Women in Science Movie Club: Ghostbusters

A couple weeks ago, D and I had a nice day-off date. Among other things, we went to go see the new Ghostbusters movie. Of course, plenty of my friends have asked what I think of it, and the short answer is “Awesome,” but I thought I’d give a little more detailed review of the movie, particularly from a women-in-science perspective.

First of all, anyone who didn’t already know: they’ve gender-flipped the main characters of the movie. And in the process, they upset a lot of people on the internet. But in addition to responding in the movie itself to those who objected to women as Ghostbusters, they’ve also hit on some of the subtle ways in which women are marginalized in both science and stories about science. From the very beginning, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a professor trying to get tenure at a highly-respected university. She’s pretty obsessed with her image, although that’s not really her fault, since her dean even makes an offhand comment “about her clothes.” While he doesn’t finish the comment, it’s definitely indicative of the things that male scientists don’t really worry about as much as the women.

From there, Gilbert reconnects with her old friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and her colleague Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), who are both much more at home with themselves and less concerned about what others think of them. Interestingly, they are still subject to the whims of a male college head, and end up kicked out of their labs as well. You just can’t win. From here, they set up their Ghostbusters agency and acquire a hot blond secretary (Chris Hemsworth), as well as a historically-brilliant former transit worker named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Interestingly enough, despite her lack of formal scientific training, Tolan not only keeps the group informed about the historical significance of landmarks in the city, which proves vital to investigations, but also makes a scientific suggestion that turns out to impress the rest of the group.

I would say the best part about the movie is the way that the women are their own characters and only fall into stereotypes when they are calling out those stereotypes (such as Gilbert being uptight about her appearance). Holtz, in particular, was a masterful representation of an alternative science grrl — so much so that I wondered if the filmmakers gleaned more than just scientific knowledge and equipment from the labs of the science advisers they consulted. I’ve certainly known plenty of women like her in the lab, and love that they put her ambiguous self in this movie. That said, the other two scientist characters were excellent in their own ways, with Gilbert showing the neurosis of a woman obsessed with pleasing men in science, and Yates showing a woman so comfortable with herself that she doesn’t need to be anything more than herself. I found her a very calming influence in the cast.

But the most illuminating character would be Tolan, who plays the outside. The Penny to their Sheldons and Leonards. She’s the one that calls them on their rambling and exclusionary attitudes. She’s the one that points out the things that they didn’t see because they forgot that they don’t actually know everything. And that’s an important role in a movie about scientist. I’m glad she didn’t have to be a “hot blonde” to do it. I also found the complete gender flip, with the casting of a man in the role of the ditzy secretary, to be so faithful to the concept of the movie, and was impressed with how much fun Hemsworth seemed to be having playing the role.

While there are many more things I’d love to gush about this movie (like the fact that the bad guy was literally male privilege), I wouldn’t want to get into spoiler territory. Just know that it’s a great addition to the list of movies with strong positive representations of women in science. And that’s not a long list.

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