From an improved trailer to Dan Aykroyd’s promise that it’ll have “more laughs and more scares than the first two films,” the most recent marketing wave for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot may almost make you forget the wild controversy that’s followed the film’s initial few waves of promotion. Almost. At this point though, there probably isn’t a spin machine big enough to mind wipe us of the months-long onslaught. It as if just by daring to exist, the Ghostbusters reboot became a personal affront to nearly every known corner of the Internet. While some argued the film shouldn’t be remade at all without now deceased and original film star Harold Ramis, others blasted the director’s choice to fill the titles roles with actresses.That was a decision apparently so outlandish it at one point sparked plans for an all-male reboot. But even news of cameos from Aykroyd and Bill Murray were kindling for a heated debate about whether the way Ernie Hudson’s character was wronged in the original franchise should be addressed.
None of that, however, compared to the whirlwind of negative attention following the release of the film’s first trailers. As angry Internet trolls continued to declare the entire project “reverse sexist,” viewers who had taken the movie’s casting to task for tokenism leveled their own accusations of racism. While the film and its stars are now pretty acquainted with the public’s aggressively pointed criticism, this particular incident served as a true boiling point. Critical commentary was lobbed at the film and star Leslie Jones left and right, causing director Feig to respond with both support and defiance over Twitter: “You are a goddess & one of the warmest funniest forces of nature I know. Fuck the haters.” Feig’s succession of tweets effectively reframed a charge of media discrimination as a more simplistic battle between the film and its mobs of “haters.”
It pretty much goes without saying, but we shouldn’t downplay discussions of nuanced representation. That means admitting that in the trailers Patty sometimes comes off as a loudmouth black woman from New York. She’s assumably also the only non-scientist in the group, though it remains unclear whether she’s actually just a streetwise subway worker or what some promotional materials have described as a “municipal historian.” Regardless, as the film’s release creeps closer, I find the lingering fear of continued backlash—particularly over Jones’ part in the film—at the forefront of my thoughts instead of the far more important question: Will Ghostbusters actually be any good? That realization has convinced me that at least this time, Feig may actually be right.
To a certain degree, I feel bad for Feig. The director and co-writer of Sony’s modern re-imagining probably just wanted to make a movie that got people laughing by featuring people who have a penchant for doing exactly that. But what was no doubt intended to be a solidly entertaining modern spin on a classic supernatural comedy has morphed into a complicated socio-political statement that generates multiple fronts of controversy. More so though, I feel bad for Leslie Jones, an actress who—like Feig and her co-stars—is just trying to make people laugh. Of course, unlike Feig or her co-stars, Jones is also carrying all the cultural and historical weight of being the film’s sole black lead.
If we could graph the response to the various controversies surrounding Ghostbusters, we’d probably find that some of the loudest complaints and sharpest ire has been aimed at Leslie Jones’ character, Patty Tolan. At one point, you couldn’t do a single google search about the movie without seeing a viewer or critic call Jones everything from stereotypical to minstrelsy. But in an industry where black women are practically non-existent on screen, let alone in major roles, it’s hard not to bristle at the idea that the presence of Jones seemingly inspired more outrage than her absence. Fans, critics and haters alike keyboard smashed for months about how Patty Tolen existed, with very little attention paid to the fact—or significance—she did at all.
I know what you’re thinking. “We did talk about women! We talked about the weight of gender representation and the sexist trolls that came for them!” Well yeah, we’ve talked for months about how groundbreaking it is to have an all-female cast and how the ’buster bros have savagely come after the movie for something that’s really not that big of a deal. However, we’ve generally done it without acknowledging the major flaw in the discourse. You know, the part that says the gender gap affects every woman equally. Spoiler Alert—it doesn’t. Jones isn’t on an equal playing field with her white co-stars. The pay gap scale proves that, and so does Ghostbusters’ actual ratio of white women to women of color. Jones is one of four main female characters, but she’s also the only black and non-white lead. Not only does she not have someone to share that explicit weight with in the film, she doesn’t really have it in the industry at large, either.
Sure, there are some talented, successful, working black female comedians who have garnered my respect, inspired me, and inadvertently helped foster my own work. Yvette Nicole Brown, Retta, Aisha Tyler, Maya Rudolph and Wanda Sykes are just a few that immediately come to mind. Most, though, have never fronted a major motion picture. In fact, it seems that the last black woman to carry the torch as a mainstream leading lady of comedy was Whoopi Goldberg. Unless you’re counting Tyler Perry’s cross-dressing Medea. (To be clear, we’re not, but it does give more weight to the depressing reality of how little black female comedic representation is actually out there.)
This uncomfortable truth is reinforced by a statement Feig made during an Empire magazine interview back in March, where he admitted to unintentionally diversifying his movie by casting Jones. According to Feig, he simply gave a role written for Melissa McCarthy to the Saturday Night Live cast member in an effort to see McCarthy try something new and to see Jones do what she does best. Feig’s choice to feature Jones certainly isn’t groundbreaking, and the notion that he didn’t necessarily have plans to feature any women outside of Hollywood’s white inner circle isn’t surprising. That doesn’t mean the move wasn’t subversive in its own right. Actually, it’s the reversal of what brought Jones into many of our homes: Saturday Night Live’s attempt to expand its own cast after the 2013 freshmen class featured only white male comedians. In the case of Ghostbusters, Jones wasn’t an answer to a diversity problem. In an employment climate that’s constantly refusing to cast talent of color because they just “aren’t the best actor for the part,” Jones was in Feig’s eyes an even better answer to an answer.
The full article first appeared in Paste Magazine on June 9, 2016.