A couple nights ago I was in Valparaiso, couch-surfing with some lovely folks who happened to have cable television – ‘cable’ being a kind of international code for ‘American.’ I channel-surfed and happily happened upon a VH1 showing of one of my favorite comedies, ‘Ghostbusters’. I hadn’t seen it in a while (five years?) but for the last fifteen years or so it has occupied a high designation on my favorites list, as well as a warm place in my memory.
Watching ‘Ghosbusters’ now, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by how obvious and conventional the whole thing was. Not the mechanics of the plot, but how those mechanics played out amidst the different characters, and how all of those characters and the entirety of the narrative was in service to the Greatness Of White Men. It’s not exactly ground-breaking to point out that Ernie Hudson’s character – the fourth Ghostbuster, also known as ‘that black guy’ – is pretty emblematic of tokenism, serving absolutely zero narrative purpose except to show up and be the only person of color in an otherwise lily-white cast. Taking him out of the story makes no difference whatsoever to the film, which only underscores how little of a character he really is; he functions purely as street cred, nothing more.
More disturbing, and somewhat more subtle, are the gender politics of demonic possession. Sigourney Weaver betrays none of the ass-kicking she would later bring to ‘Alien’ when she is possessed by the spirit of the Gatekeeper, who physically possesses her in what can only be termed a transparent rape metaphor. The possession makes her sexy and powerful, as though she is, on some level, enjoying the experience. Similarly, the Keymaster possesses a male figure, played by the hapless Rick Moranis – his character is a mousy accountant, an unworthy competitor for Sigourney Weaver’s affections against the likes of smart-ass Bill Murray, a hero-man whose very masculinity proves an affront against the possibility of such effete oppressions.
Because, after all, it is smart-ass Bill Murray who saves the day. Although it is his colleagues, Dan Akroyd and Howard Ramis, who actually design and build most of the ghostbusting technology upon which their operation rests, Bill Murray is the real hero of the piece, the guy who gets the girl, and all for… what? Steadfastly refusing to show any kind of empathy whatsoever? The villain of the first ‘Ghostbusters’ is not, truly, Zuul, but rather the bureaucrat from the EPA who comes to shut them down. In front of the mayor, the Ghosbusters call him ‘dickless’, to which Bill Murray only – infamously – affirms: ‘Yes, it’s true, this man has no dick.’ When the Ghostbusters finally cross their streams and conquer Zuul, in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, we witness the ‘dickless’ bureaucrat getting creamed by a vat of demonic white goo – a money shot if ever there was one. (Although the Ghostbusters themselves are later shown covered in some of the stuff, we never see it actually ejaculated upon them.)
‘Ghosbusters’ was made nearly thirty years ago, in a vastly different media environment, so it’s a bit much to hold it to contemporary standards. But it’s just not nearly as compelling as I once found it to be, compared to both the stories that are now being told as well as the stories which I am actively telling. The point of diversity in casting isn’t just to have a black third-string sidekick to toss off a couple one-liners; the point is to develop characters with different and fresh perspectives, who can tell stories in new ways because of their divergent experiences. Bill Murray is funny, sure, but I’ve already heard everything he has to say, and he’s not exactly the first person to say it. This is also the same reason why I find ‘Seinfeld’ largely uncompelling: although it’s brilliantly structured and full of really sharp punchlines, it’s also, fundamentally, a story about three self-centered white guys and their token self-centered white lady friend. (‘Friends’ is also all about white people, yes, but at least it passes the Bechdel test in nearly every episode.) Compare this to a show like ‘Community’, which has well-developed and fascinating characters from a wide variety of backgrounds*.
As a writer of comedy, moreover, I’m just… puzzled. Doesn’t it get boring to write stories about how awesome white guys are? Has it never occurred to any of these writers that the whole concept might have been played out around the sixteenth century? Isn’t it just more interesting – for the creative people involved in telling a story, and for the audiences who watch it – to see and hear something new than to absorb the same old retreads of the same old ideas, again and again?
I guess the upshot of all this is: does anybody want my ‘Ghostbusters’ DVDs?
*I’ve actually been feeling a bit of a disconnect from ‘Community’ in recent episodes and I couldn’t figure out why – until I realized that they had once again reverted to the Jeff-Winger-centric narrative mode of Season One, rather than the fresher, and vastly more interesting, episodes they cranked out in the first half of their second season. Give me Troy grappling with manhood or Shirley and Abed fighting over the meaning of religion over some cliche Winger speech any day of the week.