Sometimes a neutrona wand is just a neutrona wand, but a sexual subtext slips into Ghostbusters so easily and so casually that it seems silly to point it out. And where there's sex talk, there's the related, not equivalent, but equally terrifying issue of gender roles. From the basic challenges of day-to-day interaction to the eternal and magnificent battle of the sexes, male insecurity in the face of female supremacy is a fundamental theme of Ghostbusters, and its characters' comically crippling fear of women is a huge part of the fun.
It all comes down to sex. If nothing else, one can hardly ignore the Freudian implications of the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper coming together. It's not subtle, but, then, neither is the Gatekeeper.
"Mass Sponge Migration"
Ghostbusters starts off as a simple woman-in-distress case, with Alice the librarian requiring rescue for some unspecified but deeply horrifying reason. But let's not rush things… we don't even know what she has yet. Because the gender of her assailant will cast this moment in a different light, already things aren't as clear-cut as they seem. Still, Alice makes an amusing inversion of the horror trope of terrorized young women; aged, quiet, dowdily dressed, she's a sly poke at the sexually unrepressed likes of Chrissie Watkins in Jaws. Perhaps more significantly, peering in on Alice parodies Laura Mulvey's infamous theory of the 'male gaze', as raised in her seminal essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Yes, the camerawork is clearly voyeuristic and poor Alice is a plot device. Yes, she's a "silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning." But no one can argue that it's for sexy reasons.
Cut to the science lab. Its occupants have hung a little sign for the maid on the door, a bit of sophomoric sexist humor. A look around the place reveals that the guys certainly don't have a woman to clean up after them, or even any feminine touch at all—the closest they can live with is a cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe. Granted, that three men holed up on a college campus might decorate with politically incorrect tchotchkes is unremarkable. But the real point about the divide between men and women is not in the scene's design but its content.
For this is our protagonist's first scene, and it's all about one thing: getting into Jennifer's pants. This above all was what the filmmakers chose to introduce their main character. The male student in the Zener experiment, unnamed, is weak, boyish, all wavering voice and unsporting reaction to negative reinforcement. Jennifer, by contrast, may play submissive, offering Venkman a breathy voice or a girlish smile—but he still has to win her, that's the trick, and he has to cheat. (And give her five bucks when it's over!) Yes, Venkman's point-of-view shots of her emphasize what Mulvey calls her "to-be-looked-at-ness", but those shots only appear when he's in control, and that's not going to last long. Bill Murray's charm as an actor notwithstanding, a professor chasing after coeds with the aid of electrodes is perhaps less successful with women than he would like.
Stantz interrupts the game, oblivious; his childlike enthusiasm for the ghost sighting trampling Venkman's flirtation. When the men confer, the camera reframes, leaving Jennifer out of the conversation—Stantz's lab is a boys' club, and he's just a kid who wants to have adventures and play with toys. His withdrawal from adult sexuality is further confirmed by his interest in the activities of sponges—hermaphroditic animals without gonads, reproducing asexually someplace underwater.
Spengler is also a man of science, though too observant to ignore the sexual subtext of things. His problem isn't that he doesn't see or understand, it's that he doesn't care, and his ultra-rational impenetrability will bolster an entertaining non-starter of a romance later in the piece. We met Venkman engaged in his favorite pursuit, and for Spengler, the same—he's in the library, chasing data.
The film's commentary on its sad selection of men deepens when Roger Delacorte steps in. Weak, wavering, simpering. Frightened of the female horror in his library's basement. Tellingly nervous when Venkman asks after Alice's menstrual cycle.
Why Venkman asks that, to be fair, might be a question worth exploring. If he's seriously equating the effects of menstruation with substance abuse or mental illness, it speaks to his fear of women; if he was going in a more fantastic direction, linking menstruation to the arising haunting as some psychic signal or bellwether, it speaks to the nature of the ghosts. Or it could just be Venkman being Venkman—and that alone speaks volumes.
It's not difficult to dissect the library ghost encounter in terms of poorly orchestrated sexual politics. Venkman admits that "the usual stuff isn't working" on his first attempt to make contact. Spengler's best idea to deal with the woman begins with his calculator. It falls to Stantz for a brilliant scientific plan. They take his advice, whereupon the true nature of femininity reveals itself, and the men flee in abject terror.
All in good fun, of course, but this first brush with the supernatural necessarily sets the tone for many other conflicts to come. Man does not understand woman; man attempts to overwhelm woman on his own terms; man is summarily punished. (I can sympathize.) Ghostbusters is stacked with supernatural female antagonists, from the library ghost to Zuul to Gozer, and they're hardly the weaker sex; of the major male monstrosities, Mr. Stay-Puft was the characters' choice, Vinz Clortho is clearly subservient to his distaff counterpart and Slimer, while not female, is hardly a man. The most notable male, anthropomorphic ghost is the zombie cabdriver, featured in all of one shot.
As character after character crosses the screen, a trend emerges.
Dean Yeager. Male. A petty, stuffy, sniveling authority figure.
The real estate agent. Female. The Ghostbusters end up caving in to her, despite Spengler's rational misgivings, to entertain Stantz's childish desires.
Dana. Female. Although preyed upon (albeit by female forces), and not without her domesticity, she is bright, successful and independent.
Louis. Male. Weak, hilariously so. And constantly denied entry; the film milks his inability to get into doors and windows for all it's worth and then some, and it's almost a relief for the audience when he finally gets a door open to greet Zuul.
Janine. Female but not feminine. A tough type from the outer boroughs, the ruler of her roost. High necklines, frumpy sweaters, all-seeing "bug eyes", she defeats Venkman early on, only to scare Spengler away by coming on too strong.
It's here that Dana enters the firehouse, and something new blooms.
"Check Her Out"
Ghostbusters' romance is a joy, a modest but exquisitely performed dance of equals that eschews clichés and lends the film warmth. Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver only share two sequences together before the Dana character (as we know her) effectively exits the picture, but the casting, the chemistry and the sharp dialogue make for a rarity in 'genre' cinema: a romantic subplot that holds its own with the spills and chills, featuring moments between men and women that don't find younger viewers reaching for the fast-forward button.
The character of Dana was initially conceived as a model, becoming a musician after Weaver's casting, with her input. It's a savvy choice; she gives the character a refined and cultured carriage, an Upper West Side patrician quality to which the rougher Venkman can only aspire. (Weaver's first feature film credit was Annie Hall; Murray's, Meatballs. The Woody Allen film retains higher credibility amongst the New York literati.) When he misspeaks—"I'll take Miss Barrett back to her apartment and check her out"—it's not just funny, it's revealing. We know a Bill Murray character has met his match if he's at a loss for words!
Dana's noble beauty is one thing, but the domesticity and femininity of her apartment's décor mark the kind of woman that Venkman lacks in his life. (The sequel made these themes more explicit—Venkman's apartment, Janine notes, "needs a woman's touch", with the man himself admitting that only Dana could get him "whipped into shape".) Her ability to cut to the heart of his problems, to disarm his fast talk, intrigues him. She can lay him bare and force him into intimacy, or, at the least, into something he can't wriggle out of. Getting a date with Jennifer, a loan from Stantz, that was easy. Dana won't be convinced by a simple act of charm, a telltale two shot in profile. So out of his comfort zone he goes.
The apartment investigation proves another one of those times in Venkman's life where "the usual stuff isn't working." He tries to have his cake and eat it too on playing the chivalrous hero, knowing she doesn't need or want his glib action-hero posturing, but still seeking credit for offering. He uses humor to hint at his desires without actually stating them, making one smart-ass comment after another. It may fool coeds, but she's not buying it. He tries another pickup-artist tactic, tries to make her feel dumb, and thus dependent on him: "It's technical. It's one of our little toys." She remains unimpressed, and counters with the "game show host" line, exposing at once his superficiality as a scientist and as a person. And it's there, when she cuts him down, that the horror movie music kicks in.
Still, Venkman continues the same act in the kitchen, stalling, joking, refusing to give up the ship. A patronizing tone drifts into his voice on "That is weird"; he doesn't understand that he can't win this woman over by treating her like a child. This isn't a conscious misogyny on Venkman's part, and certainly not the film's; it's just the Bill Murray lovable-jerk persona, a man in need of an education.
But he's not learning anything right now. "I'm not getting any reading," he complains, and he's not just talking about the hunt for ghosts. He continues digging his hole, dredging up a tactic that worked on Jennifer, flattery with a smile: "I don't think you're crazy." No reading there either.
This final shoot-down causes Venkman to lay it all out, to "go for broke," as he puts it. Of course, he can't resist couching even his honest moment in fakery and smart remarks to cover his tracks. But it's too late. He's found a woman who challenges him, and who he wants to be worthy of. His assertion of "I'll prove myself to you" is disarmingly sincere, without the punch-line panache of the faux-chivalrous offer that opened the scene. There is no more need for that kind of Prince Charming posturing; it is she who will make his life meaningful, and not the other way around.
It's not quite the spiritual quest posed by Murray's love interest in Groundhog Day, but it's a start. More than anything, Venkman's need to win Dana on higher ground recalls a line the actor shared with the Roxanne character in Meatballs: "I don't think I have many lines left."
"We Don't Want To Lose Her"
We catch up with Venkman among men once again, in dim light, surrounded by nuclear technology, arcade games and other guy stuff, chewing cheap Chinese. The feminine element has never seemed so absent. He remains undaunted even while licking his wounds, professing his plan to take Dana out for dinner, presumably for something better than "this magnificent feast". Again, she's an aspirational figure for him—no surprise, considering the alternative. Returning to a blow-by-blow summary of characters, the trend of women trumping men continues:
The hotel manager. Male. Another in a long line of prissy little men. Venkman, ever the alpha male, renders him deferential on the strength of pure bullshit.
The chambermaid. Female. Even in her potentially demeaning domestic position, she is unimpressed with the Ghostbusters' attack; in one of the film's few blatantly symbolic images, she extinguishes their fire (a male symbol) with water (female), while they regroup in shame, like chastised schoolboys.
Mrs. Van Hoffman. She doesn't even say anything, but just watch how the manager bows and scrapes to maintain her approval. Entire reels have gone by, and the most authoritative men we've met are the cigar-chomping guy at the elevator and Roger Grimsby.
The dream ghost, assayed by no less a male fantasy than a Playboy Playmate, deserves a special mention. It's a strange little scene, out of place with the rest of the movie, a salvaged fragment of the excised Fort Detmerring sequence. Why, one must ask, did the filmmakers think enough of this joke to rescue it, recontextualize it, make actual effort to work it into the montage? Did the editors simply run out of footage?
The answer: even as idle fantasy, the scene hammers home the film's angle on women. Stantz finds nocturnal release in his dreams, in the form of a fantasy woman (literally!) who disappears when she doesn't need to be looked at. On one hand, she's the good-girl version of the succubus, an angelic beauty who seduces in dreams without any unpleasant after-effects. On the other, she's one step up from Janine and one down from Zuul; another forthright and open woman that our heroes don't quite know how to deal with.
"There Is No Dana"
The Zuul character merits some in-depth consideration all her own.
Zuul enables the script to rather brilliantly sidestep the old damsel-in-distress plot. Whatever Ghostbusters may say about women, it's not a misogynist or antifeminist movie, just an honest look into the minds of guys among guys, trying to do the math on the fairer sex. Their first attempt to rescue a lady from peril fails miserably, thus quashing our expectations of knights in shining armor. Their secretary may be overworked, but she's no passive victim either. And although Venkman does save Dana in the end, everything that happened to her also happened to a man (well, Louis).
But more relevantly, even if Dana is a damsel, she's spared most of the distress. There's no mustache-twirling villain tying her to the train tracks; indeed, the moments when the proverbial train is closest are also the ones where she's having the most fun. Becoming Zuul affords her powers and agencies beyond those of your average cellist, and if her capture by the terror dog is a typical horror-movie moment of women in trouble, her very next scene (the Gatekeeper revealed) hardly paints her as weak or submissive. Hell, she's having a ball. The phrasing is ironic due to the site of her first terror dog encounter, but Dana avoids the "women in refrigerators" syndrome bemoaned by Gail Simone. She is her own refrigerator.
Nonetheless, Venkman is concerned, and not just because the apocalypse is nigh. To understand why a nymphomaniac Dana frightens him, we need only look to the horror genre.
The classic example is Stoker's Dracula. The undisputed eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the Gothic novel, Dracula was and is an extended metaphor for the Victorian fear of female sexuality. Through blood, the titular vampire makes whores of virgins, corrupting the pure and decent feminine ideal and emasculating men in the process. Lucy Westenra ('the light of the West') turns away from repressed life, taking on "a deliberate voluptuousness… both thrilling and repulsive", licking her scarlet lips with glee. The men's problem isn't the woman's cross to the spirit world; it's her newfound sexual appetite. Irrevocably tainted, her ungovernable desires can only solved by a stake through the heart. Sensible policies for a happier Britain.
It's a short trip from Stoker to the term 'vamp' for a sexually predatory woman, and the role of possessed women in horror fiction doesn't vary too much over the subsequent century; something about the clutches of a demon does wonders for the libido. Even The Exorcist, Ghostbusters' most direct target for parody, sexualizes its possessed girl, a mere child. (Horror comedies of the 21st century, like Jennifer's Body and Teeth, took the trope further—linking sexual stirrings to an unholy presence, but commenting on it along the way. On a more prosaic note, recall the legions of attractive girls in slasher movies killed for having premarital sex, from Friday the 13th and Halloween right on down.) The point is this: when Venkman shows up for his date and finds the Gatekeeper, he joins a long line of men in over their respective heads.
For Dana is, or at least was, appropriately feminine, and up till Zuul leaves the refrigerator, Venkman thinks himself on a pretty good track to win her in the traditional fashion. He told her what he was going to do—solve her problem—and he's plugging away at it.
During the theme song montage, we drop in on Dana three times, confirming her interest in Venkman's rising celebrity. The first time, she's clad in and surrounded by soft pinks, exercising on the floor, working on her body; she literally sits up and takes notice when Roger Grimsby reports on the Ghostbusters. Subtly, the camera shifts with her; her view of Venkman is reframing.
The second time, she's in the kitchen, suitably domestic, and amused by Casey Kasem's account of the Ghostbusters' dance with the "lovely ladies" of the Rose. Then a third visit, at night, watching Joe Franklin and stringing her cello. (The film doesn't push too hard with Dana in this montage. Twice her face is turned away from camera, and no one needs to shove images of Venkman under her nose. The point is made.)
When the pair comes face to face again at Lincoln Center, the camera notices that she's drawn to him, even brings her up to him. He shows his own relative maturation as well, handling himself confidently on cultural turf, showing interest in her artistic life, playfully rejecting her "abuse"; what's more, he's come prepared with some scrap of information on Zuul. (Granted, as it was Spengler who first offered to "look for the name Zuul in the usual literature," one wonders if Venkman did his own homework here.)
But Venkman is doing as he promised: proving himself to her. He even conveys to Dana that he respects her, an element sorely missing from the apartment sequence. He backtracks with a joke, of course, but for a guy who made his last date by fudging a Zener test, it's a big step.
Ghostbusters II breaks the news that Venkman and Dana didn't make it work, that he fell into his old ways, the smart mouth, the commitment problems; by the end of that film, of course, he's not only proven himself anew, but taken up the mantle of a responsible family man. As before, Venkman's pursuit of Dana isn't just an obligatory subplot. It's a marker of his progress in getting his own life together. Behind every successful Ghostbuster, there's a good woman.
Returning to our character-by-character rundown, we encounter a twist in the trend of weak-willed men. Zeddemore's attitudes toward women are not explored in the film, but as the practical man to balance out the scientists, perhaps he doesn't share Stantz or Spengler's comic difficulties with the gender. The best data we get is that he doesn't seem intimidated by Janine, which is more than many escape with. An exception to prove the rule, perhaps.
The next character we meet is the violinist, and tradition resumes. He is sickly, whiny. Another petty little man with whom Venkman can't wait to lock horns. Ever the alpha male, Venkman gets territorial, particularly when Dana is concerned. (His only-half-ironic jealousy that "the Goz' has been putting some moves on my would-be girlfriend" is of course even more ridiculous in light of Gozer's eventual nature.)
Emerging victorious, Venkman returns downtown to smoke a cigarette that, due to an editorial re-ordering of scenes, now seems hilariously post-coital. Male-female relations are sorted out, at least for the moment, and now he meets the character that Delacorte, Yeager, the hotel manager and the violinist were all building toward—the crown prince of sniveling little men in suits, Walter Peck. Played with sublime sliminess by William Atherton, who would find further success with similar characters in Real Genius and Die Hard, Peck ends up with the highest compliment a Ghostbusters villain can receive: "This man has no dick."
Why is this quote so famous? It's hardly the cleverest line of the film. But it just seems right for the moment, true to the character, a quintessential Bill Murray wisecrack for a deathly serious occasion. It also rings true because, on our journey toward Gozer, we are coming to understand what dicklessness means: it is the state of the enemy. Indeed, lump in Slimer and Mr. Stay-Puft, gendered but decidedly unsexed, and one finds very few antagonistic forces in Ghostbusters in possession of a dick.
We can almost see the circuits firing in Venkman's mind as he gives voice to this burgeoning theme of female as antagonist. Stantz, the originator of the "dickless" charge, has been molested in the night; Venkman has faced Zuul. Clearly there must be something feminine behind this fresh hell. Yet Peck's reach remains so small compared to what women wreak. His motivation is petty, caused by Venkman's equally petty male pride; he needs other men (the police, the Con Ed guy) to do his dirty work and fight his battles for him; he skulks about in a suit and yelps only to be cast out in disgrace once more important men have no more use for him. Next to the power of Zuul and Gozer, this doesn't put many points on the board, and in the end, the film shows just how small he is compared to Gozer. There he is, dwarfed, glaring up at Mr. Stay-Puft, just one little man after all.
"It's a… girl," says Stantz, with awe; "It's Gozer," Spengler pronounces.
(Although Aykroyd reportedly drew the name from graffiti found at a real-life haunting, it's worth noting, if only for amusement value, that 'gozer' is also an alternate Hebrew term for 'mohel'. The Freudian interpretation is left to the reader.)
It is never explicitly telegraphed that the slinky fashion model in the bubble suit is Gozer. So how does Spengler know? "It's whatever it wants to be," he states, with typical reserved authority—which is, frankly, no answer. What makes him think it wants to be a girl?
The answer: the femininely charged imagery has been building for a while, and, like everything else in the film, "the Domino Theory of Reality" has carried us to that magnificent point where the big surprises just plain feel right; the reveal is at once unexpected and totally organic.
After all, the gender-war trend's been building for a while. Zuul's sexual attack on Venkman renders the prefix on the term 'subtext' deliciously unnecessary; the demon renders Dana a She-who-must-be-obeyed worthy of H. Rider Haggard, a terrible beauty, sinister and confounding, and awesome in the original sense of the word. Any scene ending with the woman literally rising above the man, with him unable to bring her down, has made its metaphor clear.
Although Zuul is temporarily subdued by Venkman's Thorazine cocktail, the firehouse explosion brings her re-awakening, followed by a stream of pink energy rushing up to the temple, building and building until one glorious burst. Then she stands there, dazed, satisfied. All that remains is the meeting of the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper. Zuul lies in wait, confident, legs spread; she knows where she needs to be. Vinz Clortho, by contrast, merges with Louis only blocks from the temple, but he can't quite figure out his way to his woman; his search for the Gatekeeper is fraught with comic failings, leading to his arrest, detention and a lengthy, meandering walk back to the Upper West Side before he finally locks onto his better half.
Doors open. Entry is granted.
The Traveler is coming, and it will wear heels.
The final battle begins just like the first; the Ghostbusters don't quite know how to tangle with a woman, and the usual "get her" plan fails once again. Venkman's politically incorrect cracks at gender come fast and furious on the rooftop, from "She's a dog" to the grudging "Nimble little minx, isn't she?" Even the attack he leads is sexually charged: "This chick is toast!" he proclaims, and they prepare their phallic equipment. The fact that everyone has a preset, chanted response to his entendres implies that they've been through this game before. Now, obviously Venkman would still be mouthing off were they confronting a male form. It's just that the femininity of his adversary has captured his imagination. Lines like "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown" don't come without some serious inspiration.
Let us more fully consider Gozer's similarity to the goddess Tiamat. (As first hinted at in the 'Horror' chapter, for those of you who like to skip around.) In the Babylonian creation myth, Tiamat was quelled by a four-eyed young god named Marduk, with a magic net and the Four Winds at his control. Marduk had the power of fire, while Tiamat was a creature of the ocean. Marduk's victory led to the founding of the world and the rule of order. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett mince no words on this tale in The Myth of the American Superhero: "Its premise is that chaotic, female sources of evil must be ripped apart for the sake of an orderly Eden."
Just a yarn about "some moldy old Babylonian god", perhaps, but Dan Aykroyd knew his stuff. The last we see of Gozer in her preferred form, she's taking four blasts at once; then she's gone. The men are pleased. They think it's that easy to keep her down.
Then the challenge comes: "Choose and perish." The Ghostbusters' innermost fears will be their undoing, and given the gender-bending of late, it's unsurprising that Venkman latches onto J. Edgar Hoover as a potential fate worse than death.
All pass the test, save Stantz. He flees to a soft image, comfortingly prepubescent. By his own admission, he tries to wrap this destructive woman up in a docile form, or at least comfort himself with fond thoughts and food along the way. But he only peels back a more horrifying vision, childhood memories robbed of innocence.
Although the ever-authoritative Spengler pegs Gozer as androgynous, the god is definitely leaning goddess; the female form's Grace Jones haircut pays lip service (hair service?) to androgyny, but the walk, the lips and the breasts say otherwise. Mr. Stay-Puft may be a male form of the Goz', but the doughy figure of fun hardly screams masculinity. As such, the characters' reactions to Mr. Stay-Puft continue more or less along expected lines. Stantz is cowed and helpless. Venkman's joke about placating Mr. Stay-Puft with sex reveals that he really hasn't learned enough over the past few reels. Perhaps most devastatingly, Spengler reveals that he's "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought"; after successfully fending off Janine's feminine wiles for half the movie, the scientist has finally met a woman who surmounts his defenses, his once-unshakable logic cast to the four winds.
After haphazardly pelting Gozer's final form with fire, gaining nothing but a conflagration advancing on them, the Ghostbusters hatch a plan. The subtext of the "swing both ways" line, not to mention the unsettling possibilities of "cross[ing] the streams", just begs to be unpacked. But the men succeed, and their victory is marked by a white, sticky shower blanketing the streets below.
Bill Murray's eyes when Venkman thinks Dana dead betray such sadness—the consummate jester turned tragic clown. He wisecracked his way through impending doom on eschatological levels, but now the mask of irony is gone, and he is shockingly, achingly naked in these few moments. Perhaps it is only because he has lost that he gets to win her again. "Oh… hi," she says. The meeting of the goddess.
And that's the end of the film. Venkman avoids a soaking in the white foam, rescues Dana and leads her away. The twin challenges of the female and psychosexual worlds are finally met, and our hero gets his long-awaited kiss—at a choice spot under the director's credit, to boot. Somewhere between the top of the building and the lobby, it seems, our triumphant heroes paused to clean away the bulk of the sperm analogue bedrenching their fatigues. But what's more telling is that Dana has been given a frumpy bathrobe, to hide the wild orange Zuul dress. That side of her personality needs to be covered up, for the common good; they're in civilization now.
Now, at last, the burning question.
Why? Why is this theme relevant?
The answer stems from Ghostbusters' invocation of the ancient. Gozer descends from Sumerian polytheism, a whole host of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses (and, apparently, at least one that's whatever it wants to be). During what would have been Gozer's prime years for worship, the near-dominance of the Judeo-Christian male, monotheistic tradition was barely a blink on the horizon. Indeed, the first gasps of civilization, seeking to make sense of their world, took their creator myths from the as-yet-unexplained miracle of fertility around them, and created the first gods as goddesses.
Culture's survival depended on woman's gift, and so matriarchal societies emerged. Or maybe they didn't, who the hell knows; the scholarship differs, especially on the politically charged aspects. The beauty is, in the context of explaining the fiction of Ghostbusters, the gaps between myth, fact and gray area don't matter too much. One might as well look to pop culture and note that Gozer's mid-'80s bid for power comes awfully close to the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Nonetheless, civilization as we know it took time to organize, and came with reconsidered gender roles. Men came to dominate; only in the twentieth century did the concept of women's rights take serious hold. The women's suffrage movement, for instance, achieved victory in America in 1920—the same year Ivo Shandor founded his cult, judging society too sick to survive.
At stake in these ancient power struggles was the boundary between two worlds, masculine and feminine, and all that they represented: Apollo versus Dionysus, yang versus yin, sun versus moon, fire versus water, ego versus id, reason versus emotion, science versus magic. These same dichotomies, irrevocably yoked together, repeat themselves over and over again in Ghostbusters, from the unsurprising choice to signal Gozer's approach with darkening skies to the underlying symbolism of scientists creating fire-technology that dispels female spirits.
Viewed along this dynamic, the film's secrets reveal themselves with ease. Venkman calling Alice's mental state into question over her menstrual cycle takes on new depths, and indeed the trend flushes out new readings all the way down to the final confrontation. When Spengler finds himself "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought," he has abandoned his Apollonian core of logic, his left brain, and been cast into the province of female chaos. Lunacy under the night sky in the face of the unexplainable.
It's uncomfortable how loaded these simple images can become.
"I Respect You As An Artist"
It's ironic that only by letting go of their logical impulses do the Ghostbusters triumph. The newly de-rationalized Spengler proposes the "radical idea" to make the doors "swing both ways"; crossing the streams, while "bad", does good, and the last images of Mr. Stay-Puft depict a frightened ghost confronting its own mortality. Only in accepting the inevitability of failure is victory achieved; luck trumps logic at the last.
Even with the Dionysian menace quelled, the film stresses reconciliation with rather than subjugation of women; even the most ardent feminist will agree that Gozer ending the world would have set the movement back, and the film's resolution treats its women kindly. Dana has made Venkman a better man, and he is rewarded with a kiss. Janine breaks through Spengler's façade a bit, and her moment of tenderness is reciprocated; the rationalist frees his emotional side, and even smiles. These men have let something female, something strange into their neighborhoods, and become happier for it. It took the opening of fissures in the earth, a sudden plunge into darkness, assorted pyrotechnics, a climactic explosion of white goop and the last judgment of the dickless, but, like all the other tensions between two worlds, the houses of Apollo and Dionysus are in balance at last.
Ghostbusters II turns the tables. Vigo seeks to exploit a woman, specifically the fruits of her mysterious reproductive magic; his lieutenant Janosz hopes to exploit her further in the hours not spent in child-rearing. (It's sort of a fun twist on the old sacrifice-a-virgin gag.) Dana, now a mom and not a demigoddess, is treated—and reacts—in a more stereotypically feminine fashion. She vacillates between avenging mama-bear and woman-in-distress, running, screaming, begging—implying, unfortunately, that motherhood has weakened her. Janine, too, has softened, just as she did in the animated series; the spark of life is there, but not the abrasive edge. (The film at least compensates by upgrading her wardrobe and granting her full sexual agency; network interference robbed her animated equivalent of her wild hair, abrasive Brooklynese twang and all interesting qualities. Misguidedly recasting Janine as a more maternal, caregiver kind of figure, ABC infamously worried that even her pointy green eyeglasses might be too much.)
There's just less agency all around for women in Ghostbusters II's 1989, and maybe that's Vigo's modus operandi; one can presume that his gender politics were no less conservative than any other European tyrant of the 16th century. Finding the villain empowered by the city's brutish aggression, the Ghostbusters triumph only by rallying emotion to their favor, employing a 151-foot woman who may or may not be naked under her toga. It's a strange end to a decade.
The 1980s were not a time of great social upheaval in America. Male-female relations were defined not by mass movement or sweeping legislation but by the simple navigation of daily life, as men and women continued adjusting to equality at home and in the workplace. It was the era of 9 to 5 and Mr. Mom, of professional women in shoulder pads. In the arts, for every Joan Jett was a traditional Tiffany; Madonna redefined feminism almost as often as she redefined herself. Geraldine Ferraro would be named Walter Mondale's running mate barely a month after Ghostbusters' debut, a Ms. gunning for the Vice-Presidency only two years after the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. Somewhere in all this one might hope to find consensus. It never quite came.
Ghostbusters' reach is long, on one hand recalling the overthrow of women and on the other shattering female clichés with a distinctly revisionist outlook. Yes, the villainesses of the film are dangerous and not to be trusted… but at least they're empowered. The patriarchal society proves no match for the craft of a goddess, and the only woman rescued is rescued from another woman, never once pleading for a man's intervention. It's the '80s, and girls have fun.
(And the fun didn’t stop in the ‘80s, either. Just ask the female Ghostbusters in animation, on the comics page and on the big screen in 2016’s Answer the Call, which your correspondent saw on opening day and enjoyed a great deal.)
Perhaps we can best see the film's attitude toward women not through Gozer but through Dana. Smart, successful and able to match wits with Bill Murray, she represents the power of femininity; one terror dog later, she embodies the strength and aggression of men. In theory, the Dana-Zuul pairing represents the best of both worlds: it's just that, as Zuul so memorably informs Venkman, the two can't quite share. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate that a unisex name was chosen for Dana. Indeed, not only does the name cross genders, but it effectively hides the name of her male creator: Dan A.
Like so much else of Ghostbusters, the success is in the casting. The film required a classical beauty to play both love interest and damsel in distress, and yet one believable in the new world of shifting boundaries, anticipating the coming of third-wave feminism—a landscape of contradictions, ambiguities and above all, choices.
Sigourney Weaver's most famous role remains feminist icon Ellen Ripley.
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Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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