Today on the blog, I’m sharing a guest post from Eleanor Vanden Heuvel. Vanden Heuvel leads a team of data analysts at Amazon, where she specializes in machine learning and speech technology. She holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins and is an artist in her spare time. Here, she discusses the importance of the new Ghostbusters movie. (Full disclosure: she also is married to me.)
A woman is close to becoming the president of the United States, but we don’t have a lot in common, Hillary Clinton and I. She wears pantsuits and gives speeches, whereas I like to wear a jumpsuit and make raunchy jokes. On the other hand, I can totally see myself fighting ghosts. I want to be a hero, run around, spout non-sequiturs, and wear sensible clothing. In fact, this is all I have ever wanted. There is no one I would rather be than a badass with amazing friends who gets to see ghosts and care about science. Clinton can have the presidency, because this is the fantasy that I want.
I didn't know how much I wanted this life until I saw the reboot of Ghostbusters this weekend. The fantasy world into which I was propelled – where women get to be the kind of women they really want to be – is the stuff of unrealistic dreams, raw fantasy, and insane expectations … in other words, the sort of things that generations of men have learned to take for granted.
If you’re a white man, you’ve seen your kind save the world from aliens, ghosts, monsters, nuclear weapons, tsunamis, asteroids, and Alan Rickman. You’ve flown through the air, propelled by the body alone, relying on genius-level intellect to solve earth-ending problems. These white men we watch are flawed, grappling with inner demons as they struggle on screen with literal ones. They also never take time out from demon-slaying to fret about their relationships or pick their children up from school, because they’re too busy saving the world. The men in hero movies even get to wear cool shit while they save the world. Have you ever looked at a drawing of Marvel’s Black Widow? Fact: I do NOT want to save the world in latex and heels. Appearance is trivial in Ghostbusters, because the women busting ghosts did not have time to discuss their age or weight. They were too busy saving New York City by using awesome ghost guns that they invented themselves. Only one character mentions clothing, and it was to make fun of the impracticality of another character’s high heels.
Fantasy matters. That’s what big-budget, studio tent-pole summer blockbusters are for. We escape the heat and allow ourselves to be subsumed in a world that’s just close enough to our own to inspire a modicum of belief. The legions of adolescents and tweens seeing Ghostbusters this summer will be presented with an entirely new picture of women. Those women say things like “I can think of seven uses for a cadaver today,” while fighting in choreographed action sequences. You know what a real female fantasy is these days? Not worrying about mundane shit like having a family or how your job is going to pan out or fretting over who is going to make dinner or if you’re going to get married. Every love interest, inappropriate outfit, and B-plot involving familial matters, typically inserted into movies that feature female protagonists, is a constant reminder of a woman’s stated role and place in this world (paging Katniss Everdeen). Stories with “grounded” women are made for a society that expects women to keep the reality of their existence in mind, which is just another form of oppression.
I grew up in the 80s, but the original Ghostbusters wasn’t one of my favorites, even though Bill Murray is a genius of the glib. I watched the original for the first time in decades just a few weeks ago, but in retelling this story with women, the plot finally made sense to me. Of course the mayor wouldn’t want a bunch of girls publicly destroying landmarks in the name of eradicating “ghosts!” Of course they would be hard up for cash because the two professors had been denied tenure! Of course the villain would be a white guy who felt like the world was cheating him out of who he was meant to be! Men get to pursue their every whim, but women are punished publicly for indulging in a fantasy, no matter how close that fantasy comes to reality.
If a man wants to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he knows it will be challenging, for all of the reasons personal and professional that exist in the real world. If a woman wants to ascend to apex professionalism, she adds dozens of other considerations and challenges that the man doesn’t have to worry about. On the other hand, seeing women fight a green hell-beast is just as absurd as seeing men do it. These fanciful roles remove the political, real, and practical, allowing us to appreciate that anyone can do anything, bringing fantasy and reality ever closer. I’m going to wear my jumpsuit to my job as a manager of a team of data researchers at a big tech company today. And I might wear it again tomorrow. It really is the only piece of clothing I own that makes me feel like someone capable of saving the world.