From an improved trailer to Dan Aykroyd’s promise that it’ll have “more laughs and more scares than the first two films,” the most recent marketing wave for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot may almost make you forget the wild controversy that’s followed the film’s initial few waves of promotion. Almost. At this point though, there probably isn’t a spin machine big enough to mind wipe us of the months-long onslaught. It as if just by daring to exist, the Ghostbusters reboot became a personal affront to nearly every known corner of the Internet. While some argued the film shouldn’t be remade at all without now deceased and original film star Harold Ramis, others blasted the director’s choice to fill the titles roles with actresses.That was a decision apparently so outlandish it at one point sparked plans for an all-male reboot. But even news of cameos from Aykroyd and Bill Murray were kindling for a heated debate about whether the way Ernie Hudson’s character was wronged in the original franchise should be addressed.
None of that, however, compared to the whirlwind of negative attention following the release of the film’s first trailers. As angry Internet trolls continued to declare the entire project “reverse sexist,” viewers who had taken the movie’s casting to task for tokenism leveled their own accusations of racism. While the film and its stars are now pretty acquainted with the public’s aggressively pointed criticism, this particular incident served as a true boiling point. Critical commentary was lobbed at the film and star Leslie Jones left and right, causing director Feig to respond with both support and defiance over Twitter: “You are a goddess & one of the warmest funniest forces of nature I know. Fuck the haters.” Feig’s succession of tweets effectively reframed a charge of media discrimination as a more simplistic battle between the film and its mobs of “haters.”
It pretty much goes without saying, but we shouldn’t downplay discussions of nuanced representation. That means admitting that in the trailers Patty sometimes comes off as a loudmouth black woman from New York. She’s assumably also the only non-scientist in the group, though it remains unclear whether she’s actually just a streetwise subway worker or what some promotional materials have described as a “municipal historian.” Regardless, as the film’s release creeps closer, I find the lingering fear of continued backlash—particularly over Jones’ part in the film—at the forefront of my thoughts instead of the far more important question: Will Ghostbusters actually be any good? That realization has convinced me that at least this time, Feig may actually be right.
To a certain degree, I feel bad for Feig. The director and co-writer of Sony’s modern re-imagining probably just wanted to make a movie that got people laughing by featuring people who have a penchant for doing exactly that. But what was no doubt intended to be a solidly entertaining modern spin on a classic supernatural comedy has morphed into a complicated socio-political statement that generates multiple fronts of controversy. More so though, I feel bad for Leslie Jones, an actress who—like Feig and her co-stars—is just trying to make people laugh. Of course, unlike Feig or her co-stars, Jones is also carrying all the cultural and historical weight of being the film’s sole black lead.
If we could graph the response to the various controversies surrounding Ghostbusters, we’d probably find that some of the loudest complaints and sharpest ire has been aimed at Leslie Jones’ character, Patty Tolan. At one point, you couldn’t do a single google search about the movie without seeing a viewer or critic call Jones everything from stereotypical to minstrelsy. But in an industry where black women are practically non-existent on screen, let alone in major roles, it’s hard not to bristle at the idea that the presence of Jones seemingly inspired more outrage than her absence. Fans, critics and haters alike keyboard smashed for months about how Patty Tolen existed, with very little attention paid to the fact—or significance—she did at all.
I know what you’re thinking. “We did talk about women! We talked about the weight of gender representation and the sexist trolls that came for them!” Well yeah, we’ve talked for months about how groundbreaking it is to have an all-female cast and how the ’buster bros have savagely come after the movie for something that’s really not that big of a deal. However, we’ve generally done it without acknowledging the major flaw in the discourse. You know, the part that says the gender gap affects every woman equally. Spoiler Alert—it doesn’t. Jones isn’t on an equal playing field with her white co-stars. The pay gap scale proves that, and so does Ghostbusters’ actual ratio of white women to women of color. Jones is one of four main female characters, but she’s also the only black and non-white lead. Not only does she not have someone to share that explicit weight with in the film, she doesn’t really have it in the industry at large, either.
Sure, there are some talented, successful, working black female comedians who have garnered my respect, inspired me, and inadvertently helped foster my own work. Yvette Nicole Brown, Retta, Aisha Tyler, Maya Rudolph and Wanda Sykes are just a few that immediately come to mind. Most, though, have never fronted a major motion picture. In fact, it seems that the last black woman to carry the torch as a mainstream leading lady of comedy was Whoopi Goldberg. Unless you’re counting Tyler Perry’s cross-dressing Medea. (To be clear, we’re not, but it does give more weight to the depressing reality of how little black female comedic representation is actually out there.)
This uncomfortable truth is reinforced by a statement Feig made during an Empire magazine interview back in March, where he admitted to unintentionally diversifying his movie by casting Jones. According to Feig, he simply gave a role written for Melissa McCarthy to the Saturday Night Live cast member in an effort to see McCarthy try something new and to see Jones do what she does best. Feig’s choice to feature Jones certainly isn’t groundbreaking, and the notion that he didn’t necessarily have plans to feature any women outside of Hollywood’s white inner circle isn’t surprising. That doesn’t mean the move wasn’t subversive in its own right. Actually, it’s the reversal of what brought Jones into many of our homes: Saturday Night Live’s attempt to expand its own cast after the 2013 freshmen class featured only white male comedians. In the case of Ghostbusters, Jones wasn’t an answer to a diversity problem. In an employment climate that’s constantly refusing to cast talent of color because they just “aren’t the best actor for the part,” Jones was in Feig’s eyes an even better answer to an answer.
Of course, there’s still the “problem” of her comedy. According to the trailer, Patty possesses very stereotypical traits that are accentuated by her being the only black main character in the film. Those traits also happen to be at the heart of Jones’ brand of comedy. McCarthy being loud, physical and abrasive is, in a way, revolutionary for white women, a group that’s historically been undermined by a version of sexism that prefers to keep them quiet and docile. Her unflinching audacity makes her the antithesis of this stereotype and its associated tropes, allowing her to settled into the physical comedy ranks with groundbreakers like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.
Jones is a whole different story. Name five black female characters in sitcoms or film comedies that aren’t sassy, “full-of-life” or offer “necessary support” that only a black woman can give. Think about how you often see black women portrayed on reality TV shows. Or, again, even one of the most popular pop culture images of a black woman, Perry’s Medea. They all seem to have a few traits in common, and those traits tend center about being loud, physical and abrasive. Inherently there’s nothing wrong with black women being these things, but when they are, they’re often silenced, undermined or dismissed as “the mad black woman,” and certainly never fully positioned as central characters—or heroes—of the story. They have a whole slew of racist stereotypes constantly lobbed at them that, when embodied by someone else, don’t have the same loaded cultural history or ramifications.
Yet in Ghostbusters, Jones is being billed and promoted as a lead, and the in-your-face comedy—while questionable for some—is clearly the result of a successful, if somewhat initially one-dimensional, brand established on SNL. What’s more, this opportunity involves a black woman landing a role originally written for a white woman (McCarthy) because an established and respected director believed the latter had mastered that form of funny. Meanwhile, the roles of co-stars Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon also play to their specific comedic styles, yet no one is punishing them for, once again, playing uncomfortably obsessive, physically awkward white women. We definitely did not punish comedians like Chris Farley or Kevin James for playing up being ham-handed while large, Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler for making careers out of the man-child routine, or even Paul Rudd and Ben Stiller for playing up the “nice guy™”. But Jones has that historical baggage, so she definitely can’t roll her eyes.
Ultimately, this is why it’s so important to see Feig extending a verbal middle finger (or two). There is so little support in this industry for talents like Jones, and when it does arise, we often find ourselves in a catch-22, warring with the “ists” while pulling apart the performance in this intense socio-cultural discourse. Again, it’s a discourse that’s to some degree necessary, but that can also contribute to a dangerous line of thinking: artists like Jones are actually better off absent. I mean, what studio wants to deal with that marketing nightmare? And in the white-dominated writers circle, who’s gonna tell stories about people who don’t look like them if they have to fend off the Internet harder than they have to pitch executives? Feig’s willingness to come out and publicly discuss the casting process revealed not just the absolute necessity of seeing more black women in major comedic roles, but how opportunity often favors white actors until someone is willing to be challenged about who can play what character.
It’s also why, despite Patty’s presence in the film feeling like an homage to Hudson’s Winston, we can’t get fully behind the idea that Jones’ role is about righting someone else’s wrong. Feig didn’t devise Patty as a black character, so her having to bear some unspoken racial responsibility stops at her being the film’s only black woman. Plus, Feig, Jones and the Ghostbusters story may not even be what we think it is, courtesy of Sony’s marketing department. We’ll only know once we get our hands on more than five minutes of heavily edited footage.
The unfortunate reality of being the first or the “only” black anything in Hollywood is that on top of fighting to pave your own way, you’re also responsible for paving it for others. It’s an additional burden that often forces one into the throws of respectability politics—an exhausting experience that often demands spending more time focusing on the “right” way to access opportunity than actually accessing it. It’s unfair, especially when you acknowledge that at the end of the day and after all that work, success can still be outright denied to you.
So before everyone locks and loads their proton packs for an opening weekend that’s sure to see slime fly, consider this: Jones, above anyone else, has the most to lose. If Patty sinks, getting a character like her to swim again won’t be easy in an industry willing to bank on white guys no matter what, and which still pauses—if not outright balks—before considering a woman of color for a lead role. More personally for Jones, the success or failure of Feig’s Ghostbusters film could be her first or last step toward the level of star power white comedic actresses like Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig possess. Which is why attacking the person, and not the larger and more powerful Hollywood status quo feels like shooting ourselves in the collective foot. There is a serious need to have more diverse representations of ourselves. There is also a need to be visible. Period. Jones might not be exactly what we’re all looking for at the table, but the Ghostbusters’ actress is there while no one else is being allowed to sit down.
So yeah, fuck the haters who imply Jones’ shouldn’t be in the film because she’s not the right kind of funny. And fuck the haters who use the excuse of “staying true to the original” to play comedy gatekeeper, especially at the expense of women of color. But mostly fuck Hollywood and yeah, fuck us, for putting talents like Jones in a position where they become the target of intense scrutiny while Hollywood’s fucked up boy’s club remains unchallenged and its glass ceiling, unscratched.
Abbey White is an entertainment and fandom culture writer based out of Cleveland, Ohio. When she’s not busy binge-watching shows on Netflix, you can find her running around some comic con. Abbey’s writing has appeared most recently at Paste, The Mary Sue and ScreenSpy.