Three days after the new “Ghostbusters” opened, I was sitting in the theater, chowing down on popcorn in anticipation. When I left, it took all I had not to start crying with joy.
I had already read the mixed and underwhelmed reviews of the “controversial” film before seeing it. I was deflated; with all the negativity surrounding this movie, I had hoped that it would be so well-received that it could withstand any hate. After seeing it, I realized that it was the reviews that were wrong.
This is not a review. Problems with pacing and plot cohesion regarding “Ghostbusters” are entirely valid. But this movie is remarkable, commendable, and laudable for one simple reason: the characters. And, as viewers have presumably noticed, they are all women.
I can’t remember ever seeing four women (and only four women) star in any sort of action sequence. Watching four women kick ass and take names was an extremely emotional, and badass, experience. The characters themselves are also inherently inspiring as women in STEM and academia, with both practical knowledge and meaningful insight. They aren’t sexualized the way other female heroines, like Black Widow or Harley Quinn, are. They can wear baggy gray jumpsuits because it makes sense to dress that way, and not because they need to pull the male audiences.
The characters also had no interest in receiving male attention during the film. When is the last time you saw four women starring in a movie with no love interests? The movie showcased the sadly radical idea that women in cinema can exist without any romantic pursuits.
Yet, I am sorry to say that “Ghostbusters” is the exception, not the rule. A study released by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that only 31.4 percent of speaking roles in movies went to women out of 4,370 roles in the top 100 performers at the box office, which equates to roughly one woman for every 2.2 men. The visibility for other minorities is even more dismal. Only 12.2 percent went to black actors, 5.3 percent to Latinx actors, and 3.9 percent for Asian actors. Less than one percent of those roles were queer characters, or 32 out of 4,370. The bar is also extremely low with respect to female directors. Out of 107 films in 2015, only 8 were directed by women.
Although television is delivering more than movies in terms of female representation, there are still vast strides to be made. According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 79 percent of television series airing in the 2015-16 season had more male characters than female characters, and only 39 percent of speaking roles in television went to women. Female characters, according to the study, were “younger than their male counterparts, more likely than men to be identified by their marital status, and less likely than men to be seen at work and actually working.” Obviously, in both television and film, women find themselves tokenized and diminished.
Additionally, even the way we label television shows and assign worth has adversely affected the way the stories of women and minorities get viewed and evaluated. We are currently in what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age” of television. There’s a prevalence of shows labeled “prestige drama,” including shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” and “Mad Men.” “Prestige drama,” as defined by Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture, is characterized by “high production values, an interest in weighty themes, and, more recently, high-profile actors and behind-the-scenes talent.” This comes opposed to “midbrow” television which often tracks in genres not often found at awards shows like science fiction, romance dramas, or lighter dramatic fare.
One stark difference between the two denominations is the type of stories they tell. Middlebrow television often spotlights the stories of women and minorities. Take, for example, the science fiction drama “Orphan Black,” starring Tatiana Maslany. The series deals with serious issues regarding women’s autonomy and ethics in science. The series overall has been disregarded at awards time, although Maslany’s performances finally garnered her much-deserved Emmy nominations this year and last year. The prestige, or highbrow, dramas prioritize the narratives of (mainly) white, cis, straight men. When those stories are deemed more “worthy” in the eyes of the audience, critics, and the Academy, it leads to the systematic devaluation of shows about women and minorities. When shows about white male leads (like “House of Cards”) are perceived as more prestigious (under the aforementioned definition) while shows featuring a diverse cast (like “Jane the Virgin”) are deemed midbrow, it trivializes the experiences depicted by that show, which adversely affects non-male, non-white actors and actresses. This is not only limited to television: White male narratives are preferred in film, too. When Oscars nominees for the past two years disproportionately feature white men and women, it is clear that those stories are the ones prioritized in Hollywood.
Anyone paying attention to pop culture this summer knows that women, and specifically women of color, are up against the huge enemies of misogyny and misogynoir. Trolls worked to tear down “Ghostbusters” before it even opened, while claiming they just “didn’t want to ruin the original.” Leslie Jones, one of the stars and an outspoken black comedian, was attacked on Twitter with misogynoir assaults. Her personal website was hacked, nude photos were leaked, and the trolls only escalated after Jones’ role in the film. So, not only do the stories of women and minorities face trivialization from greater culture and awards organizations, but those who challenge that status quo are faced with a barrage of hate. Double standards abound in the guise of legitimate fan criticism, such as Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” who got called a “Mary Sue,” code for an idealized fictional character, Luke Skywalker was simply lauded as naturally gifted.
There are battles to fight when it comes to the way women and minorities are represented in film and television. Getting the number of diverse narratives out into the world is a necessary step in creating a more equitable culture, and a more equitable future needs more movies to follow in the revolutionary footsteps of the new “Ghostbusters.”
Meg Cummings is a member of the class of 2020.