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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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times