The Door Swings Both Ways: The Positives and Negatives of Leslie Jones’ Role in ‘Ghostbusters’
The long-awaited first trailers for Paul Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters reboot dropped this past week, and of course the internet had a number of opinions about it. On the critical side of things, many of the complaints concerned things that can’t be changed (this new movie wipes the slate clean, taking place in a universe where the existing two Ghostbusters films never happened), while others concerned things that shouldn’t be changed (sexists ranting about the film’s awesome genderswap). Still, there was one issue worth examining: the film’s treatment of Leslie Jones’ character Patty Tolan. I’ll break this down into three sections, each with its own pluses and minuses.
MAYBE MY THEORY IS CORRECT
First, and most importantly, whether the film addresses the issue or not, the sentiment behind asking why Patty isn’t a scientist* is and will continue to be valid no matter what. The frustrating instinct of the internet, especially when it comes to any subject that someone will try to dismiss under the condescending banner of “outrage culture”, is to boil everything down to a binary. Not only will people try to use some of the points outlined in this article to argue that Patty’s lack of a PhD is either a) completely indefensible or b) entirely unimportant, both of those reduce the possible outcomes to “good” or “bad.” Most subjects have more than one metric on which they can be evaluated, and Patty could be a great character in certain areas while failing in others.
The uneasy co-existence of success and failure forms the frustrating double-edged sword of Hollywood representation issues. Akilah Hughes posted a widely-shared video poking holes in the idea that a black female scientist was “unrealistic.” Lisa Bolekaja of Bitch Flicks referenced the #BlackandSTEM community. It also didn’t help matters that the trailer arrived on the heels of multiple recent racial controversies involving the film industry.
Then, Jones herself entered the discussion by retweeting a letter from an MTA agent, who said her job made her “invisible” to the people who come through, as if “I’m not a college graduate, and a producer, comedian, writer, actor, etc.” Both the MTA agent and Jones defended Patty as a celebration of the hidden talents of strangers: “We walk among heroes and take them for granted. As far as I’m concerned, we all Ghostbusters!”
Both viewpoints are important because both sides are concerned about different things. How the character contributes to the cultural perception of black people (as well as that of black women specifically) as presented by the media and Jones’ reasoning for taking the part are two related but separate conversations. (You might say the latter surrounds the former, like spongy yellow cake around a creme filling.) Studies have shown that pop culture and media influence kids’ understanding of what they can aspire to be in real life. Hughes’ video was a response to Twitter users who seemed to genuinely believe that black women in science were a myth (or at least rare enough for their significance to be dismissed), suggesting that a role model character in a major motion picture could have a powerful impact on the perception of future generations.
Jones, meanwhile, is frustrated by the idea that a person like Patty couldn’t also be an interesting and compelling character (Hughes is dismissive of the skills of MTA agents in her video, exactly as the MTA employee wrote in her letter), and that her freedom to choose roles she’s interested ought to be limited to characters that will be symbolically meaningful (or worse, saintly) in the eyes of the audience. The old “I have a ________ friend” chestnut is an awful defense because it suggests that any one person either should or even could make value judgments on behalf of their entire group or party. In this case, Jones is actually being criticized for not serving as that person, but that obviously isn’t her responsibility. (Furthermore, nothing warrants attacking Jones, who considered quitting Twitter after receiving a number of horribly racist insults.)
*Some people have made the case (thanks to the US trailer’s caption saying “30 years ago, four scientists saved the world”) that a “scientist” is just someone who tests theories and experiments, and that an actual degree isn’t part of the definition. While that may be technically true, it comes off as a semantic argument rather than one that really addresses the heart of the complaint, so for the sake of this piece, we’ll operate with the understanding that the point is that Patty has a different background than the other three women.
YOU’VE…YOU’VE EARNED IT
The real responsibility for the qualities or shortcomings of the Patty character rest on the shoulders of the screenwriters, Paul Feig (who also directed) and Katie Dippold. Feig, as most people know, is the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat (his previous collaboration with Dippold), and Spy. These three films are pretty good grounds on which to give Ghostbusters the benefit of the doubt…with a couple of reservations.
To varying degrees, all three of Feig’s films are about the importance of female friendship. In the first film, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is pulled up from rock bottom by Megan (Melissa McCarthy), who gives her a “hard truth” speech when she needs it the most. Later, Annie discovers that her nemesis, Helen (Rose Byrne), has been treating her horribly because she’s desperately lonely, and resents the bond that Annie shares with Lillian (Maya Rudolph). In The Heat, Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Mullins (McCarthy) realize that they’re stronger together, rather than individually fighting the boys’ club mentality of the police and the FBI. In Spy, the theme takes a bit of a backseat, but Nancy (Miranda Hart) has a clear-eyed view of the way superstar agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) takes advantage of Susan Cooper’s (McCarthy) low self-esteem — one of the film’s core conflicts.
Not only are these groups of women moving forward by working together, they’re often doing so in the face of societal pressure that tries to dictate what women should and shouldn’t do. Early plot details for the new Ghostbusters suggest that Abby Yates (McCarthy) and Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) have a falling out after a book they co-author on the existence of ghosts becomes a national joke, only reuniting years later after Abby has a breakthrough. The setup provides the basis for a story about women sticking together to see their contributions recognized in the face of public scrutiny. (If I were to really reach, I’d say the word “friend” in Patty’s big line, “Get out of my friend, ghost!” stands out in the trailer as evidence of Feig’s usual passions.)
One would hope that Feig and Dippold not only understand the additional pressure that two disgraced female scientists would face in an already male-dominated field, but also the fact that a person like Patty, through no fault of her own, might not even get the opportunity to become a scientist in the first place. In that case, what looks like an issue in the trailer would become commentary on that very issue in the movie.
Unfortunately, Feig mentioned to Empire that the character of Patty wasn’t even written for Jones in the first place, but Melissa McCarthy. Reports from people who read an earlier draft of the script indicate that at least one rewrite has occurred, but whether or not Patty’s backstory was amended is unclear. One concern is that Feig’s movies have done plenty in the name of gender diversity, they’re not nearly as racially diverse, with non-white performers mostly appearing in supporting roles. Only Bridesmaids features a non-white lead in co-star Maya Rudolph.
In an interview with The Verge, co-writer Katie Dippold say Patty “reads a lot of non-fiction books while she’s sitting alone in that booth all day,” and Jones herself noted in a New Yorker profile that synergy between the new Ghostbusters is crucial, saying “each one has her own skill but can’t use it without the others.” While those tidbits may underwhelm those hoping that marketing descriptions of Patty as a “municipal historian” mean she has a history degree, it does offer some hope that her character’s intelligence and contributions to the group aren’t just “street smarts” that ended up assigned to a character played by a black actress.
WHAT’S HE DOING IN MY ICEBOX?
The other prevailing “defense” of the Patty character is comparing her to Winston, Ernie Hudson’s character from the original movies. In 1984, with different societal biases in play and a movie free from the burden of expectation, the fairly stripped-down character of Winston comes off as pleasantly anonymous. He’s likable, professional, and doesn’t exhibit much of a personality, someone who exists so that other characters can explain the containment unit and “big Twinkie” surge of paranormal activity, and whose relatively low belief in the paranormal adds a weight to an important conversation about the possibility that Judgment Day is around the corner. Unlike Jones, Hudson has plenty of reservations about how he and his character were treated on the original Ghostbusters.
Setting aside the fact that Patty wasn’t written with Jones in mind, in the course of two minutes, the trailer for the new film unloads a conflicting series of details about the character. It illustrates that she’s in more of the film than Winston was, joining the crew when they’re still occupying the Chinese restaurant that serves as their first headquarters, and providing the car that becomes Ecto-1. It also reveals that Patty’s not a scientist by way of the phrase “science stuff” — a line that unintentionally makes her seem dumber in context — and shows how her personality is more defined than Winston’s…in a scene where Abby becomes possessed by a malicious spirit, prompting Patty to go off on an Exorcist-spoofing bit of devil-fearing panic.
While it makes sense that both Ghostbusters movies would want a character that contributes the same thing to the comedy dynamic as Winston, simply saying that this new film is a remake of the old one wouldn’t excuse the movie if the role had been written for a black actor, especially when the new character appears more stereotypical than her counterpart. The similarity is the problem, because it’s obvious that so much of the film has been updated with a more progressive and inclusive audience in mind, and the casting unintentionally undermines that.
Arguing that Jones’ exaggerated performance is stereotypical is trickier, because it appears to be more or less in keeping with her natural comic persona, as seen on “Saturday Night Live”, in videos of her stand-up, and her Twitter account. One could argue that Jones was free to perform the role a different way, but Feig says in the aforementioned New Yorker profile that he cast her after seeing her on “SNL”, and it makes basic sense that he did so because he liked the qualities he was seeing in her performance there. Whether or not these factors absolve the film of racial insensntivity boils down to subjective judgments about Jones’ performance style as a whole, and the murky, complicated (but not necessarily accusatory) issue of whether or not it says something about Feig’s cultural perspective that he ended up matching Jones’ performance style to this character.
That said, Patty does represent one progressive change, which can be glimpsed in the trailer but hasn’t been widely discussed, and it’s a smart and positive one. Most fans seem happy with the lack of obvious character analogues, with the frustrating similarities between Patty and Winston being the exception. However, there are more characters in the original than the four Ghostbusters, and the character Patty shares some conceptual DNA with is actually Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), in that Patty’s encounter with a ghost in the subway is the catalyst for the film’s story.
At a glance, this might not seem like a big deal, but it says something important about how Ghostbusters 2016 will differ from Ghostbusters 1984. Yes, the romance between Peter (Bill Murray) and Dana provided a backbone for the original that won’t be present (potentially leaving more time for women bonding over science), but more importantly, it underlines the role of women as heroes in this new film compared to the old one. The damsel-in-distress narrative remains one of the more persistent sexist tropes in mainstream Hollywood. Imagine a version of Ghostbusters where Dana, instead of being transformed into a dog, had strapped on a proton pack and helped zap Zuul herself. Patty doesn’t just pick up the phone and call the professionals. With just the split-second decision she makes in the trailer, she reveals herself to be a proactive, ambitious, and self-sufficient character by volunteering to be a Ghostbuster.
SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE
Of course, the simplest argument one can use to put the controversy on hold is that we’ll have to wait and see the movie itself. Until Ghostbusters opens on July 15th, 2016, the viewer’s impression of Patty will be based on a few minutes of a feature length movie. She might turn out to be a memorable and funny character that is beloved by audiences despite the film failing to address why the three white women are scientists and the one black woman is the “the every(wo)man.” She could also be a dreadful caricature even if the script pointedly acknowledges the advantages that Patty didn’t have in the name of social commentary. It’s also up to people to make their own judgment calls, for their own reasons, to subjectively determine what’s more important in their own eyes. Even so, I hope the nearly 2,500 words I’ve written above are valuable food for thought: the question of why she’s handled differently is only meant to be the beginning of a discussion that will culminate (but not necessarily conclude) with the release of the movie.