The 2016 Ghostbusters movie seems to be—if not a hit—well received. WWAC’s review speaks favorably of it, as does its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 73%. Opening weekend brought in $46 million, enough money that Sony greenlit a sequel, meaning our ladies in grey will be back to protect New York City from the denizens of the afterlife. After hidebound chauvinists, offended by the idea of an all-women Ghostbusters, did everything they could to reduce interest and sabotage the film’s chances of success, this is a victory.
A sequel is more than just another chance for fans to see Erin, Abby, Jillian and Patty go toe to toe against whatever ghostly evil rears its ugly head. It will be great to see Feig and company turn sexist tropes on their heads. They did a great job with the dumb blond, eating the eye candy, and female gaze tropes as applied to Kevin. It will be wonderful to see another movie about women that doesn’t discuss their weight or their sexiness. It will be great to see a movie pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test (this one technically didn’t, because the women discussed rescuing Kevin, and they discussed Rowan). It will be as much a pleasure the second time around to see a film embrace the concept of female friendship, rather than pitting them in competition against each other for the attention of a man. The feminist angle can only help spur a much needed sea change in the way Hollywood portrays women.
Opportunities Feig Should Seize
Director Paul Feig will bring back the energy and fun, and the team will also have opportunities to sharpen and polish the film’s weak points. They can cut down some of those overly long jokes (the “flipping the bird” scene and the “my cat” scene spring to mind as rambling a little longer than necessary). They can even out the pacing and emotional core of the story. It took a fairly long time to get to why Erin was such a nervous Nellie, burying her true passion to better serve what patriarchal academia demanded of her.
Most importantly, they have an opportunity to do better with the Patty Tolan character brought to life on screen by Leslie Jones. This is all the more important in light of the appalling racist and sexist abuse received by the actor in the wake of the film’s opening.
The filmmaker showed no intent to bring racist tropes to Patty Tolan, but they were there nonetheless. The distinction is important, because intent isn’t magic, and even the best of intentions still end up with problematic elements in their projects. Black women got the representation we clamor for, but not the representation we want or need. That’s part of the problem. Patty’s only there because Winston was there, and the new film needed a black person to match the race dynamic of the first Ghostbusters. Feig going all female has undertones, however unintentional, of “she’s black, and she’s a woman—you happy now?!”
Feig clearly meant to draw parallels to the original 1984 Ghostbusters‘ characters in his new vision for the series. Erin, the faux skeptic, was more or less analogous to Peter Venkman. Abby, the idealistic true believer, was resonant to Ray Stantz. Jillian Holtzmann’s manic mad scientist was an over the top spin on Egon Spengler from both the film and animated incarnations of the character. Patty Tolan, however, is unfortunately a callback to Winston Zeddemore on an in-universe and a meta level. The first time she appeared on screen in the second trailer, fans reacted negatively, voicing concerns about Patty seeming like little more than a walking stack of stereotypes. That she was also the only non-scientist on the team was met with equal dismay. Leslie Jones spoke right up on Twitter and strongly encouraged people to give the film a chance before passing judgement. I’ve done that, but my feelings remain the same. She’s slightly more developed than she appeared in the trailer, but Patty is still a problematic character.
Black As A Checked Box
Patty Tolan, like Winston Zeddemore before her, is the only black Ghostbuster. Indeed, she’s joined by only two other black people with speaking roles, which is preposterous given the film is set in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. A quick scan of the big crowd scenes in the 1984 movie reveals their New York City appears more diverse than the one in which Patty Tolan lives.
Also, like Winston, Patty is the only member of the team who is not a scientist. Ernie Hudson described having a larger role, with a scientific background, that was cut to give Bill Murray a larger role. That plum role was pared down until nothing remained except the non-scientist whose most memorable line is, “If there’s a steady paycheck, I’ll believe anything you want.” Patty seems to have been a victim of the same problem. Chris Hemsworth, who played the pretty, but dumb Kevin the receptionist, had his role enlarged early on in the film making process, and it appears that Patty’s role was the one trimmed down to give the bigger star more face time.
They Tried And Fell Short
It’s not that Patty is a worker for the MTA that is the problem by itself. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Patty—or anyone—being a subway worker. The question is why couldn’t she be a subway worker who is also a scientist? There are people holding Masters degrees and PhD’s in real life who work jobs outside their degree for lack of work or love of what they’re doing. Erin was already a physicist, because her para-psychological interest wasn’t getting her what she wanted. There was no reason the same couldn’t have been true for Patty.
We know as an informed attribute that Patty has “encyclopedic knowledge of New York City,” but there is nothing in the film that tells us why or how she developed this knowledge. Lots of people are calling her “a historian,” but there’s no support for her having academic credentials there.
We just know from the trailer that she’s “street smart,” another hackneyed black person trope. The knowledge of the city just happens, because it’s central to the story and for no other reason. It’s as if the filmmakers expected us to jump to the conclusion unprompted that all subway workers probably know the city well, because they know the subway well. That’s not good enough. We know more about the other three women’s backgrounds than about Patty’s. Worse, Patty’s street smarts seem to come at the expense of traditional academic knowledge. One of the jokes at her expense has her muttering about how she thought being a Ghostbuster would be like joining a book club.
Feig and company made some effort to make Patty stylish and fashionable, though even there, they went with the “ghetto fabulous” approach. She wore big, jangling bamboo earrings and blue and purple hair twists. Black women will tell you that any style we make will get sneered at as ghetto until picked up by white women at which time it suddenly becomes cool.
The costume team gave Patty nearly as many costume changes as her counterparts. She had her moment to shine during the big battle at the movie’s climax. She even had someone important to her turn up as the other Ghostbusters did. So it’s clear the effort was there to make her a truly developed character. They just fell short, because they didn’t think about it hard enough or soon enough.
Patty’s role being minimal is bad enough. Her knowledge of New York being almost parenthetical is worse. The lack of attention given to her background, worse still. They add up to some unfortunate implications. Then there’s the fact that Patty is still built mostly out of two stereotypes put together: The Sassy Black Woman and the Mammy.
The sassy black woman is a loud and opinionated black woman who is supposed to be self-assured, but comes across as overly aggressive more often than not. The trope’s nomenclature itself points to the problem. The word “sassy” is defined as bold-spirited. In a race relations context, however, it implies challenge to established white authority, as in “You sassing me?” asked threateningly of a black person by a white person.
They tried to tone down the “black woman with attitude” vibe with Patty’s introduction scene. We see her in her token clerk booth calling out pleasant, cheerful greetings to New Yorkers who ignore her for their own concerns. The fact that the mammy trope is invoked for Patty is even worse. If she were white, she’d be the team mom. But because she’s black, the least educated, and not a scientist, she is not really an equal. The script even makes this plain by giving Erin the line “We’re all scientists! … and Patty.” That’s supposed to be amusing. That joke made it to the final print even after there was backlash specifically about Patty’s lack of academic credentials. It pretty much validates the fear and dismay black fans expressed the moment Patty appeared in the trailer. The “failure to crowd surf” joke is little better. Abby crowd surfs to her destination. Patty shouts her intent to the white crowd, then gets angry with them for refusing to support her and wonders whether it’s a race thing or a lady thing. It’s a race thing. Patty didn’t ask nicely like Abby did, so got punished for it, and we’re supposed to laugh.
The film embraces the mammy trope thoroughly. For all Patty’s urban style and chic, she is also the den mom to the other three Ghostbusters. She presents them with the outfits that become their uniform, apologetic for having called them down into the filthy subway in their street clothes. Erin, Abby, and Jillian are grown women, but this scene treats them like they’re either too scientifically excited to stop and think or just too silly to consider that exploring subway tunnels would be work they wouldn’t want to undertake in their street clothes. Erin, who ends up slimed more than the others, should already be aware of and concerned about ectoplasm, but it’s Patty who does something about it, not just for herself, but for the entire group. They barely even thank her, behaving as if this generous gift should have been expected.
Patty is also the one who makes sure the team stops to eat. She fusses over them having low blood sugar and whether that’s affecting their moods. She the one who initiates the hugs. She also hits on Kevin the least of the four, because mammy doesn’t get to be a sexually aware being.
I’ve heard some rumblings on Twitter that Feig knows that he failed in trying to assemble Patty’s character. That’s encouraging to hear, understandable even. People write what they know. The problem is if they don’t know much about black women, they don’t go looking for any to make Patty authentic. They have a little time before the sequel will be ready to hit theaters. Black fans may have been willing to forgive a little in the first film, but in the second, there will be more scrutiny. Feig and company can expect being called out if they don’t put genuine effort into doing better by their black character.