What I’m Consuming: Women on Screen, Part I

It’s time for another What I’m Consuming. This is a two-part deal focusing on a recent film and TV show. I dedicate this series to Hillary Clinton.

Women and men in Ghostbuster costumes

Image based on photo by uniquelycat (Cathy Smith)  frin PAX East 2015 [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For Part I, let’s talk about “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call”

This remake of the 1984 “Ghostbusters” is known for one thing: A ghoul-fighting cadre that is all female. When the movie came out over the summer, reviews sounded like the wheeze of a noisemaker at a lame party. “Ra ra, it’s got a female cast,” critics said. “I wish I liked it more.”

When I finally saw it this month, I was amazed.  In two words: It’s wonderful. Perhaps a cult classic in the making.

The co-star Kristen Wiig plays scientist Erin Gilbert. At Columbia, she’s a physics professor up for tenure. In the world of movie tropes, she’s the cowed loser up for transformation. You can practically see the blinking red arrow over her head, declaring Keep your eye on this one! She’ll change by the closing credits! In an early scene, a male administrator at Columbia advises Dr. Gilbert on strengthening her tenure application. His condescending advice? Get a recommendation from a school more prestigious than Princeton.

Gilbert’s response goes something like this: “More prestigious than Prince–?” then she stops, bows in mid-sentence, and says, “yes, of course. More like a ‘-ton’ of dummies go there.”

Melissa McCarthy is another scientist by the name of Abbie Yates. Years ago, Yates and Gilbert co-authored a book about ghosts. Yates has eschewed scholarly prestige for the freedom to dig into her research at a no-name school. Kate McKinnon, as Jillian Holtzmann, is the techie. Kind of an Egon remix. Holtzmann is a brilliant engineer, always producing a new device to trap ghosts or a weapon to take them down. There’s something decidedly un-trope-ish about her, though. Far from the socially inept geek we know from countless films and TV shows, she’s the one you want at your happy hour.  She’s Indiana Jones with proton packs instead of pistols, Super Man with his Clark Kent glasses on — if those glasses had vintage frames, yellow-tinted lenses, and leather trim.

Leslie Jones’ character joins the group as an outsider. She shows up to report paranormal activity at the subway station where she works, and soon reveals a mind full of New York City history. Her presence strikes me as less the token black character than a balance to the ivory tower scientists. As a New York Times review pointed out, though, a truly “radical reboot” would have put her in a lab coat, too.

I should point out that there’s also a man, who is their secretary.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is its twists on stock comedy characters. Gilbert could come across as just another woman trying to please. Yet her kowtowing feels no more extreme than any male schlub. (Think of Ed Helms’ character in “The Hangover,” or Simon Pegg’s character in… pretty much any Simon Pegg movie). The innovation comes in the nuanced way Gilbert’s changes unfold.

Another welcome twist comes from the women’s relationships to each other. No jealousy or catty competitions. They actually act like a team. Aside from an argument over whether to promote their co-authored book, Gilbert and Yates get along. In fact, they go beyond getting along. They boost each other up and save each other’s butts.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I say the final scenes make the women into heroes. They act on a valiant sense of moral obligation and demonstrate badass ghost-battling. They save Manhattan and maybe the world while working together and wearing comfortable outfits. I could say more, but I can’t do better than Erin Ramsey in her piece “Why? Should I go see it?” It’s wonderful and you should read it.


Thanks for reading Part I. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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