Ghostbusters and the Spectre of Sexism

How the original Ghostbusters movies expressed cultural anxieties about powerful, independent women
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Promotional poster for Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig, 2016)

A spectre is haunting Ghostbusters — the spectre of sexism.

A preview trailer for this summer’s Ghostbusters reboot has been cited as the most disliked in Youtube’s history. The film’s two-and-a-half minute promo has received more than 600,000 dislikes within its first 30 million views.

Much of the controversy appears to surround director Paul Feig’s choice to helm an all-woman cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as the title characters. Many fans of the original franchise, uncomfortable with the direction the new film is taking, have denied the charge that their comments are sexist or prejudicial. But it’s a denial that is hard to accept.

As a fan of the Ghostbusters franchise since childhood, the new trailer has triggered some fond and nostalgic associations. If I am honest, my biggest disappointment is that the late Harold Ramis (who played Egon Spengler in the original films) will not be returning in a cameo. The same goes for Rick Moranis (Louis Tully), who has long since retired from moviemaking. But I was delighted to see so many other original cast members coming back, including Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts. It’s been made clear that the new film is a reboot rather than a sequel, so it’s unlikely that they will be reprising their original roles. But I take these cameos as an endorsement by the original cast of the new direction the franchise is taking, and I think it’s great.

But why are the fans so angry? Feig has suggested that the root cause is “pure misogyny“, and I suspect he’s probably right.

One way to shed some light on the fan’s sexist outbursts might be to consider the role that ghost stories traditionally play in Western culture. Ghost stories, and gothic narratives more generally, typically explore or develop deep and unsettling anxieties that exist within a particular society at a particular time. The ghost is an ideal symbol of such anxieties due to its uncertain and ambiguous status: it is troubling because it cannot be pinned down, it can trespass into forbidden spaces, it can hover on the margins.

The title Ghostbusters offers to resolve the anxiety by neutralizing the threat, restoring order to the culture and comfort to the audience. But what is significant about the original films is that the anxiety often focusses on issues relating to gender: gender roles, gender status, and gender equality. This is the anxiety, embodied in the things that go bump in the night, that the four New Yorkers are attempting to bust.

The spectre of sexism in Ghostbusters has been haunting the franchise for some time.


Female Spectres and Gender Anxiety

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Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984)

The 1980s was a decade of rapid cultural and historical change in America, and gave rise to landmark shifts in the role and status of American women. This evolving status can be seen as a source of discomfort in countless texts from the period, and movies are no exception. In Ghostbusters, the figure of the female ghost symbolises broader fears about the ambiguous place of women in domestic and professional life. And it is the job of the three male scientists to contain the threat.

The Ghostbusters encounter their first apparition in a library, an institutional repository built to preserve history and tradition for future generations. (Incidentally, the film opens with the card catalogues being thrown and scattered into complete disarray.) The three Ghostbusters, Egon (Ramis), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), are alerted to the presence of a spectral trespasser, and meet at the building to interview an eyewitness, Alice.

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Promotional poster for Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984)

Venkman attempts to assess Alice’s reliability as a witness by asking her whether there is a history of mental illness in her family, to which she responds that her uncle “thought he was Saint Jerome”, the patron saint of libraries. Venkman then asks Alice whether she is menstruating, drawing attention to the role that her gender might play in her possible delusion. The administrator asks Venkman why menstruation is relevant to the investigation, to which he responds: “Back off man, I’m a scientist”. This exchange is interesting for two reasons: firstly, because it invokes a male-dominated intellectual discipline as the explanation that needs no explanation, and secondly, because menstruation hints toward the difficulty of controlling or containing the female body.

The three scientists then descend into the library itself, where they find ectoplasm dripping from library cards: a thick and viscous fluid that is taken as evidence of a ghostly presence nearby. The scientists then find her hovering among the stacks, quietly reading a book. She presents an implicit threat, since she has been moving, stacking, and disordering the library’s holdings. There is also, perhaps, a threat implicit in the figure of a woman reading. The meeting with the spirit proves to be a decisive encounter for the scientists, who decide to launch a business for the scientific containment and imprisonment of such entities.

Then there is the character of Dana Barrett (played by Sigourney Weaver), who becomes a love interest for Peter Venkman. She is a single woman living in the big city, and makes a living as a talented professional musician. It’s not a coincidence that many of the film’s big scares depict scenes of an independent woman living alone in an apartment.

Dana seeks out the Ghostbusters after a frightening and bizarre encounter in her kitchen. The scientists attempt to scan her mind, and proceed to explore her home. The scenes are playful, funny, and flirtatious, and it is clear that Dana retains the upperhand when it comes to Peter Venkman’s clumsy advances. But the supernatural mystery is a proxy for another: who is this single woman, and how does she live? Later in the film, Dana is possessed by an entity called Zuul, and her character becomes overtly-sexualised. These supernatural transformations reflect the anxieties surrounding strong, independent women in 1980s New York.

“These supernatural transformations reflect the anxieties surrounding strong, independent women in 1980s New York.”

The three scientists, now joined by Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), are not the typical action heroes of 1980s blockbusters: they are, in many ways, directly oppositional to figures like Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series, or, say, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or Rambo. The scientists are socially-awkward and somewhat clumsy characters,  who draw on the power of scientific rationality and technology to reclaim their masculinity.


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Gozer, the genderless antagonist of Ghostbusters (1984) adopting a female form

And so, Ghostbusters draws on the supernatural and the fantastical to dramatise a number of contemporary concerns, from the increasing independence of women in 1980s American culture, to fears that male power is under threat of emasculation (“Yes, it’s true: this man has no dick”). As a result, the male characters are sometimes rendered useless and ineffective by their own decisions or involuntary actions.

The first Ghostbusters culminates with a malignant spirit antagonist named Gozer, a genderless creature who adopts a female form. Gozer symbolises a clear and present danger to New York, and to the existing traditions and hierarchies of the culture. Just as the ghost in the library places history and culture into dissarray, Gozer imposes anarchic disorder upon Manhattan. Is it a coincidence that Gozer manifests in the apartment building of a strong, independent woman? It is only at the close of the film, when Gozer is banished, that traditional order and harmony is restored. Dana is kissed and embraced by Peter as the credits roll.


The 1980s “New Man”

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Damsel in distress. Ghostbusters II (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1989)

The shift in traditional gender roles and identities is also a key theme in Ghostbusters II, which expresses anxieties about the uncertain status of traditional masculinity, and the role of strong, independent women.

In the sequel, Weaver reprises the role of her strong-willed and independent character, Dana Barrett. The movie opens with a crack in the sidewalk oozing a mysterious pink fluid. We are reintroduced to Dana as a single mother with a stroller, navigating the streets of New York City. Dana passes by a man and a woman arguing; the man is disputing a parking ticket with the female attendant, who holds a position of authority. “You can have this ticket,” he shouts, “and keep it! I’m not paying that ticket!”

Next, a woman on crutches is pushed aside by a man running, whom she promptly shouts down for his lack of consideration (“Jesus! Could you watch where you’re going?”). In both exchanges, male and female characters are placed into oppositional conflict. But as the music soars, a patriarchal order is restored. Dana arrives outside her apartment building and greets the gruff but affable building superintendent. She asks him for help carrying her groceries to the apartment. “It’s not by job,” he says, “but what the hell I’ll do you a favour”. Dana then asks the super’ when he’s going to get around “to fixing the radiator in the baby’s room”. While Dana is written as an independent single woman, she remains dependent on the skills, strength, and generosity of male characters.

“This scene epitomizes the film’s representation of the independent single mother: relatable, sympathetic, and strong, but at risk from unknown and hostile forces.”

It is at this point that the stroller begins to move away from Dana, as though of its own accord. She notices this slight movement as the super’ reassures her, but as she steps toward the stroller it accelerates away rapidly. She calls upon male workers on the street to help her apprehend the carriage, that appears to be under the control of some unknown force.

The stroller veers off the sidewalk onto the busy road, stopping traffic and forcing cyclists off their bikes. The Ghostbusters theme begins to swell as the carriage comes to an unpredictable stop in the middle of the road. The baby is safely recovered from the stroller and cradled in Dana’s arms, but it is clear that both she and the child, standing in the middle of the road, occupy a vulnerable and isolated position.

This scene epitomizes the film’s representation of the independent single mother: relatable, sympathetic, and strong, but at risk from unknown and hostile forces.


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Under a spell: Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) is transfixed by traditional representations of masculinity

These unknown and hostile forces take the form of a threatening male figure. The primary antagonist of Ghostbusters II is encountered in Dana Barrett’s new workplace at the Manhattan Museum of Art. At the museum, there is a painting haunted by the ghost of a medieval tyrant named Vigo the Carpathian (voiced by Max Von Sydow).  The portrait presents an image of masculinity as power and domination, and it casts a spell over some of the male characters who encounter it. It is revealed that Vigo has a plot to return to human form, and plans to kidnap and possess the body of Dana Barrett’s baby son.

This second installment in the franchise, while less popular than the first, is in some ways more progressive. Here, we see cultural concerns being expressed about the changing status of masculinity. In Vigo, we see an historical vision of man as powerful and assured, a traditionally-accepted idea of the male as conqueror and hero. Then, we have the Ghostbusters, who present an alternative: the ‘New Man’ of the 1980s that both nurtures and protects. (Leonard Nimoy’s 1987 film, Three Men and a Baby, is an exemplary text in the canon of ’80s New Man cinema. Its rather cloying tagline: “They changed her diapers. She changed their lives.”)


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The 1980s ‘New Man’: Nurturing Protectors

Ghostbusters II reaches its conclusion when one form of masculinity, represented by Vigo, is supplanted by another, represented by the Ghostbusters. In place of Vigo’s portrait is a new image, representing Egon, Winston, Ray, and Peter in ancient Biblical dress, with the young baby Oscar under their care. Peter, destined to become Dana’s partner and Oscar’s step-father, is holding a sword, a phallic symbol denoting patriarchal mastery and power.

And so, while Ghostbusters II celebrates a mode of masculinity that is less authoritarian than traditionally-conceived, the problematic role of male as guardian remains as an enduring image and symbol. The drama of the film, which depicts a vulnerable single mother unable to safeguard her young son, reaches its conclusion when she is defended by the sword of a male protector.


The Reboot

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Promotional poster for Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig, 2016)

The first Ghostbusters dramatizes the concerns surrounding the growing empowerment of women in American culture. These anxieties are resolved by the containment or banishment of spectral female figures, and in the coupling of Peter Venkman with independent professional Dana Barrett. In the sequel, traditional and authoritarian modes of masculinity are overwritten by the accepting, tender, and caring face of the 1980s New Man; but the power remains in the hands of men rather than women, where strong-willed and independent professionals are still represented as somehow dependent and vulnerable.

The significance of an all-women cast for the Ghostbusters reboot cannot be understated. Its political dimensions and implications are important. Not just because it’s a summer action blockbuster with four female leads, which in itself is remarkable, but because the franchise has a history of documenting and exploring the changing constructions of male and female identity. I applaud the way that the first two films seek to represent more flexible representations of male role-models, and to show images of femininity that offer agency and independence – but it was effective only up to a point.

What I am looking forward to seeing in the new film, aside from the jokes, the ghouls, the goblins, and the slime, is how the reboot presents 21st century New York and the people who live in it.

Ghostbusters is set for release on 22 July 2016.

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4 Comments

  1. From my point of view, I would say one person’s themes or analytical priorities are often more revealing of the said person’s values rather than the film’s motives behind it. It would appear that you, as an analyzer, are lacking one major important fact behind this entire article: the creators did NOT do the “sexist” angle as the article seems to put it.

    Let me explain…

    Dana Barrett was made up to be a strong independent woman working in an orchestra rather than the even more stereotypical character they had at the beginning of the project: she was a supermodel. When Sigourney Weaver joined the cast, she suggested her character be a classical musician… AND the possession scene where she becomes hyper sexualized.

    You have to realize that this was 1983 and when they green-lit the project, they had no more than 12 to 13 months to write the entire script (the studio approved the movie based on a treatment), pre-production, production and post during this whole time. It was a race.

    And what the team wanted to do was a comedy of its time: think American Pie (with less boobs and scatological jokes) mixed with ghosts and weird made-up technology. A sort of “Blues Brothers” meets “Casper”. Most comedies of the 80s had sexual jokes, more racy themes and were a LOT less politically correct than this hypocritical time we live in.

    Being a super fan of the first film only, I’ve stated but a FEW of the behind the scenes that this article failed to explore, making it a series of “views” and “opinions” with theories offered as evidence.

    I’m not saying we don’t need some form of feminism, but we certainly do not need the misandry the 2016 floppy GB reboot did. This flick felt like it was written in 1974, sat on the shelves of some old decrepit studio, dusted off and poorly updated before getting the green light.

    But this is only my opinion.

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    • Hi Simon,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Let me just say: I am not suggesting for a moment that the filmmakers behind the original Ghostbusters franchise are sexist in any way, shape, or form. Nor am I suggesting that the originals fail to meet some kind of politically correct standard. Instead, I am situating Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II within a historical and cultural context where civil rights movement of Second Wave feminism meets the neoconservatism of the 1980s.

      What is interesting to me as a big fan of all three films, is that Ghosbusters explores traditional Western ideas of masculinity and femininity in some very interesting ways. Traditional feminine roles are explored and deconstructed — even the male ghostbusters themselves are not traditionally masculine, often presented as unlikely and haphazard heroes. But sexism in the film remains a ‘spectre’ that haunts the films and the minds of fans; it is ghostly, rather than an explicit statement or manifesto. Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II are not sexist films, far from it, but they reproduce some of the assumptions and prejudices of their time.

      On a slightly different note, I want to reiterate that I am a big fan of the original two films. I watched them repeatedly when I was a kid, and can still do a pretty good impression of Winston’s echo in the tunnel. I did not know that Sigourney Weaver had such an influence on the actions of her character in the original film – thank you for that. I am also a big fan of the first three Alien movies, and am fascinated by Weaver’s role in Hollywood during the 1980s. A great actress.

      All the best, and thanks again,
      Rhys

      Like

  2. While this essay had to reach and reach hard to try and build a misogyny case against the originals I’m hoping we can see a similar essay about the rampant misandry on display on the new film (which you seemed to love). If you are deluded enough to think that a woman reading (female empowerment/intelligence/education etc) is viewed as threatening by men then surely you must be able to write a treatise on the new female Ghostbusters triumphant moment literally being a scene of four women shooting a man in the testicles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jenni!

      Thank you for your comment!

      I apologise if I gave the impression that the original Ghostbusters films are misogynistic in any way, shape, or form. That was not my intention at all: I merely wanted to explore the anxieties that the first two films demonstrate with regard to strong, independent women during a specific cultural moment in the 1980s. And I am afraid to say that historically, as late as the 1980s (and beyond), even the image of a woman reading remains a threatening image to many Americans – men and women alike. I felt that this anxiety about women’s independence might have somehow informed the recent backlash against Paul Feig’s casting choices for the reboot.

      To address your point on the reboot’s “misandry”, I have complicated feelings on the issue. Misogyny is structured by a combination of power and prejudice: plainly speaking, it is a form of discrimination designed to protect dominant ideological interests. Misandry, so-called, does not come from a position of power or privilege; it is a popular term in modern debates because it delegitimates a marginalised group in order to quash them and preserve existing gender roles. In short, it’s another way to take away the microphone from a group of people that rarely hold the microphone in the first place.

      As for the movie, I do not think that the film shows any kind of ingrained prejudice against men. I think that, in a playful and subversive way, the film flips and reverses female Hollywood stereotypes in order to make them appear absurd and changeable. I think credit is due to Chris Hemsworth for playing his role as the hapless secretary (a “mimbo”, as Seinfeld might say), and for the way he successfully deconstructs (and makes ridiculous) that all-too-familiar trope which so often trivialises and marginalises the role of women in Western culture. The joke that you refer to as the “triumphant moment” of the Ghostbusters is only controversial if we assume that the imaginary form Rowan takes is male, which I think remains ambiguous – but if you feel it is an act of political violence then I will not try to convince you otherwise.

      All in all, I love the original films and I thoroughly enjoyed the reboot. I don’t think that either film is misogynist or “misandrist”, but I do think that all three films allow us to trace the growing independence of women in a culture that continues to marginalise and trivialise their personal and professional lives. While the first two express anxieties about powerful women, the reboot expresses anxieties about losing the ground that has been gained. All of the Ghostbusters films do something to present strong independent women in a Hollywood culture that rarely gives women actors a voice, and I think the latest installment is an empowering step in a bold, new direction.

      If you disagree with what I’ve said, then that’s too bad. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy the latest film. Thank you for your comment and input, nonetheless.

      Best,
      Rhys

      Like

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