For a movie with the primary intention to make people happy, the online reaction for or against the new Ghostbusters movie has been one of the angriest in the history of cinema.
Since the moment it was announced that Paul Feig would direct a remake, the film has been at the center of heated debate. Some were angry social media users (and a smaller number of journalists) complaining that women in the leading roles would damage the integrity of the original. There was then a backlash to these comments from many news sites identifying as pro-feminist that responded with as much vigor to support the film and call to action that they not allow “haters to win.” And at the center of all of this is a movie which has been so politicized and debated, it has become nearly impossible to see it as “just a movie.”
When the property was first brought up as a possibility, specifically Dan Aykroyd’s intentions to have a third sequel, the response was honestly mixed at the very notion. But for the most part (at least in major media) the response was civil. Then in 2014 things seemed to erupt with a level of aggression on social media unlike anything we’ve seen. After the death of Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters 3 seemed to be shelved (at least with the original participants) and new writing-director teams were considered. Early on, Lord and Miller and the Russo Brothers were at the top of the list, but eventually the job went to Paul Feig. And as should be expected when hiring Feig to make a feature film (considering his filmography) he planned to make a movie starring funny women.
The criticism flew fast and furious on the internet. Some sites suggested “rebooting” Ghostbusters was disrespectful to the originals or simply a cash grab by the studio. Others supported the idea that if they wanted the franchise to continue, a reboot would be the best way of doing that. And then there were the “wait and see comments” which suggested the most rational response to the whole idea. But in most mainstream media the complaints about women taking on guy movies were honestly muted. There were a few to be sure…Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline (a pretty major source in the entertainment industry) wrote a “think piece” on the decision with “do we want an estrogen-powered Ghostbusters” and proceeded to justify his (self-acknowledged) chauvinistic perspective that he sees Ghostbusters as a “guy’s movie” and (hopefully in an attempt at sarcasm) questioned if girl power and the call to increase positive female representation on film by asking “But does that give them the right to take Ghostbusters from knuckle-dragging Neanderthals like me who have little else going for us but our all-time top 10 or 20 favorite guy movies, and the prospect of a revamp that feels like the original guy version of one of the films on that list?”
But for the most part, articles like his weren’t on sites most would described as legitimate news sources. Even Fleming, months later, essentially redacted his comment, partially after the revamped sequel (G3) had become a distant memory and Feig seemed to be taking the Ghostbusters legacy seriously…but also because of responses to his comments by other journalists calling him out (including myself). Deadline posted a response from one of their other writers, Anita Busch, who took offense (as did many) at the suggestion that even the original Ghostbusters had exclusively appealed to men with her article “Not Just for Old White Guys.” And one of the best written responses came from Jason Bailey of the website Flavorwire was his piece “Female Led Ghostbusters Reboot a Dumb Idea But Not for the Reasons Dumb People Think” addressing that nuanced idea that while some might not like the idea of rebooting the films and that is a legitimate reason not to support it being made, using the sexist excuse that women would ruin their precious franchise was illogical and juvenile; and devalued what legitimacy their argument had.
But there were other responses to sexist commenters- who tried retaliating with an even bigger response to the debate; almost to drown them out. And not just responding to journalists who let their chauvinistic flag fly, but used social media of unknown people who made sexist comments to prove the outrage was real. Which is when things arguably got out of hand and the Ghostbusters debate became something ugly. When looking back at the debate from 2014 and 2015, the angry sexist fanboys complaining about the reboot specifically because of the casting of women were certainly vocal (and vicious and threatening), but they were also almost exclusively a vocal minority on social media…not mainstream outlets. A few outlets joined in, but this was by far not common. But rather than treat their comments as too ridiculous to respond to or trying to giving reasonable, dispassionate responses such as “wait and see” some sites began to support the film’s production aggressively.
Even sites usually cynical of remakes and reboots were so outraged by the sexist complaints lobbied at Feig that they got involved, and threw themselves behind the remake…long before anything surfaced to prove or disprove its value. And as every article became a heated debate, outlets saw articles about the Ghostbusters remake generated more “hits” than the usual…some seeing twice as many as they usually received. Reporting and stoking the fire of the angry comment debates proved to be financially beneficial to the sites reporting on the film…so there seemed to be more and more reason to get involved, beyond social justice. Every set picture and interview with a participant became heated debate…until the trailer arrived in March.
When the Ghostbusters trailer arrived on the internet, the reaction was BAD. So bad, it became the most disliked trailer in the history of YouTube. If you look at some of the comments in response to the trailer, there were undeniably a massive number of hateful comments based on sexist ideas; which offered another reason many outlets supporting the film went further to claim there was a rampantly sexist movement to sabotage the movie. This wasn’t untrue considering the reddit boards, Twitter hashtags, IMDB spamming and boycotts announced…but not by a majority, and not even by a majority of those who disliked the trailer. And as both sexists and feminists became more and more vocal on social media, a third group emerged and threatened the movie in a different way.
The complaints that men were “hating” on Ghostbusters for sexist reasons led to an overblown sentiment against any men who disliked the trailer. Men who said they disliked the movie felt they were unfairly being labeled sexist for voicing their opinion. And women who felt the same way about the trailer felt pressured into blindly supporting a movie because it represented “the cause,” rather than the actual film. Even Ivan Reitman, who came out in support of the final film, came to the defense of some of these moderates. He said those critical of the remake shouldn’t be lumped into the same group as those attacking along gender lines, telling the site Mashable “I think there’s way too much talk about gender [when it comes to this film]. I think that many of the people who were complaining were actually lovers of the [original] movie, not haters of women.”
But things were already way out of hand. A critic named James Rolfe felt the need to announce on YouTube that he wouldn’t review the film…which resulted in nearly 2 million views (and now features an advertisement for the film). And the internet erupted once again. Some praised Rolfe for taking a stand based on his earnest opinion, some criticized him and called him a sexist…and some questioned why he felt the need to post that opinion at all.
But the internet’s criticism or defense of the movie (reddit now has a page, protests and boycotts launched online, and more and more articles criticizing a film that no one had even seen, popped up) kept growning. In one especially unpleasant example, “haters” criticized the cast of the Ghostbusters film for going to a children’s hospital by attacking the hospital’s Facebook page. And all this hatred led to more and more aggressive defenses and calls to support the female Ghostbusters. By May, Ghostbusters was arguably the most anticipated movie of the summer, despite no one having seen it.
Buzzfeed posted on June 28th (almost three weeks before anyone had seen the movie) their 12 ways to support the new Ghostbusters against the Hate Campaign, which included “make that theater as rowdy and supportive as a bunch of drunk girls in a bar bathroom (sounds fun) and “re-watch the entire Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig filmography” (good movies, but that actually does NOTHING for THIS movie). Oh, and to buy the merchandise and tie-ins. They even suggested supporting by “remind[ing] people that Donald Trump also publicly maligned the women-led Ghostbusters.” And that is the most telling statement in this whole debate.
Ghostbusters is no longer just a movie aimed to entertain…it became a way to show your political-social ideology with some good old fashioned consumerism. In an article for Medium, J. Rosenfield wrote succinctly, “Please Don’t See “Ghostbusters” To Make a Point” that the problem with this kind of activism described as “performative wokeness” is that “at the end of the day, Ghostbusters is a corporate product, designed to make money. Turning the consumption of a product into a progressive cause makes me itchy. It’s not like Sony is going to donate the profits to a shelter for domestic abuse victims.”
Even reviewers who support of the movie had to plant their flag regarding where they stand. Rather than praising a movie simply for its good qualities and getting people excited about seeing something enjoyable, sites like ComicBook Resource used headlines like “Sorry Haters, but Ghostbusters is Great”…aggressive terminology increasing the idea that the movie doing well will be good for their cause and hurt those “against them.” And finding a single article which doesn’t feel the need to address the 2-plus year online feuds is near impossible…because it has so infiltrated into audience’s subconscious.
The problem is, using what is ultimately a consumer property to make a political statement rarely makes a big impact on the public, but can result in big losses or wins for those able to make money off the public debate. In a way, it’s like alcohol advertisements that play on consumption as a statement about the consumer personality or status, rather than the value of the product itself. Sony likes this debate because they are getting more free publicity than they could have asked for. Tom Rothman said “The movie is a comedy, an entertaining comedy, but it is also now a real important part of the social conversation and you don’t usually get to do both of those things.”
Marketing and Reviews
As altruistic as that might sound, Rothman and his company stands to make or lose the most depending on how people “vote with their wallets.” The idea that we won’t see more female driven comedies or franchise films if Ghostbusters fails should feel like nothing more than a threat used by studios to get audiences uncertain about seeing the film to go out of social obligation. It should be seen as juvenile, underhanded marketing. After all, will Disney stop making the new Star Wars films because they star young women? Did the success of last year’s Mad Max film or Feig’s hit Spy prove nothing to studios? Are they just waiting for female driven movies to fail so they have an excuse to not greenlight more films starring women? The idea seems ridiculous, and the pressure put on this one movie is ridiculous…but people are buying into that idea and therefore outright encouraging women to not only go see the movie to support women in film…but see it multiple times or at least buy multiple tickets. And in response to that overcompensation, people seem to be getting either exhausted by the debate or becoming angry over something which when you get down to it…we shouldn’t be getting mad at AT ALL.
I tried to think of comparisons that can be made of examples of this phenomena. Two years ago, the relative success of The Interview, when it was pulled then released last minute seems comparable…suddenly the narrative changed and audiences went not only out of curiosity, but to make a statement that they wouldn’t be told they can’t see something. It ended up being to the benefit of a movie which only received a 52% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
My concern about GhostbusterGate stems from this week’s anniversary of Disco Demolition, the direction I hope (but fear) this whole thing is leading up to. If you don’t know about this event in Chicago history, it was a baseball marketing event in which a disgruntled DJ (Steve Dahl) in Chicago whipped fans into a frenzy because “disco sucks” and destroyed thousands of records in Comiskey Park…before it all turned into a riot. Some say it was fueled by racism or homophobia, but all can agree it was fueled by an overdue level of hatred for a certain kind of pop culture and its fans. And even the man at its center, leading this “demonstration” would agree that his role came out of the effect that the change in pop culture tastes had on his own bottom-line. He had been fired by a station which switched from rock to disco and was marketing himself as the anti-disco DJ to create a boisterous fan base.
Like Disco Demolition or any sports riots, when either the support or dislike of something in pop culture gets out of control, the results can be hurtful or even dangerous. It can taint the value of what’s really there so audiences can’t even see and appreciate it on its own. The product comes to represent so much more than was intended by the creators, so the decision to support it or not becomes a vote…rather than a purchase.
If Ghostbusters’ success or failure is based on the heated debate we’ve seen online and in the media, rather than for what it is as a movie…that will simply leave a sad legacy for the film.