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Backstories, Intimacies and the Ghostbusters Dilemma

Two things stand out about seeing Sisters last year. One, the armed guard stationed forebodingly in the foyer. (I was in the US, Star Wars opened that same weekend and cinemas seemingly had been Nostradamus-ing about which films might send white boys troppo).

Two. The sheer amount of posing that the two female leads engaged in. Sure, they looked good, but for a film starring two women who generally bring so much more to comedy than sex appeal, the film felt dated.

My compliments about the Ghostbusters reboot centre on the lady leads not being cast as eye candy. Each of them with their real-life-ordinary/Hollywood-extraordinary physiques were present to do things other than titillate. Having to make a hoopla of this in 2016 mortifies me and yet a glance across the cast of any mainstream film demonstrates the skew. Whereas Sisters was merely making nods to women’s reality through uncombed hair or slightly smeared make-up, the busters of the ghosts actually carried it off.

The other pleasing takeaway from Ghostbusters was that the women’s lives weren’t about men. There was no pining for them or competing for their crumbs. No catfights. No fretting over whether he’d call. And yet, this good bit is also what makes me feel the least comfortable.

So we have four characters who have successfully broken free of the shackles of definition around their relationships with men. This felt positive. And yet, here are four women whose characterisation was so paper thin that there’s nothing to them beyond the ghosts. (Literal, rather than the metaphoric ones I’m often drawn to). We know next to nothing about them, in fact, that some audiences have felt it necessary to speculate on whether they’re queer is indicative of a yearning to flesh them out just a bit.

A question I left the cinema dwelling on is whether anyone really imagines that women existing without relationships is any kind of inspiration. About whether having no attachments to anybody or anything other than work makes a woman seem more liberated than all those wives and mothers and daughters who have gone before them. To me, turning women into soulless automotons with “kooky” glasses and grating mannerisms doesn’t feel particularly empowering.

The characters each felt hollow, felt staged, felt like - as soon as the credits rolled - they would disappear completely, so consciously fictitious was their every word and gesture.

Cardboard characters, of course, aren’t actually a Ghostbusters-exclusive concern. Fervent across the adventure/comedy/nonsense genre is underdeveloped characters without backstories or reason for audiences to connect with them.

I watched the 1984 original an hour or so after the reboot. Doing so spotlighted just how unoriginal the new one is - a concern I fretted about long before the 2016 release - but also usefully tempered some of the newbie’s problems: both films were populated by gossamer thin characters and both did little more than place me in a glazed-over trance.

There feels something a tad awkward about giving negative feedback to a film that’s clearly trying to do something different, something a bit renegade. But false praise isn’t real praise, the film’s politics felt weightily contrived (I draw attention to the really uncomfortable use of Chris Hemsworth as the dumb blond receptionist), and in my view, it takes much more than scrubbing pasts and intimacies to make women icons.

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