by Jenny Poore
Growing up in the '80s, I was movie obsessed. Ghostbusters, Weird Science, Mannequin, Better Off Dead, Summer School, Just One of the Guys, Teen Wolf, Star Wars. I loved the shitty ones as much as I loved the good ones. I remember sprawling on the brown shag carpet of my parent's den and re-watching until the VHS tape got thin and the tracking button didn't work anymore.
Women are almost wholly absent in any meaningful way from every movie of the '80s. If they are there, they only service the plot in the shape of the prize to be awarded to the male hero at the end. Even Princess Leia — who served as the only rational and truly heroic character of the first two movies of the original Star Wars trilogy — is minimized as Jabba the Hutt's slave in Return of the Jedi when she is costumed in a metal bikini and jerked around on a chain, George Lucas having served her up on a platter to the gods of nerd peen.
As a kid, I noticed this but just thought that was how life was ordered, that it was an accurate reflection of my opportunities and options as a girl. Subsequently, I envisioned myself in the role of the male hero: I was Luke Skywalker targeting Tie Fighters from the gun deck of the Millenium Falcon, and Indiana Jones doing a barrel roll to dive through a closing door. This desire to be the doer alienated me from my reality and the flesh-and-blood girl that I was. It made me turn away from everything I perceived as girly — "girly" being code for "secondary" and "weak" and "unimportant." Those were words I wanted nothing to do with; they did not describe my idea of myself. As a grownup, I've learned that instead of finding a different category to place myself in I can just stretch the boundaries of the one I was born in. There's no reason "girly" can't also mean "badass" and "capable" and "strong." Drowning as I was in the media available to me as a kid, that thought never occurred to me — and probably not to most girls my age.
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Fast forward to last year when they first announced the Ghostbusters reboot and we finally learned the names of the women who would star in it. The reactions were what most of us expected: reasonable people collectively expressing sentiments along the lines of "Oh wow, yeah that should be pretty funny and great" on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end, manbabies soiling themselves with futile rage poops about how GIRLS RUIN EVERYTHING GOOD and how WOMEN AREN'T FUNNY ANYWAY and how dare anyone desecrate the sacred space of a movie that was super special to us when we were 10 and had a 20-story tall bad guy made out of marshmallows? I mean, that shit is Bible book holy. Because when women are allowed good things, men's penises apparently shrivel en masse. The travesty even resulted in code being furiously pounded out in dark basement lairs to ensure that the first trailer for the movie had the highest number of dislikes of any video in YouTube history. My friends, history is determined by those who hold the pen(is).
When we learned more about the casting, in particular how Leslie Jones' character, the only woman of color in the film, would also be the only not-scientist, a street-smart MTA worker, it was the world's loudest (and in hindsight, most predictable) record scratch. A collective "seriously?" that we should have seen coming because of course we should have. Of course it wouldn't be right. A movie that would give cover to white feminism at the expense of African-American female representation just seems so very, very 2016. (See: Suffragette, et al.)
Leslie Jones' own response to the subsequent outrage is important, and we can hope that it's a reflection of her character as being more than a sidecar to a larger plot featuring the white female characters. Knowing what we know now about how Ernie Hudson's character was sandbagged in the original Ghostbusters should make everyone wary, but Jones' strong cheerleading of the movie and her prominence in promotional material give me hope. It's hard to imagine a woman as powerful and capable as Leslie Jones being anybody's stooge. A particularly sweet exchange with an actual transit worker who is excited to see someone like herself on the big screen should go a long way, not to provide comfort that this is OK, but to remind us that there are so many vital voices and stories in the world that we regularly overlook. That MTA worker sounds fascinating as hell, and I want to hear her story but limiting the full range of stories of women of color means we can't fully appreciate hers without some lingering discomfort. There would need to be about a million more Donna Meagles to make it feel OK.
We don't yet live in a world where we can be content to say, "Of course everyday people can be Ghostbusters. Skin color doesn't matter." That only works when we've seen the black woman scientist too. When we've seen it so much we become bored with it, when it's something so normal that people don't bother to write think pieces about it. When we've seen all people be all things we can finally have that. But as long as white people are the default for every good or interesting or smart role, and women of color are primarily relegated to Sassy Black Friend or Street Smart Savior, we can't. We should be able to enjoy Leslie Jones' performance assuming she could have picked from any of the roles but she chose that one because it had the best lines and not because it was the one she had to play. We're not there yet.
So as excited as I am for the new Ghostbusters, as thrilled as I am to have what I feel is owed to all girls who grew up in the '80s and were fed a steady diet of misogyny, white women like me can't fully cheer and celebrate this movie as payment on the debt owed to us because there's still so much work to be done. Too much of the climbing that has gotten us to the point where there can even be an all-female Ghostbusters has included standing on the backs of women of color or pulling up the ladder behind us when we've arrived. "Progress" isn't actually progress if it only encompasses those of us who already have so much privilege. It's just something we tell ourselves so we can enjoy things we want to enjoy with less guilt.
Unlike Janessa E. Robinson writing in the Guardian that she will not see a movie that "shrinks black woman for the ease of the white gaze," I will be watching the new Ghostbusters. I can acknowledge that my white privilege allows me to feel OK about it in a way that women of color might not be able to because it's not my body that is perpetually marginalized and ignored and erased. I can say I "get it," but it's not fully possible for me to because theirs are experiences I have not lived. I think it is critical that this movie does well because if it doesn't, it'll prove all the mouthbreathers in their mothers' basements right that women can't carry a movie like this. I will see it because these women are funny, and I'd honestly buy a ticket just to watch Leslie Jones brush her teeth because everything she does is blisteringly new and hilarious.
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We are women and women are experts at loving and celebrating imperfect things. And we know that in this specific instance it's important for this imperfect thing to succeed so that next time, there are not just women in the writers room but women in the writers room who look like all women and who we can trust will make sure all women get their shot to be the star, the scientist, the Ghostbuster, or whatever they want to be. As white women, we are in a position right now to not stand on the backs of women of color, to not pull up the ladder behind us when we reach that next level, to not claim our own personal victories as victories for all women. What we choose to do next with that power is critical.
Jenny Poore is the creative director for Maximum Middle Age and writes about education, pop culture, politics, and parenting. She enjoys the company of her three children, one husband, one dog, one cat, six chickens and 200,000 honeybees in the mountains of Virginia. Her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, The Establishment, Time, and Full Grown People among others. She loves coffee and Sherlock Holmes more than normal people do and should really be working on her short story collection on identity politics and the culture of women's work but instead Photoshops barbed wire on vaginas and makes mashups of Garbage Pail Kids for MaxMA because she feels the people need and deserve that a whole lot more right now.