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.

 

No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

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De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

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Butler ❤

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

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Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.