Last week, Jason Reitman gave an interview to the Bill Burr Podcast, later repeated in the Playlist, to discuss his newest sequel to his father’s beloved Ghostbusters. Reitman waxed eloquent about how much he loves the original film—“I consider myself the first Ghostbusters fan. I was like seven when that movie came out and I love it.”—and how excited he is to go back to the world that his father, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis created. He ended by saying, “We are, in every way, trying to go back to the original technique and hand the movie back to the fans.” With just a few words, Reitman brought up emotions and memories of several years before, when Ghostbusters was the center of a burgeoning toxic fan culture and the newest casualty in ongoing culture wars.
The Ghostbusters franchise has a deeply problematic history of fan interaction. It’s a beloved property, no doubt, but attempts to reignite it as a franchise had, until 2016, been met with resistance from both the original actors and from the fanbase itself. Then Sony released Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, directed by Paul Feig and written by Feig and Katie Dippold. Rather than acting as a straight sequel to the original two films, the filmmakers instead opted to expand the Ghostbusters universe, much in the same way that the 1986–1997 cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters and the later Extreme Ghostbusters did. They cast a group of comediennes that, like the original cast, have been either SNL regulars or frequent hosts—Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones. The idea was not so much to rival the original film, but to take its template and update it, giving it an all-female cast who act as counterparts to the original characters without being gender-flipped copies.
The reboot almost immediately generated backlash from a subsection of male Ghostbusters fans, with claims that the film was going to “ruin childhoods” and destroy the franchise (a franchise that, heretofore, has consisted of two films made in the 80s, a few TV shows, videogames, and comic books). Trolls harassed Leslie Jones on Twitter—an attack engineered, in part, by Milo Yiannopoulos—to the point that she actually left Twitter for a while to avoid the backlash. Male fans flooded film boards with downratings of the film before it was even released. Following the release, fan outrage continued, with positive comments or reviews bombarded with angry explanations of why it was actually the worst. Some fans pushed back against the idea that these responses were sexist, arguing that it wasn’t about the gender-flip, they “just didn’t like the film.” It’s not that we hate women, these fans claimed; it’s about ethics in film journalism.
Now, Jason Reitman will make yet another Ghostbusters film, this one a direct sequel to the original 1984 and 1989 films, apparently ignoring the 2016 reboot. The timeline is already confusing – will the 2016 film be retconned completely? – and the announcement provoked fan response ranging from the ecstatic to the furious. Fans of the 2016 film claimed that this was an attempt to erase the existence of the reboot, a deliberate appeal to the toxic fans who complained so loudly.
In light of the toxic responses that Ghostbusters: Answer the Call generated, Reitman’s comments carry with them a weight they simply wouldn’t have in any other context. He’s going back to the “original technique,” considers himself the “first fan,” and is giving the film “back to the fans.” His claim to return the franchise to “the fans” echoes a number of the toxic statements made in the past – that the reboot was not, in fact, for fans of Ghostbusters, but an effort to pander to female demographics and “SJWs.” If Ghostbusters 3 will return the franchise to the fans, then Reitman is tacitly reinforcing the claims that it had been taken from them. Whether or not Reitman intended it, his language is a dog whistle to the toxic, primarily male fans who attacked Answer the Call so intensely, and a reminder to female fans and others that they don’t really count, just as the trolls said they didn’t.
The claim for fan authenticity, that certain things are available only to “real fans,” defined by a nebulous quadrant of straight white male gatekeepers, should be recognizable to anyone who has followed the furious arguments generated in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel fandoms against films like The Last Jedi, a reading of Star Trek as a progressive franchise, or Brie Larson’s comments about Captain Marvel. The concept that there are some fans who are more “real” than others and whose opinions therefore matter more is part of the gatekeeping mentality that seeks to exclude women and minorities from participation in fandom. The fact that Ghostbusters: Answer the Call set women and minorities front and center argues that straight white men are not the only valid fans.
This is complicated even further by the dialogue that Answer the Call has with the Ghostbusters fandom and male toxicity. The entire film works as an inversion of sexist archetypes. The heroes are female nerds—a black MTA agent obsessed with New York City history, a mad scientist typed as queer, a chubby paranormal investigator, and a Columbia professor desperate to excel in a male dominated environment, who ultimately finds freedom back with her strange, outlandish, female friends. The damsel-in-distress is a pretty but dimwitted male secretary. The villain is an angry male nerd living in a basement, furious with the world that has failed to acknowledge his importance, and using the toxic remnants of angry ghosts to enact his revenge.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call deliberately subverts many of the sexist and racist stereotypes that a certain type of male fan relies on to reinforce his personal importance. It asks the viewer to consider women as heroes and as people, to see female nerds not as sexpots who suddenly become hot, but as intelligent, capable human beings who don’t need to appeal to the male gaze. Male anger, resentment, and toxicity is depicted as villainous, a destructive force that can only be defeated by four women working as a team. It’s hard not to imagine that perhaps some male fans saw themselves in the villain and weren’t pleased at being called out.
The day after the Playlist article, Reitman qualified his statements via his Twitter page:
Wo, that came out wrong! I have nothing but admiration for Paul and Leslie and Kate and Melissa and Kristen and the bravery with which they made Ghostbusters 2016. They expanded the universe and made an amazing movie!
— Jason Reitman (@JasonReitman) February 21, 2019
On the surface, this is a mea culpa. Reitman claims he didn’t mean to imply anything derogatory about Answer the Call and that he respects the efforts of the cast and filmmakers. But it’s notable that he doesn’t apologize for the comments he made about fans. He does not apologize for using phrases employed by the troll fanbase, nor does he acknowledge the harassment suffered by Leslie Jones or female fans in general. Perhaps most significant is the language he uses in this tweet. He praises the “bravery” of the cast and crew, as though the very act of rebooting a beloved, male-centric franchise with women is an act of courage. This is condescending language, a reinforcement of the claim that Answer the Call is admirable, even “amazing,” but not particularly important. The film is still more or less an oddity, an outlier. It’s not for real fans.
It’s entirely possible that Reitman was unaware of the implications of his comments and innocent in his intentions, but he has a responsibility in entering into this discourse. The sidelining of female fans in a number of geek properties has gone on long enough. While some quadrants of the fandom will use this opportunity to bemoan how Reitman is being “attacked” by overly sensitive “SJWs,” that’s simply another permutation of the ugliness that we saw back in 2016, and that we still see from some male fans of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, graphic novels, and in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. In making these statements, Reitman has clearly declared who his film is (and is not) for. Real fans will know the difference.