A Response to Noah Berlatsky’s Article Entitled “Ghostbusters Reboot: Who You Gonna Call for Slimy Sex with a Spectre??”
The Guardian published an article written by Noah Berlatsky on March 5, 2016. Berlatsky says that “it seems ironic that most discussions around the new all-female Ghostbusters reboot has been so focused on gender” seeing as ghosts don’t have bodies. That opening statement is not Berlatsky seeking to give an opinion on why gender in the new Ghostbusters is a non-issue, but rather him cashing in on the fact that the media is blaming the public’s negativity to the all-female cast on sexism. Instead of addressing the story at hand, Berlatsky simply uses the controversy as a platform to discuss something unrelated.
His main claim is that gender anxiety is “amped up” in ghost stories, yet his sources are all over the place. His first source comes from the 2010 movie Insidious, and then his subsequent sources are Twin Peaks and Ghost, both released in the 1990’s and then Ghostbusters in 1984. If one were to build a sound argument about gender anxiety and more specifically where Berlatsky’s article goes, “gender swapping” (his term, not mine), then one would use sources that relate to their proper contexts. The anxieties from the 2000’s are not felt in the same ways as those of the 90’s or those of the 80’s.
There are many sexual references in the original Ghostbusters, but Berlatsky chooses to push forward his gender anxiety agenda regardless of whether it is consistent within the film or not. In order to frame his argument, he uses ectoplasm and demonic possession in ghost stories as metaphors for sexual discharge and sex, respectively. But, he chooses only two instances: Dana Barrett being possessed by Zuul and Peter Venkman (whom Mr. Berlatsky glaringly mistakes for Raymond Stantz…) being slimed by Slimer. Although that argument works according to his examples, it is also an instance of someone shaping a film to their argument. In order to be consistent with the film, not only must Berlatsky first know the characters, but also he must take into account all of the other altercations the main characters have with ghosts before looking into gender anxiety and gender swapping.
If one is to remain consistent with the sexual aspects of Ghostbusters, the ghosts in the film become representations of a released “id” in the afterlife. For example, at the beginning of the film, the ghost librarian’s afterlife (Dr. Eleanor Twitty or the Gray Lady) consists of all id. What that means is her basic desire is to read. All she is doing is trying to enjoy a book and people are disturbing her. Berlatsky doesn’t point out that she does not slime anyone, but she does stack and slime books and reference cards. Based on the argument that ectoplasm is sexual discharge, is Dr. Twitty marking her territory? And if that is indeed the case, how can this instance be argued as sexualized? Is Dr. Twitty turned on by books? The only place where gender anxiety or gender swapping could apply is with regards to education. Dr. Twitty does appear old, therefore the argument that she was oppressed in terms of education could be sustained and that she might have wanted to compete in an intellectual league with men from her time. But, although she may have been oppressed intellectually (albeit, pure speculation at this point), she still succeeded in obtaining a doctoral degree; therefore the argument that she is a woman from a time where men ruled knowledge goes out the window.
The same ectoplasm as sexual discharge argument falls apart with Slimer. Slimer is found eating in a hallway, minding its business until Peter Venkman, not Ray Stantz, interrupts it. Slimer does slime Peter, but it seemingly does so in self-defense, using its slime like venom that paralyzes an attacker. Because Peter is afraid of Slimer and covers his face in self-defense, is Berlatsky suggesting that Slimer rapes Peter? And if that is the case, does the argument of gender swapping immediately feminize Peter and masculinize Slimer? The issue gets a little complicated on this one does it not?
Let’s talk about the actual sexually implicit scenes in Ghostbusters. In a dream sequence, Ray Stantz does have a sexual encounter with a ghost where it is suggested that he gets a blowjob (belt unbuckling, eyes rolling back etc.), but never does the film show that he gets slimed, or for the sake of argumentation, is he shown sliming the ghost… Does the lack of ectoplasm in this case suggest that Ray is repressed sexually? That he has a need of releasing sexual tension, but that his most basic urge is to get head from a ghost? We get the answer to that question at the end of the film when Ray tries his best to conceal his most basic desires, but can’t. When Gozer the Gozerian asks what he wishes for the end of the world, Ray musters up a thought from his childhood, a time where the id is central, and it becomes the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Based on Berlatsky’s ectoplasm argument, doesn’t the imagery of all four Ghostbusters crossing the streams in order to destroy Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man get a little nasty when the characters are covered in white marshmallow goop? Have all four Ghostbusters participated in an inter-dimensional gangbang? Hmmm…
I could argue “yes,” simply because the audience never sees Ray wake up from his dream. If one looks at the sequence carefully, after getting the blowjob from the ghost, the camera cuts to Ray falling out of bed while the other two Ghostbusters remain sleeping. The film does not show anyone waking up, but the shot is curiously from outside a doorframe. The doorframe juxtaposes with the portal opened for Gozer at the end of the film. If Ray is indeed feeling some sort of sexual tension from an absence of women in his life, then the remainder of the film could be interpreted as a continuation of his wet dream. If that is the case and Ray’s id does completely take over, then the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is Ray’s attempt at a mating ritual with Gozer. When he fails and realizes that he needs the other Ghostbusters then Ray’s sexual repression shifts towards an adolescent male masturbation ritual ie: the crossing of the streams. Ray needs the ritual in order to ejaculate. Peter Venkman says it himself “This Mr. Stay Puft is ok. He’s a sailor; he’s in New York. If we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble.” As the Ghostbusters leave to try to get Ray laid by confronting Gozer, the only character that is in immediate danger from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is Ray (see image below). As Ray walks up to the remaining Ghostbusters, Venkman looks at Ray and says “See you on the other side Ray” which would mean that once all the Ghostbusters ejaculate, the portal will close, Gozer and Ray’s id, The Marshmallow Man, will be destroyed and Ray will wake up from his wet dream.
Berlatsky continues his argumentation but shifts toward demonic possession as a metaphor for gender swapping. Again, Berlatsky makes the film fit his argument. He explains that Dana Barrett is possessed by a demonic demi-god named Zuul the Gatekepeer and that Zuul is of indeterminate sex. That part is fine, but only if you discount the other demonic demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster who is seeking Zuul. Dana Barrett’s neighbor, Louis Tully is the person possessed by Vinz Clortho the Keymaster. Berlatsky does not mention Tully at all in his argumentation because he knows that that is where it all falls apart. You see, two-thirds of the way through the film, Tully, who is possessed by Clortho, approaches a horse and asks if the horse is the Gatekeeper. Where is the argumentation for gender anxiety or gender swapping in that scene? Once Clortho possesses Tully, he solely wants to find the Gatekeeper. Similarly, after being possessed by Zuul, Dana’s only preoccupation is to find the Keymaster. Both Clortho and Zuul again like the other ghosts in the story are pure id. Their union is necessary for the coming of Gozer. Both of the demons must conduct a “ritual” that will unlock a portal letting Gozer into the Earth dimension. Does this sound like birth to anyone? I sure hope it does. One last thing Berlatsky cleverly omits from his argumentation is that both Zuul and Vinz Clortho look like demon dogs. Representations of the id would make for more convincing arguments because of the animalistic nature of the demons that possess Dana and Tully, Zuul and Clortho respectively.
Where I will cut Berlatsky some slack is with regards to the Gatekeeper and Keymaster. Those names have sexual connotations if you choose to look at the imagery they provide. I won’t draw you a picture, but I’ll simply explain it as such: once the key enters the keyhole, the door is unlocked and whatever is on the other side of that door can come through the gate… It was much nicer to call Zuul the Gatekeeper than it was the Keyholekeeper…
As you may have noticed by now, the conclusions that have been drawn in this article are far beyond reasonable. Even though the interpretations may seem sound, they are kind of ridiculous. The point was to demonstrate that that is precisely what is wrong with Berlatsky’s approach. Although his interpretation is fun, it goes beyond what is reasonable and, more importantly, it fails to discuss the gender anxiety or gender swapping issue with any real substance. The same is true with his take on a specific sequence in the new Ghostbusters trailer.
In the new Ghostbusters trailer, Kristen Wiig’s character Erin Gilbert is slimed (literally vomited on; Exorcist-style) and later states, “That stuff went everywhere, by the way. In every crack. Very hard to wash off.” Berlatsky is quick to claim that Wiig is making a not-so-subtle reference to male sexual discharge. Normally I would agree with him. “That stuff went everywhere,” sure. “Very hard to wash off,” funny reference to the all too played out Lewinsky dress. But what gets to me is the “In every crack” remark. I don’t know what kind of guy gets sexual discharge in every one of a woman’s cracks, but I do know a couple of guys that have vomited on their girlfriends and those women share Wiig’s character’s sentiment. Also, I’ve heard sand can be pretty unpleasant when it comes to cracks and washing out of hair (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones anyone…?) But not once have I heard of male sexual discharge getting in every crack… Oh well… maybe I’m not doing it right…
What one can assess from that scene though, is that the representations of the id from the original Ghostbusters have finally shifted to a more appropriate issue: female vs. female psychological hostility. Just before getting vomited on by the female ghost, Wiig’s character says, “It’s ok. She seems peaceful.” But when she elaborates on her credentials stating, “My name is Erin Gilbert, Doctor of Particle Physics-” she is immediately cut-off. What that suggests is Doctor Gilbert’s job title and education are intimidating to the female ghost, and according to Joyce Berenson “a woman who tries to distinguish or promote herself threatens other women and will encounter hostility” (read the remainder of the article Female Foes: New Science Explores Female Competition here). The female ghost’s vomit is to be interpreted as hostility and that if the “stuff went everywhere […] In every crack [and is] Very hard to wash off,” Gilbert isn’t alluding to male sexual discharge, but rather to the psychological hostility women endure on a daily basis. Gilbert’s being cut off shows that even though she is qualified, society isn’t ready to acknowledge her as a professional woman. If Gilbert isn’t acknowledged as a professional woman, then she also becomes a metaphorical ghost of sorts; something supernatural we hear of, but very seldom have the chance to see. Although, that argumentation would fit in with the recent discussions in the media about gender, I doubt the filmmakers behind the Ghostbusters reboot are taking it that far.
Now, I’ve remained consistent with the sexual references in the original film and I’ve taken my arguments to their logical conclusions. But here’s my real question: Do we really need to do this? Is gender anxiety or gender swapping really the issue? I like the ideas Berlatsky is bringing up, but they need to be consistent. Most critics and journalists have come to shape films according to what’s being hyped by the media or their personal agendas, rather than shape arguments according to the films. They don’t scrutinize issues of race, gender and sexuality head-on because it’s much easier to graze them, than to actually deal with them. The latest example of these phenomena is Berlatsky’s article. It has become quite frustrating for me to watch films or read articles that promote diversity, whether it is of race, sexuality or gender, as though they were commodities. Producers need to have someone gay, black or a strong female to cater to those demographics, but more often than not the characters aren’t people. They’re token and superficial. Being as such, they’re the real ghosts that we should be talking about.
Here’s the Official International Ghostbusters (2016) trailer. This cut is much, much better! #LeslieJonesMadAsHellYeah
Here’s an article from the New York Film Academy entitled Gender Inequality in Film
Here’s an article from Huff Post Women entitled Gender Equality: How Film Is Contributing to the Next Level of Conversation
And just for fun, here’s Ray Parker Jr. performing the Ghostbusters theme song
Update: The article made it all the way to Noah Berlatsky (The Guardian) and he has called it “a confused and somewhat bizarrely antagonistic response” to his piece. I simply answered that I felt that his argumentation was inconsistent, but that he had really good ideas.