Oceans 8, Ghostbusters, and the Women-Centric Film Remake Backlash
“A Him gets noticed, a Her gets ignored. And for once, we’d like to be ignored,”
This is how the character played by Sandra Bullock in Ocean’s 8 explains to Cate Blanchett’s character why she won’t hire a male hacker as they assemble a women-only heist team. This quote is an attempt by the writers to point a magnifying glass on all (male) entourage films that came before that never had to defend their decision to not include any women on the team (on, as well as off screen). As Ocean’s 8 co-writer and producer Olivia Milch explains, this line (actually written by director Gary Ross) is indicative of what it is to be a woman looking to accomplish her goals in a patriarchal society. “Women in these stories are often, you know, ‘unnoticed.'”
The quote is also a clear nod to the backlash garnered by the gender-flipping movie remakes and sequels that thrust women to the front of the screen. During production of Oceans 8—which is a sequel to the Ocean’s 11 1960 Rat Pack original as well as the 2001 remake—lead actor Sandra Bullock prepared the cast, crew, and herself for a projectile vomiting misogynistic spew similar to what the crew and director of the 2016 Ghostbusters remake endured.
A small group of incited, aggrieved male fans gave that spirit-battling film starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon anemic ratings on IMDB—sight unseen. They also collated together to crown the trailer the most disliked trailer in YouTube’s history and forced star Leslie Jones off Twitter by sending her a stream of racist and sexist memes. Some extreme haters strategized that their important role in this gender war would be to stay home on the film’s opening night to play a video game from their respective mothers’ basements in vitriol-fueled masculine solidarity. Some other, more covert and more mainstream sexists, quietly did their part by spreading word that the film wasn’t worth the ticket price. Perhaps you overheard the watercooler talk from a colleague who usually keeps his sexism hidden.
Along with Bullock and Blanchett, Ocean’s 8 stars Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, and Awkwafina—profiling not only a female cast but also a diverse one. Director Gary Ross justified the casting decision by saying “We’re celebrating eight distinct women from eight distinct backgrounds, and this is what the world looks like, not just what Hollywood has made the world look like.” Because most of the loudest blatantly racist, nationalist, and misogynistic internet trolls are young white males who claim membership to the alt-right movement, you’d think this aspect would further incite a hateful campaign against the film. Yet, none of the mass acidic intolerance by these few pro-masculine groups which was aimed at Ghostbusters struck out during the production of Oceans 8. The film, as silent as a well-schooled cat burglar, slinked away with $41 million on its opening weekend box office. (It should be noted that despite—or because of—the online vitriol, Ghostbusters still managed an impressive $46 million opening weekend; however, all hope for a sequel has been quashed.)
“Meninists”—men that fight against the difficulties of being a man in the twenty first century—and “incels”—involuntary celibates who hold a violent political ideology around the injustice they feel when women refuse to have sex with them spearhead these campaigns against Ghostbusters and other women-centric films. They constantly tout their warped opinions on MensRightActivist.org, ReturnofKings.com, and the subReddit The Red Pill, yet they remained deafeningly silent about this, the latest media attack on their manhood. They allowed their endeared heist franchise to be stolen right under their ungroomed mustaches just like a Cartier necklace by the very same thieving, out-to-destroy-all-things-manly women they rally against daily. They didn’t flash their ‘brother-in-danger lights,’ set off the ‘but-it’s-not-fair!’ alarms, soldier up to kick any of the films’ stars off twitter, or ramp up the amount of intolerant abhorrence web traffic on their trusted testosterone-filled sites.
Many factors could have contributed to the hushed response of the usually loud ultra-misogynistic population of the American male audience. I am commenting on the activists in the US, since this is the culture I best understand and where I have seen the attacks firsthand. Although, no doubt there is sexism against these kinds of films in other countries, I cannot find equal anti-film activity prevalently reported on elsewhere. I will investigate each possible influence in this essay, remembering it is a combined atmosphere of all the elements in the cultural and societal bubble in which we currently live that account for the reactions and non-reactions of its people. There is no one cause, and there is no one answer. It is possible this film remained too stealth to stand out amidst other things happening in our country right now. It is also a possibility that this could indeed be an indication that the more misogynistic side of our culture is fading. Whether it’s a supernatural tide change or a blip in history is something we can only know years from now.
Franchise Sequel vs. Remake
Ghostbusters is a remake and Oceans 8 is a sequel in a franchise. Remakes and sequels are the latest craze of the Hollywood studio, with studios banking on a franchise that has a proven track record and that they know can profit over the huge production budgets. They already know the number of fans that saw the last film and hope that they’ll get lucky and pick up more. It’s easier mathematics for them.
A look at the box office shows that sequels or prequels have a clear financial advantage over a remake, with an average bringing in $120 million and $47 million at the box office respectively. Hollywood is a business, and this is the devoted fan speaking to them with their wallets. If fans pack theaters more broadly for a sequel rather than a remake, it means they are more interested. Along those lines, maybe the superfan is more forgiving of those films.
A remake of a beloved original must represent the art distinctly as well as adding something new and removing what seems dated. But each viewer of the film is an individual who has a subjective view of what they liked and disliked about the original. If a director or screenwriter takes out or changes a critical part, a character, a plotpoint or even a line in the script that a superfan was connected to, it leaves itself open for harsher critique.
Audiences are more forgiving of a modified character or structure if the film is not a remake and there is not a concrete original film to compare it with scene by scene. As Oceans 8 is a sequel, it only needs to follow a basic template of the franchise and is not as threatening to the superfan if it strays a little or changes the gender of a character.
Subconsciously, the audience knows that George Clooney and Brad Pitt are still around and able to resurrect their characters if the entourage needs them. This was hinted at in the film when Sandra Bullock’s character revived the memory of (thought-to-be-deceased) George Clooney’s character. In this psychology, the audience feels safe in the sequel’s knowledge that things can always go back to the status quo. The men are always there to swoop in and save the franchise.
This is not possible for the remake because the fan feels like the producers erased history, and in these cases, erased white men from that history. The Ghostbusters audience deeply mourned the absence of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis whom they deem as having been replaced with women and now have no chance to return to this particular screen universe.
One cannot underestimate the power of childhood memories. There are a few glimmering moments of growing up that are rooted in our heartstrings. If a film is financially worthy of a remake, it must have had a deep impact on the fans that grew up with it. It is the duty of the filmmakers to see the remake through the wide eyes of those childhood fans rather than the near-sighted spectacles of the mature adults they grew into.
Ghostbusters was the comedic counterpart to Star Wars, enrapturing little boys’ imaginations with the supernatural and the heroism of their male idols in ways other films couldn’t. The deep attachment to those characters taught some of these little boys in some sense how to be men. It constructed the world they grew up in—one that gave more credit to males and masculine traits.
The filmmakers are easy prey to strike at for challenging their childhood fantasy structure. Seeing women capable of accomplishing the exact same things onscreen that their male counterparts did is a slap to their now-stubbled faces and may make them question if their childhood gender belief system was indeed wrong—that men weren’t special after all. It is a voice they hear echoing in their heads to this day; the same voice that makes them believe their status in society, history, and industry is being bulldozed by women and minorities.
Nostalgia occurs at a special time in the formative years, and Oceans 8 seems to have skidded past that pubescent age. As one 4Chan user so eloquently puts it “I probably won’t see it but since [menstruating] all over Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t ruin my childhood, I ain’t mad about it.”
Some fans must have been at that critical age in 2011, going googley-eyed over Clooney and Pitt and the rest of the slick heisters. But that film was a remake, albeit one that maybe their fathers grew up with, not them, and the male actors were idolized stars at the time. This could have assuaged the hurt feelings of this generation or, perhaps (hopefully) this younger generation’s lack of outrage for Hollywood’s newer takes on old stories could mean a more positive future of film discussion.
According to author Sarah Banet-Weiser, movies that anger online trolls tend to fall within “geek genres” where “there are really intense fans… [who] are often in a kind of economic and labor context that has also gone after women who dare to enter into previously male-dominated domains, like technology.” They fear they will lose their job or status or position to women.
Ghostbusters is sci-fi, a genre more stereotypically endeared by these “geeky” men as opposed to the heist films of which Oceans 8 is a member.
As mentioned before, the loudest online detractors of women-centric films come from extreme men’s rights organizations who preach meninism. These men have never felt accepted or confident in regards to their social status, their career opportunities, and their sexual attractiveness to the opposite sex. They feel stripped of respect. There may be a correlation to these affected men and the genre of films they are attracted to watching.
In the same way a women fights for equal rights because she sees her gender as a marginalized community with no voice, so does this group of “displaced” men. The insistence of any marginalized community to be seen has been crucial to an expansion of rights for those communities. Like feminists, as well as those that fought to overturn Jim Crow laws, being seen and heard was an integral part rooted in their political activism. This strategy has been misappropriated by meninists who scramble to take back whatever powers and status they fear they have lost and may continue to lose. Although their sense of inequality is perceived unlike that of fellow humans campaigning for justice like those who fought in the Civil Rights Movement, this subgroup feels hurt and scared and want their imagined plight to be heard, albeit online.
Films that idealize masculinity and portray everything these men wish they could be whilst subliminally downgrading women may cause them to feel empowered because their male gender is validated and seen to be in the lead. There’s no quicker way to make one feel better than to put down someone else, and there’s no easier scapegoat for them than women, whom they have been socialized to believe are inherently weaker. Remaking a film solely to replace all the male actors with women strikes fear in the hearts of many men who feel just as threatened with the possibility of being as easily replaced in the workplace by these equally-competent women.
Lastly, I cannot ignore the dates both Ghostbusters and Oceans 8 were released and the tidal wave of extreme political change Americans have endured during this time.
Ghostbusters was released in July 2016 during a vile hate-filled presidential race that was rooted in sexism, racism, and a barrage of social media cock-and-bull stories. Donald Trump frothed up his base in a fervor of hate for the unknown and rage against perceived unfulfilled entitlements by the white blue-collar worker. He made women the enemy since a woman was his only competition, rallying a chorus of men to cheer “Lock her up” because she dared to challenge him.
Judd Apatow, not even a player in the Ghostbusters remake, addressed the online hatred aimed at the cast: “I would assume there’s a very large crossover of people who are doubtful ‘Ghostbusters’ will be great and people excited about the Donald Trump candidacy, I would assume they are the exact same people.”
While Trump is obviously not responsible for misogyny, his controversial remarks and platforms have certainly helped normalize this type of attitude in the mainstream. His primitive thinking empowers others who feel the same way. According to Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based therapist, seeing a billionaire model this foul belief system validates the misogynists’ position and proves they are “right.”
The election is over. The feverish base has won, their man is in charge and they believe he will fix everything. Their hard-fought battle succeeded in getting a misogynist in the highest office in the country so he could even out the score and again put them at the disproportionate economic and social advantages they think they deserve. These supporters are exhaling in the knowledge that the future holds more benefits for them, and they feel less threatened by a movie. There’s no call to arms over a film sequel like Oceans 8 when those hands are busy fist-bumping their brother soldiers that claimed victory.
Maybe this trend—the rational decision to critique a film based on its quality and production value rather than merely on the gender of its cast—is also something the future holds. As half of us face bigger battles politically and socially and have to keep both hands on the wheel to make sure the country steers toward a progressive direction, and the other half are busy patting themselves on the back for a battle well-fought, we can ride out a steady stream of women-centric films, even remakes and sequels, without over-emphasizing the details and just have fun while watching them. We can get back to appreciating the entertainment merits of the film itself rather than getting lost in the cloud of controversy kicked up around it.
Whatever the reason Oceans 8 slipped past the gatekeepers of machismo—ignored as they hoped to be upon release of the movie—and as we brace for the next Hollywood empowerment movie that will stand in direct line of vile chauvinistic fire, it is important that women keep making films—films that provide the audience with different perspectives and issues that spark conversation, whether or not it ruffles the feathers of a misguided flock. If the work sets off sexist hate-filled vomit, we must at least attempt to pivot that hate-speech into dialogue, and guide it toward a more progressive and intelligent discussion, whether or not the most extreme trolls take part in that conversation is up to them. Other, more reasonable men, despite their own ingrained sexism, will hear.
As Hollywood is a business above all else, these discussions should always include money. The three most popular movies last year in North America—Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman all featured women actors in their lead roles and their box office takes range from of $400 to $600 million domestically. Even if not scoring that well at the box office, films like The Shape of Water, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya all received multiple Academy for Oscar nods, all but one of them winning in major categories. Women can just as easily lead in acclaimed films as in box office behemoths.
As usual in these cases, money talks. Women need to make films, support women’s films and see women’s films, screaming loudly to Hollywood executives with their wallets that they want more. It is important that not only women filmmakers’ voices be heard, but acknowledged in the social and financial spheres so that the more influential men take notice. Once the smarter executives see the numbers, they will be more than happy to get on board with making women-centric films. The common-man meninists who are home attempting to sabotage these films will lose every shred of viability to their online cause, and all their trolling will be easier to brush off, if not wipe away. If the film makes bank, the trolls’ cries will go unanswered and they will be laughed at by the executives cashing the checks.
There may be nothing else we can do to stop the non-industry trolls than to take a higher road and keep on promoting and supporting women in film, all the while trying to ignore their biased tweets. But we do have an opportunity to quiet the noise, lessen the trolls’ impact, and change the perception of more open-minded men inside the film industry. It just seems logical that no matter how marginalized he may feel in his workplace or society, or how angry he is at the opposite sex, or how degraded he feels when his warm childhood film memories are bastardized, no reasonable man can argue with the bottom line. As for the unreasonable men, let’s hope they come to their senses and find a way to redirect their anger in a more beneficial way.
To learn more about Denise, visit her profile.
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