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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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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt