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Opinion If ‘Ghostbusters’ is a feminist victory, feminist pop culture is doomed

From left, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in “Ghostbusters.” (Sony Pictures via Associated Press)
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This piece discusses the plot of the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”

I don’t know when it became a truth universally acknowledged in Hollywood that equality for women, people of color and anyone else who has been shut out of big roles and big paychecks means trying to do the exact same thing as white men. But Hollywood is awfully good at co-opting any force that tries to threaten it, so here we are in 2016, with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and a quartet of lady Ghostbusters, and somehow, I’m supposed to think I’ve arrived in the promised land.

It’s profoundly depressing, of course, that in a moment when any moderately successful piece of art is being strip-mined for its reusable intellectual property, the original “Ghostbusters” movies have been suddenly and inexplicably elevated to the status of sacred, unalterable texts. It’s even worse if anyone is actually threatened by having to watch fictional women fight ghosts on screen instead of men, given that even in this manifestly fake occupation, men in the real world have managed to do fairly well for themselves as the stars of shows such as the “Ghost Hunters” franchise and “Haunted Highway.”

But if it’s discouraging that some people are so powerfully threatened by minor changes to minor movie franchises, and by four movie roles out of the thousands that are cast every year going to a quartet of very talented women, I’m even more dismayed by the idea that the uproar around “Ghostbusters” has pushed feminists into championing Paul Feig’s remake, an intermittently funny movie that largely wastes a good cast and what ought to have been a much sharper set of concepts.

She's known now for "Saturday Night Live" and the "Ghostbusters" revival, but once upon a time Kate McKinnon was part of a web series called "Vag Magazine." Here's a look back at her career. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

The main characters are Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physicist up for tenure at Columbia, who worries that a book about the paranormal she wrote with her old friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), now teaching at a newly minted for-profit college, will embarrass Erin in front of her tenure committee. “Ghostbusters” could have sharpened the tension between Erin and Abby, and made a point about what colleges and universities value today, by suggesting that Erin ditched Abby’s emotional approach to their work to try to win the approval of male administrators and move up the academic ladder, but instead they mostly seem to have drifted apart.

Similarly, once Erin and Abby reunite, teamed up with the brilliant but awkward Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, to whom the Internet owes a collective apology for preemptively criticizing her work as minstrelsy), “Ghostbusters” has another great idea just sitting there that the movie simply doesn’t have the courage to follow to its logical conclusion.

No matter how much Erin, Abby and Jillian emphasize their scientific credentials, no matter what they capture on video, and no matter that they manage to contain a ghost on stage in front of a huge audience for a rock concert, no one believes them when they say that ghosts are running rampant in New York. This incendiary thread of doubt ties together so much that’s important in contemporary feminism today, from debates about sexual assault and sexual harassment, to the mistreatment of women by members of the medical profession, to the particular and pernicious marginalization of women of color.

And you know what? Of course “Ghostbusters” isn’t going to have the courage to pull that thread tight. It’s proof that the more prominent and well-funded a movie about women gets, and the greater the hopes for its box office are, the less specifically female (or black, or gay, or whatever) that movie is allowed to be.

“Spy,” Feig and McCarthy’s previous collaboration, a riff on the espionage genre, had a $65 million budget and a whole lot more room to speak frankly about sexual harassment, the persistent underestimation of women and women’s work, and the stupid cruelty of dismissing a woman just because one given man doesn’t want to have sex with her. “Ghostbusters” was made for closer to $150 million, a figure that doesn’t include the film’s extensive marketing budget. That’s a figure that buys you a female Slimer, but costs you the ability to say anything risky and harsh and true.

What $150 million does buy us is a lot of relatively tired riffs on geek misogyny. People are mean to the new Ghostbusters in YouTube comments, and make jokes in Reddit threads! The bad guy turns out to be a pasty, unloved, low-level hotel employee (Neil Casey) who creeps out waitresses and takes over Chris Hemsworth’s body! The sick burn our supposed feminist icons lob at him? They suggest he’s probably a virgin, and defeat him, I kid you not, by shooting him in the genitals. The most fantastical idea in the movie is that sending a single, vindictive troll to a hell dimension represents some kind of meaningful victory. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would never have tried to sell us that nonsense; the Scooby Gang knew that there were always more monsters out there.

It’s not just that the vision of girl power in “Ghostbusters” doesn’t feel particularly empowered to me. What I’m truly angry about is that half a decade of vigorous discussion about feminism and mass culture has brought us to a place where the battle lines are so stupidly defined and are drawn in a way that any possible victory isn’t worth claiming. The people who are inexplicably immiserated by the prospect of women fighting ghosts may hate “Ghostbusters.” But they’ve succeeded in creating an environment in which this anodyne bit of corporate recycling gets positioned as daring, and where its box-office success or disappointment may have meaningful implications for other, more truly innovative, more explicitly feminist and certainly more funny movie projects.

In the first scene of “Ghostbusters,” a guide (Zach Woods, a regular in the Paul Feig ensemble) at a historic house tells a tour group about one of the house’s previous occupants, a woman so unpleasant that, before imprisoning her in the basement, her father wrote in his diary that “God makes no mistakes, but he may have been drunk when he constructed Gertrude’s personality.” Gertrude (Bess Rous), of course, turns out to be the first ghost we meet, the kind of lady who can spew ectoplasm all over a crew of paranormal scientists without busting the corset on her jaunty red-and-white-striped period frock.

I kept waiting for Gertrude to come back and inject a little bad attitude and unruly energy into “Ghostbusters.” Women may have proved that they, too, can wrangle spirits on the streets of New York by the time the movie winds to a close. But there are plenty of other menaces that still stand in desperate need of busting. And I still don’t know who I’m going to call to crash through them.