Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How To Relate to a Character of the Opposite Sex

I was on YouTube yesterday when I saw a video show up in my subscription feed containing information about the upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot. It sounds like an interesting story and why not make an all-female cast? There's plenty of films with all-male casts and often the only predominantly-female movies you really see are stereotypically feminine genres. The only truly all-female movie I'm aware of is the 1939 comedy/melodrama The Women, which naturally concerns a bunch of women's relationships with unseen men. The Descent is a horror film with a predominantly female cast, though technically there is a male character of significance (even if he dies in the first few minutes, he still influences the choices of the characters). It's not like the original Ghostbusters had much in the way of strong female characters to begin with, just a secretary who when you get down to it really didn't add much to the story, and a damsel in distress who needed to be rescued by men despite being played by Sigourney Weaver.

So naturally I posted some comments voicing my approval of this idea. From the sounds of things it is looking promising. They got some of the people behind The Heat (which did this same kind of treatment to the buddy cop genre), which is a good sign. I got a lot of comments in response, many of them dismissing the film as "pandering to feminists" (because how dare we ask for better representation of women in the media). A few seemed to be insisting that the cast should be mixed, asking why there couldn't be a man in there. If you ask me the men already had their chance in the original, which couldn't be bothered to let a woman do anything useful, so why should they be allowed to do anything in this reboot? Then I got this comment from a user by the name of Tommylad2:

I agree completely! Having an all female cast just sells this film to a mainly female audience, and can potentially alienate the original fan base of Ghostbusters! but by having a half and half or at least one female (my thoughts are Jennifer Lawrence as the 4th member and Emma Stone as a fleshed out Janine, could have Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum as some of the male team members) you still cater to the female audience while keeping the original fan base happy. As for the story pitched here, it’s not bad for a modern times twist. But just please Sony don’t make this film a chick flick! You can have your cake and eat it this time!!!

Chick flick? Really. What exactly is a chick flick? Wikipedia defines this as "a slang term for a film genre mainly dealing with love and romance and designed to appeal to a largely female target audience." Already we're getting into some hot water with the implication that women will only go to see a movie that has a romance in it, a notion that I have thoroughly debunked before. By that rationale Breakfast at Tiffany's could be considered a chick flick, but it's also a very good movie that has a number of fans of both genders.

However, we are not dealing with Breakfast at Tiffany's, we're talking about Ghostbusters. This is not a movie about romantic entanglements, it's about busting ghosts. Therefore, unless the writers have somehow skewed their priorities and decided to focus on the protagonists' romantic interests using the whole "paranormal extermination services" thing as nothing more than a background, it's clear that this is not a "chick flick" any more than The Descent is. More unsettling is the implications of Tommylad2's comment, that apparently it is impossible for a male audience to relate to female protagonists. There is no reason a man cannot relate to a female protagonist any more than a female viewer can relate to a man in an all-male cast. By that same rationale women shouldn't be able to enjoy most action movies, and I've known several who would say otherwise.

Speaking of women in action, let's look at the work of one of the most successful female directors in Hollywood right now, Kathryn Bigelow. Take a look at any of her films, and one thing you'll quickly notice is that most of them are very predominantly if not entirely male films. The Hurt Locker has an almost exclusively male cast outside of Evangeline Lilly (who doesn't appear until very late in the movie and only has a few scenes). K-19: The Widowmaker has no significant female characters at all, letalone any kind of romance. While Zero Dark Thirty has a female protagonist, the rest of the cast is still predominantly male, and the fact that she is a woman has about as much of an impact on the narrative as Ellen Ripley.

Similarly, a lot of the most iconic female characters appeared in films directed by men. It was after all the idea of Ridley Scott to make the character of Ripley a woman, and since then strong female leads have been something of a trademark for him as well as James Cameron. Cameron helped to popularize not one but two of the most iconic action heroines: Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley (when people hear that name, they generally think of how she was treated in Aliens over the more vulnerable Ripley of Alien). In addition to those two Cameron has a wide variety of other strong female characters including  Private Vasquez in  Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss, Helen Tasker in True Lies, and Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic; not to mention Grace Augustine, Trudy Chacon, and Neytiri in Avatar. Even in Rambo: First Blood Part II (which he helped write the screenplay for) you can see an attempt at a tough female character with Co. In addition to all that, I think it is worth pointing out that both The Women and The Descent were directed by men.

Evidently none of these people had any issues directing films that focus in large part on people of the opposite gender. A female director has every right to make predominantly-male movies just as much as a man can make a predominantly-female movie. It doesn't affect the quality of the work. The Hurt Locker is a great film and if any other director, male or female, had taken it on the result probably would not have been the same. Bringing this back to the all-female Ghostbusters, I'm failing to see why it should be a problem that there aren't any men.

Some of the comments I've gotten have attempted to defend the claim by citing that the all-female Ghostbusters will "alienate the original fanbase". After calling Tommylad2 out on the obvious and somewhat unsettling implications of his comment, citing several popular action heroines as proof to the contrary, he responded with another comment in which he attempted to defend himself:

Not saying that all, in fact those you just mentioned are some of my favourites. But imagine taking any of those examples you gave and change them to be males. Would it be good? maybe, but it makes it completely different from the original concept and so potentially alienates the original fan base. My point is Ghostbusters are a male team and always has, through various films/cartoon, comics etc. (with the exception of Ghostbusters extreme a cartoon series which did have a female Ghostbuster) but if you need to reach new audiences you can have strong female roles such as Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence as additions to the team, not replacements and they would also appeal to both males and females, and I can’t understand why they don’t go down that route rather than an all female team.

Now yes, you could argue that in some cases, changing the gender of a female protagonist wouldn't be the same. The Terminator certainly wouldn't be the same if Sarah Connor was a man. On the other hand, Ripley was originally conceived as a male character. The fact that she ended up being a woman had a huge impact on the film's success, but story-wise it wouldn't have been much different had Ridley Scott failed to consider the possibility. A male Ripley could still have worked. Maybe Alien would have even still been just as good as Scott's final product. In fact the whole script was written with a note saying that any of the cast could be female, so technically Brett, Dallas, Parker, Ash, or Kane could have all been written as women. You could write the entire cast of Alien as female without changing anything.

That said, there's no real reason why the Ghostbusters had to be all male. I understand a bit of the backstory behind the production which explains some of it. Harold Raimis and Dan Akroyd were actually part of the writing team, which might cover two actors, and they wanted Bill Murray because of his prior Saturday Night Live Connections. That covers three out of four, but I'm still not entirely convinced there was no way for it to work. Even if the three of them covered the initial team, they do seem to be open to recruiting others later in the movie.

Winston could have been played by a woman without changing anything, or if you wanted to keep him perhaps a woman could have also been among the new recruits. If they didn't want to write a new female character, than perhaps there could have been something interesting in Janine or Dana growing into a Ghostbuster. That could have been cool, if Janine started as a secretary and become a full-time Ghostbuster by the end, at least then she would actually be able to contribute something to the film.

If not in the original movie, why not the sequel? The same actors weren't involved through every medium the Ghostbusters have appeared in, so why is it only one cartoon series that has even considered the possibility? Yes, they are an all-male team and always have been, but is there any reason why they have to be? I don't see any reason why a female Ghostbuster couldn't have worked in anything.  Yeah, I think the guys have had their chance. It's time to let the women have their turn on the franchise.

If people are so stubborn they can't handle the idea of the original guys not being the central focus, than nothing the makers of this reboot can put together will please them. I'm certainly open to an all-female Ghostbusters, which will finally give the women of the franchise a chance to do something useful. I'm hoping if they do this, the guys will get their turn to be marginalized. I think Janine should be replaced by a guy and be every bit as useless. The only concern I have is the possibility of the women being oversexualized, but given the people on board I don't think that will be a huge problem.

1 comment:

  1. I love action movies and am not bothered when a woman is not in them especially when it would be weird like The Great Escape or the original Flight of the Phoenix because, at that time, women were not part of that line of work. My husband, who would gladly punch any man in the face if they laughed at him for liking Under The Tuscan Sun, shows that there is more than one man who enjoys a good film regardless if it is a "chick flick" or a "man Movie". I am looking forward to this new Ghostbusters and I thoroughly enjoyed the first one. It doesn't bother me that there are no lead females in that cast of 4 actual Ghostbusters. It would be a neat take if Bill Murray played the secretary:)