Ghostbusters 2016: The Diversity You Want Versus the Diversity You Get -The Toast

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The last time I saw the original Ghostbusters, I was sitting in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his nephews at a restored art deco theatre in Washington Heights. I wore a ball gown, there were cosplayers in the front row, and Christopher Jackson sang the theme song onstage before the movie began, explaining that this was the kind of thing he got roped into when certain people were procrastinating on finishing certain Broadway shows. From basement childhood viewings to fancy theater screenings as an adult, all of my experiences with Ghostbusters have been positive; I came to the 2016 Ghostbusters trailer not as a superfan, but as someone who’s enjoyed the first two movies every time I’ve watched them. Products of ’80s Hollywood, they do have their flaws, but those flaws are nothing that couldn’t have been improved upon in the new release — especially one that already seemed to buck traditional sci-fi (and comedy) tropes by casting four female Ghostbusters.

Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters stars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. So much of Ghostbusters 2016’s attention has been focused on its all-female cast, still seen as notable for a science fiction romp. It comes at a time when we hear questions like “Why don’t Captain Marvel or Black Widow have their own movies?” and “When are we getting a Wonder Woman film?” Fans have clamored for shows like Agent Carter and Supergirl to be renewed. Have you heard about how feminist Mad Max is? Sign onto Tumblr, and I’m sure someone will tell you all about it.The Ghostbusters trailer that debuted last week was notable for featuring almost no male dialogue, paying homage to the original with a cameo from Slimer, and — in the Year of Our Lord 2016 — featuring yet another loud, attitude-ridden Black woman character who I now have to hope and pray turns out to be so much more in the actual film. 

The number of genre shows, books, and movies starring Black women and other women of color I have enjoyed in my lifetime is so low compared to the swath of tales I’ve consumed that center white female heroes. For every Cassie from Animorphs, there’s a Xena, a Buffy, an Agent Scully, a whole passel of Charmed Ones. The calls for more female representation in science-fiction and fantasy media always seem to benefit one very particular type of woman. My confusion is swift and fierce when I hear complaints about the lack of a Black Widow film — sure, there might not be a Black Widow flick yet, but Scarlett Johansson got to star in Lucy. Hollywood allows someone like Marion Cotillard to snag a big-screen role like Talia al Ghul (The Dark Knight Rises), which could have gone to a Middle Eastern actress. Wonder Woman might not have her own movie yet, but she’s getting one — and unlike the Japanese heroine Katana, who appears in Suicide Squad, at least Wonder Woman got to speak in her trailer. Meanwhile, I can only think of one American sci-fi show starring an Asian American woman in the lead and/or title role that I’ve personally enjoyed to the point of binging (if you haven’t watched Nikita, please do), and Gina Torres spent the early part of her career pulling double duty for the Black and Latina girls in sci-fi.

The calls for more female representation in science fiction and fantasy media always seem to benefit one very particular type of woman.

Counting on blockbuster Hollywood and sci-fi franchises to provide characters of depth for Black women — for any women of color, really — has often led to disappointment. I’ve watched and read a lot of subpar science-fiction and fantasy during my lifetime for no reason other than the fact it did center a Black girl or woman. While those Scholastic Animorphs books don’t exactly hold up to adult eyes, the series was one of the very few sci-fi series aimed at children that gave a Black girl equal time to her white (and Latino!) co-stars. The same goes for Cleopatra 2525 — a horrible syndicated science-fiction show of my childhood about a boob job gone wrong that leads to a dystopian future — which I watched, because it starred Gina Torres. The lack of selection often makes me feel like I have to find something positive in everything with a Black female leadalong with watching or purchasing it, tweeting about it, and hoping “the market” takes notice — and I’ll find myself feeling guilty if I don’t enjoy it or can’t find something good to say about it.

But for me, there was not a single positive note to be found in the 2016 Ghostbusters trailer when it came to Leslie Jones’ character, Patty. While some might have found the line “you guys are really smart about this science stuff, but I know New York!” to be the most offensive part, I somehow powered through until around the 2-minute-and-10-second mark, when Patty actually says “Aw hell naw!” I knew then that this was probably not going to be the movie for me. Maybe on paper that line doesn’t have the same effect, but when yelled by a wide-eyed Jones while she sits on top of a possessed Melissa McCarthy, I found it to be viscerally jarring. Patty is loud (the loudest of all the women featured in the trailer), she’s got an attitude (dare we call it “sassy”?), and yes, she’s a Black woman: it’s the complete stereotype triumvirate.

It’s not that I haven’t known any loud Black women in my day; I’ve known several — as well as many loud white, Asian, and Latina women, as I’m sure we all have. And while I place most of the blame on screenwriters Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, I’m also well aware that this type of role is Jones’ “thing.” Her persona on SNL aligns fairly closely with what we’re presented with in the Ghostbusters trailer; her “Weekend Update” debut, a monologue about her potential prospects for love and sex in “slave days,” was its own controversy: at the time, Jamilah Lemieux referred to Jones as an “embarrassment,” and Elon James White called the sketch “irresponsible.”

Did The Daily Beast know something we didn’t when they originally used this picture in their January 2015 article about the new Ghostbusters cast? They updated quickly after social media descended, but in retrospect their first choice seems somewhat predictive. That befuddled stare, juxtaposed next to three smiling white women, reflects the trailer Sony just gave us — and inspires the same discomfort I felt when Jones slapped McCarthy across the face in the trailer. Even if this is Jones’ usual schtick, there is no reason it had to follow her to Ghostbusters; Melissa McCarthy’s usual film persona didn’t.

I can’t speak for all Black women, but given how few opportunities we get to appear in genre media overall, I’m not yet ready for this character to be yet another stereotype. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a “regular person,” as Jones described her character when responding to the furor on social media — and I say this as a “regular person” living a very satisfying life despite not taking math after the tenth grade (really). I wasn’t prepared for the lack of STEM background in Jones’ character to bother me. But combined with the affectations she seems to adopt for the role based on the trailer, it does matter. Not only is her character playing up a stereotype, she appears to play second fiddle to three women who are highly educated scientists. There’s nothing about Jones’ character that indicates she’s not educated or not capable, but unlike the other three, we’re not given the automatic assurance that she is, either. While “knowing New York” is a skill of sorts, I guess, it reeks of making Jones no more than the “streetsmart best friend,” a role too many Black actresses have been shoehorned into over the years. 

It’s easy to want to hope that there’s more to Patty; perhaps there’s some sort of twist to the plot that we’re not yet privy to. But Hollywood’s history with Black women doesn’t give me much faith in that outcome, and I don’t love the idea that Patty being a scientist, like the other three, would have to be some sort of “surprise” plot twist. A Black women scientist shouldn’t be so surprising that it can still be considered a twist. A Black woman scientist should be considered, in Leslie Jones’ words, “a regular person.” Why aren’t we seeing that at the movies?

The idea of Patty being employed by the MTA is not the problem here — I hope the MTA worker who reached out to Leslie Jones knows this. The visceral reaction I and others had to the trailer was the way it the compared and othered Leslie Jones, setting her apart from co-stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon. The trailer reflected an acceptance of and satisfaction with the reality that Black people hold only 7% of STEM undergrad degrees, and only 2% of PhDs. It mirrored back “a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics” that, according to one report, keep us from STEM fields. A Black woman being given a shot in a property like Ghostbusters is such a rare thing that, as with Cleopatra 2525 in childhood, I came to this 2-minute-and-30-second trailer with my loins girded, determined to like it. But after all was said and done — after I’d taken in the stereotypes, felt discouraged by what I saw of Patty’s character, and had once again begun to doubt whether a woman like me has a place in any mainstream science fiction medium — I realized that I would likely be skipping Ghostbusters.

Often the diversity we get does not turn out to be the diversity we want, especially in the hands of white Hollywood screenwriters.

I started teaching myself Latin after Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out, thinking that it would make for more accurate spells in the fanfiction I wrote centering my own invented Black characters. Latin joined an obsession with mythology, a strangely specific knowledge of red-tailed hawk anatomy, and other oddly specific subjects I dove into because of my love of various fantasy and sci-fi franchises, all the while having to do my own scaffolding and world-building so that I could include myself and my point of view in these mostly white worlds. Imaginative and prone to writing as I was, I didn’t mind doing that extra work, but not every kid has the time or desire to do it — nor should they have to. A child who loves ghost stories should be able to go to the movies and see a Black woman using science to fight them right alongside three white women doing the same thing.

I still can’t decide if Patty’s othered status in the Ghostbusters trailer is better than her not being there at all. Often the diversity we get does not turn out to be the diversity we want, especially in the hands of white Hollywood screenwriters. Had Jones’ character been filled by another white comedian, I would have shrugged my shoulders, said “Hollywood gon’ Hollywood,” and moved along. I wouldn’t have had to watch that trailer and feel such extreme disappointment upon realizing that I couldn’t even force myself to be okay with this. The portrayal of Patty in it points to yet another missed opportunity for equal representation in Hollywood; worse, it adds to a long history of characters based in stereotype that Black girls have to overcome, and makes me worry for the future of science-fiction and fantasy in film and television. We’re getting a new Star Trek show soon, and I need Hollywood to be as ready for Captain Angela Bassett of the U.S.S. Reliant as I am. Patty’s existence makes me wonder if we’ll ever get there. 

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