I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost: Villainy in the ‘Ghostbusters’ Reboot

Representation matters. Films and television programs—and to a lesser extent comic books and graphic novels—with their visual narrative formats, reinforce cultural beliefs about who can be a hero, about who can be successful, about who is worthy of love and protection, and about who is dangerous. They also reflect society’s ideas about these things, and thus they shape societal perceptions as they are, in turn, shaped by societal perceptions.

The Ghostbusters reboot is a very enjoyable film. Yes, the plot is fairly standard and uncomplicated, but the focus on the characters and their relationships made for a fun and funny tale about loyalty, faith, fortitude, and friendship. Four women of varying talents come together to crack jokes, bust ghosts, and save New York. On the surface, not that complex. The reason they need to save New York, however, is very interesting. In what is becoming a more and more common film trope, the villain of the piece is an angry, entitled man. Awkward, unpleasant, unloved, and determined to take revenge on a world that never appreciated him or gave him his due, Rowan North is the poster child for a new class of cinematic villain—an antagonist who so closely reflects a type of person with whom the audience is undoubtedly familiar that his motivations require little more than a few outlines to be readily discernible.

It’s fascinating that in the last couple years we have seen the release of multiple films that examine the notion that there are few things more disturbing than a man acting upon his sense of entitlement: Caleb and Nathan in Ex Machina, Immortan Joe in Fury Road, Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. The appearance of such characters suggests that a very specific kind of societal unease is currently operating and impacting media in ways that serve to transform our ideas about who and what a villain really is. In the past, much of America’s culturally specific fear has focused on crazed maniacs and foreign agents. Recently, however, the fear of our own innocuous acquaintances has emerged as an equally strong concern. In this evolving cultural dynamic, we don’t fear the man next door because he is mad or because he is other, but because he has been raised to believe himself entitled to have anything he wants—and entitled to do anything when he doesn’t get it.

Evidence of the cost of real-world male violence is all around us. Study after study shows a preponderance of men in the statistical pool of those who commit acts of violence. In fact, some 90% of murders, and 94% percent of mass murders, are committed by men—often against women who defy or deny them. In the aftermath of Newtown, Santa Barbara, Charleston, Orlando, and countless other high-profile incidents in the last decade, is it any wonder that film franchises have taken to casting resentful young men in the role of villains? Uneasy as we have become about young men, about the toxic beliefs that our society ingrains in them, and about the deadly outbursts to which those beliefs seem increasingly to lead, it was only a matter of time before pop culture rose to address this newly potent cultural fear. The creation of art is, after all, first and foremost a confrontation with that which makes us anxious, or confused, or uncertain.

Viewed from this perspective, the new Ghostbusters can be seen not just as a film that brilliantly explores the sexism implicit in how women are consistently disbelieved when narrating their experiences (whether said experience be of sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, or haunting), but also as a film that skillfully taps in to growing concerns about the dangers troubled young men can pose to society and our uncertainty of how to confront those dangers.

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