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Female Reboots and The Perceived Threat of Representation

When interacting with different media, everyone negotiates different aspects of their identity in order to relate to dominant representations. Those whose race, class, gender, and sexual orientations fall within the dominant categories represented conventionally easily identify with mainstream media; in contrast, Audiences who fall outside of these categories may feel compelled to transform the texts in order for those to become better vehicles for their identifications. Female film reboots form part of this genre of transformative fiction, although their contemporary prevalence has often been met with backlash.

As Henry Jenkins, professor at the University of Southern California and pioneer researcher in the field of new forms of media resulting from the active involvement of fan communities, explains in the novel Textual Poachers (2005), mainstream media, including publishing, broadcasting, and the film industry, are often dominated by, and therefore mostly representative of, a male demographic. As a result, most narratives centre on the actions of men and reflect their values by rewarding masculine interpretative strategies and devaluing more feminine approaches (Jenkins, p.113). If anyone outside of this demographic wants to see themselves represented in a fictional universe, then they have to actively insert themselves in it via transformative works of fiction. To navigate male-dominated narratives, women have learnt to shift attention away from a male-centric narrative centre onto their own periphery, thus reclaiming their own interests from the margin (Jenkins, p.117). Only by imagining these characters as having a "life existing apart from the fictional narrative" can women envision their own stories rather than simply accept those offered by the male-centred work (Jenkins, p.117). Women, therefore, "colonise" these stories, and this, according to Jenkins, is why women often radically reconceptualise such genres (Jenkins, p.117).

Figure 1: Fanfiction Illustration by Bill McConkey

Transformative fiction, such as gender-swapping works, takes a piece of fiction not designed for women and makes it for women. Despite the seeming freedom in the landscape of fandom, members not involved in transformative works tend to treat those who are with bafflement and hostility. This female threat perceived by the dominant male fandom is seen most glaringly in the reaction to reboots of old films, now updated with a female cast. In October 2015, it was announced that an all-female reboot of the Ghostbusters film was in production and would be released the following summer (Ghostbusters, Sony Pictures Releasing, 2016). Written by Paul Feig- well known for his female-led comedies such as Bridesmaids and The Heat- the reboot would star Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon in the leading roles. The original Ghostbusters film quickly became a cult-classic with four principal male protagonists (Ghostbusters, dir. by Ivan Reitman, Columbia Pictures, 1984). Sigourney Weaver stars as the sole female main character; however, the tokenism is evident in the numerous stereotypes written into her narrative. Being the only prominent woman in the film, Weaver’s character is required to uphold the roles and stereotypes expected of a woman in a science fiction film. Despite the proposed intellectuality of her character, Weaver’s character’s relevance to the story is linked to her pursuit by a man who comes to her rescue. Weaver’s character exists solely for the advancement of the male character’s narratives. Since she is the only female protagonist, it is therefore implied that there is only place for women in science fiction if they conform to traditional gender roles and play the part of a romantic interest.

With multiple female characters in the 2016 reboot, the film sheds its rigid gender stereotypes and allows femininity to be represented in diverse, multi-faceted ways. The film represents more than one brand of womanhood, and the female characters are treated as unique individuals. The female characters do not serve the sole purpose of advancing the male characters’ narrative arcs, but they have their own agendas and aspirations. Derek Johnson, associate professor at the University of Michigan and specialist in Film and Screen studies, classifies films such as the remake of Ghostbusters as "social justice reboots" that strive to transform inequalities of representation and access within consumer society (Johnson, 2003 p.128).

Figure 2: Sigourney Weaver on the set of "Ghostbusters" (1984)

News of the Ghostbusters reboot, now with an all-female cast, was met with dissatisfaction. The trailer quickly became the most disliked video on YouTube, and the actors involved in the project were met with online harassment in an "outpouring of resentful misogyny" (Perkins, 2003). The 2016 film received generally favourable reviews from critics, yet fans of the original banded together in an effort to drop the film’s ratings and the backlash campaign has largely eclipsed the film itself. The male fans of the original Ghostbusters intent on criticising the female reboot claimed to do so only on the grounds of having their childhood nostalgia tampered with, and that gender was not a factor. If this were the case however, the same level of backlash would have been noted at the announcement of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum starring in the film update of 21 Jump Street, for instance, as it was originally a much beloved 80’s show that introduced the world to Johnny Depp. The decision to reboot Ghostbusters made sense given the advancements in special effects that had occurred since its original release.

The original Ghostbusters’ protagonists stayed faithful to the trope of the ‘everyman’ character, which the male fans could relate to. In changing these characters to women, of different sexual orientations and races, fans of the original struggled to relate to the updated versions of their previously loved characters. The negative response that ensued was a manifestation of their newfound fears of no longer being the target audience. It plays into the idea that a film made starring women must be made only for women, and thus created a conflict within men who viewed the film as their property.

Figure 3: Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters" (2016)

Similar backlash also occurred when Disney released their sequel trilogy of The Star Wars with prominent female characters. Disney's efforts to address problems of inequality within representation was seen as an opportunity for "the alt-right to push against the politics of popular feminism and media progressivism" (Johnson, 2003, p.134). These fans called for a boycott of the franchise and rallied around the social media hashtag #DumpStarWars. Efforts to disrupt the success of the sequels were ineffective, and the films "legitimised female consumers as a desirable target market worthy of service and attention" (Johnson, p.137). While gender-swap reboots such as Ghostbusters may be promoted as a kind of "feminist revisionism", the criticism it received; however, still exceeded mere "misogynistic responses" to its premise (Perkins, 2003).

The backlash Ghostbusters received also extended to feminist critiques. In a 2018 Independent Article entitled We should stop making all-female reboots of old films and superhero classics, Emily Spiers argues that the film does more harm than good in its representation of women. She understands the potential impact of female rebooted films for audiences, but ultimately questions the seemingly positive motives behind the development of the films; “At their best, these films and shows offer a kind of revisionist thinking. They reclaim pop-cultural history for young female audiences. At their worst, they demonstrate the film and television industry’s cynical profiteering from contemporary feminist ideals” (Spiers, 2018).

According to Spiers, a female-dominated cast does not equate to a feminist film. Claire Perkins, Associate lecturer at the University of Monash, Australia, and Doctor in Film and Screen Studies, clarifies the feminist dissatisfaction behind Spiers' analysis in "Ghost Girls: Ghostbusters, Popular Feminism, and the Gender-Swap Reboot". Firstly, Spiers' issue lies in the so-called feminist representations of these women. Spiers argues that in the gender-swapping of traditionally masculine roles, masculine values remain upheld and feminine values are subsidiary or even side-lined in the representation; "By triumphantly switching out men for women, the gender-swap reboot seeks to give an exact impression of this 'girl power' brand of logic, speaking to embedded cultural knowledge that regards participation and visibility within patriarchal systems as the endgame of feminism" (Perkins, 2003). Perkins adds that seeing as the gender-swap reboots have been overwhelmingly written and directed by men, they have been criticised for enabling the structural inequality around creative participation in Hollywood. In fact, this is Spiers most pressing issue with female reboots and how even though they make a show of addressing gender inequality, very little is done to tackle the issue structurally in the filmmaking environment.

“Take, for example, the structural issue of how few women are writing, directing and producing our films and TV shows. Traditionally risk-averse studios shy away from new stories created by women. Among the top 100 grossing films of 2017, women represented only 8 per cent of directors, 10 per cent of writers, 2 per cent of cinematographers, 24 per cent of producers and 14 per cent of editors. The female ghostbusters, scoundrels and superheroes urge young female audiences to self-empowerment but, at the same time, they often mask the value systems underpinning the stories themselves, as well as the politics of their production” (Spiers, 2018).

Figure 4: Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters" (2016)

Spiers brands said films as nothing more than machinery of contemporary neoliberal feminism. Women can be more visible in front of the camera as long as they do not stray from characters originally played and written by men. Perkins furthers that reboots may encourage women to "lean in to a neoliberal system structured by inequality rather than address the structural cause of that inequality" (Perkins, 2003). Spiers then concludes her article by requesting an end to female reboots and in their place see more original stories written for and by women.

Spiers’ article highlights an interesting question. Does the increase in female representation necessarily represent a success for women, or is it simply the mere commodification of feminism? Juliette Faraone certainly aligns herself with Spear’s way of thinking in her article in the feminist online website Ms. Magazine entitled Beyond Ghostbusters: How Gender Reboots Perpetuate Hollywood’s Sexism and What We Should Do About It. Faraone stresses the need for more female representation in Hollywood, citing that in 2015 less than a quarter of top-grossing films featured a female lead. Her concern lies in reboots as the solution to this underrepresentation. Just like Spiers, she raises issues regarding the feminisation of originally masculine characters.

“There are ways in which the concept of a reboot starring women itself could be rooted in the glorification of male behaviours and ways of thinking. When our understanding of gender reboots depends on the flawed interpretation of man as originator and woman as imitator, viewers are left with little more than a contemporary spin on the creation myth. Why are some traits considered inherently masculine, and why is the idea of women doing them seen as more subversive than, say, an original film starring women? What does it mean when we say things like “female Ghostbusters?” (Faraone, 2016).

Figure 5: "Ghostbusters" (1984).

Faraone sees female reboots as maintaining the social hierarchy wherein women are subsidiary to men. Whilst Faraone does not call for an end to all female reboots as Spiers does, Faraone does request that we place greater importance on original stories played by women. She notes that films with female screenwriters and directors are consistently more likely to have a larger quantity of female speaking protagonists, and so asks us as consumers to support women filmmakers in order to achieve this parity in character representation (Faraone, 2016).

Original female narratives are undeniably necessary in the pursuit for equal representation; nonetheless, Faraone’s dismissal of female film reboots ignores the positive impacts of such films. Gender rebooted films force an analysis of what popular films would have been like with the exclusion of gender stereotypes and tokenism. Women carve a place in male-dominated spaces and their narratives are allowed to be explored in a genre where they are typically quelled. Although science-fiction is typically seen as a male domain, Mary Shelley is credited with writing the first work of science fiction in 1818 with the publication of Frankenstein. Kayla Isenbletter argues in Hunting Ghosts in High Heels: A Feminist Analysis of Gender-Swapped Film Reboots that gender reboots of science-fiction films are a way of reclaiming the female founded genre of science-fiction which they have been made to feel unwelcome in; “One could argue that instead of Ghostbusters creating space from women in the world of science fiction that it is reclaiming a space that began with women” (Isenbletter, 2019). She stresses the importance of such films as a way of making women feel like they belong in a world which they have been erased from.

Figure 6: Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters" (2016)

Isenbletter counters Faraone’s views of Ghostbusters glorifying male narratives and behaviours. She proposes that even when placed in the same scenario as the male counterparts, the female characters are likely to find different solutions to the problems because of their different world experiences. They do not simply act as “imitator” to the male “originator” as Faraone suggests (Faraone, 2016). By implying that women are simply taking on the role of the men whose characters they replace, Faraone ignores the impact the representation could have on female fans as they watch the unique way the female characters interact in the scenario. If anything, by casting female actors in a previously male-led film, the reboot shows that male experiences are not strictly universal, thus opening up the discussion to female perspectives; “They use the original films as inspiration, but the final product is ultimately original because of the new perspectives that are now allowed to take the focus” (Isenbletter, 2019). Having female characters embody traits mostly associated with male characters could also open up the discussion for the revision and deconstruction of rigid gender traits. The value of the exhibited polyvocality stemming from the new perspectives in the rebooted Ghostbusters should not be dismissed in its efforts to force men to take female narratives seriously. At the very least, the film draws attention to the gender bias and discrepancy in media representation.

The fact that male fans are not equally preoccupied with the recurring reboots of Spiderman or Star Trek confirms that these self-identified nostalgic apprehensions are thinly veiled attempts to disguise internalised gender bias. The reboot does not alter the original, it simply adds women to its world. However, the reboots do make the lack of female representation glaringly obvious in the originals, and so may inspire male fans to be more critical of the media that they enjoy; “These reboots do not let their sexist predecessors live on without feminist critique” (Isenbletter, 2019). The reboot places men in a position to rethink their dominance in the science-fiction movie industry. Therefore, rather than being just another 'chick-flick', the Ghostbusters reboot demonstrates that women do belong in male-dominated genres and ar only reclaiming their rightful place in the works of science fiction.

Bibliographic References

@LordByronic. (30 January 2015). ‘Note: The following […] Thanks for all of your interest! Reddit Thread Comment.

AO3 Census Demographics. (2013). Archive of Our Own.

Faraone, J. (2016). "Beyond Ghostbusters: How Gender Reboots Perpetuate Hollywood’s Sexism and What We Should Do About It". Ms. Magazine.

Ghostbusters. (1984). dir. by Ivan Reitman. Columbia Pictures.

Ghostbusters. (2016). dir. by Paul Feig. Sony Pictures Releasing.

Jenkins, H. (2005). Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. Oxford: Routledge.

Johnson, D. (2003). "Resistance and Empire: Star Wars and the Social Justice Reboot". Film Reboots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Isenbletter, K. (2019). "Hunting Ghosts in High Heels: A Feminist Analysis of Gender-Swapped Film Reboots". Indiana University Undergraduate Research Journal, 19.

Minkel, E. (2014). "Why it Doesn’t Matter what Benedict Cumberbatch Thinks of Sherlock Fanfiction". The New Statesman.

Perkins, . (2003). "Ghost Girls: Ghostbusters, Popular Feminism, and the Gender-Swap Reboot". Film Reboots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Scott, S. (2019). Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry. New York: New York University Press.

Spiers, E. (2018). "We should Stop making all-female reboots of old films and superhero classics. Here's why". The Independent.

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Megan Maistre

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