“Ghostbusters” and Female Friendship

The buddy movie is a time-honored form of American cinema in which two or more characters of the same gender, but usually otherwise quite different, end up traveling together and forming a close bond. Some authorities consider Mark Twain’s novel the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the archetypal precursor of buddy movies: in the novel, a young white boy and an older black slave, both runaways, float the Mississippi River and have many adventures. From the 1930s on, pairings such as Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, and Matthau and Lemmon were a commonplace of movies. In the 1970s and 80s the trope often included a white and a black man, such as Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places, Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours, and the Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover—a trend that continued with the Men in Black series starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In most of these later movies, it is the black man who is practical and helps bring his white partner down to reality.

The 1990s brought some changes. Not only did we get the Rush Hour series, which paired  two men of color, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, we saw the first real “female buddy movie,” Thelma and Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Sadly, the only outcome the writers could imagine for two women taking off on the road was to kill them off at the end, unlike the usual happy ending of the male buddy movie.

Although there have been many movies featuring a primarily female cast both before Thelma and Louise and after, most of the time these movies have been about women supporting each other as they deal with what I would call “female lives”—marriage and divorce in 1939’s The Women, family and friends in 1989’s Steel Magnolias, or the trials and tribulations of adolescence in 2005’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Sometimes the pairing of two women focuses more on their rivalry, such as in the 2009 film Bride Wars.

The new “reboot” of the 1984 buddy movie Ghostbusters, this time featuring four female actors as the Ghostbusters, is a happy exception. The female characters are, like their male predecessors, all unmarried and focused on their work. The Bechtal Test monitors how many times two female characters in a film have a conversation that is not about a man; in the new Ghostbusters I only detected one conversation that was, when Kristin Wiig’s character Erin asks Melissa McCarthy’s character Abby if she doesn’t think their new, dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks male receptionist Kevin, played by Thor hunk Chris Hemsworth, is good-looking; Abby responds “Kevin?” in tones of bewilderment. It hasn’t even occurred to her.

The plot is the same as the original movie: ghosts are breaking out all over Manhattan, a group of discredited scientists, balanced by one practical black person (Ernie Hudgens in the original movie, Leslie Jones in this one) know this and are trying to do something about it, against opposition from the mayor’s office and the scoffing of skeptics; eventually there’s a huge ghostastrophe and the Ghostbusters ride to the rescue, saving the day and earning the gratitude of the city.

But this new version is also about friendship. I argue in my book that female friendship is a strong and recurring theme (often overlooked) in many novels by women about women. Where the male Ghostbusters must learn how to work as a team, the female Ghostbusters have no problem doing that (Erin and Abby are careful not to presume to “lead” the group, demonstrated in a funny “oh, did you want to say ‘let’s go!’? ” exchange). But we learn early on that both Erin and Abby–friends since childhood–have felt betrayed by the other in the past, and the climactic scene is as much about healing that wound as it is about defeating the villain.

As a woman I found the first Ghostbusters movie funny, to the point that I can recite many lines from it off the top of my head; but I found this movie even funnier. There are so many little moments that registered as authentic to me, that had me saying “oh yes, that’s just how women would behave.” What I didn’t expect was that the women were even more impressive as warriors than the original guys. When Kate McKinnon (who steals the movie, in my opinion, with her just-this-side-of-whacko experimental physicist persona, and please can we have Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and Dr. Sheldon Cooper meet up in some alternative cinematic world sometime?) goes all kick-ass on the ghosts, the audience in the theater I was in STOOD UP AND CHEERED. It was one of those moments movie-goers live for, is what I’m saying.

Jillian also gets to deliver the most moving piece of dialogue in the movie, apparently channeling Stephen Hawking as she does, and that too was a moment to savor. For while she starts out talking about physics, what she ends up talking about is friendship and love.

So if you like buddy movies, don’t miss this one.


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