remake directed by Paul Feig and led by an all-female ghost-busting crew of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, the new one debuted last weekend amid a mainstream tumult about whether the gender-flipped remake would be any good. Notably cited as the “most hated trailer” on YouTube, the movie boldly runs at that criticism, while also finding itself battling two fronts at the same time: gender and the past.
First, the past. The original Ghostbusters was made in the midst of pop culture’s 1980s boom years for the white male hero. By then we’d already had two Star Wars movies, two Indiana Jones films, Die Hard, Terminator and dozens of more everyday guy heroes in movies like Risky Business, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was a period that produced many “too big to fail” actors that would dominate Hollywood for the next 25-30 years: Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino. When Ghostbusters was released, the film’s two central leads, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, were already stars thanks to Saturday Night Live and films like The Blues Brothers. The movie was a critical and commercial success
Much like the Hillary Clinton campaign, the all-female Ghostbusters remake has raised a curious amount of scrutiny. Like the presidential candidate, the very announcement of its campaign elicited as much excitement and sense of victory in just being as it did scorn, weariness and envy. Both have had to battle nearly 30 years worth of legacy. While Hillary’s campaign has been in the public conscience for a good time now, it makes its official case in Philadelphia next week. And the 2016 Ghostbusters remake finally got to make its case this weekend.
The movie opens with Erin Gilbert (Wiig) an adjunct professor at Columbia University seeking tenure and respect, but panics as she learns her childhood friend and peer Abby Yates (McCarthy) has been peddling their book on paranormal studies on the internet; a field of study that threatens to undercut Gilbert’s professional career.
Thinking of it as an academic woman’s indiscretion akin to bad Facebook pics of binge drinking and excessive partying, Gilbert seeks out Yates, who is now paired with the eccentric nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), the two of them working on proving to the world that paranormal activity and ghosts are not only real, but merit real attention. After an initial team-building adventure — investigating the paranormal episode that opens the movie — it’s eventually enough to convince Gilbert to join their cause; in due time the three women scientists are aided by transit worker Patty Tolan (Jones) and then rounded off by inept-but-attractive office assistant, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).
This happens fast as Feig and company seem eager to get the team together in a way that feels like much of the movie; rushed and eager to engage. The movie feels heavy-handed — wanting to battle ghosts of every type, and pushing against a greater machine of their own, some of the humor loses any sense of originality as it’s often tethered to two places: the internet and the past. It comes across as not only meta (in one scene McCarthy reads aloud an internet comment snarking, “ain’t no bitches going to catch ghosts” — a clear nod to their early movie trailer controversy) but a trifle insecure, too, which might be the point, but the fourth wall breaks here don’t serve the characters well. Like the Clinton campaign, it’s something that’s had to be addressed because the vitriol against women’s progress and presence is real, but at times the engagement dilutes the message. While it’s a small moment, it still plays as an important one — at the end of the day the public is really only reacting because there’s a segment that sees them as a threat because these women are competent and capable.
It’s a recurring theme; while Ghostbusters never puts its heroines in any palpable danger in terms of battling the phantasms generating around NYC, the dramatic core is instead anchored by their drive for credibility. The transparent thing that they’re fighting isn’t poltergeists, but a cultural zeitgeist still hampering women today: the glass ceiling.
Everyone from the internet (even their website seems to get as much angst as it does ghostly complaints) to media and the government seem determined to scare and discredit the Ghostbusters before their work begins being taken seriously. To that end, the film also can’t seem to escape its original source material; from the cameos by the original cast to the original 1984 movie’s theme song, it’s a repressive, repetitive gesture set early on in the film that never eases up.
In that, the movie’s antagonists are every shade of male resistance: there’s dubiousness, from historic haunted mansion tour guide (Zach Woods) to paranormal debunker talking head Martin Heiss (Bill Murray); to workplace co-option and coercion in the form of NYC Mayor Bradley (Andy Garcia) and two federal agents (Micheal K. Williams and Matt Walsh) haunting them. It’s in their walls too; at several points even Kevin’s inept office assistant threatens to undercut their ability, credibility and intelligence. The movie positions these men as the real obstacles for the Ghostbusters, and their steadfast success is not only a sign of danger — it’s progress.
You root for the women to defeat the ghosts or even the under-developed villain of the movie not so much because they’re the bad guys, but because the Ghostbusters are not only obviously intelligent and in the right, but likeable too. It’s that imprecise series of ingredients whose elusiveness has often thwarted and threatened Clinton’s current bid for presidency. Like her, they’re not only vying for ongoing professional viability (their resumes are routinely cited throughout the film) but to also not be discounted in wanting something bigger. This is a movie that validates a different kind of fear for the movie-going audience: professional feminism (the movie doesn’t seem interested in anything outside of what these women do personally).
Or more specifically, white professional feminism, because ultimately the movie’s few emotional, rhetorical stakes are really grounded in Wiig and McCarthy’s strive for success and credibility. This makes the movie’s meta and literal conversations anything but inclusive, best exemplified by the awkward insertion of Jones’ black MTA worker who, in classic Hollywood style, seems to only exist in the movie to provide a series of lazy, unimaginative stereotypes: Her quips are often race-based; her commentary often of the fourth wall-breaking variety typically given to black comic relief as she seemingly speaks the audience’s conscience in some situations (like the scene where Jones’ character is chased through a hallway by phantasms); her contribution to the team reduced to providing transportation and “street knowledge.”
She’s disconcertingly familiar in a way that shows that Hollywood’s often self-congratulatory perception of progressiveness isn’t as far along as it thinks.
Ghostbusters has so many scenes debating the validation of these white women’s work; its echoing preoccupation about them being taken seriously also showcases one of the inherent cultural struggles around feminism: it’s still framed in a white agenda. Only three of the four women’s work and career are under the particle thrower here, after all, yet the movie positions it as “if we win, we all win” — a sentiment that has many women of color balancing a practiced distance from Hillary, too.
As a result, the gender fight the movie takes on feels like a level of paranoia in itself; these characters feel spooked. I still thought the scariest thing was the idea that in these very scary real economic times, Patty left her government job for a white women’s start-up. It was enough to have me yell at the screen “Girl, don’t you go with them white girls! Stay in that booth and get your overtime!”
All four of the women will likely give you something to cheer for, but I couldn’t help having my own Hillary-like connection with Patty; I cringed, I cheered and I got embarrassed at times, but at the end of the day needed her to win. The alternatives weren’t for me (though they might be for you): I’m with her.