Entertainment

08.15.14

'Ghostbusters' and the Slow Emancipation of Female-Driven Comedy

Feminists are the new comic book geeks, and the women-led Ghostbusters remake will dominate the box office. If only Hollywood would make more than one female-driven comedy a year.

Here’s a scintillating prediction: Paul Feig’s recently announced women-led Ghostbusters remake is going to be a hit. I’d feel guilty for hyping, but at this point, it’s just logic. In the last five years, mid-budget studio comedies led by female casts have dominated the public imagination and the box office with an ease seemingly only afforded nowadays to superheroes and sci-fi. Feminists are the new comic book geeks, and each new woman-centered film that makes it to the multiplex is awaited with anxious hope and breathless anticipation.

But then again, maybe the ardor would be less fanatical if only Hollywood studios would actually make more than one female-driven comedy in a year.

Of course, despite the presence of Sigourney Weaver, superwoman supreme, the original Ghostbusters is not a female-driven comedy. No, our lovable trio of losers make for as much of a dudefest as any Apatow or Hangover movie, but when your dudes are Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis…well, it’s kind of hard to get mad about it. As much about the New York dating scene as it was about its supernatural one, the Ghostbuster boys exude the same goofy affability whether they’re chasing ghosts or girls, and the film rode their charms to its instant classic status.

When the original Ghostbusters topped the box office in 1984, comedy was the most popular American film genre. Men’s comedies outweighed women’s comedies two to one. Of course, women’s comedies were not lacking men in the same way that men’s films generally ignored women. A woman’s comedy in 1984 was a rom com. Even in the rare case that an actress was top-billed—not a guarantee for the romantic comedy genre, even if women audiences were the target—no woman’s comedy was complete without a Mr. Right.

This was not a feature unique to the films of 1984 of course. Women’s comedies have been defined by a search for love and devotion since the silent era days of Marion Davies and Gloria Swanson, and the romantic comedy has picked up something of a bad rap for the way that it has dominated women’s entertainment ever since. But in many ways, the dominance of the romantic comedy had less to do with Hollywood’s assumptions about gender, and more to do with Hollywood’s primary subject: the American middle class.

It should come as no surprise to say that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class woman’s life was defined by marriage. Her accomplishments might have carried her to university or even to a post as a teacher, but marriage was both the goal and the glass ceiling. Once a woman married, she was expected to leave her other commitments to care for the household and the community. The middle class woman entered marriage as an individual and was christened into a new identity: as one half of a unit couple. That the Hollywood romantic comedy also saw its female characters as half of a partnered whole seems a fair reflection of what was a social reality for many women.

Hollywood never seems less convinced of women’s investment in romance than when it’s trying to pass off half-assed bromances like That Awkward Moment or 90 minute midlife crises like Sex Tape as romantic.

However, among women of color and women who made up the working poor, this was not the case. Low-income work was a necessity, either to make up for the absence of a man or to bolster his own low-income paycheck. An urban working class woman in 1910 might have suffered poor living conditions, poor health, malnutrition, and exhaustion, but she did not suffer for want of feminine solidarity. Employment is often portrayed as women’s door to financial independence, but this is only true when limited to women for whom employment meant privileged access to sustainable salaries. What is true on a much more universal scale is that women’s employment has always been a door to other women, to social relationships that are not based on men.

By limiting its view to the uncontroversial white middle class, Hollywood limited its female characters to the conventions of the most confined part of society. True to its subject then, the story of the Hollywood woman’s comedy over the last century has been one of slow, fitful emancipation, ending in yet uncertain terms.

Hollywood’s path has not been without successes—1939’s all-lady divorce comedy The Women, the if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it gold-digger masterpiece Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the working woman’s well-earned paean to misandry 9 to 5, and of course 2011’s ode to diarrhea and depression, Paul Feig’s own Bridesmaids. Each of those films were resounding hits with the public, encapsulating their eras with friendly wit, but none seemed to inspire increased production for women-centered features. Instead Hollywood remains tentative, depending on women-friendly filmmakers like Cukor, Hawks, and now Feig to push the envelope. Why?

Hollywood is regularly accused of being hopelessly enamored with a Leave It to Beaver 1950s patriarchal past, but when it comes to women’s comedy, that doesn’t seem quite true. The love and marriage comedies of the 1950s were conventional, but at least they made marriage seem desirable. On the contrary, Hollywood never seems less convinced of women’s investment in romance than when it’s trying to pass off half-assed bromances like That Awkward Moment or 90 minute midlife crises like Sex Tape as romantic.

No, the past that Hollywood’s stuck in is more recent—less Eisenhower, more Nixon. The studios seem to be under the impression that women’s relationships with each other are still somehow threatening or transgressive. They hedge their bets with empty empowerment odes like The Other Woman, every frame an anxious, “I’m sorry, is this too much???”

Hollywood’s pathological fear of being political has made them blind to the changes that women’s friendships have undergone over the last forty years. We’re so far past women’s relationships revolving around men that no one is even offended by the suggestion that women have relationships that don’t revolve around men. Bridesmaids was a smash among women AND men, and so was Feig’s follow-up, The Heat, another female driven, non-romantic comedy.

Movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat only look groundbreaking when put in context with Hollywood’s modern anxiety complex. To everyone else, they look like the inevitable. Bring on Ghostbusters. The world is past ready.