The Scathing Sexual Politics of ‘Ghostbusters’
Thirty years ago, four men approached a semi-nude female character, covered only in bubbles, on the top of a Central Park high rise. Drawing their weapons, the leader of the group scowled: “Lets show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.”
On June 7, 1984, Columbia Pictures released Ghostbusters.
I recently sat down to rewatch the classic comedic exploits of Venkman, Egon, Ray and Winston. Like many, I came of age watching both the films and cartoon series; my elementary school lunches often included the Hi-C Ecto Cooler, the Ghostbusters-inspired, fluorescent green juice. Nevertheless, what I realized is that Ghostbusters is a deeply conflicted, even scathing, film regarding its sexual politics.
The ‘80s were a fascinating time for gender relations in the United States. On the one hand, Sally Ride and Kathryn Sullivan became pioneers for their work as female astronauts; on the other—in another galaxy entirely—we find this. In a watershed moment, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to appear on a major party ticket. Meanwhile, despite considerable progress in narrowing the gender pay gap, women still made $13,000 less than their male counterparts.
Within this complex attitude toward women in Reagan’s America, Ghostbusters emerged. Like many, Ghostbusters’ male characters are often constricted by their refusal to understand members of the opposite sex. It is not ghosts that haunt the film’s protagonists; it’s their inability to connect with women.
Early on, the film establishes the often confused role women play in the main characters’ lives. As written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, savvy members of the ‘70s counterculture, Ghostbusters opens with a stereotypical elderly librarian having the bejeezus scared out of her; the next scene features the ditzy blonde college student.
Both characters are disposable, introduced purely to provide the film’s foundation and demonstrate the backward tendencies of its lead character, Peter Venkman. The librarian, you will remember, is the one who Venkman asks, upon hearing about her ghostly encounter: “Have you been menstruating?” The college girl, by contrast, is portrayed as oblivious, susceptible to his somewhat sleazy charms: his attempts to flirt with her consist of sparing her from electrocution.
Both characters feel like something out of Mad Magazine, an inspiration for much of the boomer humor popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, from John Hughes to Animal House (also written by Ramis). The universe of Ghostbusters is grounded in these satirical archetypes, with many of the jokes coming from the way the comedic leads (Venkman, in particular…but also Ray) perceive women.
Of course, one of the reasons Ghostbusters remains so transcendent today is the strength and intelligence it (at least, seemingly) grants to heroine Dana Barrett. Played by Aliens star Sigourney Weaver, Dana is initially tough and independent. She plays the cello, presumably in the New York Symphony Orchestra, and early on is so ambivalent toward the generally glib and insecure Venkman that she compares him stingingly to a game show host.
In fact, that scene represents a turning point for the filmmakers’ approach to Dana. Soon, she is captured by demonic forces in a moment suggesting sexual assault. (Note the grabbing aggressiveness of the hands as she is led into the netherworld, particularly the one in between her legs.) It is as if the filmmakers are punishing her, if not for her contempt of protagonist Venkman, then for her heretofore accomplished, self-sufficient lifestyle.
Ramis and Aykroyd want it both ways: an empowered heroine, and the standard damsel in distress. That is absolutely the point and reflects a quintessential masculine vantage point: be successful, but also prepare to become a sex-crazed maniac on command. In Dana’s case, that is literally what transpires, much to Venkman initial confusion and, later, amusement. To recap: once possessed by Zuul, demonic Dana must “prepare for the coming of Gozer” by copulating with the suggestively titled “Keymaster.” In mistaking him for Venkman, the exchange goes:
Dana: Do you want this body?
Venkman: …is this a trick question? I guess the roses worked, huh?
Later, as demonic Dana seduces him:
Venkman: I make it a rule: never get involved with possessed people. Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.
Dana: I want you inside me.
Venkman: Go ahead! No, I can’t. Sounds like you got at least two people in there already—might be a little crowded.
Venkman engages, obviously conflicted, but eventually allows his decency to prevail. In response, Dana floats in midair, snarling—the ultimate visual manifestation of just how puzzling and perplexing women are to Venkman…and men everywhere. (Of course, Dana’s demonic seduction of Venkman is conducted without her consent. As is her eventual, glossed over sexual encounter with none other than Rick Moranis.)
Dana’s possession is not the only time Ramis and Aykroyd utilize female characters—and the Ghostbusters’ inability to relate—as a means to create conflict. In the film’s finale, the boys defeat the antagonist Gozer, who is portrayed as a cold, foreign almost androgynous woman. (In a nod to existing Cold War tensions, Gozer is played by Serbian model Slavitza Jovan.) Unable to use their proton streams to defeat her, the Ghostbusters are essentially impotent until they re-conceptualize the villain into something they understand: Stay Puft, a symbol of Americana and consumer product from Ray’s childhood. It is only when the film’s male Baby Boomer undertones are allowed to prevail (by crossing the streams, no less) that Dana is finally saved.
Of course, she immediately embraces Venkman—himself now redeemed—and the film concludes on a triumphant note.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that Ghostbusters is a comedy. Nevertheless, as the recent spat between Seth Rogen and Ann Hornaday highlights, many comedies tend to favor the silly hijinks of male characters, with their female co-stars often serving as proverbial “straight men.” Ghostbusters epitomizes the trend, with Sigourney Weaver herself describing her role as the Margaret Dumont to Ghostbusters’ Marx Brothers. This is a time honored comedic tradition, only recently having been challenged meaningfully (with standard kudos given to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and the girls from Broad City).
From its music, to its post-SNL boomer humor, Ghostbusters is very much an emblematic ‘80s film. But beyond the nostalgia and occasionally dated iconography, Ghostbusters offers a sharp satiric take on the often confused modern male archetype and his sometimes befuddled relationships with women. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Geraldine Ferraro’s historic selection—and with many ready to anoint Hillary Clinton as the next president—this sub-textual analysis provides insight into the way cultural touchstones like Ghostbusters comment on the masculine mind. As an artifact of its era, it underscores the progress that’s been achieved in the arena of women’s rights.
So, who ya gonna call?!