Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

Why “woman” doesn’t equal “feminist”

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Emma Watson, the UN’s “He for She” spokesperson

It seems that every week there’s a new feminist celebrity in town. You definitely know the drill by now: Beyoncé dancing in front of a flashing “FEMINISM” sign, Taylor Swift insisting her girl gang is 100% feminist, or Emma Watson being the poster woman for male feminists. The reaction always falls along the same lines: feminist celebrities are either defended (“hooray at least someone’s talking about it!”) or pilloried (“these women don’t know the first thing about feminism!”). Many commentators also worry that celebrities identify as feminist in order to get attention, or just to appeal to their female audience. However, the key issue for me is not whether they truly and authentically hold feminist ideals, but how the debate fosters a more worrying trend…the idea that if you’re a woman, you’re naturally a feminist.

I’ve been trying to articulate the problem with equating woman with feminist for some time, but it wasn’t until I read an article from feminist theorist Sandra Harding that the heart of the issue became clear for me. Harding says:

“It is an achievement, not a ‘natural property’, of women to develop a feminist standpoint, or a standpoint of women”

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Miley Cyrus has been vocal about desiring “equality”

Harding is talking about something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which is about valuing women’s perspectives as key to understanding women’s marginalisation. At the centre of the theory is that it is important to consider the views of oppressed groups. Because the views of the oppressed are traditionally silenced, attending to their perspectives may spark questions that would never come to the mind of those in power and indeed, questions that those with more power may have an interest in suppressing. According to this theory, if you’re talking about women’s liberation, this should involve listening to women’s experiences (of domestic and workplace expectations, for example) because this helps provide a map of how women are being treated unfairly.

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Beyonce performing in 2014

However, this is not to suggest that women will naturally be able to provide an analysis of why they are being treated poorly, or what ought to be done about it (or, that they will even identify a particular experience as “unfair”). A distinct feminist analysis that says “this is happening because of sexism”, “we should fight back” and “what’s happening is unfair”, is something altogether different from just recounting one’s experience. In this way we see that feminist analysis relies not only on attending to the lived experiences of the marginalised, but stepping back and looking at the whole picture of oppression to see what needs to be overcome.

Of course the difficulty for feminism is that it has historically only provided an analysis that fits the lives of some women. Only in relatively recent times has feminist theory come to grips with the fact that it is important to bring more nuance to analyses of lived experience, to  acknowledge that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other factors may also be at work.

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A key slogan from the second wave

However, I think the point to take away from this is that political analysis isn’t inherent to identity. The idea that identity is the key to doing politics is termed “identity politics”. This basically just means that identity is seen as inseparable from politics in such a way that the politics flows from the identity in itself. Really this idea is founded in the promotion of the phrase “the personal is political” in feminist activism in the 1960s/70s. The idea in feminist organising at the time was to bring so-called personal issues, such as feeling unhappy as a housewife, to the forefront of feminist consciousness, to show that these “personal” things ought to have “political” ramifications. However over time this idea of the personal as political has collapsed into identity itself, with the idea that identity (rather than specific issues and the analysis of them) = politics.

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People in Sydney rallying to save Safe Schools

We see this belief that politics is inherent to women fail time and time again. This was recently demonstrated with Cate McGregor stating “I am transgender. And I oppose safe schools“. Cate identifies as  a transgender woman, but this doesn’t mean she inherently possesses the best political analysis of transgender women’s liberation. While there are plenty of transgender people speaking out and saying that Safe Schools is utterly important to the LGBT community as a whole, they don’t have the same platform as Cate.

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Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard

This brings me back to celebrity feminism. The problem with celebrity feminism is that it often involves conflating “woman” with “feminist”. For example, when Leighton Meester says, “I don’t know if anyone would ever deny being a feminist” she is implying that all women are feminists because they have a vested interest in fighting gender inequality. Or when Taylor Swift says, “So many girls out there say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining”, she’s suggesting that feminism is not about being critical and assumes that inequality is self-evident. Or when Zooey Deschanel says feminism is just about “being myself”, she’s locating feminism in self-expression as a woman. All of these celebrity feminists do have things to say about inequality, but they all treat this understanding as so obvious that it is basically incomprehensible to see how being a woman does not necessarily mean being a feminist.

It’s a perspective also adopted by some feminists who aren’t celebrities. It’s dangerous not only because it risks condemning women who say they aren’t feminist rather than convincing them why they ought to be, but also because it locates politics in women. There are many negative consequences to this view, but particularly problematic is celebrating female leaders for being female, even if they are materially making conditions worse for many women in society (I’m thinking here of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cutting the single parent payment, for example).

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Actress Zooey Deschanel

Seeing politics as inherent to women is also bad for feminism. What emerges is the view that feminism can be utterly pluralised, because each individual woman has her own individual feminism. The sum of these fragmented parts is often a feminism that reaches for the lowest common denominator, such as the encouragement of a vague notion of “equality” that we see in celebrity feminism. In Hollywood “equality” might just mean getting paid as many millions as your male costars. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what feminism should be, I do think that a sharper political analysis is needed that calls for liberation in a much much broader sense than rich women gaining equality with rich men.