At the beginning of the 1989 film Ghostbusters 2, we find our heroes — as you do in the first act of a sequel — disgraced. In just five short years, the droll scientist Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) has somehow gone from saving his entire city from a King Kong–sized anthropomorphic marshmallow to hosting a low-rent public access TV show called World of the Psychic. The subject of that evening’s episode: the Apocalypse. One of the guests is a mousy woman named Elaine, who claims to have gleaned some valuable information regarding this topic from an alien she met at the bar of the Paramus Holiday Inn. “According to my source,” she tells Venkman, “the end of the world will be on Feb. 14 in the year 2016.”
Ask some YouTube commenters and they’ll tell you she was only off by a month. On March 3 of that infernal year (you know, this one) the first trailer for the Ghostbusters reboot was released. Perhaps you’ve heard something about the film’s controversial casting: All the main characters are played by convicted mass murderers. Haha no, I’m kidding — they’re just women. But — thanks in large part to an organized group of haters with a particularly phallic axe to grind — the clip quickly became the most “disliked” trailer in the history of YouTube (nearly a million thumbs down and counting). Plenty thought the reaction had to do with misogyny. Others said the trailer just wasn’t that funny. Ivan Reitman, the director of the first two Ghostbusters movies and an executive producer on the reboot, said the backlash had more to do with nostalgia than sexism. “I think there’s way too much talk about gender,” he told Mashable last month. “I think that many of the people who were complaining were actually lovers of the original movie, not haters of women.”
Still, Ghostbusters (which, for purely copy-editing purposes, I really wish had been given a silly Fast and Furious–style title like 3Ghost 3Bust3rs) cannot resist poking some meta-fun at these trolls. About 20 minutes into the film, when a video of the Ghostbusters goes viral, straight-laced Columbia professor Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) makes the mistake of reading the comments: “ain’t no bitches be busting ghosts.” Her childhood friend and fellow paranormal expert, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), tells her not to pay attention to all the chatter — after all, they have a job to do. There are a few more in-jokes like this if you make a point to listen for them, but they do not overwhelm the movie. Wokebusters this is not — and that is often a good thing. Toward the end, the film’s resident himbo (an actually very funny Chris Hemsworth) makes a joke along the lines of, “Women, they’re never on time, amirite?!” It was only then that I realized how completely devoid of this kind of lazy, gender-stereotyped humor the film had been to that point. And anyway, when he delivers that line his body has been seized by a demonic spirit, so we are to forgive him for momentarily going a little Dane Cook on our asses.
For those of us who were actually excited at the thought of a group of talented women portraying the ragtag heroes of their childhood, Ghostbusters has the potential to be nothing short of #Squad porn. Still, in practice, the group chemistry sometimes fails to spark. They often seem to be acting in different movies — the most entertaining of which almost always belonging to Kate McKinnon. Thanks to their respective reigns as SNL’s resident female genius, you’ve heard a lot about Kate McKinnon being “the new Kristen Wiig,” but getting to see these two side by side puts their relative personalities into relief. Wiig’s talent is in minutiae and awkward pauses; McKinnon’s is boisterous and, I think, much more suited to a big, loud movie like this. Melissa McCarthy is, in a welcome turn for her, the (relatively) straight man (save for a hilarious recurring bit involving wontons.) But McKinnon is the breakout star of the film, proving that she’s less like Wiig than she is like Lucille Ball on psilocybin mushrooms. It says a lot that her first important line of the film is a queef joke, and somehow things only get more bizarre from there. With her zany grin, windswept pompadour, and fuck-your-manspreading body language, she’s so thoroughly confident in her own anarchic weird that it becomes a force of magnetism.
Leslie Jones is quite funny too, leaving behind a feature-length string of quotable non sequiturs (a basement “smells like burnt baloney and regrets”). But her character doesn’t do much to help the subtle race problem the franchise has always had — the Original Three Ghostbusters are always the white people, and in the reboot, they’re the scientists. Jones plays an MTA worker named Patty, and though her knowledge of New York City does become a valuable asset to the team, her role feels the least developed of the (uniformly pretty underdeveloped) characters. Patty abandons her job to start hanging out with the Ghostbusters, with no consequence, explanation, or exploration of her life outside the group. The other three characters seem implicitly bonded by their paranormal expertise, while Patty seems to spend much of the film talking to herself. Would it really have been that hard to cast Leslie Jones as a scientist, or Kate McKinnon as an MTA worker? Solving one casting problem doesn’t necessarily solve them all.
The decision to make an all-female Ghostbusters seems very of the moment. We are living through a time when our ideas about gender are on shifting sands — when we must get used to powerful women existing and taking up space, or be left behind. A woman is likely to be our next president. Three very Ghostbuster-like women currently hold it down on the Supreme Court. Beyoncé exists.
The flip side of this is that “female empowerment” is becoming its own kind of boutique commodity — a product to be bought, sold, and tweeted about, rather than a quiet, ongoing way of life. Every time a woman does something even sort of cool, we are pressured to respond with a “YAS QUEEN!!!!” resounding enough to shake the heavens. How can we possibly be anything less than SO SO SO PSYCHED about the “female” Ghostbusters movie and still call ourselves feminists? This way of thinking, Andi Zeisler says in her recent book We Were Feminists Once, “suggest[s] that feminism is not a set of values, ethics, and politics, but merely an assessment of whether or not a product is worthy of consumption.”
And yet, this is a summer blockbuster, not a candidate for public office — and so I say yes, sure, see it. Consume this product. Because in the end, what I like best about this film is that it transcends this conversation; it actually feels a little ahead of its time. It resists the modern urge to be grandstandingly #woke, to constantly and relentlessly remind you of its feminist bona fides. Save for the aforementioned (and, don’t get me wrong, great) queef joke, it doesn’t try to pander to a female audience. I’d have preferred to see these four women in a slightly looser, less plot-tethered movie — where they were free to riff a bit more, deepen their roles beyond stereotypes, and not have to spend the last 25 minutes justifying the price of the 3-D IMAX Experience — but what can you do. Ghostbusters is somehow both smarter and dumber than the maelstrom surrounding it: It’s just a silly, expensive, and utterly fantastical movie about three scientists and one MTA worker who bust ghosts. The most progressive thing about it is that the movie does not constantly remind you that they’re all women. Somewhere right now, a small child is watching it, not even noticing that they’re all women.
A true story, told almost annually around my family’s Thanksgiving table: The morning my sister was born, I threw a tantrum because I wanted a brother. I was 3 years old. I told my grandparents that I would get out of bed that day under only one condition: if I could wear my Ghostbusters costume to the hospital.
No, I didn’t feel the need to dress up as cellist-turned-art-restorer Sigourney Weaver just because she was the “lady” in the movie. I didn’t ask my mom to turn my jumpsuit into a dress or make it pink (yes, my mom made this costume from scratch; shout-out to my mom). I just thought Ghostbusters were cool, and come Halloween I wanted to be one. It was as simple as that. And yet: I still welcomed my sister into this world with tears because she was not a boy. I cringe at this now, but I think I just wanted someone to play Ghostbusters with me. Somewhere along the line, I’d picked up the notion that a brother was more likely to want to play Ghostbusters with you than a sister was.
All of which is to say: This shit really matters, until it doesn’t. What will gender equality finally look like at the movies? Is it simply a matter of plunking women into existing, previously male-helmed franchises? Or does it have to do with treating women’s stories as just as important and potentially universal as men’s — acknowledging that The Revenant is not inherently better or deeper than, say, The Devil Wears Prada? (One woman’s opinion: It is neither.) Ghostbusters’ arrival into our multiplexes and (God help us) our social media feeds has prompted much bigger questions than one movie could ever hope to answer. But it also represents the subtlest lifting of the burden placed on the movies that will come after it, a small step toward that moment when a female-driven blockbuster can be seen as something less than a referendum on the entire state of a gender. That’ll be the day. Or maybe it’ll just be the true date of the Apocalypse.