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The changing ghosts of Manhattan

Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in Columbia Pictures' 'Ghostbusters.' REUTERS/Sony Pictures

The new Ghostbusters film offers a new answer to a scarier world

By Lynn Stuart Parramore

The new Star Trek movie may have zoomed past Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot in cinemas. But controversy surrounding the film, including an outpouring of fanboy disparagement (even Donald Trump chimed in), and the racist and sexist Twitter trolling of actress Leslie Jones suggest that cultural reverberations continue to echo.

Yet much of the commentary, which focuses on online gender wars, may have missed the larger social and economic picture.

In the original Ghostbusters, released in 1984, something more powerful than Sumerian gods of destruction or flying balls of slime hangs over New York City: the Spirit of Unbridled Capitalism. This one reliable antidote to all the evil is conjured by an all-male, ghost-catching startup that offers salvation with entrepreneurial chutzpah and gee-whiz technology.

What a difference a generation makes. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse, contemporary Manhattan is plagued by far more than ghosts. It is confronting everything from terrorism to Matrix-style government manipulation to economic malaise. The world is scarier and more uncertain, and good jobs are a distant memory.

The 2016 film is less cocksure about how to cope than its predecessor. But placing hopes of survival in a female team might be a step in the right direction.

In the days of the first Ghostbusters, President Ronald Reagan assured America that individualism and competition were the steps on the stairway to heaven. Young Republicans mocked hippie values and flocked to Wall Street to the tune of Madonna’s anthem ‘Material Girl’. The beloved supernatural comedy, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, reflected the zeitgeist: government is incompetent, ivory towers stultifying and anybody with a brain makes a beeline for the private sector.

After losing his university post, parapsychologist Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) argues with fellow researcher Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), who talks of starting a ghost-extermination business:

“Personally, I like the university,” says Ray. “They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!”

Venkman, a consummate hustler ready to sell his soul for the quick gratifications of money and sex, understands the capitalist game: “The franchise rights alone,” he announces, “will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.”

With the invisible hand for a guide, the men conquer the demons of not only of the next world but also of the current one – manifest in a loathsome Environmental Protection Agency official hell-bent on obstructionist regulation. The free market is the answer to all nefarious forces.

In the new Ghostbusters, things are far darker: distrust and paranoia cling to the city like ectoplasm.

Hard-working particle physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) has a university job that is far from cushy. As soon as her nasty boss learns of her unorthodox paranormal inquiries, he heartlessly casts her onto the unemployment line – just before her tenure review.

The Milton Friedman economic fantasy of unfettered markets rewarding talent and effort with success and upward mobility has been laid to waste by the current state of economic inequality and social stagnation.

Erin joins forces with paranormal researcher Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), geeky engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and MTA worker Patty Tolan (Jones) to pursue scientific discovery, not to get rich. The four women are motivated by a desire to uncover the truth and do good.

Malign ghosts fly about hotels and rock concerts, but a more ominous spectre that haunts New York is a government keeping secrets from an unsettled public and determined to thwart the right of citizens to understand the forces that shape their world. Militarised cops in fatigues freeze in the face of supernatural terror, and Homeland Security agents hopelessly shoot bullets at ghosts.

At a time when American children are exposed to poisonous drinking water and many citizens feel nervous in the face of terror threats and trigger-happy police, gun-toting security forces unable to keep citizens safe are a lot scarier than an overzealous EPA guy.

Hollywood has often posited the answer to such social breakdown as the posse – a unit of loyalty-bound individuals disconnected from the broader society who exist on the margins of the law and form their own (often highly conservative) moral code.

This Ghostbusters offers a different take: It delivers a team of women who watch out for each other and those in their circle, like beefcake secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), but don’t seem to exhibit the us-against-them mentality of the posse. They clearly care about the welfare of their fellow citizens and even end up with semi-harmonious relations with government officials.

Cooperation is better than competition. The team has more success than the individual. Life is about search for meaning and truth, rather than making a quick buck.

Increasingly, popular culture has invested the hopes of confronting The System in female heroes, such as Imperator Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. These Amazons take up arms in a world in which most men in power are corrupt, and the few good men have little authority.

But Ghostbusters breaks with Hollywood tradition still further in refusing to present the women as sleek sex symbols and emphasising their bonds with each other. They are prepared for ass-kicking encounters with villains, but they also express nurturing qualities typically coded as feminine in our society. Patty, for example, keeps an eye on Abby’s mood swings by making sure she gets enough to eat.

The female-team-as-saviour may be a sign of things to come, as women gain more power and stature. Once men become more used to their influence, their depiction in Hollywood may be something that male audiences might even be more able to appreciate.

Despite the vitriol of the original Ghostbusters fanboys, Mattel has some interesting news about the toys released for the new film: Boys like them, too.

Sony has already hinted about a sequel.

 

Lynn Stuart Parramore is a contributing editor at AlterNet and co-founder of Recessionwire. She is the author of Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture

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