Over the weekend, the internet was freaking out over the first pictures from the new Ghostbusters movie, featuring the cast looking tough and nerdy in their haunt-hunting coveralls. Headlines hailed it not as the new entry in a popular franchise, but as the “all female Ghostbusters.” Which is terrible.
This is not some special girl-themed version of Ghostbusters where the fact that our characters are women matters. It’s not a chick flick. It’s just straight-up the new Ghostbusters movie, about lovable, entrepreneurial mad scientists with giant, bizarre energy weapons, a pimped-out jalopy, and a burning desire to rid the world of evil spirits. Only this time the actors happen to be female. There’s no reason they couldn’t be guys. Likewise, there’s no reason the first crew of ghostbusting weirdos had to be guys. They just had to be dorks, and be funny.
Arguably the cast of the new Ghostbusters is pretty much culturally equivalent to the first cast. It stars two of the most famous comedians on film right now – Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy – who are absolutely of the same wattage that Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were back in 1984. So why are we calling this movie “all female,”* as if it’s some lesser spinoff from the “real” series, which features dudes?
Obvious answer is obvious. It’s because people don’t expect to see women in these roles, and so they see “women” instead of “Ghostbusters.” Even in the post-Bridesmaids, post-30 Rock, post-Parks and Recreation era, audiences don’t expect women to be funny. They also don’t expect women to be the badasses driving the plot in an action movie, despite Hunger Games and Nikita and Mad Max: Fury Road.
But there’s a less-obvious answer, too. The really startling part of the new Ghostbusters crew, for a lot of people, is that they are a team of women. Nobody would blink an eye at a token lady, or maybe even two. An entire team of women, though? That stands out in a way that all-male teams never do (unless you’re a woman, and then you notice all-male groups constantly, with a sinking heart). Racial representation sometimes works in a comparable way. Nobody seems startled that there’s one person of color on the Ghostbusters team, but when Fast Five came out, reviewers kept talking how amazing it was that every starring role was played by a person of color – though I would note that nobody actually called it “the all-POC Fast and Furious movie.”
US polling organization Gallop has done large-scale surveys that show most Americans wildly overestimate the number of minority groups around them, whether those are racial minorities or sexual ones. In 2001, Gallup found that the average American says “33% of the US population is black,” despite the fact that the census at that time showed only 12.3% of the population was black. And in 2015, Gallup found that “the American public estimates on average that 23% of Americans are gay or lesbian,” even though only 3.8% of Americans identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered in the same poll.
Gallup describes this odd form of cognitive bias as “Americans’ historical tendency to overestimate the prevalence of other subgroups in the US population.” Maybe that explains why people keep calling it the “all female Ghostbusters.” They’re overestimating how many women they’re actually seeing. An all-male group is just a regular bunch of people. But when the group is entirely women, suddenly it seems REALLY noticeable, as if the Ecto-1 were a clown car packed with so many women that it’s mindboggling.
People talking about the film can’t get it through their heads that these are just four women, out of thousands of people who have starred in thousands of action comedies. And yet, given that over half the population is female, statistically it has to happen that you’ll get four leads who are ladies once in a while.
The other problem with calling it the “all female Ghostbusters,” though, is that it’s simply a bad description. It doesn’t matter that the main characters are female. As I said earlier, this isn’t a chick flick about girl problems, or a story about what it means to be a woman. There is no reason to call attention to the lead characters’ gender other than to make it seem like some kind of excess or special exception.
What I’m saying is that having a new Ghostbusters movie with four female leads is a step toward gender equality. But having an “all female Ghostbusters” is like going back to the days when we talked about girl bands or lady doctors or soldierettes. It puts women in a subcategory, and makes men into the unlabeled default. Who wants to live in a world where “ghostbuster” means male unless stated otherwise? Fuck that world.
I’ll be watching a new Ghostbusters movie that just so happens to star four women this time. All that matters is whether the ghostbusting is funny, badass … and nobody crosses the streams.
* Note: io9 has been guilty of calling the movie “all female Ghostbusters” too, but we’re going to stop.