(Special Thanks goes to our own Chris Flick, for his insights on this article!)
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past two years, you know that a new Ghostbusters move was released this year. And you also know that the titular team of ghost fighting characters was gender-flipped from male to female.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
But this article isn’t going to talk about if the new Ghostbusters is an overall good movie or a bad movie. If it was a good idea or a bad idea. Instead we are going to discuss what can be learned about portraying female characters from this movie.
The portrayal of female characters is discussed often and heatedly all over the internet, and it’s something that comes up in the world of comics quite a lot. We’ve talked about it here on the Webcomic Alliance before. Sexy versus sexualization, ridiculous poses and costumes, and “agency” are hot topics of discussion. We live in a world where even when a movie is about women, men do most of the talking in them. In a huge script analysis of over 2.000 movies, only TWO movies had all the dialog delivered by women. You would think that Disney movies, with their heavy focus on princesses, would skew the other direction, but the same study when filtered found that 22 of 30 Disney films analyzed had more male dialog than female.
We also live in a world where there are many “tests” to see how well women are portrayed in a piece of media. The Bechdel Test, the Sexy Lamp Test, the Mako Mori test… all of these examine how female characters are portrayed in a film, book, or other piece of entertainment, and determine if the characters have enough of a storyline that isn’t dependent on their male counterparts. These tests are far from perfect, however. Mako Mori is a fantastic character but I have several issues with the end of her storyline in Pacific Rim. Maybe we’ll get in to those another time.
So, what can the new Ghostbusters teach us about how to portray female characters? Well, quite a lot actually, as there are many things that I think they got right with the main characters of the movie.
- The four main characters are smart, and three of them are in STEM related fields.
Out of the four Ghostbusters, one is a particle physicist, one is a paranormal researcher, one is a nuclear engineer, and one is a municipal historian (source: http://sonypicturesuk.tumblr.com/post/147037361268). According to the U.S. Census, the number of women in STEM related fields has been steadily declining in recent years. In fact, women in STEM fields are at HALF the percentage they would be if these fields mirrored the rest of the overall workforce. In recent years there has been a huge push to encourage young girls to pursue math, science, engineering, and technology related fields. The increased number of STEM toys targeted toward girls was so prevalent in 2015 that Fortune.com wrote an article about it during the holiday season. It’s so important to encourage young girls to pursue these fields, so seeing four women in a movie who are all smart and having three of them be in to science and engineering is a huge step. Paul Feig has even stated many times on Twitter that inspiring girls was the reason they made the movie in the first place.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) not being a scientist and that somehow making her “less smart” than the other three characters? Here’s the thing though, she may be the only one of them without some fancy degree or an entry on their resume as a professor at a prestigious college, but she is still amazingly intelligent. She has street smarts. She knows history. She’s the Everyman character, there to keep the story grounded and to make sure that the other three characters don’t get carried away with the science talk and make the movie incomprehensible. She is the majority of the audience. Also, she’s the only one with the sense to not walk in to what is obviously a “room full of nightmares”, unlike most people in movies about ghosts. And despite that she doesn’t have a fancy degree *that we know of*, she bands the other characters together. She gives them information they wouldn’t otherwise have, because she’s super intelligent and she knows everything about this city. In my eyes, that makes her just as smart, and maybe even a little smarter than, the other three characters.
- Realistic bodies, and no body shaming.
I’m not going to lie. I spent my entire first viewing of Ghostbusters waiting for the fat jokes about Abby (Melissa McCarthy) or Patty (Leslie Jones). When the credits started rolling I was confused. Had I just watched an entire movie with main characters who weren’t all rail-thin pictures of “Hollywood Perfection” and no one commented on anyone’s body at all?
It actually says a lot about the state of Hollywood that there have been reviews written about this movie in which the pizza scene is sited as something revolutionary. Four women sitting around after work, eating pizza on paper plates and not saying something about how they have to watch their waist lines is enough to make our collective heads explode.
Bonus: Not only are two of the four women “plus sized”, but three of four of them are over the age of forty. This is huge, considering Hollywood has an issue with actresses over that age.
- Women can be friends!
Another thing I expected was for the four main characters to get catty and start fighting over Kevin or makeup or a dress or whatever women fight over in other movies. Because it seems that in
most rom-coms or any other movie starring more than one woman, they will inevitably get in to a fight with each other. And although there is, in fact, a fight scene between three of the four main characters, it’s most definitely not because anyone is jealous of anyone else. The four main characters are friends, and they act like friends. They support each other, they tease each other, they celebrate their triumphs together and band together when the chips are down. And instead of them fighting over who is going to get to kiss hunky Chris Hemsworth in the end, they support the one character who does find him attractive. Speaking of…
- Storylines with women at the center don’t have to be romantic.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good romance story. (I have a Tumblr blog called Feels And Ships, okay? I like romance, I like characters being happy and in love.) But sometimes stories that are supposed to be about women doing things have a romance plot shoe-horned in to them. It’s even got a TV Tropes page dedicated to it. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Black Widow is one of my favorite characters. Which is why it hurts even more that Joss Whedon, one of the best male writers of strong women out there, shoved Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner in to one of the most out-of-the-blue and random Romantic Plot Tumors I have ever seen.
Okay, so back to Ghostbusters. There is one main character who wants to get with the hunky secretary, Kevin, but other than some awkward as hell flirting and jokes, it doesn’t go anywhere. Kevin is the big, adorable Golden Retriever, the lovable brother who must be protected at all costs. And in the end, no one kisses anyone, because this is a movie about women banding together and fighting both ghosts and stereotypes and a government that is trying to silence and discredit them. Not one about romance. So don’t shove it in there where it doesn’t belong!
- Female characters are not just vehicles to move the male character’s plot along.
SPOILER: Chris Hemsworth’s character gets possessed by the ghostly villain of the movie and turned from an adorable puppy dog in to a total jerk who carries out the plan to release an army of
ghosts on New York City to “pester the living”. The Ghostbusters then band together and go out to save their terrible secretary, because they love him. Even Patty, who has been vaguely annoyed by him this entire time, says “Nobody messes with Kevin!” as they fight to free him of the ghostly entity.
It’s refreshing when a trope like the Damsel In Distress gets turned on its head. Again, even Age of Ultron fell victim to making Black Widow from amazing bad-ass in to a damsel waiting for someone to come save her. (Come on, you can’t convince me that the super spy doesn’t know how to pick that lock, especially since she had enough extra parts sitting around in her cell to MAKE A RADIO TO SEND MORSE CODE TO HAWKEYE. She couldn’t pick the lock with those parts and save herself?) So it’s nice when the women who are supposed to be the heroes of the movie actually get to, you know, save those in trouble.
- Female characters can be strong and bad-ass while wearing practical outfits.
Let’s face it, women in comics have some ridiculous outfits. Okay, let’s be honest, sometimes men in comics have ridiculous outfits too. But it’s a plight usually assigned to the female characters. I remember watching Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil and thinking “Please, oh please, do not let Elektra show up in that ridiculous outfit.” I was very pleased when she did not.
Fighting evil in bathing suits with high cut legs, high heels, and long flowing loose hair is not practical. Especially not if you aren’t invulnerable and you’re going up against the likes of say, Wolverine, who literally has six razor sharp knives attached to his hands. Wearing dental floss is not practical if you fight vampires.
The women in Ghostbusters fight ghosts that can project ectoplasm “slime” in to the material plane, thus making a huge mess. So they choose to wear coveralls and boots over their regular clothes, to keep clean. And even Kate McKinnon has said this is pretty revolutionary when you actually see it on the big screen.
And yet, even without their breasts hanging out, without skin tight leather catsuits, this movie has one of the sexiest fight scenes of all time when Holtzmann pulls out two proton handguns in the climax of the movie and goes to town. It’s not shot to put her boobs and butt on display, there are no ridiculous poses worthy of the Hawkeye Initiative. Just an awesome woman kicking the collective butts of a lot of ghosts. And despite that she’s literally covered from her neck to her toes, many agree that it’s the sexiest scene in the entire movie. Because sexy is not the same as ‘sexualized’ and you don’t need to show a lot of skin to be sexy. Inversely, showing lots of skin is also not always sexy. Ghostbusters manages to show that a character can have a practical outfit and still be amazing and sexy. (Also, now women can have commercially available Ghostbusters costumes that aren’t something out of a fetish video.)
So those are my six things that Ghostbusters (2016) can teach creators about portraying female characters. Again, this article is not saying that Ghostbusters is a bad movie or a good movie. Is it a perfect movie? Absolutely not, but no movie actually is. Not even the 1984 Ghostbusters is without its flaws. But the portrayal of female characters in this movie is done with love and wit and with copious amounts of broken tropes. And I think that is something we can all learn from, despite any other thoughts about the movie.
When Liz Staley isn’t writing books about Clip Studio Paint (formerly Manga Studio 5), or recording tutorial videos about Clip Studio Paint, then she can probably be found drawing something in Clip Studio Paint. A certified CSP junkie, she’s written two books about the software: “Mastering Manga Studio 5” and “The Manga Studio EX 5 Cookbook.”
Her current comic project is a love letter to 70’s and 80’s giant robot anime called “Adrastus“, which she has been working on since 2010.
And because every group needs a Weird Horse Girl, she fills that role as well.