Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap
When I first saw the announcement and trailer for the new Ghostbusters film, I thought I would hate it. Promoted as a film that would get girls interested in science, it seemed to reflect the usual blindness of institutional feminism to race and class. As the script itself puts it: ‘three scientists – plus Patty’. After the academic qualifications of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) were written back out of the script of the 1984 film – no one knew he was actually a black superscientist – you would hope that the new film would be different, but it is not. On the other hand, it is not the trainwreck that I expected it to be – on the contrary.
Image: ‘Guilty as charged!’
Many reviewers have complained that the ‘flipping’ of Ghostbusters is shallow and has failed to introduce a women’s perspective. I think the opposite is the case. In fact, the failure to recognise the female perspective is indicative of the ubiquitous white male blindness to processes of exclusion routinely faced by women and other ‘minorities’. Like the Ghostbusters’ assistant Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), white men are often oblivious to why the world works for them and why their gender or race isn’t an issue. This is especially obvious in this article in which a white male reviewer criticises the film for being apolitical and failing to produce an analysis of its time. In my view, the new Ghostbusters seems more political by going deeper into the mechanics and political embeddedness of academic exclusion than its predecessors.
Image: ‘Let me in!’
As schemes from STEMnet science ambassadors to Athena Swan illustrate, there is a problem not only with recruiting women into science, but with retaining them. The higher you go up the career ladder, the fewer women you will encounter (in some science subjects, female students even outnumber male students, but this is not reflected in the faculty). It is the same story (but worse) for BME (black, minority ethnic) scholars, and there are also class and other biases. Even if you perform well in academia, the same factors that should have excluded you in the first instance, are likely to still work against you. This is brilliantly illustrated through the Ghostbusters characters.
Image: Erin is denied tenure by the dean at Columbia
First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding. The film even shows how the refusal of other knowledges and experiences has shaped Erin’s private life. After her encounter with a ghost as a child, she was subjected to lengthy psychotherapy for rectification.
Image: Patty tries to convince three white women that they have something in common
Patty (Leslie Jones) represents an extension of this theme by race and class. She is obviously very educated, but self-educated. US academia would have excluded her on the grounds of lack of funds and lack of appropriate background, most probably including schooling in non-prestigious institutions. If the film had been set in 1980s UK, she might have been an Open University student, but these sorts of opportunities have ceased to exist. Bored with her job and excited about expanding the boundaries of her knowledge, Patty decides to join the outcast women, with whom she feels a connection. The three white scientists at first do not feel or see a connection – Patty has to beg and bribe the group with her ‘benefits’ – but it gradually dawns on them that they have something in common. When she finally joins the team, Patty again takes to self-education. The scientists initially do not even consider that she might be interested in science – she is their equipment provider, ‘muscle’ and ‘native guide’ (not even historian) – but Patty observes, listens and starts to get active in the lab and in the field.
Image: Abby has to realise that the margins are increasingly hard to find
In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.
Image: Holtzmann: all bets (and safety lights) are off
Unlike Abby, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) seems more clued up about the constantly moving margins. She is very socially observant and knows where boundaries are, why they are there and why they need crossing. She appears to be in a constant state of adaptation, which includes making do with equipment pieced together from dumpsters and generally making full use of the freedom not to have to conform. While Holtzmann certainly delivers, her work would be considered too extreme in a university context, as it disregards protocols on any level from health and safety guidelines to outward representation. With an attitude like ‘we nearly got killed – it was awesome!’, any institution would be in constant fear of litigation and of threats to its reputation. Holtzmann is not a dutiful workaholic loner, but a fun-loving, thrill-seeking boundary-pusher. Like Abby and Erin, however, Holtzmann has a PhD, which means that, at one point, she must have managed to pass through the university system. We later meet her mentor, Dr Rebecca Gorin (Sigourney Weaver), of whom we don’t know if she was her formal or informal supervisor. This also mirrors a frequent academic pattern of how some mavericks – and black or female academics – survive. They have someone who ‘gets’ them and has their back.
Image: This is not the solution
Overall, the four women each have developed a different coping mechanism for being at odds with the system: self-education (Patty), self-experimentation (Holtzmann), refuge in margins (Abby) and self-censorship to fit into the mainstream (Erin). Their antagonist, Rowan (Neil Casey), has had similar experiences with the system, but his coping strategy is revenge. The women understand the source of his pain and madness, but they also understand that total obliteration is not benefitting anyone and even validates the authority and prestige of the system. While prestige through validation is seductive, one also ends up reproducing the problem instead of remaining open to alternatives, including more supportive forms of co-operation. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are also more used to facing default devaluation because of their gender, and have learnt not to individualise the issue. This awareness, of course, does not render them immune to the desire to be known. When Erin is about to make a deadly mistake solely to refute another white male expert who tries to discredit her, Abby sharply reminds her ‘who cares??’ Erin succumbs anyway, and almost ends up putting everyone in jail for an inexplicable murder – there is no win situation.
Image: Now on Amazon – ghostwritten
In a twisted way, the situation mirrors the title of Erin’s and Abby’s book: the four women continue to be haunted by the ghosts of white male supremacy and ‘official culture’ literally and figuratively, whether it’s male antagonists, debunkers, saboteurs, or supposed male allies like Kevin (the latter ending up bonding with ‘debunker’ Heist over his hat). This is rendered very literal in the film’s takedown of the freshly supercharged Rowan, when he resists the women’s efforts of putting him away into the netherworld by clinging onto two skyscrapers: ‘Let’s loosen his grip’ (on Abby’s command, the Ghostbusters open fire on his crotch, not his hands) Patty: ‘That’s where you wanted us to shoot, right?’.
Image: Patriarchy comes to haunt the Ghostbusters wherever they go
In a less obvious manner, the film reflects arguments that have been made about the status of the margins made by people such as bell hooks and Moten & Harney. The latter offer an extensive manual for dealing with academia and wider power structures in their publication ‘the undercommons’ (link to pdf): how to use spaces where you are not supposed to be. As in ‘the undercommons’, the female Ghostbusters represent “the subversive intellectual [who] came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings”. Indeed, the film shows constant attempts at repressing the efforts of the Ghostbusters from official side, even though they show ‘results’ – better results. Yet solutions are not officially allowed to come out of the margins, as much as they are inofficially needed. The illusion that the current system works must be maintained at all costs: ‘the mayor thanks you, privately, but don’t tell anyone!’
Image: Another gatekeeper says no
In conclusion, you could say that Ghostbusters represents science accurately: not just in the ‘techno-babble’, but also in its institutional make-up. If the makers of the film think that it will attract more girls into science, they might be right. The female scientists are not only nerdy, but clever, funny and cool. Whether young women – or other ‘marginal’ thinkers – will be able to enter academia and advance within it, is a different story. Under current institutional conditions, present exclusions and hierarchies are sharpening rather than loosening up. The film seems to be aware that, for these women to succeed in mainstream science, conditions would need to be very different. Even when the Ghostbusters are finally acknowledged and generously rewarded, they choose to claim and maintain their own place. The message might be very much akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s strategy of the undercommons: if you do your research out of love, take what you can from the system and run.