“Who You Gonna Call?” Movies and Representation
The summer blockbuster season, as with any year, includes everything from large-scale action films like Captain America: Civil War, to family-friendly flicks, such as Finding Dory, Secret Life of Pets, and The BFG.
Although I’m not a big moviegoer, I went to see the Ghostbusters remake of the 1984 classic during its opening weekend. I enjoyed watching the original movie and the subsequent cartoon series as a child, but I didn’t really identify with any of the characters. Given the controversy over the reboot of the film--particularly the critiques regarding the presence of redundant and reductive racial stereotypes--I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I was also excited to see a movie with four female leads.
Recent studies show that there is a persistent underrepresentation of speaking female characters (let alone protagonists) within the movie industry. The numbers are even lower for women of color and for members of the queer community. As I noted in a previous post, “Popular Culture, Race, and Representation,” these limited representations showcase the ways that our society devalues and undervalues nonwhite and female stories and experiences. A lack of representation also means a lack of role models and a missed opportunity to represent other voices and experiences.
After watching the film, I was both elated and frustrated.
Given the shortage of strong female-focused movies, it was really wonderful to watch four intelligent, funny, and complex women talk passionately about science, work together in supportive ways, and engage in problem-solving that had nothing to do with romantic relationships. It was also really fun, and in many ways believable, to watch these women work at catching ghosts clothed in boots and grey coveralls.
In addition to providing audiences with an amusing story, the movie also contains several (maybe too many) implicit social critiques. These include the unintended use of scientific research, the ways that academia can stifle innovative and non-traditional research, narrative-control by public officials, and the impact of hegemonic and toxic masculinity on society.
Coined by Raewyn (R.W.) Connell, hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant idea of what it means to be a man. These ideas differ between cultures, time periods, and geographies. What makes ideas of masculinity hegemonic are the ways that they are enforced within society through both subtle and overt ways that normalize them. As with any social phenomenon, however, masculinity is socially constructed (meaning we create the rules, laws, and norms that define it). Yet, within a given society, people come to believe that the definition is static and all encompassing.
Toxic masculinity highlights the detrimental effects of male socialization within a specific society. As highlighted in this Salon article, in American culture boys are taught to control and suppress their emotions from a young age. This can lead to violent outbursts due to shame or ridicule. Jonathan Wynn’s post on masculine fragility provides a nuanced discussion of the detrimental effects of this phenomenon.
Within the new Ghostbusters movie, the main antagonist, Rowan North, uses the scientific findings of Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) to unleash a ghost-filled apocalypse onto NYC. He does this because he’s been bullied his entire life. The movie highlights the ways that ideas of masculinity can harm both men and others. It also mirrors the response that young men in our country respond to isolation, rejection, humiliation, and shame. The backlash against a Ghostbusters reboot with an all-female cast is also an example of the ways that toxic masculinity constrains possibilities.
While Ghostbusters provides an alternate and progressive story in some ways, in others it falls short. Even though I was happy to watch four female leads, I was frustrated at the lack of racial diversity within the story. Leslie Jones is amazingly funny (her rendition of Selena’s “Como La Flor” is my favorite thing to watch at the moment). However, in a city where 67% of the population is nonwhite she’s the only major character of color in the movie. She’s also the only ghostbuster who isn’t a formal scientist. If the story called for a character that is familiar with NYC’s history and design, why not make her a historian, or an urban planner, or a sociologist! Conversely, why not cast Jones as a physicist and Wiig or McCarthy as an MTA worker?
Despite these criticisms, however, I’m itching to go and watch it again.