“Women aren’t funny!” Nope. “This is pandering to feminazis!” Try again. “It’s a little bit…racist?” Yeah, you might be on to something there.
The first Ghostbusters trailer for the controversial reboot of the ‘80s classic just dropped, and for all the fun and ghost-butt-kicking action, it isn’t without its problems.
If your reaction to the new female-helmed Ghostbusters is somewhere along the lines of “I’m boycotting this, because women,” you can pack it on up and head back over to YouTube, where the rest of your sexist brethren are forming a nice home, down-voting the trailer, furiously typing vitriolic abuse and generally being human garbage. Spoiler warning: this article is not for you (they’re never going to be for you).
Forget the sexist trolls. The focus on women in the Ghostbuster reboot trailer is a big reason to love it. When was the last time an action movie trailer didn’t include a single line of dialogue from a male character? Or featured women prominently in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) roles? Or allowed women to wear the same practical, slightly unkempt jumpsuits as their male predecessors without feeling the need to make the clothes sexier, or more feminine?
So far so good, right? Yay women, etc.
But there is one big reason to be unhappy with the Ghostbusters trailer: It’s kind of really, incredibly racist.
Let’s break this down.
It is amazing and encouraging to see women scientists in the starring roles of an action film. However, when watching the trailer is quickly becomes apparent that there are in fact only three female scientists, played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon. The fourth lead is played by Leslie Jones, whose character is very much not a scientist.
I have to note here that the Sony Pictures Canada Twitter account has called Jones’ character a “Municipal Historian,” so there is some small hope that there is more to her character than the trailer portrays. Still, based on lines like, “You guys are really smart about this science stuff,” it isn’t looking great.
Comedian and YouTuber Akilah Hughes explained why this is such a problem in a new video that addresses commenters who suggest that Jones being a scientist would be somehow less realistic than ghosts existing and attacking New York City. Because as we know, realism is a big factor in action-packed, science-fiction, movies about ghosts.
Just as Hughes points out, there’s no reason for Jones not to play a scientist (clock that list at the end of her video if you still, for some reason, need convincing).
It is of course completely understandable that filmmakers might want to have one of the lead women be a layperson, so as to provide an entrance point for the audience member who might not have a PhD in “science stuff.” But why couldn’t that person have been one of the three white women who are also starring in the film?
On the surface it might not seem to make much difference, but we know that the representation of black women in media comes with a history of negative stereotypes that are simply not applicable to white women. Reductive tropes, like being the street smart, sassy black woman — essentially the character we see Jones playing in the trailer — are a very direct contributor to the oppression of black women in real life.
The problem with Ghostbusters is that Leslie Jones’ Patty is simultaneously the only black woman in the film and the only lead character who isn’t from a STEM area. The problem is that black women on film are constantly being reduced to sassy, shouty stereotypes. The problem is that almost this exact thing happened during the filming of the original Ghostbusters, when not only the screentime of the (again) only black actor was drastically reduced prior to filming, but so was all of his character’s “elaborate background”.
I really want to love Ghostbusters. And I’ll be forever grateful for the existence of this GIF:
But based on the trailer, I am disappointed. This is a huge misstep for a supposedly feminist production. It feels especially frustrating because with Studio execs constantly saying things like “movies starring women don’t make money,” there is so much scrutiny on female-helmed films to not only do well, but to be somehow perfect. I certainly feel like I have to champion every single female-focused film or TV show, because if I don’t, there might not be another one. Meanwhile, no one is judging the entire action film genre on the abominations Michael Bay has created.
I am not denying that making the four leads all women is a great big step forward. But it isn’t progress if the white characters advance at the expense of the one black character (let’s remember, in terms of representation it’s still a 3-to-1 divide). When we’re elevating roles for women, we have to do so for all women. That means recognizing that a role that might be fairly innocuous for a white actress can be incredibly offensive or stereotypical when portrayed by a black actress.
I’m going to hope that Jones’ character was not the subject of a poor screenplay, but rather a poor trailer edit. I’ll hope that she is truly an educated historian like the promotional material says (but even so, we know how difficult it is for black women in STEM areas in real life — so again, why not have a white female historian/street smart New Yorker and a black female scientist?).
The reboot trailer starts out, “30 years ago four scientists saved New York.” Except that isn’t quite right. In the original Ghostbusters, our foursome was also comprised of three super smart scientists, and one “everyman” — the one who was definitely not a scientist. In the original, just like in the new trailer, the three scientists were white, and the “everyman”, played by Ernie Hudson, was black.
What the new Ghostbusters trailer tries to hide — or seems to have forgotten — is that in the original, the black character was the comic relief, and the stereotype. And unfortunately 30 years later, nothing has changed.