Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Busting Misogyny: A Review of Ghostbusters (2016)

Like many of the nerdy persuasion born in the 70's and 80's, Ghostbusters (1984) was practically on a constant loop on cable and VHS during much of my childhood.  So, along with a general disdain for remakes and reboots, I understand the fear that the 2016 reboot might ruin one's childhood.  What I don't understand is the blatant misogyny of some of the preemptive backlash (pre-lash?), nor the racist Twitter campaign against Leslie Jones.  More on that later.

But first: Fear not, fellow nerds of a certain age!  Ghostbusters (2016) is actually pretty good!  A lot of the jokes are hilarious, and it's a fitting homage to the original.  The whole thing is a lot of fun, far more fun than anything else I've seen this summer (especially the joyless messes of Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence).

Plot, Performances, etc.

As in the original, we have four characters who come together to form the Ghostbusters.  The reboot introduces entirely new characters: Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones).  An infestation of ghosts, instigated by the creepy Rowan North (Neil Casey), threatens to overrun Manhattan.  It's up to our heroes to save the day with very little help from their handsome but incompetent receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).  You can read more about the plot in other reviews like this one and this one.

The main cast are all seasoned comedic actors.  Wiig and McCarthy are great as always.  Jones is a bit toned down from her SNL antics, but she can do no wrong and it's good to see her have a chance to develop a character.  McKinnon's Holtzmann steals the show with one of the most lovably bizarre characters ever to strut onto the screen (at one point she refers to Pringles as "tasty little parabolas," which amuses me to no end).  Hemsworth's riff of the brainless beauty archetype works well and is no doubt intended to annoy those annoyed by an all-women Ghostbusters team.  Be sure to watch for some fun cameos, too.

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost!: The Epistemology and Metaphysics of Ghosts

Like the original, the reboot is a lot of fun, but it's not exactly a deep philosophical exercise.  Still, one might wonder, especially with the proliferation of Ghost Hunter-type shows (which are spoofed in the movie), could there be ghosts?  This question itself could be split into an epistemological question (do we have evidence for ghosts?) and a metaphysical question (could ghosts exist?).

Is there evidence for ghosts?  I'm inclined to say, "no."  Most of the so-called evidence is anecdotal, easily faked, or based on outright hoaxes.  It's far easier for our perceptual capacities to go wrong than most of us would care to admit, especially in the spooky, poorly-lit conditions of most ghost sightings.  Ghosts don't fit well with the criterion of conservatism, which I'm not using in any political sense but rather as a criterion for accepting only those beliefs that cohere with previously well-established beliefs unless there's very good reason not to do so.  To put it in Carl Sagan's terms, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  The criterion of conservatism comes into play in the movie as our intrepid ghostbusters try to find some solid, scientific evidence for ghosts. (For a fun and refreshingly critical documentary that looks into these questions, see Is It Real?: Ghosts, a film I used to show in my critical thinking class.)

It is possible for ghosts to exist?  It's logically possible in the sense that ghosts can be coherently imagined and don't violate basic logical principles like the Principle of Non-Contradiction.  In the movie ghosts are referred to as "undead," which has always contained a twang of PNC-violation to my ears: how can they be both dead and un-dead?  Maybe the undead are proponents of paraconsistent logic; maybe this is resolved by supplying two different senses of "dead."  So, I think ghosts are logically possible.

Are ghosts physically possible?  Although the movie throws around quasi-scientific terminology, I can't think of any scientific basis for ghosts, at least given current scientific understandings.  There's also the fact that all cases of consciousness uncontroversially observed thus far have been associated with physical bodies.  Of course, how exactly first-person consciousness arises from lumps of grey stuff is still a mystery that philosophers call the hard problem of consciousness, so there may be an opening there, at least in the event of a future paradigm shift in physics, biology, neuroscience, etc.  In fact, one science fiction series, Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, gives a scientific explanation for ghosts in space in the 27th century, so ... you never know.

There are also further metaphysical issues with personal identity.  Would your ghost really be you?  What criterion of personal identity would make it so that flesh-and-blood you is the same person as spooky ectoplasm-vomiting you?  There are similar issues with any afterlife that requires ascribing personal identity over time (heaven, hell, rebirth, etc.).

Given the epistemological and metaphysical hurdles that any belief in ghosts must overcome, I'm inclined to say - despite the double negative - that I ain't afraid of no ghost.  I doubt there are any such things to be afraid of.

It is interesting that Ghostbusters in both incarnations revolves around the quest for a scientific understanding of ghosts - the 1984 version did this before it was cool!  Some people like the idea of ghosts as a quintessentially non-scientific or anti-scientific concept, but that's not what Ghostbusters is about.  Is this scientism infecting even the supernatural?  Is it indicative of a healthy, scientific outlook?  I'm not sure, but it makes for a fun movie.

The Ecoplasm of Misogyny and Racism Threatens to Destroy Manhattan (and Us All)

At one point in the reboot the characters read a comment on their YouTube video that says something to the effect that women can't be ghostbusters (although it's not phrased so delicately).  This is a clever nod to the controversy that surrounded the movie months before it was released.  Apparently many of the internet's most obnoxious denizens (Sad/Rabid Puppies, MRAs, NRCs, CAPPoFs, ABDOWs, and the like) objected to the very idea that women could be competent, funny members of a fictional profession.  Once the movie came out, Leslie Jones was subjected to blatantly racist abuse on Twitter.  The main instigator of Jones's harassment and all around super nice guy, Milo Yiannopoulos, was permanently banned by Twitter for violating their terms of service.

A lot has already been written about the controversy surrounding the movie, but there's an element of the plot itself that directly speaks to these issues as well.  Rowan North (played with slimy excellence by Neil Casey) is exactly the kind of person that women ghostbusters are likely to annoy: a resentful, angry white man who feels betrayed by the encroachment of a world he no longer understands.  He's part of the wave of reactionary bigotry washing over the US and other countries in recent years.

Like North, each ghostbuster is in her own way a victim of a cruel world.  Gilbert and Yates, for instance, were bullied as children and subsequently as adults for being too weird.  Yet each ghostbuster chooses to help the world that once scorned her.

Instead of coming to terms with the world like the ghostbusters, however, Rowan North lashes out.  Eventually represented as a blobby, putrid version of the original Ghostbusters logo, he tries to unlock a Lovecraftian portal of spectral destruction.  Reactionary bigots in the real world unlock similar portals of hateful rhetoric, often based on mutated visions of a past that never was.

The Future is So Bright, Holtzmann and Slimer Gotta Wear Shades

But here's the thing: those who try to unleash this vile destruction forget that they themselves will be destroyed in the process.  The Rowan Norths and Milo Yiannopouloses of the world don't realize that their vitriol is an acid that eats away their own humanity as well.

Luckily for their sakes and for us all, we have people as brave and as capable as the ghostbusters to make a stand for decency, to bust the misogyny and racism that threaten to destroy us all.  And if this busting can be done with the humor and joy of Ghostbusters, a more diverse, inclusive future will be as much fun as Holtzmann geeking out on her latest inventions or Slimer's joyride in Ecto-1.


  1. Your review of the new Ghostbusters film sounds interesting and makes me want to go see the movie. I have to admit that I am one of those people who don’t like seeing remakes of oldies or cartoons/children’s stories turned into films for adults for that matter but that’s an entirely different conversation. I just loved the guys so much and the old ghost. LOL. #childish #petty #whoops

    I like that you spoke about whether or not ghosts can actually exist. Paranormal topics are always interesting to read about. You offer a different perspective than most at least acknowledging that there is a possibility instead of absolutely denouncing it. That was refreshing and new.

    On the topic of Leslie Jones I must admit that I am not surprised but I am nonetheless disgusted. I just happened to be on Twitter the night of the attack and was disheartened by the fact that in 2016 America, people are justifying the attack of a person due to their race. And yes, this was a race related issue—this fact was underlined various times over the course of hours.

    As for the attack? People sent Jones pictures of semen on her body, sexual threats, called her pretty much any and every monkey/gorilla you could imagine (fictitious and otherwise). I distinctly remember one person calling her a “big lipped coon.” Attacking and critiquing her acting would have been different but attacking her because you feel like she is the epitome of a banana munching n****r is different. It’s hateful and it’s gross.

    Some people say that she was attacked because she attacked Milo and the gay community in a tweet that has not been confirmed to have been hers and was retweeted out. Apparently Milo wrote a piece with his thoughts on the new Ghostbusters film and called Jones’ performance something along the lines of ‘worthy of a minstrel show.’ I’m sure most of the misunderstanding about the situation is coming from the high levels of illiteracy, ignorance and incompetence in the white supremacist movement. It didn’t help that many of the people sending violent threats and racial slurs to her claimed conservatism and (many) were followers of Milo.

    Some claim that the one known as “Jack” suspended his profile because he (Milo) is conservative. Twitter allegedly wanted to silence his free speech—others claim he was suspended because of a call-to-action he made calling all inbreeds to descend from the misty mountain tops to fling their limitless supply of putrid racist feces at an actress on a very public platform.

    I think that Milo and people like him destroy politics in America. Liberals can be, and in my opinion, are just as racist and un-American as many of these self-proclaimed patriots hiding behind the title conservatism. Both sides race bate. Lately, conservatives have been working very diligently to douse the flames of race politics with an extra dose napalm.

    Why would they (politicians and government officials) wait until now when they need the votes the most to promote hatred and injustice? Perhaps we should look to senator Steve King for what politicians and their blasphemous followers really think. :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

    1. hanks, Kyanna, for the thoughtful comment. I can't guarantee that every fan of the original will like the reboot, but I liked it an awful lot.

      As for ghosts in the real world, I've had the benefit of thinking through some of those issues when I covered paranormal topics in a critical thinking course that I taught for a few years. I don't think there's good reason to believe in ghosts now, but I suppose you never know what the future holds.

      The treatment of Leslie Jones was disgusting. I don't know what's wrong with people like Yiannopoulos. It's as if they have no concept that they're talking about a human being. I think it's pretty well established that the allegedly homophobic and anti-semitic tweets were faked by Yiannopoulos and friends. I have no idea what's wrong with those people, but after I feel angry about what they're doing, I genuinely feel sorry for them. What a miserable, pathetic person you have to be to get such gleeful enjoyment from hating people you don't even know.

      When I heard about the Steve King comment the other day, I was hoping he'd enroll in the Intro to Asian Philosophy class I'm teaching this fall. He obviously has a few things to learn.