Representation Matters: Ghostbusters Edition

I know, some of you want to tell me it’s awful or that you grew up with books about pirates and could imagine being a pirate even if you weren’t a pirate so representation is bullshit. Just…shh, hang on. Listen. Try to do what you said you could do and put your feet in other shoes for a bit.

Last weekend, the husband and I saw Ghostbusters, the new one, with our friend Jimmy. It wasn’t until after the movie, in discussing it when them, in thinking about it, and comparing it to all the summer movies I’ve endured with the kids at summer camp, that I fully digested what I’d seen.

Here’s the thing: the movie’s not going to win an Oscar. Spoiler alert: the original was funny, but didn’t exactly tell the kind of story that did anything but entertain. No one walked out of a story about four dudes blasting a giant marshmallow until it splooged all over NYC thinking about the complexity, depth, and humanity of the species. I know, it was your “childhood” and all, but for some of you, so were the Smurfs and I don’t remember the internet having a fucking meltdown when Neil Patrick Harris started running around with little half-naked blue trolls in his shirt. So were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Transformers and I don’t remember this volume of people losing their shit over remakes of either one of those.  I mean, maybe if one of the Turtles was female, but honestly, aside from a change in voice acting, what difference would that make? Really? The Turtles don’t wear clothes, not conventionally. Female turtles don’t have boobs, so being larger shouldn’t affect that. And if you raised all the Turtles to be ninja warriors, that doesn’t really change with gender. I’ve seen some women wield bo staffs, sai, nunchaku, and swords with fearsome efficiency.

Apparently women can catch ghosts, too. Who knew?

If you haven’t read this, go read it now. Don’t, please don’t, mention Sarah Conner or Aliens. Do you remember when those movies came out? Do you? Then there’s “Well, Bridesmaids” and “What about Steel Magnolias?” (If you’ve got four movies you can think of with female leads and only two are action movies and one invokes weddings in the title — and you’ve dredged 30 years of movies — that right there is the problem.) And holy hell don’t mention Lara Croft. No one’s wearing a push-up bra to trek into unknown wilderness after treasure and if your pants aren’t substantial enough to hold your weapons up, a rubber band around your thigh isn’t going to work. I can’t even get socks to stay up over my knee and the only thing working against them is gravity.

I never had to play April (and if you don’t know what that means, go back and click the link – it’s pretty short), mostly because I never had enough friends to form a proper game and partly because I rarely saw movies or TV shows back then so I formed my playground identity out of hanging upside down and doing flips. All the movies that formed the backbone of my husband’s childhood experience, the ones he quotes and freaks out about when he finds it on cable, are movies I missed until college (when we had a station that played old 80s movies for some reason) or the aforementioned freakout sessions. All that stuff Stranger Things pays homage to? Missed a bunch of it the first time around. I was busy hanging upside down.

And reading. Instead of Goonies and Better Off Dead and a Stephen King movie with one of the Coreys, I had a stack of Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew Case Files (also the originals) and Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Pippi Longstocking and, when my library card failed me or I ran out of allowance, I had notebooks I filled with stories where girls always saved the day. Later, I had VC Andrews and Judith Krantz and Sara Paretsky because Divergent and Hunger Games and even Harry Potter didn’t exist yet. Yes, it was a sad time to be alive, Millennials. No cell phones, no Katniss, no Maureen Johnson Twitter account, zero Snapchat filters, going outside without Pokémon. *shudders*

Maybe you’re sensing a pattern there in my reading habits. Don’t get me wrong, I read all the stuff I was assigned at school. I read anything else I could find that looked interesting including half an encyclopedia set and the entire kids’ folklore section of the public library. I had no trouble comprehending the stories with the boys as protagonists. Even loved ol’ Holden Caulfield. But Holden’s problems weren’t mine. Not just because he was a boy, but because he was a rich boy. And he was a rich boy in the city.

When we talk of representation, sometimes it’s not just color or gender, but class, despite the fact that we like to pretend classism doesn’t exist in the US. I no more grew up at a boarding school near NYC than I did in whatever fantasy world Nancy Drew lived in where no one ever admonished her for wrecking perfectly good Mustangs. In fact, I’d guess that for a lot of kids the idea of being sent off to boarding school is as far from their reality as the school teaching wizarding.

Which brings me back around to the new Ghostbusters. Much has been made about Leslie Jones’s character being an MTA worker instead of a scientist. And I get it. I do. But before we get out the pitchforks, let’s think about this a tad harder because by the time Patty gets introduced, she might be a subway employee, but she’s the only one of the four with a job. They others might have fancy degrees in a box, but they aren’t being paid to use them. They’re somehow renting a room above a restaurant (Trust fund? Severance? Part time busking?), but they don’t have jobs. Patty also shows not only courage and curiosity – she finds something spooky and weird at work and she seeks out the only weirdos who claim to know what the spooky thing is and asks to “join the club,” – she’s an active participant and an active member. She provides the historical information they need. (For all we know, she’s a history major who found she could make more working for the MTA than being an adjunct professor. The character absolutely has the kind of no-nonsense chutzpah to look at adjunct salaries and go, “aw hell no. I make more yelling at subway bums.”)

I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to have seen Leslie Jones as a scientist. What I’m saying is that her character is way more in control of her destiny than Winston was in the original.

I know, Eddie Murphy this and rewrites that, but all the behind the scenes dealings aren’t what moviegoers saw. When we watched the original 1984 Ghostbusters with the summer campers about a week after I saw the new one, what I noticed immediately was the difference in agency. (That, and our parents’ standards for “coarse language” was way more lax in 1984.) Patty has it (agency), Winston not so much. Winston shows up because he needs a job and he’s willing to agree to anything and do just about anything in order to get a job. His role is to balance out the other three who do most of the speaking, all the sciencing, have all the ideas and know all the history. Patty, by contrast has buckets of agency. She’s an active and willing participant and she kicks some ass. Not because they’re paying her, but because she’s with these other women doing something interesting and she’s having fun.

Part of the reason we have trouble with Patty as an MTA worker instead of a scientist is because we view workers with “menial jobs” as lesser than – even as we talk about everyone being equal and all that. We assume people in jobs paid by the hour or jobs requiring uniforms are performed by stupid people and we don’t want that for Patty even as she proves that even if she’s not secretly a history major, she’s an autodidact who’s learned a lot of interesting stuff on her own. We “class” scientists above the uniformed workers even though scientists often graduate school with huge loans and find themselves with the choice of near poverty or rigging results for a corporation’s “studies.”

The divisive dichotomy between knowledge and the “rest of us,” between “elites” and “the rest of us,” between science and religion, fact and opinion has muddled the language and it’s made us all sound a bit nuts from time to time. We’ve repeated the lie – on resumes and job postings and position announcements and in conversations and on social media – that a degree equals knowledge that we’ve forgotten it’s possible to open a book, do an experiment, get together with some friends and figure stuff out, to learn without a lecturer or a tuition bill. We’ve equated degree with smarts for so long, we assume people without one are dumb, and by extension anyone in a job not requiring a degree is dumb – even as we climb out of a recession where having a job, any job, is preferable to no job. We assume that workers in uniforms are less intelligent than workers in suits and compound already-held resentments.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this. He knew that to fight racism was to fight the classism that had systematically taught poor whites they were better than people of color so they’d stand with the rich against their own interests. That was the rising tide that lifts all boats.

So, in summary, Holtzman was great, but fuck yeah, Patty. And fuck yeah to the image of four women on the big screen wearing something that wasn’t a bridesmaid’s dress or a leather bikini doing something besides drinking wine and crying about men.