Breaking the Fifth Wall: Ghostbusters and the Act of Producing Contemporary Content
This is not a Ghostbusters (2016) review, except to say: go see it. It’s funny, fun, flawed, and goofy. (If you decided not to see it based on the trailer, ignore that decision; the trailer did a horrible job of representing the actual movie.) It’s not high art, it’s full of fart jokes and silliness, and it’s got some bad-assery in there that happens, importantly, to be done by women.
This is not a review; it is, however, a spoiler-tastic exploration of what the movie represents: a dialogue with its audience, both the lovers and the haters, those who applauded its creation and those who derided its concept before it ever existed. It is both an exploration and a reflection of what it means to be a women in society today, where sexism prevails but has been pushed beneath a veneer of civility.
A Game Of References
One of the things that I disliked in the trailer does happen in the movie: they make a joke, a subtle one that those in the know will get. Then they explain it. Then they might explain it a second time. It felt like it ruined the joke.
The most obvious of these happens part-way through: two characters are dancing to “Rhythm Of The Night”, DeBarge’s classic hit from the kung-fu flick The Last Dragon (1985). Abby swaggers in and says loudly, “Mind if I de-barge in here?” At our showing I laughed, though most of the audience didn’t. Not a big laugh — it’s a bit of a ‘dad joke’ — but there it was.
But then she says, “Because that song’s by DeBarge.” And Holtzmann says “Oh, really? I thought it was Devo,” and there’s a bit of a fracass.
And other people in the audience laughed, because now they could get the joke. It was…egalitarian.
And it got me thinking about the nature of humor. Many of the geeky guys I hang out with like to play “the reference game”, where you make a statement that is, in fact, connected to the current situation, but in an unexpected way. The other people have to figure out why, or don’t, and just think you’re being weird.
It’s not clear how you win — I play to make people laugh, so I pick references they’ll get, but I have a ‘friend’ who thinks the goal is to show how smart he is, so he makes references to things he thinks make him sound smart, and no one else gets, and he wins. I try not to hang out with him.
Making the DeBarge joke was a bit like the reference game; if you didn’t get it, it sounded like Abby just flubbed her line or was being weird. But once explained, everyone is on an equal footing.
Now, I base a certain amount of thinking around the research of Dr. Deborah Tannen, she of “You Just Don’t Understand!” fame. Her central hypothesis is that men are taught to compete, and women are taught to cooperate. Now, both do the other, too, but in a social situation men are punished for helping — especially helping men — and women are punished for competing — especially with men. The framework is somewhat problematic, enforces the gender binary, ignores a lot of complexities, is strongly rooted in white American culture, and so forth.
And still manages to be useful as a “60% of the time it’s true” thing.
The references game is competing. Explaining the joke is more like cooperating. It’s, in some ways, female-coded humor, in a way that “Hunh; I didn’t get that joke” isn’t. My instinct is to hate it — because it doesn’t let me feel superior, to lord it over my fellow humans. But you know what? Not everything has to be about massaging my ego.
“Don’t Read The Comments!”
The leadup to the release of GB16 included some of the most vitriolic rhetoric by a slew of insecure boys that the world has ever seen. The trailer, notably, attracted hordes of angry and dismissive comments on YouTube, and armies of idle boy-hands were brigaded to downvote it endlessly. Subreddits formed to bash the movie — or rather, the idea of the movie, since this was before any of it was filmed — and whiny mopers complained about having their childhood ruined.
In the movie, the women film each of their ghost encounters, and upload the videos to YouTube. Because it’s 2016 in the movie, and that’s what people would do. Now, this immediately gets plastered with “FAAAAAAAAAKE” commentary, which is totally to be expected (though also problematic).
But the scene continues: they review the comments, and one of them is “Bitches can’t be Ghostbusters!”, and they remind each other not to react to angry mopey whiners.
That’s shattering the fifth wall, right there.
The fourth wall, you’ll recall, is when the performers turn around and talk to the camera. That doesn’t happen in GB16 (for which I’m grateful; but if you want to see _that_ done well, go watch Deadpool). But this? This is the audience talking to the performers, making its way inside the fictional universe.
It’s a form of fanservice — or rather, anti-fan-service. Hater-service?
While it was impossible for the film-makers to avoid the controversy around the movie, they found a way to embed it — to take it, to make it their own. ’Cause, yeah, suck it, haters. The movie got made. It’s going to do well. There are going to be more movies like this. You lost. Get over it. And that’s right in the movie.
A lot has been made of Kevin, the eye-candy male secretary that gets hired to ‘answer the phones’. He’s played by Thor, for one thing — though in the movie he’s only shirtless in pictures, there are a few scenes where he marvels at how strong he is, and there are some definitely some sliding-around-in-their-seats moments for some of the Ghostbusters. In short, he’s treated like a vehicle for his looks.
“But this is so unfair!” the whiners say. “Isn’t that what you’re objecting to about the characterization of women?” Yes. Yes, it is. But tomorrow, men, in general, will walk around their real-world office not being objectified, and women, in general, will. Would this have worked in a non-comedy? Would it have worked if Chris wasn’t so clearly having huge fun playing the dumb-as-a-post eye candy? No. But.
In short, if you can’t tell the difference between making fun of an asymmetrical behavior, and actually engaging in that behavior, suck it.
Plus, I think I found my Halloween costume. If only I can find some Clark Kent frames with no lenses…
The end of GB84 is a giant ticker-tape parade down the middle of NYC. The mayor willingly shakes the hands of the men who are going to deliver him the next election, sirens whoop, and the men are celebrated.
The end of GB16 is a quiet rooftop; the mayor is disavowing any and all knowledge of the Ghostbusters, claiming the whole thing never happened — and secretly asking them to keep working, even harder if possible.
This is, of course, the experience of so many women: men do something, get awarded well-deserved accolades, get lofted on shoulders and carried down Main Street. Women do the same thing, and no one notices — indeed, someone else takes credit, then bad-mouths them in public. Then they get pulled aside and told they need to keep doing it, despite all this.
It really reminded me of the Unpaid Emotional Labor thread, except here it was Unpaid Ghostbustin’ Labor.
And, because it was a comedy, with a happy ending — they do get their kudos, from a grateful city that gives them a twinkling cityscape love letter; and that’s kind of nice, too.
One of the best things about the movie is that, inside the movie, the women were the characters — not the topic. (The Bechdel Test for sci-fi conferences: You must have a panel with more than two women on it that is NOT about “Women in Sci-Fi”.)
Post-release, a lot of people — including me! look at that first paragraph! — have pointed out that the movie is flawed. Of course it is! Perfection is a standard that only women are held to. (And minorities. Because if they had flaws, it would mean all women were flawed that way.)
And the characters are flawed. The male characters are quite the lot. We have a basement-dwelling sociopath; a pair of shrieking ghost-victims (though neither breaks a heel, one does soil his pants); a tediously, banally evil mayor; and, of course, the dumb-as-a-sack-of-hammers receptionist.
A common boy-whiner complaint is “But all the male characters in the movie are stupid or bad or incompetent or all three!” And everyone else rolls their eyes, because that’s what they’ve been saying about characters that look like them for decades.
But what it really ignores is that _eveyone_ in the movie is flawed. The main characters are cantankerous, oblivious, argumentative, smelly, rude, mousy, inappropriate, incomprehensible, overbearing, gluttonous, lecherous, dangerous, and a host of other flaws. They’re — wait for it — characters, rather than perfect celestial madonnas. Amazing!
And I think that’s the real thread — that these whiners might have to see women as humans.
I, for one, welcome our…nah, I can’t even. Just enjoy the movie.