Why gender swap ruffles some Ghostbusters fans

The original Ghostbusters came out more than 30 years ago—marking the start of a globally recognized franchise and standing as one of the biggest summer releases in the history of Sony Pictures. Now comes the reboot with an all-female cast.

“At what point does fan loyalty to an original film insist on preserving the racial and gender biases of the past?”

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig star in the forthcoming film, in place of 1984 originals Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis. Some have criticized the casting of four female leads.

Joshua Gleich, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film & Television, explains that the current controversy around the all-female cast signals the evolution of fandom—communities of fans who unite around a particular film or television show, for example—and how people are able to relate to characters.

“There are several reasons to reboot Ghostbusters with an all-female cast, and, as with most Hollywood decisions, the economic, cultural, and creative motivations are intertwined,” says Gleich. “The female audience is growing as both a percentage of blockbuster viewers and as the driving force behind surprise hits like The Fault in Our Stars.”

ghostbusters key art
(Credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)

Despite the elevated status of women in Hollywood, some fans maintain a “fierce sense of ownership” in how their beloved characters are depicted and cannot reconcile with the reimagined foursome, Gleich says. These films help diversify the big screen, though, which white males have long dominated, he adds.

“In an election year, the internet fervor over Ghostbusters inevitably cross-pollinated with the larger political fervor. Donald Trump’s tweet from a year ago questioning the all-female cast is now recirculating, while Sony arranged for the Ghostbusters cast to appear alongside Hillary Clinton on Ellen, hoping to tie their casting precedent to her political precedent,” Gleich says.

“Producer Judd Apatow suggested that the misogynistic commentators on the Ghostbusters trailer were likely Trump supporters. Whether accurately or not, Hollywood films always emerge as a cultural barometer for their political climate.”

Gleich responded to a few questions about the new film, which arrived in US theaters on July 15.


Why introduce an all-female cast in the remake of this 1984 classic? What was the impetus?


Female comedians like Amy Schumer and Samantha Bee, as well as Ghostbusters cast members Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, have enjoyed greater prominence in the past several years. Yet another reason for the gender switch is to renew a story that struggled to sustain itself through the disappointing sequel, Ghostbusters II.

Finally, the all-female cast potentially offers new comedic opportunities while preserving the fundamental elements that fans of the original enjoyed and anticipate seeing in this remake—although, fascinatingly, maleness proved to be an essential element for a vocal minority of online fans.



Why has the all-female cast become a point of controversy?


The reversal of traditional gender roles has always been a staple of Hollywood films, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s to female-led Westerns like Johnny Guitar and Cat Ballou that reinvigorated or parodied a familiar genre.

Historically, racial identities have been far less fluid, but by the 1970s films like Blazing Saddles and a number of “blaxploitation” Westerns starred African-Americans in a similar twist on that genre. However, comedies are less often flashpoints of controversy because audiences expect them to be irreverent and taken less seriously.

While anti-feminist backlash remains a powerful cultural force, this current controversy also involves the changing nature of fandom. Rather than just seeing the film in theaters or on network television, Ghostbusters fans grew up in the age of home video, cable television, and, later, the internet, where they could actively discuss, assess and even re-edit films in public forums. These technologies drive a fierce sense of ownership of movies by their fans, as well as nostalgia, amplified by Hollywood marketing campaigns that target these emotions and promote fan interaction on social media.

Thus, changing the gender of the cast threatens fans’ identification with Ghostbusters, particularly those fans who are most uncomfortable identifying with a female perspective.


What was it about the original “Ghostbusters” film that resulted in its widespread popularity?


Ghostbusters is a wonderful example of a generic hybrid, combining comedy, horror, action, and science fiction in ways that complement one another, rather than creating a hodgepodge. The film also employed state-of-the-art special effects that drove many of the blockbusters of the 1980s and raised the budget considerably above that of a typical comedy. It’s also rare to see such a deep cast, with all four Ghostbusters, as well as Sigourney Weaver, receive top billing in other films or television series. And, like Shrek, Ghostbusters functions equally well as an adventure for younger viewers and an often-risqué comedy for adult viewers.


In what ways might the forthcoming release rewrite how remakes are handled—or has it already?


Ghostbusters joins a long line of recent remakes based on popular 1980s films, from Indiana Jones and Star Wars sequels to reboots of RoboCop and Clash of the Titans. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which featured an African-American storm trooper and female protagonist, this film hopes to preserve a beloved cinematic universe while moving beyond the almost exclusively white-male focus of 1980s blockbusters.

This strategy presents a challenge for both fans and Hollywood executives. At what point does fan loyalty to an original film insist on preserving the racial and gender biases of the past?

At the same time, movie executives eager to appease the loyal fans and global audiences who drive early box-office totals can fall into a similar trap. Chinese Star Wars posters reduced the image of African-American actor John Boyega, while toy manufacturers de-emphasized the lead female character, Rey. Similarly, commercial tie-ins with the new Ghostbusters have largely featured male ghostbusters, and, as in the original film, the African-American ghostbuster is the only non-scientist.

Depending on its box-office success, Ghostbusters will encourage or discourage future remakes with gender reversals. But this may depend as much upon its toy sales and international success as its appeal to American fans.