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Why The ‘Ghostbusters’ Backlash Is A Sexist Control Issue

Is there anything to the backlash beyond anger that someone took down the "No Girls Allowed" sign outside the Ghostbusters clubhouse?

Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters”

Columbia Pictures

When I was 11, I saw “Ghostbusters.” I thought it was funny.

Since the “Ghostbusters” reboot was announced, we’ve learned that, for a great many people, their emotional relationship with the original “Ghostbusters” is substantially more fraught. There were those who thrilled to the idea that, after 20-plus years of rumors and false starts, we’d finally get more “Ghostbusters.” And, there were those who objected to reviving the franchise, arguing that any attempt to recapture the original glory was doomed to fail.

Then there are the Ghostbros, the noisiest if not most numerous contingent, for whom reviving the franchise with women in the leading roles is the ultimate desecration. It would have been one thing to pass the torch, as Ivan Reitman had originally planned, with a sequel in which the classic quartet trained a newer, spryer group in the finer points of busting ghosts. But effectively redoing the original movie with the genders flipped smacks of political correctness and revisionist history. Or at least, that seemed to be the argument, insofar as one could extract a series of propositions and conclusions from the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

READ MORE: Leslie Jones in ‘Ghostbusters’: This Is Not the Black Hero We Were Hoping to See

It’s tempting to dismiss the objections to the “Ghostbusters” reboot as manbaby hissyfits. Take the video in which James Rolfe, who bills himself as the Angry Video Game Nerd, announced that he wouldn’t review the movie, or even see it, because “If you already know you’re going to hate it, why give them your money?” Or the movie’s IMDb page, which users have deluged with 1-out-of-10 ratings, despite the fact that few if any of them have seen it.

Let’s stipulate that initial trailers for the new “Ghostbusters” did not suggest greatness. Was it really the worst trailer in movie history, as its record-setting number of YouTube downvotes suggests? And why the especial dudgeon for this particular reboot, when so many others are greeted with mild, wait-and-see skepticism, or even full-throated enthusiasm?

Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters”

Columbia Pictures

Yes, as a handful of people were quick to point out when I cracked a joke about the situation on Twitter, some of the low IMDb ratings come from women, or at least people who set their profiles as such. But a cursory look at the demographic breakdown of IMDb votes reveals a profound imbalance: Nearly eight times as many male voters as female, with women ranking the movie twice as high as men. (There’s a disparity among professional reviews as well, though not nearly so pronounced.) Even if it’s not the only factor, it takes some seriously tortured logic to argue that gender has nothing to do with the anti-“Ghostbusters” backlash.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s remove gender from the equation. Is there anything to the backlash beyond anger that someone took down the “No Girls Allowed” sign outside the Ghostbusters clubhouse? Can a remake, reboot, or sequel actually harm the original? It’s not as if prints of the new “Ghostbusters” were made from melted-down copies of the old one, any more than Baz Luhrmann sneaked into people’s houses and burned their copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” (Although come to think of it, I haven’t seen mine in a while.) It’s not like “Apocalypse Now,” where Francis Ford Coppola physically recut the original negative in order to make “Apocalypse Now Redux,” or “Star Wars,” where George Lucas tweaked the original trilogy’s closing moments to make for a neater join with the prequels. The copy of the 1984 “Ghostbusters” on your shelf or in your iTunes is exactly the same one it’s always been.

So what changes, and what’s at stake? The movie is immutable, but time marches on, and we are borne along with it. Cultural products seem like fixed points in the stream, but the further we move from them, the more tenuous the connective tissue, and the more it needs protection.. It’s not “Ghostbusters” itself that’s in flux, but our individual relationships to it, if we had them in the first place.

For writers like the Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz and Vulture’s Jada Yuan, who were obsessed with the original movie as girls, the new “Ghostbusters” is a long-overdue vindication of the idea that you don’t need to be a man to strap on a proton pack. For James Rolfe, the new movie’s very existence is a blot on the original, a permanent asterisk next to its name. “I hear that all the time, ‘the female ‘Ghostbusters,’” he says. “Does that mean we have to call the original ‘the male ‘Ghostbusters?’”

Intentionally or not, Rolfe’s complaint cuts to the heart of the matter. (The Ghostbros’ lack of self-awareness is a gift that never stops giving.) We’ve long had the habit of using the universal to refer to men while shunting women into their own subcategory, but the original “Ghostbusters” already was “the male ‘Ghostbusters,'” whether we called it that or not. It’s a movie in which virtually all significant characters are men, and one in which, to contemporary eyes, Peter Venkman’s aggressive pursuit of Dana Barrett borders between creepy pick-up-artistry and outright stalking.  A “female ‘Ghostbusters'” throws that into stark relief. It doesn’t make the original movie or less flawed, but it might make its flaws harder to overlook.

As you grow up, your perspectives on your childhood change, and that never stops changing. Movies, perhaps uniquely, allows us to imagine ourselves as we were when we first watched them — at least, until something comes along and disrupts that relationship.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters”

Shutterstock

Franchise extensions go to great lengths not to upset original fans, and that includes the new “Ghostbusters.” Director Paul Feig told Yuan that he and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold started by making a list of everything from the original movie that fans would be disappointed not to see in the new one, which hardly sounds like the work of two people out to destroy a franchise. (If anything it’s evidence for the opposing view, which complains that the new movie is too faithful to the original.) Nevertheless, because of the new film, the 1984 movie is now a “Ghostbusters,” not the “Ghostbusters” — unless you, quite sensibly, argue that “Ghostbusters II,” or the Ghostbusters cartoon, or the Ghostbusters comic book, already made that distinction necessary.

The underlying fear is fans of the original “Ghostbusters” are no longer in control of what their fandom means. As a Reddit user put it in a post called “Childhood Ruined,” “I have a Ghostbusters shirt that I purchased a few years ago. It is one of my favourite shirts. Whenever I would wear it, myself and others get this fond feeling of nostalgia. That nod from a fellow fan when they saw the shirt was a nice connection to have with other people. Unfortunately, I no longer feel comfortable wearing the shirt. The reason is because the meaning has now changed. Instead of being a fun reminder of a time long ago, it is now a political statement…. The good feelings that were once there, are now tainted with the controversy surrounding the new film. The pride of wearing the logo, has now been replaced with frustration and negative feelings.”

READ MORE: ‘Ghostbusters’ Review: A Feminist Blockbuster That Could Have Been Better

What’s changed isn’t the movie, or even what it means to the writer, so much as what it signifies: what he thinks liking it says about him. And now, if I like “Ghostbusters,” I have to worry about people thinking I’m a feminist? Nuh uh. No thank you. He’s lost control of the place that  “Ghostbusters” has in the culture, and he doesn’t like how that feels. (Incidentally, he gave in a day later, in in a second post to the Men’s Rights subreddit, admitted that it was about the fact that the new Ghostbusters are women, and decried the “pandering” of casting a female lead in the “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One.”)

Hollywood has never been more obsessively attuned to the fans’ interests. Warner Bros. spent tens of thousands of dollars flying journalists to the set of Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” in an effort to placate complaints about “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and Neil Blomkamp’s forthcoming “Alien” sequel will reportedly disregard the series’ divisive third and fourth installments altogether.

So it goes with the new “Ghostbusters.” If the original movie’s fans could bring themselves to see it, they’d find a movie that bends over backward to pander to them. One cameo by an original cast member is a sly gag; six is tiresome. But it’s also determined to hew its own path, and to let people who have a problem with women busting ghosts know that they need to suck it up and get used to it. Fandom is a valuable commodity, but it’s also a trap; fans, like any other group, often don’t know what they want until they get it. (I’m reminded of “The Simpsons'” Poochie episode, where an attempt to focus-group a RV program leads to a request for “a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots.”)

Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is designed to please existing fans, but more importantly, it’s designed to make new ones. You need only look at that instantly famous photo of two young girls in coveralls and homemade proton packs beaming at the chance to be in Kristen Wiig’s presence to know it’s succeeded.

“Ghostbusters” opens in theaters on Friday, July 15.

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