I have vague memories of watching Ghostbusters as a youngster. It came out when I had just about turned one, so I know this was not a theatrical event for me (nor did I see Ghostbusters II in a theater). But I grew up in the age of cable and know I saw it for the first time with my sister and some of our male cousins during a summer vacation. I remember this because I know who I wanted to be when we played Ghostbusters…Egon, Harold Ramis’ alter ego. And I know this because I don’t remember any of my cousins saying “girls can’t be Ghostbusters” or “you have to be the secretary.” We just went outside and played without a single mention of gender.
Over the years I watched Ghostbusters several times, into adulthood. I’ve even been to some of the revival theatrical screenings and plenty of new things have made me appreciate it, more and less. The sense of camaraderie in that movie makes it stand out from the pack of buddy movies. Rick Moranis is a comic genius. Bill Murray’s Peter is…well, he’s a scumbag. Dan Aykroyd’s energy is completely infectious and even now, Egon is and will always be my favorite. Harold Ramis’ recent death has left a great big hole in the comedy world.
Earlier this week Ramis’ daughter wrote a very sweet tribute to her dad to address the controversy of remaking it. She recalled how he happily took on kid’s love and passion for the movie and let them live out their superhero dreams through him. She even included one of the best pictures I’ve seen from behind the scenes with herself as a little girl, with a dressed up Egon. The picture really is nothing but heartwarming. And she shares a story that he offered to get her an official Ghostbusters outfit if they wanted to wear if for Halloween (she didn’t take him up on that offer) because even the stars of Ghostbusters didn’t think they were making a movie “just for the boys”. Those that say that’s what it was, that there is some macho ownership of the original, are taking something that never belonged to them and turning it into something else.
The Ghostbusters films were never my dad’s favorite movies; I think the biggest problem he had with them directly related to not liking the character of Peter Venkman. If I watched it at home, it was always with my mom and while I talked about loving and quoting Egon and Ray, there was never a mention about identifying with Annie Potts’ Janine and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana. I never assumed most girls thought those were the characters they were supposed to identify with as youths or were the only ones they got to play until I read stories about that being the case over the past few years of Ghostbusters-Gate. If I related or identified with anyone it was always the Ghostbusters themselves and the fact that we weren’t the same gender didn’t matter.
But I watched a lot of movies as a kid that featured mostly male characters. The first movie my dad and I (and my sister) got really into were The Mighty Ducks movies…the first movies he took us to see in the theater (he really likes hockey). Now, there were girls in those movies of course (Marguerite Moreau’s Connie was memorable) but she wasn’t the reason I loved those movies. And while Joshua Jackson’s current career high as one of the leads on The Affair has been eye-opening for me, I liked his character Charlie because he was a relatable misfit, as were a lot of the boys (and girls) in those movies. Likewise, when we watched Stand By Me or The Sandlot (two movies with no girls in the main cast), I could still identify with the characters and love them.
I’m sure a lot of girls grew up the same way I did. There are remarkably few movies about little kids having adventures that focus on girls so if you’re a little girl who really likes movies, you have to open yourself up to a lot of those that don’t exclusively mirror your demographics. I never assumed those movies were trying to exclude me, and even now my desire to give the benefit of the doubt makes me think those movies weren’t insidious in their sexism but examples of the makers mirroring their own upbringings in their characters. The problem with a lot of guys making movies are that the characters they tend to know are guys…which is the reason more women need to be allowed into the clubhouse. But the benefit of that exposure for little girl me is, identifying with people who are supposedly “different” makes you realize things like gender aren’t the primary way people see each other or themselves. If it were, I probably would have wanted to be Dana or Janine, rather than play Egon.
But what has come to the surface for me in all this EXHAUSTING talk of Ghostbusters is that, that view of gender rarely went both ways. Growing up, while I got to watch all the movies about little boys and the movies about little girls, remarkably few boys seemed to see movies about girls. Maybe they just had enough available that seemed to be targeted to them, that they didn’t need to expand their taste. Or maybe the insidious sexism we are talking about silently targeted them too. When my mom passed around copies of the Anne of Green Gables miniseries, I don’t know if her friends with little boys got the same recommendation. Did little boys feel like movies like Annie or Labyrinth were for them too? I don’t know, but I meet few guys my age who’ve seen and remember them.
It took this Ghostbusters debate to really make me realize that when we talk about needing more women in leading roles in these types of hero roles, it’s not just to give little girls something to identify with…it’s got to be for little boys too. While I won’t give my opinion of the new Ghostbusters movie (we have reviews), I, like everyone, loved that picture of Kristen Wiig with a mini-Ghostbuster fan who happens to be a little girl excited to see the new movie. But wouldn’t it be nice if we also got a similar picture of some of the new Ghostbusters with little boys who saw them as heroes to look up to, beyond their gender. It’s the primary reason I have a problem with antagonistic headlines about the movie like “this Ghostbusters isn’t for guys”…because it buys into the false narrative that the last one wasn’t for girls AND that boys immediately see women as “different.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we approached this movie release with the expectations that men and boys have the capacity to identify with a female protagonist? I’ve certainly come to expect that from my guy friends…and so far, they have proven me right.