Battle of the (Ghostbuster) Sexes: A Review and Critique

While I may have a freakishly good memory for minute details and trivia, even I can’t remember everything about my childhood (which is part of what makes psychotherapy and cognitive reconditioning so much fun, kids!). However, I do remember a lot of cartoons that I used to watch with my siblings and with the other kids in daycare after school; and while the specifics elude me, I remember loving the animated Ghostbusters in the early 90’s.

So, when I first heard that there was going to be a remake of Ghostbusters, I felt a little frisson of excitement; when I heard that it was going to feature a cast of female leads, I knew that I had to see it. When I sat in the theater and started watching it, I realized that it had been one hell of a long time since I’d seen either of the original two films (but instantly could recall much of the second film to mind). Naturally, this made my inner critic insist that I immediately watch the originals as soon as I got home—because I am a perfectionist like that, and I knew that I would be unable to fall asleep otherwise. A visit to my DVD collection tragically revealed that I owned the second film, but not the first; thus, one trip to Target later, I can now sit down to write a cogent and well-informed review…

…And thanks to that refresher course, I now remember that I couldn’t remember as much from the original film because the demonic dogs scared the ever living fuck out of me as a child! (Thanks, big bro, for yet another set of traumatic memories!) Fortunately, the 80’s CG hasn’t exactly aged well, so the creatures are far less terrifying to me as an adult—and patently ridiculous to someone spoiled by today’s superior technology. But as a woman, who was particularly interested in how the switch from a cast of male leads to a cast of female leads would change the dynamics of the story and the progress of the plot, I was struck both by how far we as a society have come in terms of gender equality in media representaion… and how we, sadly, haven’t moved forward all that much.

Since this is my first review and critique, I should probably include a warning that this will not be a spoiler-free blog; major plot points and dialogue will be discussed in detail (sometimes, probably too much detail). Moving on…

First, what struck me most about the opening 15 minutes of the film was the lengths gone to in order to establish the scientific credibility of three of the team members. Dr. Erin Gilbert—whose specialty we must presume is physics—is accosted before her first big lecture class at Columbia University by the curator of a museum who believes that the building is haunted; he brings with him a book, co-written by Dr. Gilbert years ago before she got on track for tenure at the Ivy League school, and recently put online by her co-author who has not given up on the possibility of scientifically proving the existence of the supernatural. Nice nod to the production company aside, Gilbert’s frantic desire to bury the book’s existence is additionally heightened by a visit from Columbia’s dean—the superlatively intimidating Charles Dance—threatening that her letter of recommendation from Princeton University lacks the prestige and gravitas necessary for achieving tenure. (For any non-American readers who may not know, both schools are considered Ivy League, and thus are intensely competitive academically.)

While both films open with a haunting sequence before launching into background on the characters, the original introduces Drs. Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler by the simple expedience of their names stenciled onto a door under the heading of the “Parapsychology Department”; that their students and peers consider them a joke is broadly hinted by graffiti on said door, yet they remain genuine members of academia. We immediately establish that Venkman, hustler or not, does in fact understand the basic tenets of psychological studies and of following the scientific method—he conducts an experiment on extrasensory perception with coed subjects, giving verbal praise and encouragement to the female student for her wrong answers and giving electric shocks to the male student for all of his answers (one of which is actually correct). Despite undermining Venkman’s seriousness and veracity in both reporting and conducting the experiment, the film still expects the audience to accept that he is in fact a scientist who knows what he’s talking about.

Thus, the original impresses upon us that we must believe the all-male team, while contrarily the reboot (supported by the original) emphasizes and enforces a distinct, universal lack of credibility accorded to women professing the same beliefs and demanding the same level of vindication. For example, we even have the parallel of the original witness. While interviewing the female librarian who saw the first ghost in the film, Venkman questions whether or not she was drunk, was on medication, has a history of mental illness in her family, and if she was menstruating when she saw the spook. Conversely, when speaking with the male tour guide who was attacked by the ghost in the haunted Victorian mansion, the ladies never once question if his story and his experience was real. The Ghostbuster’s tagline in their ad—“we’re ready to believe you”—clearly only applies if you are a man reporting a spectral sighting, because they quite openly express their disbelief in their first paying client’s story; while Venkman does go over the apartment with the concerned Dana Barrett—using what looks like a weed-killer tank and wand instead of using the already established ghost-detecting equipment to record any supernatural activity—and does say that he believes her, his tone is hardly encouraging or affirming, especially when he spends most of his time and energy hitting on her. (Dana: “You’re more like a gameshow host [than you seem like a scientist].”)

The first major parallel experience for the two teams is their ejection from academic circles. After their recording of contact with a ghost goes viral—the trailer pretty much shows everything pertinent—Dr. Gilbert is not only denied tenure, but removed from Columbia’s physics department altogether. Dr. Abby Yates and Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, who have been working for the Higgins Institute, are likewise fired from their positions from a far less authoritative, but much saltier and douche-ier dean when they go to him requesting more funding for their department. While stealing is wrong, kids, the ladies at least have the smarts to raid the lab for equipment before leaving campus; the dean of the unspecified New York school of the original manages to clear out their lab and take all of their gadgets from the guys (along with their recorded evidence) while simultaneously impugning Venkman’s qualifications in particular. He at least could multitask.

So, we basically have two teams of three scientists who both lack proper funding and academic support; all things should essentially be equal, right? Wrong! The girls may have stolen parts and materials, but the guys get their start-up in the form of a third mortgage (Really?! I thought the housing bubble was bad now!!) on Stantz’s house in order to acquire their iconic firehouse location. Ridiculous lampooning of lending practices aside, the fact that they can gather any form of capital is miraculous; the girls are forced to economize and scrape in order to get their headquarters on the upper level of a Chinatown eatery (though there’s no real mention of how they intend to pay for it), as the demanded rent on the restored firehouse is astronomical.

But the biggest issue here is one that I have already hit upon: credibility based on gender. Compared to the reboot, the original film is short on technical language and explanations of both the physical equipment and the spectral phenomenon. The guys’ gadgets light up and make the appropriate sounds; they pause and share significant looks. This is enough to make them legit. Conversely, the writers on the reboot clearly took the time to include what sounds like technical specifications and scientific lingo; and even if half of what the ladies say is complete crap, they at least say it with a straight face and with a confidence that lends them believability. (Although Yates’ wide-eyed distress at one point undermines this—“I didn’t even know it could do that!”) But that very difference points to the fact that Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman expected that the characters could reasonably come across to the audience as plausible scientists without specific spoken lines of dialogue, Dippold and Feig conversely expected that their characters would require jargon in order to lend them authenticity as genuine physicists and engineers.

This difference is furthered by the treatment of the two teams by New Yorkers and the country at large. After their first successful trapping of a ghost, the guys become instant celebrities (cue the beloved 80’s montage); the audience is inundated with clips of Americans fawning over the supernatural saviors, of interviews with Larry King and Casey Kasem, of cover shots of the major news magazines of the day. No one questions their story or disbelieves the presence and existence of the ghosts captured (ironically, until the EPA arrives and starts throwing its bureaucratic weight around for unexplained reasons). Who cares that they have no academic or professional bonafides? They’re the Ghostbusters!

Yet even in a post 9/11 world, where “if you see something, say something” has become a defining motto; even in the digital age, where social media and personal recording devices are quite literally everywhere; even in a globally connected world, where material can be posted and viewed within seconds, the women are treated as attention seeking hoaxers and frauds. Even worse, they are expected to quietly, graciously accept having their names and reputations dragged through the mud. After bringing them to meet the mayor of New York and the government agents already aware of and supposedly working on spectral containment, the city’s press secretary commands them to keep their mouths shut, to cease and desist with their ghost captures and experimentation, and then goes to the press corps and calls them “sad and lonely women”. Despite not attacking their credentials or their methodology or even their recorded evidence, the mayor’s office instantly discredits them in the public eye based on gender discriminatory stereotypes.

This societal disbelief is codified and reinforced further in the film when Gilbert shares her first supernatural encounter with Holtzmann and Patty Tolan—the Winston Zeddmore of the ladies’ team, the audience first meets her as a New York history enthusiast and MTA employee who meets a deceased electric chair victim down on the subway tracks. According to Dr. Gilbert, an elderly neighbor passed away during Gilbert’s childhood who then proceeded to haunt her relentlessly for over a year. She says that she was placed in therapy by her parents and mercilessly ridiculed by her peers as the “ghost girl”; over the course of the film, the term is then used as a badge and marker by the ladies, signifying the disregard and disbelief in the spectral—and in these women in particular—by the rest of the world (Sounds a little familiar… where have I heard something like that before??).

However, the ladies choose to rise above such pettiness when they realize that the city is in immediate danger. They discover that their nemesis—the stereotypically creepy, loner/genius (“It’s always the sad, pale ones,” which nicely echoes a line from the second film, but could really apply to any of the scientists on both teams.)—has been using Gilbert and Yates’ book to guide him in exploiting the power of the ley lines of New York City. The theory of ley lines has an interesting history, but it is most commonly connected today to “pseudoscientific” beliefs such as the earth mysteries movement and new age mysticism; for the purposes of the story and in keeping with the magical/spiritual meaning behind the theory, ley lines are pathways of natural, mystical energies that can be tapped into by higher lifeforms (i.e., magical practitioners). Essentially, by including this as part of the film, Feig and Dippold are actually emphasizing the lack of scientific authenticity in their plot. Unfortunately, I cannot figure out if that emphasis is intended as a self-conscious critique of or jab at themselves, or as a legitimate dig at the belief in the supernatural/spiritual in general.

Regardless, the girls gear up and go in to take him down… only to be “fake arrested” by the Homeland Security agents in recompense for seemingly thwarting Rowan’s master plan (the name choice being ironic on many levels, in that one of the meanings of the name is “red” or “ruddy” on account of the berries it produces–, the actor portraying the character is red-haired—the tree’s Old English name cwic-beám is linguistically connected to the modern word “witch”, and is often erroneously identified as the “witch-hazel” tree). In the original, the overly zealous EPA agent is responsible for causing the cataclysmic supernatural event by shutting the power-grid for the ghosts’ containment unit down; in the reboot, Gilbert and Yates are themselves partially responsible for inspiring Rowan’s scheme for world/dimensional domination, although government obstruction in the face of their evidence certainly does not help.

The confrontation scenes with the mayor serve as foils rather than parallels, further highlighting the gender differences between the films. When faced with the original quartet’s assertions versus the EPA agent’s likewise undocumented, unquantifiable theory of mass hallucination being responsible for what people have seen/experienced, the mayor of New York (perhaps admittedly biased in favor of a supernatural explanation since the Catholic Archbishop also sits in on this meeting) believes the Ghostbusters, overturns their arrest by the federal agent, and speeds them on their way to save the city. However, when Dr. Gilbert approaches the mayor during a lunch meeting and tries to share her concerns with him, she is forcibly ejected from the restaurant—literally dragged away screaming about the coming apocalypse after tactlessly comparing him to the willfully ignorant mayor from Jaws—and her warnings are duly ignored (the press secretary further undermining the perception of Gilbert’s sanity and scientific integrity all the while— “She thinks that’s a sliding glass door. That’s just sad; she thinks they’re all sliding glass doors. I thought she was a scientist.”). Just as Rowan had believed himself to be a marginalized, underappreciated genius by the people around him (he works as a hotel janitor), the ladies are continually treated as hysterical quacks or ridiculous charlatans. And yet, none of them decide to take over the world with an undead army… it’s almost like the women must be the bigger person in this situation, saving the very same people who have treated them so flippantly and poorly…

Long story short, the moral appears to be this: if you are a woman, not only should you be prepared to be ridiculed, but when you are finally proven right, you need to be the better person and run in to save the day… just don’t expect tactical support or an enthusiastic cordon of adoring, loyal fans lining the route to your big-bad showdown. While emotionally satisfying to watch the ladies kicking ectoplasmic ass in a fight sequence that would melt a gamer’s heart (I don’t play myself, but I enjoy watching others play.), it was depressing to see the continued official discrediting of the female team even after they successfully close the dimensional breach. The mayor covertly buys/rents the decked out firehouse and funds their research, but he refuses to endorse the true story relating to the supernatural event. The girls save the day, but Patty still gets raked across the coals by her uncle because the borrowed hearse was destroyed in the process of closing the inter-planar barrier (the cameo by Ernie Hudson that I saw coming the moment I first saw the trailer).

It was hardly surprising to me then that the two other surviving members of the original Ghostbusters team also played vocal disbelievers as well—Bill Murray as a famous supernatural fraud exposer, who goads Gilbert into releasing their only captured ghost from the trap to prove its existence (which naturally escapes and tosses him out of a second story window, leaving the ladies to then explain to the skeptical cops that they aren’t the ones guilty of assault/manslaughter), and Dan Aykroyd as a jaded New York cabbie who tells potential-fare Gilbert while the city is going to hell, “I don’t take crazies, and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”. Nor was Sigourney Weaver’s crazy-haired, wild-eyed mentor of equally zany Holtzmann much of a shocker; as much as her cameo was an enjoyable surprise (given that it literally came during the credits at one of the last possible moments of the film), having her reinforce the stereotype of the scientifically-minded woman as fashionably inept and intrinsically socially awkward was more than a bit of a downer.

I definitely liked this reboot more than the first film—it’s funnier and the effects are better—but not as much as the second film, which is the funniest of the bunch and manages to make the characters a little less like caricatures and stereotypes. But Drs. Venkman and Heiss—Murray’s characters—are still sexist assholes. (7/10 Stars) — J.J.

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