Of Busted Ghosts and Broken Glass

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

If what you want is Hillary Clinton – that is, anti-feminism in the name of feminism, liberal individualism enacted as neoliberal policy, and late capitalist nothingness posed as ‘history’ – then Ghostbusters will certainly deliver that ‘equal rights’ escapism as a temporary fix for the wished-away threats of ascending right populism.

Late last summer, as Mad Max: Fury Road fuelled the wrath of Men’s Rights Activists (known, of course, for their keen commitment to the ‘women’s work’ of cultural analysis), the ‘controversy’ of Ghostbusters became incorporated into a dominant culture of gender-baiting that has only worsened with Clinton’s campaign this year. What bothered MRA bloggers – in keeping with misogynist tendencies of contemporary white nationalism – was the feminization of masculine archetypes. Mad Max and the Ghostbusters were elevated, by these ridiculous arguments, to sacred figures of a masculinity under threat. According to popular MRA blog Return of Kings, these are instances of “stylish feminism” creating “a new franchise from the raped carcass of the original.” [1] Out of this climate of popular misogyny, white liberal feminism’s glass ceiling moment shatters across various outlets of the culture industry, offering false antidotes and brief relief at best.

“…it may be hard to see tonight, but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now. But don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one.” [2]

What this all-female Ghostbusters most epitomizes is this logical limit of the ‘glass ceiling’ – the extent to which this contemporary brand of (white) feminism not only naturalizes, but celebrates capitalist competition as the basis of liberal individualism. This is the ceiling that can’t be smashed — the social totality that can hardly be seen.

The adaptation’s ‘equal rights’ platform leads to a precise re-gendering of the original male cast, while maintaining the racial and class distinctions among the ghostbusters. The glaring gaps in the ideology of ‘equality’ that grounds Ghostbusters neatly into Clinton-era liberal feminism come with the characters Patty and Kevin. Patty, played by Leslie Jones, is the only non-white ghostbuster – a black woman who works as a subway cashier, and has an extensive yet under-appreciated (and implicitly “folksy”) knowledge of local history. After seeing a ghost, Patty has to beg the other ghostbusters to let her “join the team,” while Kevin – a hot white idiot played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor) – is hired as their receptionist because of his physical appearance. Playing into the trope of ‘reverse sexism’ so crucial to the Men’s Rights position, the figure of Kevin comes as another important gesture of symmetry and ‘equality,’ as an homage to the sexy secretary played by Annie Potts in the original series. In other words: by this logic of equal rights, if the original series can be misogynist and racist, so can the re-make.

What gets lost in the attempt at adaptational symmetry is precisely what gets lost by the ideology of ‘equality’ in liberal (white) feminism: the actually existing social conditions by which such equality is both materially and structurally impossible under capitalism. “We happen to like the world the way it is!” exclaim the ghostbusters — and everywhere that is clearly spelled out: this is No Alternative Feminism, a Thatcher/Reagan era re-make that is 1984 back with a vengeance.

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Caught up in the ‘equality’ game, Ghostbusters hardly attends to the ghosts themselves. While the dangers posed by the ghosts are ill-defined, what is otherwise clear is the mandate to uphold “the world the way it is.”

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As defenders of the status quo, the ghostbusters protect New Yorkers from ghosts with full knowledge of the insufficiency of the state. Based on their behavior, there is no antagonism toward the Mayor’s office or the Homeland Security officers, but rather a desire to be left alone. This entrepreneurial spirit is romanticized, and ultimately draws in state-funding to the ghostbusters as free agents, with all the liberties of private militarization for the sake of “national security.”

From the outset of Ghostbusters, the conflict is about whether the ghosts are real. The ghostbusters believe in ghosts, and are labeled “hysterical” – a bit of gendered language that is not milked at all compared to some of the film’s tiresome joke-recycling – while the three white ghostbusters with graduate degrees try to legitimate themselves through a scientific discourse. By the time that New York is haunted by thousands of ghosts, everyone is willing to believe them so long as they make the ghosts disappear – that is, they’ll believe that they’re “real” so long as they remain in all other ways unreal.

Framed as an equal opportunities, common-sense ‘feminist’ comedy adaptation, Ghostbusters turns out to be a sustained demonstration of the racism and misogyny of the ‘lean in’ cultural imagination, among other structural contradictions. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s platform of ‘lean in’ reveals the ideological underpinning of capitalism’s stronghold on contemporary ‘feminism,’ as Dawn Foster sums up: “If you’re languishing at the bottom of the corporate ladder rather than hammering on the glass ceiling, blame yourself, not the power structures that conspire to shrink your life chances.” In her critique of this corporate feminist ideology, Foster rightly suggests that the focus on “individual success stories, rather than structural inequality, is politically helpful to the Conservative squeeze on living standards” across Europe and the United States. [3] The re-make’s subtitle – “Answer the Call” – imposes this drive to ‘lean in,’ as a rally-call in which ‘feminism’ itself is a ghostly non-thing, unalive and unimaginable.

The central ghostbusters are Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), old friends who are initially estranged due to the pressures of professionalization. Erin is up for tenure in the Physics department at Columbia University when she discovers that an old publication has re-surfaced, which she co-authored with Abby. Erin becomes concerned that the seemingly “crazy” and unscientific content of the book will jeopardize her eligibility for tenure, and approaches Abby, who works at a nearby technical college, about the book’s distribution. While institutional power dynamics have clearly poisoned their relationship, they re-unite after witnessing a ghost together, with tears of joy pronouncing “We were right! We weren’t crazy!” Both are fired from their respective institution, and while remaining uncritical of the institution, become entrepreneurs together, transposing their experience as teachers and researchers onto a small business.

In their tenacity and unwillingness to think systemically, Erin and Abby exude lean in, in sometimes stark contrast to the other ghostbusters. Patty is always in the position of reminding her white, high-salaried ‘equals’ that she can’t get fired from her job, and not to mishandle the car she borrowed from her uncle. Patty’s connection to the working world provides material for jokes, while marking the otherwise invisible barriers of her inclusion in “the team” as its only non-white member. Holtzman, in distinction, is happily on the sidelines as an oddball engineer, who has worked as Abby’s assistant for years. Holtzman’s non-conforming demeanor makes her unfit for leadership, and marginalizes her from the struggle for institutional legitimacy modeled by Erin, and the managerial enthusiasm modeled by Abby.

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With these particular barriers to the film’s ‘feminism,’ what remains palpably consistent – despite much narrative discontinuity – is the central farce of white masculinity. Whereas the ghosts themselves pose a nondescript danger, the imposition of this danger is organized through the figure of Rowan North, a white male twenty-something who displays a familiar set of pathologized traits. As Abby says, “It’s always the sad, pale ones”: Rowan is a loner, eccentric and seemingly harmless, who conspires to resurrect ghosts and sabotage humanity, after a lifetime of being mocked and bullied. When the ghostbusters eventually confront him, he tells them they wouldn’t understand. The critique implicit is quickly undermined and recuperated by the myth of leaning in. Yet against such a mythical drive, the anti-patriarchal kernel of this farce of the “GhostBro” makes clear the problem at hand: this No Alternative feminism must be somehow abolished.

Though there is no horizon of radical collectivity in this cultural landscape of identity politics, it is all the while apparent that the ideology of white male victimhood presents a real and proliferating threat. Dismissive of Rowan’s white male victimhood, the ghostbusters’ non-identification with this loner terrorist figure is not about his white masculinity, however, so much as his self-victimization. This self-victimization is antithetical to the brand of contemporary feminism that Rebecca Stringer describes as based on a notion of the ideal neoliberal citizen:

The ideal neoliberal citizen is often explicitly figured as one who avoids ‘victim mentality’: one who assumes personal responsibility for guarding against the risk of victimization, instead of focusing on their right not to be victimized. Complementing this conception of the ideal citizen, much anti-victim talk discursively constitutes victimization as a matter of individual responsibility, psychology and will, endorsing a fundamentally conservative conception of victimhood as a state of mind… an unhealthy attitude of resentment brought on by an individual’s lack of personal responsibility, rather than a circumstance occasioned by wider social forces and the workings of power. [4]

Rowan’s victimhood marks his otherwise unmarked white masculinity – the doubleness of identity politics in neoliberalism, as Sally Robinson suggests, for which “the forced embodiment of whiteness and masculinity is often represented as a violence.” [5]

While Rowan is both mocked and marked as threatening for his self-victimization, the hot secretary Kevin is mocked and marked as non-threatening for his self-aggrandizement. In each of these characters, we see the film’s defanged critique of white masculinity – at its best, Ghostbusters unveils certain pressure points of white male toxicity. Kevin more specifically caricatures the inadequacies and anxieties of a male work force in the face of feminized labor conditions. With the body of a manicured lumberjack, Kevin sits behind a desk, bewildered by the seemingly simple task of answering the phone and little else. Yet he is continually forgiven for his ineptitude based on his handsomeness. The joke is ultimately on the ghostbusters, as they accommodate him to the bitter end.

Other than Rowan and Kevin, however, white men are managerial figures. Erin, Abby, and Holtzman are fired by white men. Then as the ghostbusters, they are hired by white men – business managers, whose workers complain of haunted working conditions. Whereas Rowan and Kevin pinpoint dominant tendencies of a white masculinity in crisis, these other white male figures reveal the anxieties operating in the film’s ‘feminist’ imaginary. These anxieties reach a certain tipping point with the cameo of previous ghostbuster Bill Murray, in which he plays a scientist who seeks to de-legitimate the ghostbusters’ claims. On the one hand, Murray’s cameo pokes fun at the white male ‘rational subject’ as a site of scientific legitimation. On the other hand, the cameo capitulates to the misogynist critiques of the re-gendered cast, with Murray lending his approval as a form of franchise legitimation.

Ghostbusters is packed with these duplicitous gestures – affirmational and glass-ceiling shattering, yet incomplete without misogynist punch-lines, racial discrimination, and crucially, a tinge of anxiety toward the possibility of dissatisfying (or even challenging) a white male audience. These are not the particular failings of a throwaway blockbuster, which will surely be remembered as “part of the franchise,” but the shortcomings of the popular imagination of a contemporary ‘feminism’ which seeks to do the dirty work for neoliberal capitalism as a form of feminized sacrifice necessary to the “will to lead.”

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As self-affirming non-victims and defenders of the status quo, the ghostbusters come to mirror the softening and sacrificial rhetoric of a nevertheless rapidly militarizing police force in the United States. Their whimsical vigilantism becomes incorporated into the state, while their perseverance at last brings them scientific and institutional legitimacy.

The ghosts, however, remain sequestered and disciplined – their age of riots is abated. The ghosts — the abject — must be contained in their unknowability, their precarity, their feminization, to be displaced by the ghostbusters’ quest for legitimation. Far more than a feminist critique of reason, these updated ghostbusters emanate a new rationalism. Their function is ultimately to make the threat of the ghosts never have to be known. The more haunting realities can be kept at bay, so long as there is the unfreedom of our “equality.”

Works Cited

[1] “The New Ghostbusters Movie Will Be Ruined By The Feminist Agenda,” http://www.returnofkings.com/56056/the-new-ghostbusters-movie-will-be-ruined-by-the-feminist-agenda

[2] Hillary Clinton, Speech as Presumptive Nominee, Brooklyn, New York, June 7, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXOp5Je66Xo

[3] Dawn Foster. Lean Out. London: Repeater Books, 2016. Print.

[4] Rebecca Stringer. Knowing Victims: Feminism, Agency and Victim Politics in Neoliberal Times. Routledge, 2014. Print. 89

[5] Sally Robinson. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print. 34

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