I’m trying to figure out how to describe the feelings I got while watching the new Ghostbusters this past Sunday morning. I wrote a post once about what it would feel like to have a chance to vote for a woman for president and I described my life of observing politics, only I gender-swapped men and women. That made the surrealness of our daily lack of representation in politics startlingly clear. Because that was fun, I’m doing it again, only this time it’s Hollywood in my sights, not the presidency…
Growing up as a boy, you love going to the movies. Sitting in the dark with your friends and family is a magical experience and your memories of your favorite films fill your imagination for decades to come. Not until you are older do you realize that nearly all of your movie heroes are women.
This doesn’t feel weird, most of the time, because pretty much every person in a visible position of power is a woman. Presidents, judges, news anchors, congresswomen, CEOs…almost all women. When you’re little, a single man might manage to break through here or there, but not until you’re in college will there be more than a handful of men visible on any given playing field. And even when you’re older, men rarely make up more than 20% of the power brokers in any political/creative/business arena.
Movies are no exception. Men are vastly less present in the industry than women. Those who want to produce/direct/write movies find it incredibly hard to get hired by studios that will give a hundred-million dollar film budget to a woman who’s made a couple of music videos. Men who want to act get paid less money and are almost exclusively allowed to be beautiful, not powerful. The expression, “He probably slept his way to the top” will be tossed at most them for decades. There will be far fewer roles for those men, and fewer becomes a vanishingly small number when you talk about men over the age of forty.
Don’t get me wrong. Men are in some movies, of course. The love stories. The rom-coms. Some kids’ movies. But even then, even in the movies that theoretically star animated boys, somehow the female secondary characters manage to get more dialogue than the boys. This might be because, in general, most films have women in about 75% of the speaking roles, and 83% of the background crowds in any given scene. When men make up 17% of the people in a crowd scene, that is seen by viewers as an even split between men and women. If you make the background scene 33% dudes, people will complain that there are waaaaaay more men than women in the scene. (Strangely enough, if men/boys speak in classrooms for 33% of the total time, that’s perceived as them trying to dominate the discussion too. Isn’t that weird?)
Teen movies are a strange kind of haven where you at least get to see a fair number of men achieving screen time, even if the plots of most of those movies do revolve around which girl the boy will end up falling in love with. Also, there’s a weird stretch in the eighties where every movie will manage to work in a shower scene or some other unrelated-to-the-plot reason to show a naked hot dude, but you mostly ignore that.
If a big, splashy biopic is made, it’s sure to be about a woman, which is obviously to be expected, because women do all of the important stuff that makes history and guys mostly clean house and shop. But still, it seems to you like at least a few guys must have done something worth making movies about, right? Like, maybe men’s stories just aren’t getting told because women are taking up all of the space in the metaphorical room? “Don’t be ridiculous,” you hear. “These are just the historical facts. Moving forward, perhaps more movies will be made about men, now that men are starting to do things worth making movies about. But you can’t rewrite history to include men when they didn’t do anything worth writing about.”
Action movies are the worst. I mean, duh, of course action movies are awesome. But seriously, you’re lucky if they give one role to a man in any of the ensemble action movie casts. God forbid that guy not be hot as hell and under thirty. (It creeps you out that most of the rom-coms too insist on casting twenty-five year old guys with women in their fifties, because men over thirty are what? Unattractive? Too old to play the love interest? No joke, that shit is creepy as hell.) Finally, finally, in one of the superhero team movies, they let you see a man in a role where he kicks ass and holds his own, even if he does still have to do it in skintight clothes that show off his chest and his ass.
You’re so happy to see a man killing it as a superhero, you rush out to the store, ready to buy T-shirts and toys for your son (secretly for you to play with too, admit it). But at the store, you can’t find the male superhero anywhere. Five hundred choices in figurines and pajamas and beach towels and Lego kits featuring the women from the film. You go to seven stores before you can find anything with the guy on it. You have to make your son’s Halloween costume from scratch at home because hardly anyone is selling those. Just the girl versions. And you still only get to see a dude as a second-tier character who never gets his own movie.
You were a grown adult, by the way, when they finally made a spinoff movie from the batwoman series with a man as the main character. You were damn excited, because you’d been waiting for that for what felt like forever. A male superhero at last! Well, not exactly a superhero. More of an antihero. Who cared? A comic book movie about a man, yay! But when the movie finally came out, it sucked. The dialogue was awful, the dude was in a skintight pleather catsuit the entire time, and they made his whole character laughable. They cast a great actor in the role, but the whole movie (made by a team of women by the way, producers, screenwriters, directors all…like there aren’t men in Hollywood who are talented and would kill to work on a comic book movie?) stunk. It tanked. And no one will risk money on another solo superhero movie starring a man for more than a decade, because clearly the audience won’t go see superhero movies about men. Men just can’t carry a movie like that.
They will, however, make plenty of shitty superhero movies starring women in the same decade, along with some that are meh, and others that are awesome. Somehow neither the meh nor the shitty female-driven superhero movies will make anyone afraid to greenlight another woman lead.
They will, no joke, make a movie with a talking raccoon and a tree with a three-word vocabulary before they make another superhero movie starring a man. You can’t make this shit up. (This movie will be great, but seriously? They can figure out how to market that, but not a solo superhero movie with a man in the starring role?)
The revival of interest in superhero movies when you’re middle-aged is great fun, even as you get frustrated watching them spin off movie after movie (again) featuring the famous female superheroes, without ever giving a man a chance in the starring role.
“Next year,” the movie studios promise you. “Or a couple years after. That’s when we’ll make a superhero movie starring a man. The market just isn’t there yet. People won’t go to the theater to watch a man as a superhero. But we’re getting there.”
Meanwhile, right about this time, some people will start doing some unusual stuff with the annual Hollywood festival of remakes and sequels. They will start putting men in roles that have previously been filled by women.
This generates the teensiest bit of controversy.
At first, you maybe question this too. “Why not just come up with our own new material starring men? Why mess about with remaking all of this cool women stuff that we loved when we were kids?” Then you will go back and watch some of the stuff that you loved as a kid. And you will still love parts of it. But hoo boy, the shitty, stereotypical comments about men and their body parts and their presumed stupidity and how the average male role in a movie could also be played by a tallish floor lamp will really get on your nerves now that you’re forty-four years old and have learned a thing or two about sexism.
They take one of your favorite space movie series Of All Time and they start messing with it, putting a man in the starring role of the next film in the series. Giving him the secret space knight powers and making him the one who knows more about the spaceship than almost anyone, even the roguish woman who plays the smuggler antiheroine. You will damn near hyperventilate with excitement at the idea, even as the women who grew up with the original are complaining that the filmmakers are just catering to identity politics and men who won’t stop complaining about not seeing themselves in movies. “Why don’t you just go make your own movies, men, if you want them? Why stop trying to take over our childhoods?”
Women will point to the one male co-star of the original space movies. “Besides, see?! You had him? What are you complaining about? The prince was an awesome character!” But that dude was never around in the action scenes in the climax, he never got to fly a damn spaceship (no men did, that was a job for women only), he spent half his time in one movie in a bronze Speedo, and he was mostly treated like a cranky control freak who might lighten up if only some woman would throw him a bang.
(When you see the actor who played that male character on screen in the new space movie and he’s a GENERAL and he’s wearing CLOTHES for the whole movie and he’s a man with gray hair and gravitas, you might cry, just a little.)
You think the new space movie is pretty fucking great. You’re kind of embarrassed that you get choked up a bunch of times watching it, but it’s unbelievable. Not only do they have a man in the starring role, but there are men all over the place in the background too. None of this 17% bullshit. The first person you see at the barricades to defend the village against the bad guys is a man. There are male fighter pilots climbing into planes before the big battle scene. The quirky wise character is a man, and did we mention the star of the whole damn movie is a man? You seriously didn’t know how much it was going to move you on a deep, emotional level, seeing women share the screen with a man in the starring role in this long series of space movies.
You are still getting shafted in the merchandise sales, mind, because they make way more toys and clothes with the female characters on them, but it’s getting better. Slowly, you feel as if it’s maybe getting better.
Then when Hollywood remakes the ghost movie, they don’t even play around. They gender-flip the whole thing and give all four of the starring roles to men. (A whole lot of women lose their collective minds about this.) They duplicate some not cool racial problems from the first movie, which sucks, but the men. The men in this movie aren’t scenery. They don’t talk about what girls they like or dating or sex at all, except for a couple of pointed jokes (see below). The men don’t wear clothes that sexualize them, they don’t fight ghosts with moves designed to show off how sexy they look while kicking ass, and they are all 100% competent in their areas of expertise.
They even give the “dumb secretary” role to a woman, which is pretty hilarious, because lots of female moviegoers won’t understand that even that gender swap is a commentary on the flaws of the original. Like, not until women saw themselves in a role that reduced them to pretty, dim-witted scenery did they get how offensive that stereotype was, amirite?
Things aren’t perfect. You will have plenty to criticize about these new gender-swapped movies where men finally get to be onscreen in some of your favorite franchises. But there’s something magic about it nonetheless. Even though you do hope they make more original content for movies and TV with men in the starring roles, it’s amazing to have this second childhood, to relive your youth with all of the original excitement and adventure, but this time, people like you are saving the day and starring as the heroes.
It doesn’t make up for a lifetime of waiting, but it’s a step in the right direction.
And that’s why I love the new Ghostbusters movie so much. Why I loved The Force Awakens. Why I can’t wait for the new Wonder Woman movie and have crossed every body part possible in the hopes that it doesn’t suck and set the whole female superhero game back another decade. Why I make a point of calling out movie and toy makers if they’re ignoring the merchandising opportunities for the female characters in their films. Why I’ll be buying Ghostbusters merch for any kid whose birthday comes to my attention this year, boys and girls. Why I’ll buy it for myself or for my kid. I don’t even like tchotchkes. We live in a small, two-bedroom place with a couple thousand books and two people. There’s no room for stuff. But I swear I’m going to go buy some Ghostbusters T-shirts and toys, because I know it’s harder to greenlight pictures without the accompanying merchandising deals. And I’m going to go see the movie again this weekend, because maybe Ghostbusters only came in second place on its opening weekend, but I bet it’s got legs.
And I’m going to cross my fingers and keep hoping for more gender-swapped, race-swapped, queer-swapped remakes of my childhood favorites. Yes, I want more original material. More #ownvoices and less white-washing in all casting. But damn, y’all who got to grow up seeing yourselves all over Hollywood’s biggest movies? That was some fun, huh? I’m totally okay with revisiting my childhood for a while and getting to do the same, even if I’m 44 now. I can still tap into that sense of wonder and pride, no problem. Wanna go to the movies with me? I’ll buy the popcorn.
[Yes, I know I skipped over Ripley from Aliens and Buffy and a variety of other movies. I was also glib and snarky. My only goal was to give people a sense of how surreal it really is to grow up without media representation of your gender and to be detailed without being encyclopedic. (Pretty sure I failed on that last point.) If I wrote this same piece with a focus on growing up without representation of your race, sexuality, disability, or other marginalizations, it would be even more surreal.]