Content Warning: Rape, rape culture, sexual abuse, toxic masculinity. Also contains movie spoilers.
The 2016 reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise represented a departure from the norm when it comes to films aimed at women. Katie Dippold and Paul Feig's writing gave us a story that did not include a romantic interest; the women support one another and their choices; and none of the women are encouraged to fit a societal role in order to be fulfilled in life. Furthermore, two of the four main characters are plus-sized women, and at no time is that mocked or pointed out. The only food jokes? About how the Chinese restaurant can't get the orders right. These points, plus its clever humor and stellar performances made it an instant favorite in this house. My 10 year old adored Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones in their roles, and now has a quartet of heroines she can look up to in this movie.
But there's something else amazing about the Ghostbusters reboot. Not only is it a feminist masterpiece and a fun damn movie, it is an allegory for sexual abuse.
Ghosts From Our Past
In the movie, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) have co-authored a book, Ghosts From Our Past: Both Literally & Figuratively. Abby treats this as their baby. It is their shared experience. However, Erin is afraid how this will affect her career if the higher ups at Columbia University find out she dabbled in pseudoscience.
The Subtext: This is their shared experience with sexual abuse. The book is a tangible representation of what they've both been through. And for the rest of the film "ghosts" are a substitution for sexual abuse.
Both Abby and Erin demonstrate behaviors in regards to this book that are common among abuse survivors. Abby chooses to put it out there in every way her voice can be heard. She is unashamed, loud, and works in a related field hoping to understand her experiences better or help others. However, Erin is more interested in keeping her story under wraps. She doesn't want to tell people, she thought her secret was safe, and she fears repercussions of that information becoming public knowledge. And why wouldn't she? It's all happened before
Erin tells us flat out about her abuser. She's the only character in the film to describe her experiences. After Patty (Leslie Jones) joins and we've got a complete team hanging out around a table full of pizza boxes, she asks the group, "Have any of you actually seen a ghost?" Erin then intimates that when she was 8 years old, the "horrible neighbor woman next door" died. Every night for a year, that woman's ghost came to her bed and just stood there. When she told people about it, she wasn't believed. Her parents put her through therapy. Her peers ridiculed her, calling her "Ghost Girl" and shunning her. Only Abby, we find out, believed her and shared her need to discover more.
I connected with this scene on a number of levels. I was molested by my neighbor (a boy a few years older than me) at age 9. I wasn't believed when I told adults, and I didn't understand enough to tell my peers at the time. It wasn't until a junior high slumber party that a few too many cans of Mountain Dew and a pizza loosened my tongue and I told a handful of girls I could trust. They believed me. They had already been through similar or worse.
Erin? She was sexually abused by her neighbor. Ritually. For a year. And no one believed her. No one but Abby. The ridicule she received at the hands of her peers is nothing new, but it's hella old. Just look at instances where a woman comes forward after a rape. She is slut-shamed for what she was wearing, for being at the party in the first place. Look at Amber Heard, Lindsay Lohan, or the collection of women coming forward against Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby. They're called whores, gold diggers. Their words are discounted because they were drinking, or they're bisexual, or whatever arbitrary reason you want to give. Look at any man who tries to come forward about his own abuse. He is told that boys can't be raped, or that he is just a "pussy" (which is another argument all together). Regardless of gender, there is a very real precedent for bringing shame and ridicule to those who come forward about sexual harassment and assault.
In the film, Patty says sadly, "We're all Ghost Girl now" when the media starts calling them liars. I loved this line because it was a moment of solidarity among women similar to the #YesAllWomen hashtag.
Under Rug Swept
After the heebie GBs take out a high profile ghost at a metal concert, the Mayor (Andy Garcia) calls in the ladies for a little chat. He knows--and has known for quite some time--that ghosts exist in the Big Apple. However, he tells them to keep quiet about it.
Sound familiar? Maybe you remember the Jerry Sandusky case from a few years back where it came to light that the coach had been sexually assaulting young boys and men in his care at Penn State. That university staff knew about it, but did nothing. Or maybe you have read about the Catholic Church having to admit they knew about and silenced victims of molestation at the hands of priests. Perhaps you've personally gone to the principal about this teacher, or that classmate who snaps bra straps or catcalls. Rape jokes by the water cooler.
Authority always knows it's going on, but shoves down the plight of the victim. Just recently another rapist got off without a sentence because a judge didn't want to "ruin the young man's future". We wouldn't want to besmirch this politician's good name, or that priest's reputation. Would we? Can't you just be quiet? Don't rock the boat. Just be quiet.
Standing beside the Mayor is Jennifer Lynch (Cecily Strong), his assistant and handler, smiling and urging the ladies to do as they're told and just keep quiet. Allow the media to continue bashing you, stay silent and keep on doing your job.
This happens. It came as a surprise to some of my male friends/family when I mentioned this in conversation, but women are slut-shamed by other women. Constantly. In our culture, women are trained to keep quiet, don't move, follow the rules and you won't get hurt. If you dress conservatively. If you go to the bathroom in packs. If you use your keys as a weapon. If you shout "fire" instead of "help".... Women are trained a million and one little tricks from birth. It's an oral history passed down from mother to daughter, aunt to niece. It is traded back and forth in high school locker rooms and college dorms. We are trained to behave like prey.
Some people choose to fly under the radar in plain sight of the potential predators, making sure the authority sees they are being good girls. We're following the rules and playing the game. Therefore we'll be spared, right?
Angry Boy Syndrome
I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the antagonist of the film. Rowan North (Neil Casey) is a hermit hellbent on causing the apocalypse because he feels that the world didn't do right by him. The writers are pretty straight forward about this. Waitresses are creeped out by him and don't want to serve him. He's presented as an ugly, socially awkward man ignored by women. (Abby even gets in a funny, "Pick up your virginity at the lost and found" gag.) His encounter with Patty--where he tells her that laborers such as herself will be spared until the end--is reminiscent of any time a guy calls you pretty (creepily) then says you should be grateful for the attention. This toxicity builds and builds until he ultimately kills himself and sets out to destroy everything. His power is in his anger and it makes him larger than life.
Rowan is a perfect example of toxic masculinity. This is a personification of Internet culture. The Gamer Gate, Rabid Puppy types. Entitled white men of above average intelligence who believe they are owed something. These are the guys who have been hounding Leslie Jones on Twitter. These are the guys doxxing women. Rowan is alive and well, and I will tell you now that I know full well that I am putting myself at risk by even posting this blog BECAUSE Rowans exist.
If you're still not seeing Rowan in real life, take a look back to 2014 when Elliot Rodger gunned down the Alpha Phi sorority house at UC Santa Barbara. His video manifesto pretty much articulated Rowan's main gripes with the world.
Don't worry, though, guys. There's still a positive role model for you in Kevin (Chris Hemsworth). Oh, sweet Kevin. I know there's an argument floating around that Hemsworth's character is nothing but dumb-and-pretty set dressing. To those people, I point at more than a hundred years of films where exactly that was done to women and you didn't give a shit. I will mention here, though, that it's not right to objectify anyone. Kevin's portrayal is a caricature and satire in that regard, and we all know that Hemsworth is not that dumb. (PS: I thought he was hilarious.) I also would like to tell you that Dumb Kevin represents so much more!
Kevin is the safe male friend a lot of women have. He's cute, yeah, but you'd never date him because he's all fluff and no substance, or he's just too dumb, or he's like your brother, or you're just not into him that way. But you like hanging out. He sometimes says or does things that are kinda idiotic and tone deaf, but he means well. And you know he won't ever use his strength or privilege or anything against you. He's on your team. He's your friend. Kevin is safe.
Until he's not.
Like any seasoned abuser, Rowan uses the ladies' friends against them. (Spoiler alert.) Rowan possesses Abby and begins to destroy the lab and physically attack Patty and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Then, when the women are too strong to be pulled apart by this tactic (sisters before misters, you twat!) Rowan possesses Kevin.
This is important. For one thing, from a story perspective, we've just upped the stakes. Our friend is in trouble! But remember, in our allegory, Rowan is the embodiment of toxic masculinity and that is infecting our friend now. When that spirit takes over Kevin, he carries out Rowan's initial plan to wreak havoc on not just the women but the city.
In real life, however, there's a lot less flying around and green light. How do I know it happens in real life? Because there's a term for it: "friend zoned". When a woman decides she doesn't want to have a sexual relationship with a male friend, he says he was 'friend zoned'. That's a whole rant in and of itself, but Kevin's switch to baddie is congruent with what happens when men feel they've put currency into a woman and she's supposed to spit out sex like a vending machine. If you want to see how fast a man can go from friendly to rape threats, check out Feminist on Tinder.
Holtzmann Is Everything
I couldn't write a post about Ghostbusters without talking about my future gay wife, Jillian Holtzmann. She is goddamn amazing, is what she is. Holtzmann doesn't talk about her own experiences with ghosts, but we know she wants to help. She just showed up one day in Abby's lab and started working. While she takes a scientific approach to her work, she believes her friends when evidence is initially lacking. She is using her talents to help others even when she isn't open about her past, if she has one.
Personally, I find there to be subtextual evidence that Holtz has experienced her own share of abuse, and not only because she's so open to helping others going through similar issues. Physically, she's presented in a way that is designed to avoid the male gaze. Her odd choice of clothes, her more masculine mannerisms and Screw U necklace all push away eyes that might be looking for prim and traditional femininity/beauty. While this is definitely a character/personality choice, and also lends to the theory that Holtzmann is not heterosexual, McKinnon's character represents more than the non-binary outsider.
Perhaps most importantly, Holtz equips women to battle their ghosts--literal and figurative. She has a grasp of what is necessary to do that. And when she gets the chance to unleash on a fucking pilgrim (a literal goddamn symbol of puritanical ethics and patriarchy!) she does so with grace and fury that comes from the soul. This is a woman battling her own oppressor, her own shit, and kicking ass!
Also, in the end, Holtz raises a glass to her friends and is brought to tears because she has been accepted and loved by them. She's found solace and healing.
Yes, All Women
After the Ghostbusters throw down and save the day, no one can tell what they did. The media says it was mass hysteria, while others know the truth. The Chinese restaurant shows appreciation with extra wontons. And the city buildings light up with small messages: "We <3 GB" or "Thank You".
The women stand on their balcony and see the night skyline come alive with these after-dark messages, clandestine whispers that they're not alone. They're pleased and humbled.
And this was my exact experience when the #YesAllWomen hashtag started in 2014. Reading blog posts, tweets or articles detailing the common experience of being a woman enduring systemic misogyny, rape culture, and abuse....it's empowering. It's heartening. There is gratitude and humility in reading the posts. Seeing the world light up with messages of love and solidarity. We can't always talk about it. We can't always stop the big bad. But we can use 140 characters to say, "This happened to me, too. You're not alone. I see you."
That is what I take away from this movie more than anything. Yes, it was a wonderful, fun romp, an overall good movie that I will buy the minute it comes out on Blu Ray. But it was more than that. The script's veiled acknowledgement of the female experience is opening a dialogue so that we can talk about misogyny, rape culture, abuse, and toxic masculinity. The story is one that says, "I see you. I believe you." The movie creates an opportunity for men and women to bust their own ghosts--literal and figurative--together.