I’ve spent the last few days at Nine Worlds, a relatively new convention – this was its second year – staged in Heathrow, London. I won’t go into full detail here (I’ll be contributing my thoughts on the con as a whole to a report for GeekPlanetOnline) but rest assured that I had a great time and I am greatly impressed by the aims and goals of the con: namely, that it seeks to promote and foster inclusivity, equality and cooperation within our community and beyond, literally using SF, fantasy and horror – which have long been employed as allegories for social and political issues – to educate and encourage debate regarding sensitive issues. As a result, I spent as much time in the bars outside the con, engaging in fascinating discussion with like-minded people, as I did inside listening to the panels themselves. As you might imagine, one of the most common issues to be discussed was that of the common disparity in representation in our media – a discussion that has been raging in wider circles online recently thanks to what I’m referring to as the “Ghostbusters debacle”.
If you missed the news (and the subsequent Twitter/comments section storm), director Paul Feig – best known for Bridesmaids – has been invited to helm a Ghostbusters reboot and, when asked to comment on this, postulated that he might do so with a female-led cast. Rather inevitably this has led to a backlash online from a vocal minority of men, which in turn has drawn the attention of a number of commentators and satirists. Some are painting it as a storm in a teacup – yet another social media clash that will die down in a few days – but that attitude is both dismissive and indicative of the problem at hand, which is that nobody rejecting the idea of a female-led Ghostbusters reboot has an argument that boils down to anything but “…because it should be men” – and if there’s no reason beyond that not to genderflip, why shouldn’t you? And more to the point, there’s a great reason why we should.
This infographic over at the Lee & Low Books blog provides a great illustration of the disparity problem. Of the top 100 highest grossing SF and fantasy films of all time – which is taken from BoxOfficeMojo and is a damned fine yardstick when discussing a fantasy movie franchise – only 14% have a female protagonist. The word “protagonist” is very important: this is a lead character who directly drives the plot. In terms of Ghostbusters – and to make things clear for fans of the original – Dana Barrett is not a protagonist. She does not lead the plot, the plot happens to her. She is a love interest and an archetypical damsel. She is not the hero, she is there to be rescued by Peter Venkman. Janine Melnitz is also not a protagonist. She is a (fairly one-dimensional) love interest for Egon Spengler and a comic relief character. Neither Dana nor Janine have agency within the story. They are there for the story to happen to. Incidentally, Winston Zeddemore is not a protagonist in the first movie either – adding to the short shrift that people of colour receive, although that’s a whole other discussion.
Look at that infographic carefully. Out of 100 movies, only 14 are female-led. Given that women make up approximately 50% of the people on Earth that’s pretty damned shocking. Why does almost every protagonist have to be a white, heterosexual cismale? Seriously, that’s the question we have to ask here because 86% of them are. Are 86% of the people in your life white, heterosexual cis males? Are 86% of the people you see walking through the town centre on a Saturday afternoon white, heterosexual cismales? If you grouped 100 random people together off the street would a full six of them be exactly the same black guy? Of course not. That’s a ridiculous notion. Women have pitifully scarce representation on screen, and when they do appear they’re stereotyped as girlfriends, wives, damsels, comic relief, McGuffins. Objects. And that’s just white, heterosexual ciswomen. Good luck seeing yourself represented on screen as a protagonist if you’re a black woman. Or a gay woman. Or a trans woman. Or a gay, black trans woman. What makes this more ridiculous is that we’re talking about SciFi and fantasy! What, the internet will happily accept a movie about catching ghosts in shoebox-sized metal traps using unlicensed portable nuclear accelerators… but only if it’s done by men? Do you have any idea how insane that sounds?
But why is representation important? It’s not a question that people like me – that is to say (once again) white, het cismales – have reason to ponder, because we see ourselves everywhere, and nobody tells us that there’s a character that we can’t play. Adam Sandler played his own sister in a movie, for God’s sake. That’s how much privilege and representation white, heterosexual cismales receive. 86% of the time a woman cannot go to the cinema and see themselves as the hero; instead, they see themselves as two-dimensional objects. No agency. No power. No importance. Just things to be used by men. How would you feel if you spent your entire life being told, either directly or indirectly, that you were unimportant and just there to service other people? That you are automatically less relevant and have less impact than a group of people that don’t even outnumber you? That because you were born a woman –whether cis or trans – it has been decided, by the great and powerful “they”, that you are secondary? Pretty shit, right? Pretty angry, right? Patriarchal society has conditioned women to believe this for thousands of years, and the fact that in the western world it is now more often done subconsciously, with media and entertainment, than physically doesn’t make it any more pleasant. It certainly doesn’t make it any more right.
If the Ghostbusters franchise had never existed and the original script was filmed with a genderflipped cast and released tomorrow, is there anything about the movie that would suddenly fail to work? No, of course not. An actor’s gender has nothing to do with their worthiness or ability to play a character. A character’s gender has nothing to do with their effectiveness within a narrative. By saying that there are conditions which make a female cast unsuitable – especially in a reboot, where the fact that anything can be changed is literally the point! – you’re telling 50% of the population what they can and cannot do. You’re defining their capability and suitability based on your personal preferences rather than facts. You’re telling them that they can have representation, they can have a leading role, they can enjoy the same privileges that we do only on your terms. Only when it doesn’t inconvenience white, heterosexual cismales. Men get to decide when women have equality – which, of course, isn’t equality at all. It’s patriarchy and 100% bullshit.
I’ve seen a handful of people try to bring up Ellen Ripley as a counter-argument, stating that they would be equally unhappy if she were genderflipped to male in an Alien reboot. I appreciate where the point is coming from – that you’re taking an iconic, popular movie character and switching the gender – but that’s not all there is to it. Ripley’s gender identity – in particular, the fact that her femininity is portrayed as a strength rather than a weakness – is a huge part of her character and, quite frankly, exceptionally important to cinema. Ripley’s femininity is highly relevant to her character and to her plot arc. The Ghostbusters’ masculinity, on the other hand, is completely irrelevant to their characters. They are defined by humour, intelligence, inventiveness and bravery – none of which are exclusive to their male gender identity.
So the question moves on, and becomes “What are these people afraid of?” If Paul Feig (or anybody, for that matter) were to produce a female-led Ghostbusters reboot he wouldn’t be changing history, he wouldn’t be erasing the original movies from existence and he certainly wouldn’t be making the movie just because there is a diversity gap. He’s not destroying the original movies any more than a female-led production of Othello destroys Shakespeare. If one believes that these characters and these stories are so iconic and indelible then how can one think that a different interpretation of the premise will wash those things away? What exactly do they think that genderflipped characters – or hell, even a reboot with entirely new characters – is going to take from them? I’m not attacking or ridiculing here, I’m genuinely asking because I don’t understand. Irrespective of the answer, however, the existence of the original Ghostbusters films is completely irrelevant to the creation and casting of a new one: there is literally no reason why a rebooted Ghostbusters movie cannot or should not be female led.
Diversity and representation are powerful. They are vital. And until filmmakers like Paul Feig are free to make movies with female, non-white, non-cis and non-heteronormative leads – whether they are remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels or wholly original – without this kind of baseless negative reaction that can’t happen. That’s why this discussion is important. That’s why need to keep having it. That’s why it shouldn’t be dismissed as a storm in a teacup.