Ghostbusters: Patty Tolan and Black Viewers Deserve Better

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 blondeating 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.

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

5 thoughts on “Ghostbusters: Patty Tolan and Black Viewers Deserve Better

  1. honestly not sure why some say this movie was a success. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I thought the story was very weak, the jokes weren’t that funny to me, and they re-hashed parts of the original in a very poor way. Not to mention the worst all the Patty issues. All it did was try and take the original and give it a modern spin. it just didn’t work for me at all. But i will say i did love Kate McKinnon ::drool:: she was fabulous. omg, if it wasn’t for her, i probably would have walked out. I thought it was a huge missed opportunity to at least take the original and continue the story from it. Instead it was a re-hash, and a pretty weak one. It turned into a movie of cameos, and not a movie about Ghostbusters. I felt it was more concerned how we can get all the cameos in rather than concentrating on a good story. Patty’s character was poorly written thats for sure, but i think the entire movie was really poorly written.

    1. I agree it was a bit too slavishly devoted to tipping its hat to the original. I think some of that was in response to the fans of the original who were very vocal and offended. They know now that they hedged their bets a bit too much and the film would’ve been fine without that.

      I expect the second one will be a bit more of its own thing. I don’t so much consider it a rehash as I consider it an alternate universe retelling.

      I didn’t think the film was as bad as you did, but I definitely think there were some pacing and writing issues besides Patty’s specific ones.

  2. I thought the Bechdel Text involved two women with names who speak about something other than a man, not that it had to be another woman. In which case, it definitely passes? They talk about ghosts, the car, the book, the inventions, etc. There were three black men with lines. Obviously Ernie, but also Sam Richardson (who’s a fantastic comedic actor, imo), and Michael K. Williams (who needed more lines!!). Would love to see more, though!

    I didn’t catch the Mammy trope, but definitely see it now. I haaated the crowd surfing joke, and groaned when the film reminded us that “we’re all scientists…except Patty.” I may be remembering incorrectly, but I thought Patty mentioned reading lots of history books as her source of knowledge?

    When the first trailer came out I was soooo pissed Patty wasn’t a scientist. There was absolutely no need to carry Winston’s re-written character as an homage. This had the chance to fix it and it should have. Clearly Feig wants to feminist the hell out of his movies, but that’s still clearly a failure when it’s only for white women. I’m in so much agreement with your assessment of the film’s flaws!

    What I want is for Patty to come back as someone with or working on degree(s). I want lines about how once she had the funds to go to school then she absolutely killed it. Finished faster than anyone. Took to it like crazy. At the very least, Leslie should have input to her character’s direction. Isn’t Feig known for letting his comedic actors ad-lib (there’s where your hated finger and cat jokes came from, no doubt)? There is definite room for improvement and development and I hope he listened to the (these) fans on that.

    1. My understanding of the Bechdel test is that it has to be two named characters speaking about something other than a man. And yes, they did talk about other things, but there are scenes built around them rescuing Kevin and about what to do about Rowan. Necessary I guess, but it felt like a fail to me.

      And yes, I’m sorry, how did I forget Ernie Hudson’s lines as Patty’s uncle?! I will go correct that. Thank you for pointing it out!

      1. That definition of the Bechdel Test seems odd to me. The original example of the Bechdel Test, Alien, has scenes talking about a man; it passed because it had two named women who have at least one scene talking about something other than a man. So it’s just “at least two women + topic other than man” that’s the criteria, not “two women – any conversation at all about a man”.

        But anyway, enough of my pedantry. This is a good article and detailed in explaining all the details and troubling aspects about Patty’s writing.

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