A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Only 22 percent of YouTube likes the first trailer for the “Ghostbusters” remake. None of them have seen the latest from director Paul Feig—the guy responsible for “Bridesmaids” and “Spy”—and yet the trailer still received unusual scorn. The percentage of “thumbs up” on YouTube is not exactly a statistically sound measure, but a comparison of other trailers is revealing: 68 percent of YouTube likes the official trailer for the recent “Point Break” remake, while 87 percent likes the official trailer for “Pixels.”
Both of those films were critical failures, and yet their trailers get more positive attention than “Ghostbusters.” In fact, the trailer is the 9th most disliked video on YouTube, and the only film trailer in the bottom 50. One key difference between “Ghostbusters” and other film trailers is obvious: the remake stars women, and uglier corners of the internet are misogynistic. But mere misogyny is only part of the reason there is so much intense prejudice. The movement’s de-facto leader is Cinemassacre's James Rolfe. He argues, “’Ghostbusters’ is something that a lot of us grew up with, and we wanted to see the original cast back together one last time while they were still alive.” The irony is that while he may have grown up with the movie, he was not its initial target audience (the movie came out when he was four). His comment got me thinking about my own interactions with the franchise. I have treasured memories of growing up with the Ghostbusters, but they do not directly relate to Ivan Reitman’s film. Instead, my cherished “Ghostbusters” memories revolve around children’s toys.
Toy commercials do more than merely advertise a product. They provide directives on how the toys are meant to be enjoyed. The toy company Kenner Products marketed the Ghostbusters toys (a commercial is above) to little boys exclusively—James Rolfe was one of their many targets—and indeed the commercials have no girls playing. For many young boys of the 1980s, their first Ghostbusters experience was dynamic and participatory; they literally felt like Peter Venkman and the others. We can see the resonance of these powerful associations in the remake backlash: the new film severs the connection to a nostalgic sense of play, and so some fans feel like the remake undoes their childhood. They are not angry with the new film, exactly, but the movie is the chosen target since it represents an assault on their childlike joy.
Kenner Products has a history of gendered marketing, and the “Ghostbusters” are just one noteworthy example. They are the same company that created the original run of “Star Wars” toys. The 1977 commercial for “Star Wars” toys (above) follow the same formula as “Ghostbusters”: a warm, male voice of authority explains the right way to play, while boys imagine themselves as their heroes. The marketing leaves no room for girls, unless they wanted to play as Leia (e.g. in a commercial for toys from “Empire Strikes Back,” the girl playing as Leia stays in the background). The insidious thing is that Kenner is not coaching this behavior, exactly, but echoes of these roles can be seen years later. Boys and girls know the difference between action figures and dolls, although I doubt they can articulate it. Gendered marketing like this cuts both ways: in Kenner’s commercials for the Easy Bake Oven, there are no boys anywhere.
Filmmakers have a better history of inclusion, or attempts at it, despite toy companies getting in the way. A couple years after “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters,” Kenner had an opportunity to try something different with their “Space Marine” line—toys inspired by the James Cameron film “Aliens.” Unlike Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley is the sole hero of “Aliens,” appearing in every single scene. Critics, fans, and scholars alike regard Ripley as a feminist action hero, and she still stays in the background of the “Space Marine” commercials (as seen above). A boy is the only one who plays with the figures, and the ad gives no hint whatsoever that Ripley is a woman (her toy packaging is androgynous). When there is a female pronoun, it is about fighting the Alien Queen. Kenner’s ties to the entertainment industry was strong—they were also products for "Batman" (link here) and “Jurassic Park” (link here)—but their toys always distilled complex films into a simple “good versus evil” structure.
Since “Star Wars” is the first major film to have toy merchandising, it has the cultural capital to lead by example. And yet Hasbro, the same parent company that closed Kenner Products in the year 2000, still could not shake gendered toys as recently as this January. Five Thirty Eight reported on the number of “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” toys by character, noting there are fewer figures of feminist hero and main protagonist Rey than there are for any other major character. Still, Hasbro only deigned to include more Rey toys after there was significant social media outcry, and condemnation from director JJ Abrams. Once again, toy manufacturers have an unfortunate, ancillary connection to art. Indeed, they have disincentive to embrace diversity, since tried-and-true marketing techniques require less innovation, research, and focus testing.
Once I transitioned into a more sophisticated film fan as I got older, my “Ghostbusters” memories created a foundation of positivity, which means I enjoy the movie more than other comedies from the period. And since I also had “Ghostbusters” toys in the 1980s, my positivity comes from an imprint of male-oriented marketing. The ripple effects of Kenner Products can be felt in benignly, and in nastier ways, too. Misogyny is learned behavior, and sometimes has its roots in useless hunks of plastic. Only the act of play gives the plastic any meaning, so toy advertisers have more power than we normally give them credit.
According to one fan site, there are already toys for the new “Ghostbusters” film. These figures are likenesses of the new cast of women, and the commercials now have an opportunity to let girls and boys alike decide who they want to be. It may be a lost cause for “Ghostbusters” remake haters, but their distorted nostalgia is nowhere near as powerful as a child’s imagination. Toy manufacturers owe it to today’s kids to take the responsibility seriously.
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