August 5, 2016
I finally went to see Ghostbusters, the big feminist flick that was supposed to redefine women’s roles in the movies.
I made a mistake I’ll never make again: I trusted Manhola Dargis’s review in the New York Times. When she wrote, “That the new movie stars four women is a kind of gimmick, of course, but it’s one that the filmmakers and the excellent cast deepen with real comedy chemistry and emotionally fleshed-out performances,” I foolishly believed her. Over the past many years, I’ve generally trusted Dargis more than I trust the rest of the Times crew. How was I to know that this time she would allow a single factor, the all-female cast of the movie, to overdetermine and completely slant her review? Why didn’t I seek out David Edelstein’s far more accurate and scathing review instead?
I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie is awful. Really, really awful. But it’s successful, at least in its first few weeks, having received a massive boost from Donald Trump’s angry tirade about the reboot, followed by a bunch of other men complaining about the loss of their masculinity, penises shrinking, apparently, from the mere prospect of watching women take their places in a reboot of an iconic film. All of this came before the film was even released, so the sexism in such commentary was never in doubt. But the film remains awful, and we should not be distracted from that fact.
What makes the movie so awful, you might ask? Everything that could make a movie awful makes this one awful. There isn’t really a script. Stuff just...happens. So we begin with a scene in the fictional Aldridge Mansion, and a tour guide trailing eager tourists in his wake. A door creaks open, there is slime, of course, and a great deal of screaming. From there, we’re taken to the office of Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor up for tenure at Columbia University where, for reasons you should not bother to try to guess, no one has figured out that she once co-wrote a book asserting the existence of ghosts. Her co-author is Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who has been plugging away at her own research on the paranormal and who decides to republish the book, causing Columbia to deny tenure to Gilbert.
Oh, if only all tenure cases were this easy to decipher.
Anyway: Yates has a new work partner, Jillian Holtzmann, played by the undeniably and distractingly good Kate McKinnon, who plays her character as some kind of cross between The Joker and the Dyke Girlfriend everybody wishes they had. Watching her, I kept thinking, “This woman is insane. And I want to be her friend for life.” At some point, of course, they have to pick up an obligatory Black Character, and she arrives in the shape of an MTA transit worker Patty Tolan, who runs into a ghost in the subway and subsequently contacts the scientists, you know, all the nice white ladies, and attaches herself to them.
There’s more, but I bore myself stiff in trying to put it all down, so you should just read the Wikipedia entry and find out the details. There are no spoilers because there is nothing, absolutely nothing that will surprise or shock you. This is a film that was not actually scripted, as far as I can tell, but manufactured by an endless series of focus groups. There is no plot, only a set of things that happen, without much thought given to whether or not it all makes sense. All four of the leads and its director, Paul Feig, have long histories in television and this is evident in the televisual and episodic quality of the film. There are plenty of zingers but not much actual dialogue. One episode (in an actual film it would be a “scene”) involves McCarthy and Wiig playing with the phrase “cat out of the bag.”
I beg you, please don’t ask for more details. It’s the sort of thing that would be funny on a Saturday Night Live, hem, episode. Here, it’s just another moment where you’re tapping your fingers on the too-slim armrest, waiting for it to be over.
But, oh, do let’s talk about Leslie Jones as The Black Woman and the only non-scientist. Her job is to be a version of the Magical Negro, everyone’s Best Black Girlfriend, ready with her authentic, street lingo and lots of overdone head-shaking and mammy-like scared faces. It’s awful and cringe-inducing to watch, a reminder that Hollywood will work hard to give substantial roles to white women but continue to relegate black women to literal and metaphorical help. In a slobbering NYT critics’ roundtable piece, A. O. Scott and Wesley Morris briefly discuss this shortcoming, but quickly move on to how much they like it, impelled by Manhola Dargis’s effusive praise for it. Indeed, Dargis gets the last word: “And while some moviegoers may not need this particular remake, I think there are plenty of girl and women moviegoers who would say, yes, we do.”
Rubbish. Female moviegoers or feminists of any stripe don’t need a crappy, badly written movie for any reason. The film received a boost because of the initial controversy, when the views of sexist pigs got far more attention than they deserved because the world of media runs on clickbait and the credulous readers who lap it all up. Following its release, Jones experienced a massive racist backlash on Twitter and eventually left the social media platform. All of that is despicable, and should generate conversations about gender and race. But there need to be much better conversations about the depictions of gender and race, and they need to happen long before a crap film like this hits the screens. I suspect Paul Feig and Sony are secretly delighted with the controversies surrounding the sexist and racist responses to the film, because it lets them off the hook for what a mess it is, and for how it does nothing but recycle the racist tropes that have dominated Hollywood for so long.
This is a terrible film that only looks liberatory and fresh to some because of the responses to it, not because it’s actually any good.
In short, Ghostbusters is a gilded turd.
Which brings me to Hillary Rodham Clinton. At this particular moment, all that Clinton has going for her is that she is not Donald Trump. As the weeks heat up and we move inexorably towards November, we see that Trump may be wearing out his welcome, with one controversy after another. Clinton is ramping up her own election effort — not by demonstrating how good she can be but how much worse Trump would be. In her latest series of missives, Clinton seeks to resurrect a Cold War fear, of nuclear war. Trump’s slippery, tiny thumb might wreak havoc on the world as we know it, is the message.
All of this deflects from a much more crucial point: That Hillary Rodham Clinton has had a demonstrably poor record in politics unlike Trump, who has never held an elected office. As First Lady, she exercised much sway over matters like welfare reform, one of the worst things to come out of the Clinton administration. Despite what her supporters like Rebecca Traister might insist, there’s proof that she actually set about gathering votes for the legislation that would eventually “change welfare as we know it.” Bryce Covert points out that Clinton explicitly stated that “she ‘actively participated’ in the internal debate on welfare reform” and “worked hard to round up votes for its passage,” as she described it.
Her reputation for untrustworthiness is justified as several commentators and writers have pointed out. That’s not to say that Trump is or would be better. It’s just that we have a terrible choice between the two of them. Yet, over and over, we’re told that this money-grubbing politician who has demonstrated her indifference to all but the most powerful needs to be elected simply because she’s a woman. The fact that a major misogynist like Trump continues in his sexist attacks on her boosts her case for credulous voters, just as many viewers flocked to see Ghostbusters in the mistaken belief that to do so was somehow to send some kind of feminist message to sexists.
Critics like Dargis fail to make a reasonable case for Ghostbusters just as Clinton’s supporters fail to make a case for her based on her actual record. We’re not obliged to prop up faux feminism: We can and should expect films that actually make strong feminist statements embedded in excellent writing and character development. We can and should expect female politicians to make their cases based on their actual record, and not simply deploy the misogyny or incompetence of their opponents as reasons to vote for them.
For more on faux feminism, the Hillary Clinton sort, see False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. I have a chapter on Clinton and carceral feminism in it, “Marry the State, Kill the People: On Hillary Clinton’s Carceral Feminism,” alongside essays by several distinguished writers. You can hear some of us talking about it on the radio here.
Writing is my primary source of income. If you've liked my work and would like to support me, please donate or subscribe. Subscriptions will help support my writing on a steady basis. You can find out more about me here.