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I ain’t afraid of no girls: why the all-female Ghostbusters will be good for Hollywood

After Parks and Rec30 Rock and Bridesmaids, why do some in the industry still doubt women are funny?

Maybe it was the fever, or my older cousin’s grave warnings that the movie would be too scary for me, or my best friend chasing me around his house with his toy Slimer, but one of the worst childhood nightmares I ever had was about the Ghostbusters. Still, whatever horrific twist on the franchise my virus-addled brain turned out, it never messed with the Ghostbusters’ sex: even through the haze of flu, I knew that when it came to stories, men did things, and women hung about on the fringes either having things done to them or necessitating the doing of things by men. Watching Ghostbusters with my own daughter, then, was bittersweet – because yes, both the films are beat-perfect funny, full of blissful lines and riotous mischief with the kind of characters you’d like to be friends with, but also there’s not very much to look at as a girl and say, “That’s me”.

The 1984 Ghostbusters cast.

Sigourney Weaver is great, obviously, but her job is mostly to roll her eyes at Venkman and then need rescuing. Annie Potts is the secretarial broad with a crush on the boss – not much doing there, Bechdel-wise. There’s also a female ghost who haunts Dan Ackroyd’s penis for a spectral job, and apart from that, being a woman in the Busterverse had little to offer. But! This is the 21st century, and the previously impossible has become the actually imaginable in the pitch meetings of Hollywood. Yes, we will get an all-woman Ghostbusters, and yes, the cast confirmed by director Paul Feig is a perfect match for the ’80s line-up: we’re promised Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Like the original cast, Feig’s choice of actors is strong on Saturday Night Live talent, meaning the easy camaraderie of improv should flow through the new film; and with one black actor and three white (including one fat-and-white), they’ve been cast to match their predecessors perfectly.

Melissa McCarthy. Photo: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/AFP/Getty Images

Not everyone is happy about it, of course, because when is everyone ever happy about women getting an even break? And sadly, one of the not-happy contingent is Ernie Hudson, who played Winston in the original films: “All-female I think would be a bad idea,” he said (in a view that is maybe-not-entirely uncoloured by his own professional disappointment at missing out on the chance to appear in an original-cast sequel). “I love females,” he chivalrously conceded, “I hope that if they go that way at least they’ll be funny, and if they’re not funny at least hopefully it’ll be sexy.” You’d think “funny” would be the least to expect of a comedy remake, and sexy is a strange second best given that the Ghostbusters’ hotness was never a driving force in the first place, but I guess that’s one view of females for you: just not quite as good as men, but with the option to boost their bangability quotient to make up for their deficiencies.

Zuul preserve us from Victoria’s ’Busters strutting around in their pants with proton packs instead of wings. Here’s what I think we’ll actually get: a film that is a lot like the 1984 Ghostbusters, with women in it. That’s it, and in a year when barely any of the best picture Oscar contenders has a female character worth writing home about (never mind two that talk to each other), this is about the most exciting thing cinema could do. Depressingly, films like this are still groundbreaking. Feig’s 2011 film Bridesmaids (which starred Wiig with McCarthy in a supporting role) got a whole lot of column inches of the “gosh, women really can do comedy” kind – which surely shouldn’t have been news by then. Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock started in 2006, and Amy Poehler’s Parks and Rec began in 2009: both handed plumb roles to female performers and let them occupy space of their own, rather than hemming the women characters into the selvedge around men.

Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation. Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

But what Bridesmaids showed was that if you put a bunch of women in a film and let them goof around pretty much like real people do – a bit nice, a bit messy, a bit control-freaky, a bit horny, a bit (in the case of the bad-Mexican grossout scene, which went past my “lol” reflex and straight to “gag”) faecally incontinent – people will show up to the cinema, and when they get there, they’ll laugh their tits off. Because while women hanging out with women happens less often on-screen than a Liam Neeson gun brawl, it’s just plain old real life for the women in the audience – as ordinary as air and every bit as necessary. There will, inevitably, be a male contingent that doesn’t want to see this, men who might claim they ain’t afraid of no girls, but for whom any suggestion that women are actually people is the spookiest thing in the world. And an all-female Ghostbusters is the best way to exorcise some of that lingering Hollywood sexism.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.