The Ghostbusters movie came out with all the fanfare and crapola you could expect from a movie with more than one woman in a post-GamerGate digital landscape. Literally: the troll supreme and hateful asshat who principally mobilized GamerGaters (surprisingly) received a penalty for encouraging the twitter harassment of Leslie Jones, one of the film’s stars (and the film’s only nonwhite cast member). It’s been an organized campaign of hatred designed to bring down a film seen as revisionist for featuring a cast of women at best, and a bad film because of its female characters at worst.
So is the film good, or is it bad? If the film is actually good, then the online outcry is motivated by misogyny and reactionary bigotry, rendering criticisms baseless. If the film is actually bad, then everyone excited by it is motivated by an overzealous feminist agenda and the film’s sheer existence can be chocked up to affirmative-action-type policies.
So what happens when a movie is just so-so, as seems to be the case with Ghostbusters? Reviews are mixed, and it is difficult to sort out the bigoted trolls from the earnest, honest reviewers. It’s interesting to not that on Rotten Tomatoes, the film Eileen Jones of Jacobin has some choice words. To her, Ghostbusters is ugly, tacky, boring, and unfunny. Fair. She also decries the insidious capitalism of using “puling fanboy misogyny” to market their films to righteously indignant feminist audiences. She outlined this by making reference to the controversy surrounding Feig’s earlier film, Bridesmaids:
According to the Bridesmaids ballyhoo, if we didn’t all go see it as an act of feminist solidarity, no Hollywood movie would ever again feature several women in lead roles. Women would virtually disappear from our screens, and soon every American film would be a reprehensible sausage fest, nothing but remakes of The Lusty Men, The Lost Boys, Young Guns, The Expendables, and The Dirty Dozen.
Jones may be right about the film at hand, and is definitely onto something about the convenient capitalism of marketing a mainstream film with feminism. But she’s dead wrong to claim that there is nothing urgent–or feminist–about getting behind an all-woman, mainstream blockbuster. The fact is that without very vocal outcry from consumers, mediocre films featuring the stories and characters of women are actually used as justification for not putting stories about women on the screen.
Superhero films are a good illustration of this point. Like action movies, superhero films have historically been the home of masculine characters, narratives, and consumers. And when there have been superhero films made about women, their failures have been ascribed to the gender of their protagonist and been used to justify further exclusion of female characters.
But when films headlined by men are shitty, suddenly executives don’t mind. Jones can joke about the explodey man movies that would proliferate if we didn’t do our feminist job and genuflect to any movie containing women, but it’s hypocritical as fuck. Man of Steel, the foundation for their new franchise, was garbagey. Its successor, Batman v. Superman, was somehow even garbagier. They built their franchise layering critical failures and box-office flops, with no one laying blame on the generic hyper-masculine narratives themselves. In fact, these awful films continue to be produced. But a shitty movie with female characters? That’s eagerly taken as grounds to bury this feminine shingbingle for good.
It’s also important to look at what women characters DO in the movie itself, and not just count their numbers. How many action or superhero films feature more than one woman character who isn’t an eye candy sex object, much less a full team? How often are women permitted to JUST GET SHIT DONE ALREADY on-screen without having to justify their presence with sex appeal or romance for the consumption of men? In a mainstream media landscape where women have very little chance to see themselves move the plot with brains and brawn, it is inextricably political for a film to fly in the face of narrative gendered norms for the action and comedic genres. The last actiony film to do this was Mad Max: Fury Road, and look how that turned out. Funny how this happens with every film where women are just trying to do their awesome jobs, and don’t actually outline a specific feminist ideology.
Feminists shouldn’t have to give a shit about a mediocre action-movie whose first joke is about a queef. But we, along with the makers and marketers of Ghostbusters, find ourselves in an environment where trigger-happy executives look for any excuse not to make a movie about women, and the work of proving we need movies about and for us rests disproportionately on the shoulders of twitter hashtags, bloggers, and online petitions. That’s definitely not to say that supporting the film is a feminist obligation. I probably won’t like this movie. I won’t be lauding it just for the bare fact of containing 4 women, and I think it’s deplorable that one of the only ways to gain representation is constructing feminism as a new and enticing crop of consumers ripe for the picking.
But I’m glad that somebody is doing that, since it might mean a slightly higher chance of getting to enjoy the same levels of cinematic mediocrity enjoyed by men everywhere, everyday.