Ghostbusters 2.0

Ghostbusters 2.0

Ralph Clare

If the 1984 Ghostbusters film can be read as an early foreshadowing of the neoliberal transformation of the United States of America, how might the film’s 2016 sequel be interpreted?  Ralph Clare reviews the new film in the context of his reading of the original in his 2014 book Fictions, Inc.

In my book Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture (2014), I present a case for the original Ghostbusters (1984) as an allegory of the neoliberal transformation of New York City (and by extension America) in which the Ghostbusters themselves function as a kind of corporate savior. In the film, of course, the group is basically a small business on par with pest control exterminators, as one of the group’s television commercials suggests. However, the Ghostbusters’s business booms after the city finds itself unable to cope with the growing problem of paranormal activity—the ghosts that commit petty crimes, loitering/haunting, and comprise a troubling “otherness” that can be seen as representative of poor and minority residents of certain NY City neighborhoods that were seen as acting as a drain on the city’s already tenuous resources. The Ghostbuster’s “clean up the city” by removing undesirable “residents” and “containing” them in their Containment Unit in a process analogous to the “urban renewal” projects meant to cure the city of its blighted areas after the 1970s fiscal crisis through the implementation of public-private partnerships that greatly favored businesses and corporations with massive tax cuts and other concessions. 

Ghostbusters, then, can clearly be seen as a movie heralding the increasing corporate power and profits during the early stages of a neoliberal America that Ronald Reagan would continue to usher in via a healthy dose of corporate tax cuts, deregulation, union busting, and by slashing a variety of social services. Not only are the Ghostbusters freed from any oversight or regulation when the mayor grants them the authority to save the city (the EPA is the true villain of the film because it shuts down the nuclear powered containment unit the Ghostbusters are running, which leads to the actual crisis), but they are seen as the only option in the face of a failing government that is unequipped to handle the crisis in addition to adequately policing or running the city. Despite the film’s overarching if obscured political/economic logic, we nevertheless find ourselves rooting for the Ghostbusters, the small start-up that eventually makes it big, to save the day.  In short, we root for corporate power and influence under the guise of a kind of superhero group.

In the new Ghostbusters (2016), we once again find ourselves cheering for a small business—another tech-start up, paranormal exterminating business—that becomes enormously successful after the city government finds itself unable to handle an overwhelming threat. Yet if the first Ghostbusters can be said to play out a fantasy of the corporation as savior that helps to “clean up” and “revitalize” the city, what is left to do for the latest crew of Ghostbusters? The city of the new Ghostbusters, for instance, is a post-, not pre-, gentrified New York.  The downtown that Egon Spengler once likened to a “war zone” that nevertheless offers the group cheap real estate in the form of an abandoned firehouse (another instance of the city’s failings), has been transformed, in the new film, into an up-an-coming neighborhood whose converted firehouse is a too-expensive, trendy “loft-space” that forces the new Ghostbusters to move further downtown (to a small space above a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, as if even this would be affordable). Consequently, the ghosts of the past in this gentrified and post-9/11 Ghostbusters do not hold the same symbolic meaning that they once did. The ghosts of the first film are depicted as pests or nuisances, and they are “present” in a sense—indicative of NYC’s present “problems”—but the new film can only offer cartoon or flattened “historical” ghosts—a soldier from the revolutionary war, some circus-like, Tim Burtonesque figures, Slimer from the first film, etc. (one wonders where the ghosts of Native Americans or even the slaves who built Wall Street might be). And whereas the EPA is the true villain in the earlier film—the Feds’ regulation creates the fin(anci)al crisis—the new film shifts this threat onto an individual man whose resentment fuels his capture and release of the ghosts.

The most glaring difference between the first and last film, however, is that the Ghostbusters are all women and not men this time around. But in what way does this sexual difference actually make a difference? Oddly enough, the film insists both that it makes no difference at all and that it indeed makes all the difference. The film, of course, is the third in the Ghostbusters franchise, but it is also a remake of the first movie. As such, the film is largely the same plot-wise and in certain details (three members hire a fourth who is black, the group is not taken seriously, etc.), yet it must advertise itself as a completely new and different film simply because the Ghostbusters are now women. So the film is different than the first one, but this difference doesn’t really change the underlying plot structure or, really, much of anything.  

How can we account for such a paradox?  My answer runs something like this: the film’s logic suggests that the corporation is just as vital to American interests—economic, security-wise, and in other ways—as it always has been, thus the neoliberal system should keep running as-is; but if you want to throw stones and break glass ceilings—via gender, sexuality, race, etc.—go right ahead since it will not alter the fundamental structure corporate capitalism or challenge neoliberalism itself. All in all, such potential breakthroughs are positive because they will only make for a more multicultural, progressive, and equitable (business) society. In short, the film insists on promoting a difference that cannot make any real difference (or at least a very limited one). For in just the same way that the latest Ghostbusters offers nothing truly different plot-wise from the original, nothing the all-women Ghostbusters do is really any different than what the first crew accomplished: the creation of an extremely successful business profiting upon a public-private partnership that saves a city that cannot save itself.   

That this difference makes little or no difference is understandable when we consider the ways in which neoliberalism has been transformed from the Reagan era until today. For, as David Harvey, Wendy Brown, Philip Mirowski, and others have argued, what began as an ideological conservative economic and political project as far back as the 1950s has, since the early 1990s, become the hegemonic norm, especially after it was embraced in particular ways by the Democrats. Under the terms of the New Economy and the subsequent deindustrialization that got going under Clinton, as Thomas Frank has recently show in Listen, Liberal (2016), class and income class and income inequality simply did not matter much to the Left anymore (whereas they never mattered to the Right). The result has been the production of “Left” neoliberal subjects who are largely liberal in the sense of being urban dwelling, multi-culturally diverse, socially tolerant, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, and college educated/indebted.  I am, of course, largely following Walter Benn Michaels’s argument in The Trouble with Diversity (2006) and elsewhere in saying that identity politics, not income inequality, became the rallying cry of the Left in the past couple of decades and that this leant itself to an embrace of certain neoliberal economic principles, a kind of Clintonian Third Way (“centrist” and “fiscally conservative” Democrats), thus becoming the left’s very own specially packaged version of neoliberalism.  

Although I wouldn’t brush aside the viability and importance of identity politics quite as soundly as Michaels does, my argument is that the new Ghostbusters quite clearly embraces a Left ideal of neoliberalism, one in which the enlightened, tolerant, and progressive corporation can do “good” in a world of evil.  If the older film unconsciously champions the Right’s version of neoliberalism, the new Ghostbusters unconsciously celebrates the Left’s version of it. One could see, for instance, Hillary Clinton and the Left cheering on the new Ghostbusters, in this sense, since this all-women business (at least two of whom have advanced college degrees) is a marked success. If, then, the film could be argued to be pro-feminist in its agenda, this would come not only from the fact that these intelligent and entrepreneurial women create a successful business and brand but also because they “flip” gender roles themselves by hiring a “sexy” male secretary who is dumb as a stump, thus apparently reversing the office gender roles of the first film and further challenging those roles throughout American society itself (both indications of the film’s self-conscious “feminism”). On top of this, the business also defeats a threatening male figure, Rowan North (Neil Casey), the evil mastermind behind the plot to release the ghosts upon the city.   

Yet it is obvious that the new film’s “feminism,” if it can be argued to be such, is incredibly weak. Trump’s election—in which despite being a relentless misogynist he won 53% of white women’s votes—clearly shows the very real limitations of (academic) feminism and the ineffectiveness of a supposed “third wave” feminism in which the feminist message or merits of a Lady Gaga or Lena Dunham are serious topics of discussion and where any “strong” images of women in popular culture—such as in the new versions of Ghostbusters and Mad Max—are viewed as evidence of a progressive thinking about gender and sexuality. In this weak version of feminism, all women are by default feminists, which, of course, means that none of them probably are or identify as such. In short, since today’s patriarchal structural inequalities still cannot offer you equal pay or even safety from groping or (date) rape, these compensatory images of strong individual women suggest that you ought to take such unfairness “like a man” by individually fighting back at direct physical threats or impediments to inequality but certainly not by “crying or complaining” about any larger systemic injustice or by committing oneself to a feminist politics that would seek to effect real and lasting change. It is only the individual man who is the perpetrator of sexism, not the larger structural forces that create and sustain gender and sexual inequality.  

What this weak feminism or difference that makes little difference distracts us from focusing on is what the Ghostbusters as a business are actually providing the city. A hint comes early on in the film through the flier that the Ghostbuster’s design and plaster around town that announces “If You See Something, Say Something,” which soon becomes a punch line for the failure of said fliers to drum up business. This is because the slogan, of course, comes straight from the anti-terrorist measures taken after 9/11 that were meant to encourage the citizens of NYC to survey one another for any suspicious behavior. Ironically, the slogan was developed by an ad agency and, after first being adopted by the MTA, was later taken up by Homeland Security as well. By the film’s end, this lame joke turns out to be strangely portentous, as the Ghostbusters land a lucrative contract with the city government and become a kind of quasi-government security force. In an era of the militarization of police, private security forces, (para)military contractors, and government and corporate-advertising surveillance, the new Ghostbusters fit right in. Trump’s soon-to-be militarized Security State that is committed to renewed anti-terrorist measures, wall building, deportations, and “extreme vetting” of select immigrant groups and American citizens is one that would herald good business times ahead for the Ghostbusters, regardless of their sex. The equal opportunity Ghostbusters, like the new Ghostbusters, essentially means business, or neoliberalism, as usual.

While at first glance terrorism appears to be the real threat in the film, however, this doesn’t quite turn out to be the case, at least not in the way that we might imagine. For instance, the acts of terrorism are not international in scope but are “home grown.” They are committed by the comically villainous hotel bellboy North who begins his plot by planting a series of ghost-bombs throughout the city. The real terror, then, is domestic. Furthermore, the deeper significance of these terrorist acts is that they are perpetrated by a resentful, white, working-class man whose bitterness fuels his plan for power and revenge. Yet North is not a white supremacist separatist or a libertarian Unabomber type, so there is no specific political motivation behind his actions and inarticulate anger. Nonetheless his anger is the driving force behind the terror. White, male, working-class rage therefore emerges as the real threat in the film.

While this rage is acutely registered in the film, however, it isn’t taken too seriously. The film’s Left-logic of neoliberalism, for example, ultimately subsumes the difference of economic inequality under the difference of a properly corporatized identity politics. Hence the film’s weak feminism unsurprisingly figures North as a kind of straw man for a too easy championing of the Left’s neoliberal vision of an equal opportunity America.  But treating such a villain as a throwback or a joke by uncritically adopting the point of view of a “progressive” Left-neoliberal subject is extremely dangerous because it reduces (or represses) the threat solely to the level at which identity politics does combat—here, sexual difference and inequality—so that a backward-thinking misogyny is viewed as the real ideological problem to be corrected.  That there may be larger systemic conditions that help to create such a seemingly atavistic subject who will not get with the Left-neoliberal program isn’t even considered since the system, remember, must be fundamentally sound. Such subjects just need a little socio-cultural technocratic tweaking, a dose of enlightened tolerance after the End of History.     

The resulting ideological fantasy is that the all-women Ghostbusters—representative of a Left-neoliberalism—can adequately address the issues resulting from economic inequality or alter the fundamental precepts of neoliberal politics.  But in the end, the success of the Left’s identity politics (despite real positive gains) has not helped to compensate for the failures of globalization and the growing gap between the rich and poor that has drastically affected an erstwhile white working class (and disproportionately affected other groups too, to be sure) that, in the loss of some of its once unassailable privilege, perceives (rightly, if shortsightedly) that it has been largely shunted aside by the New Economy and thus has lashed out in anger and disillusionment by helping to put Trump into office. Seen in this light, the new film’s ghosts are symbolic of the real danger that the Left-neoliberal fantasy wishes away when we recall the scene in the basement laboratory in which North has gathered several container-portals of enraged ghosts, who themselves are spiteful and out for revenge, and explains his plan to release this ghostly fury upon the city in a kind of politics of ressentiment. Oddly enough, then, the new Ghostbusters gets things eerily “right,” even as its fantasy works its magic and the Ghostbusters defeat North and save the city.  

The return of the economically-repressed that the film’s fantasy only symbolically defeats is nevertheless a reminder of what is waiting outside the theater as the credits roll and you head toward the nearest exit sign.  Recall that in the first film the return of the repressed comes in the figure of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, birthed by the unconscious thought that Ray Stantz cannot repress at will (the neoliberal chooses his own “individualized” destruction) and a figure of the (m)all-consuming consumerism of the 1980s that neoliberal corporate America, with generous help from the public sector, will fabricate: in Times Square today, for instance, Midwestern tourists will feel comforted in finding an Applebee’s similar to the one in their local strip mall. When the most frivolous of commodities morphs into the Stay Puft monster in the first film—a corporate mascot made truly corporeal—the repressed element of a future gentrified and corporatized Times Square flickers to life, one that would not find a Stay Puft walking its streets all that incredible and one that will, for several years, even boast a Cup Noodles the perfect size for a hungry monster on the go. Fantasy wins out, however, when the Ghostbusters destroy the monster. The bill, of course, would still be due, though it would be postponed for a while—say, until around 1987 and the S&L crisis.  

The new Ghostbusters fantasy vanished almost instantly, however. The repressed element of white, male, working-class rage that surfaces in the latest film could only be taken lightly or ignored entirely by an America that was relatively sure it was electing Hillary Clinton to be the forty-fifth president of the United States. In short, the Left-neoliberal fantasy was taken as reality on and off-screen. Yet the fantasy of these (business) women triumphing over white male resentment was already prefigured in the startling hostility of a white male audience who fetishized the original film and objected to the new Ghostbusters sex-changes and gender-bending before the film had even been released. This largely misogynistic reaction reached a high point when hackers broke into various social media accounts of actress Leslie Jones, who plays Ghostbuster Patty Tolan, and then posted nude photos and sensitive information on her personal website.  

For those who have retrospectively realized that the signs for a Trump victory over Clinton were there all along (regardless of the Electoral College system, Russian tampering, fake news, etc.) and that it was the Left’s turn to learn that “it’s the economy, stupid!,” the juvenile Trumpeting of a few of the first film’s fans comprises yet another warning of the dangers lurking when ideology is comfortably taken to be reality. It’s no surprise, then, that the new Ghostbusters was not a box office success. It wasn’t because of the misogyny of Internet trolls who only helped to promote the film; it wasn’t because the script, jokes, or performances were especially bad; and it wasn’t because the Ghostbusters were women instead of men. The Ghostbusters corporation once “rescued” America by “freeing” the market in dire economic times, while today’s mindful Ghostbusters Inc. primarily seeks to purge the nation of the ghosts of intolerance, a truly “politically” correct Left-neoliberalism. In the end, the Ghostbusters reboot failed for the same reason the Left’s reboot of neoliberalism failed: it’s difference didn’t make enough fundamental difference in an economic climate that had failed and is failing so many. So now who you gonna’ call?      

What would the latest Ghostbusters look like if North had been victorious and the Ghostbusters defeated? Would North be able to remain in control of the powerful and destructive force, the army of ghosts, that he would unleash? What would he promise them? How would he ultimately placate them for what was his own empty, ego-driven plan?  How long can such a world built upon a platform of lies and rage actually last? While there may never be another Ghostbusters to answer these questions, the answers will nevertheless be revealed over the course of the next four years.