female representation

Ghostbusters is Just Awesome Fun

I was witness to some pretty wonderful things this week, and some not so wonderful things. But that’s nothing new; between my outdoor excursions and having access to the internet, I’m exposed to a great deal of what humanity has to offer, which unfortunately includes some pretty disappointing things.  This week, I’m glad to say that Ghostbusters was not one of them. 

It’s hard to put aside personal feelings and expectations when seeing a highly publicized movie. The backlash began as soon as the all-female cast for the reboot of the 1984 and 1989 films was announced. This was unsurprising, considering the outrage over the direction and focus of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, an amazing reboot that won six Academy Awards and broke barriers in the film industry. An impressive feat of writing and cinematography (as well as every other aspect of the film), Mad Max: Fury Road did great things for the female audience. Misogynists came out of the woodwork again for Ghostbusters, this time throwing a fit even bigger than the ones they threw over Fury Road and The Force Awakens (I patiently await the epic Star Wars tantrum to continue after Rogue One releases in December). Although done in a completely different genre in a completely different way, Ghostbusters managed to give female movie-goers a taste of how females can be positively portrayed in movies as, to the shock of everyone, human beings. 

I know it sounds like I’m reaching, but let’s break this down. Given the usual movie tropes, what do we normally see out of female characters? The reason the Bechdel test (the bare minimum that any human can ask for re: female characters interacting with each other) and the Mako Mori Test (the bare minimum that any human can ask for re: a female character’s existence and development) are even a thing is that there are so few films that manage to produce female characters and stories that treat them as people with their own ambitions. The Ghostbusters reboot is exactly that – a reboot. It’s its own entity, and the mistake many members of the potential audience made going in was that it would be the female embodiment of the original. Instead of going that route, Sony produced a film that was fun, smart, and entertaining. It wasn’t as raunchy as some may have expected, which was a somewhat pleasant change of pace but may have been disappointing for some viewers, which is so far the only reasonable complaint I’ve heard of the movie as a whole. The most notable thing about the comedy in Ghostbusters was that it didn’t rely on exploiting female sexuality, jokes about the actresses sizes, or any of the other go-to devices used when targeting a male audience. Melissa McCarthy’s character Abby Yates doesn’t receive any jokes about her weight or eating food – a breath of fresh air that may seem like a little thing, but in a body-shaming culture where overweight women are the butt of jokes and are made to feel as if they can’t even eat in public without qualifying it, it really is a big deal. Patty Tolan, played by SNL’s Leslie Jones, isn’t subject to jokes about her size either – 6ft tall to McCarthy’s just over 5ft frame – and is valued for her knowledge of the city as well as her positive “let’s do this” attitude. Kristen Wiig’s character Erin Gilbert is a bit of an unfashionable and awkward academic, but ambitious and earnest. She’s the only one swooning over the idiotic eye-candy Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth, who the others don’t find attractive (looks aren’t everything – sorry fellas) and are reluctant to hire. Kate McKinnon’s character Jillian Holtzmann is phenomenal in every way, and gay (also representative of the phenomenal part). The women are smart and don’t qualify their intelligence by attributing to their fathers. They eat without talking about having to hit the gym later. There’s no romantic subplot (Erin’s attraction to Kevin is shown through awkward interaction that isn’t romantic – or rudely done). And the biggest sexual draw in the movie turns out to not be Hemsworth’s character Kevin, but McKinnon’s Holtzmann – the weirdly sexy engineer who in any other movie might just be “the young, cute, odd one”.

ghostbusters

Look at these nerds doin’ WORK.

The best part? None of this is shoved in the audience’s face. It’s just part of the story. Not once in the movie do you have to pause and digest the point being made – it’s simply integrated into the film. Amazing. Finally. In 2016.

In the end, Ghostbusters is a fun movie perfect for the end of summer, full of cameos from original cast members and nods to the original films while creating something new. Unfortunately the innovative aspect of realistic comedic storytelling the script provides will go unnoticed to those who don’t experience misrepresentation or marginalization. Bottom line: the film doesn’t deserve any of the hate it has received. Ironically, the loudest outcries against well-written female content come the same people who already have decades of well-written representation in media – and are vehemently against anyone pointing it out. Outspoken fans of female-driven media are sent hate through social media, threatened with doxxing, rape, or death, and recently actress Leslie Jones was besieged with racist and misogynistic tweets that caused her to take a break from social media. It seems that this Ghostbusters reboot is necessary, not only to organically show the audience what they’re saying about women in film in terms of presenting how female characters can be written in comedy, but also to reveal the vicious nature of misogynistic fan culture. Maybe it’s fitting that the villains in the most bitched about films with female characters (Fury Road, The Force Awakens, and Ghostbusters) are all power hungry white dudes who, oh so shockingly, get really pissed when women stand up to them (#NotAllWhiteMaleVillains). 

Whether it turns out to break even in the international box office market or not (numbers watched carefully by those who are excited to call the movie a failure), Ghostbusters is a fun movie worth your time and money. Especially if you have kids. The hate that has hovered over this movie since the beginning has been unnecessary, with added complaints ranging from ruining someone’s childhood to crying reverse-sexism with Kevin’s dumb-blonde inept secretarial character. Feels like I’ve seen that before though…. It seems like some salty fans and critics just need to go pet a dog. Or actually just settle in and enjoy a movie instead of looking for every reason to tear it down.

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Moving away from the “strong female” trope and just writing good characters

Over the course of television and film history we’ve watched as generations of women lobbied for female representation. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in the 70s has been iconic, as well as the ladies that made up Charlie’s Angels leading into the 80s and Lucy Lawless’ Xena in the 90s. The badass women who were beautiful and beat the hell out of the bad guys were important to lots of girls growing up, but The Powers That Be take these characters as a base for building not so great characters with traits that became a tiring trope – a disservice to the audience, let alone the women behind these characters.  While female characters who dress scantily, are excellent marksmen, and punch assholes in the face are awesome, when the characterization stops there the importance of creating a female role in the first place is lost.

Important steps forward have been seen in characters like Buffy Summers who was feminine, wore makeup, and loved pink while also being exceptionally skilled, allowing girls to see that just because you like things that are typically associated with girls doesn’t make you weak – and that you don’t have to discard femininity or look down on girls who drew hearts in pink glitter pen on their notebooks to be powerful.

Michonne, Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead

Danai Gurira as Michonne [from TWD Wikia]

The Walking Dead‘s Michonne has been a touching example of a fascinating female character as we watch her slice through zombies and enemies alike with a cold and quiet demeanor, only to be shown how vulnerable and nurturing she really was. Her strength was displayed in putting down her weapon when she had the opportunity to and picking it back up again when she was needed. Meanwhile, Bella Crawford on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was stubborn and desired to die with dignity and Orphan Black‘s clones display a mixture of science mastery, ability for manipulation, and suburban motherhood among their strengths. Creating female characters with depth that didn’t bust in people’s faces on the regular was also important, redefining “strong women” and broadening the characters we were seeing on screen, both big and small. Showing emotions doesn’t always make you weak, wielding a weapon doesn’t always make you strong, and giving a diverse display of what it means to be a woman reaches and resonates with a broader audience.

We’re seeing a beautiful change in female representation in media overall, but within the shows themselves that are providing this representation, it’s better than expected. While the film industry is still trying to catch up, television (network, cable, and instant streaming) is sprinting away with characters that are dynamic and fully fleshed out with strengths and faults in all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnic groups, and sexualities in shows like The 100, The Walking Dead, Agent Carter, How To Get Away With Murder, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Vikings, and so many more. More than that, we’re getting relationships between women and platonic relationships between women and menI have to pause for a moment in disbelief and joy because those two things make me so incredibly happy. Women are not only being written with characteristics like fierce loyalty, cleverness, ruthlessness, and nurturing love, but we’re also being shown why the pretentions of previous decades are absolutely ridiculous. Recently in an episode of Agent Carter, already noted for doing at excellent job in representation (especially for the time period in which it is set), the male characters scoff at the idea of a larger woman – despite being a trained member of the agency – being able to take on an integral part of a mission that required her to be physical.

Lesley Boone, Rose Roberts, Agent Carter

Lesley Boone as Rose Roberts in Season 2 of Agent Carter

This attitude is similar to what the men did to Peggy Carter herself, and while no longer doubting Peggy’s prowess, Sousa doubted this woman’s ability to do her job while scapegoating it on him being able to focus and not be worried about her. Of course she accomplishes her task with a satisfied grin. Reinforcing the same point that Agent Carter made in its first season, this moment added appearances into the mix, giving bigger women such as myself (who had to experience disheartening looks of shock when I told people I did 5ks for fun and was training for a half-marathon) representation and a boost of confidence.

The true heart of these shows is character, and it seems as if creators are realizing just how important these things are to their audiences. Some are understanding better than others by giving us a wide range of female characters that are representative of not just their audience, but the world we live in. What we’re seeing more and more of is a move away from creators struggling to write a “strong female character” in an original way that avoids the cookie cutter trope and just creating female characters – and writing good story lines for them. What an intriguing concept.