Thoughts on women in science and the new Ghostbusters film

by e_e_evans PhD student

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So the new Ghostbusters film is pretty silly, low brow, irreverent fun… just like the original. It’s a universe where ghosts are made of the gunk they used to use on the old TV programme Get Your Own Back, it was never going to be on par with Ben Hur. Film doesn’t have to be all worthy all the time, and I can’t only watch Laurence of Arabia, Bladerunner or (appropriately) Ghost in the Shell, sometimes you need the movie equivalent of those hot dogs you get in jars.

Sure, Chris Hemsworth’s turn as quite possibly the worst secretary in film history (worse perhaps than the one in Grease who loses the timetables for an entire year, only to find them by the start of the next) was a bit cringy at times, especially when remembering how blisteringly good he was as James Hunt in Rush; and a few jokes didn’t quite land with me and the CGI looked like it was straight out of the 80’s original but I had fun with it and if I’d been a little kid, I probably would have dug it big time, not unlike what happened with the original Ghostbusters.

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What’s that? Why did I include a picture of Chris Hemsworth looking rather fetching in a shirt and tie? Oh, no reason at all… None… Nope… 

Now I’m not going to address the controversy around the nature of this film as a reboot not a sequal and recasting the Ghostbusters themselves as all women as that’s all in the past. The film’s been made, it’s out, let’s judge what we’ve got not what we don’t, like the remake of The Italian Job I don’t feel like the existence of the new one hurts the old. And what I do want to talk about is the film’s portrayal of academia and scientists.

Academic Institutions

Two broad types of institutions are somewhat satirised in the film, a high brow, well established one who can afford to snear at Princeton and a new upstart College with sloppy management and the willingness to entertain crackpot inventors as long as they stay in the lab. At the former, the prim and proper physicist Erin is angling for tenure until a book on the scientific basis for ghosts she co-wrote with Abby, a researcher at the latter institution, comes back to haunt her (appropriately enough). In light of recent very public missteps from well respected researchers it surprised me that a Ghostbusters film of all things would address how desperate Universities will try and cling to an image or a principle at the expense of valuable researchers.

The Scientific Method

While the original Ghostbusters could only be called scientists in the strictest sense as they’re sole careers surrounded investigating the paranormal the two main scientists of the team, Abby and Erin, are by and large physicists who approach ghosts not as the paranormal but as provable and testable physical phenomena. Their frequent verbal acknowledgement of the scientific method, gathering quantifiable data and testing hypotheses, in between a serious landslide of technobabble (to quote Cpt. Jack Harkness, “a bit of technobabble is good for the soul.”) made me rather pleased.

The team engineer, the off-beat, punk-ish Holtz who worked with Abby at the technical college shows off beautifully the problem solving and equipment development of real research. The proton packs go from a trolly and trailing cables to the iconic backpacks over the course of the film.

Patty, a street smart station manager, who is the non-scientist on the team has a good eye for clues, thinks on her feet, is proactive and makes deductions like a good researcher.

Women who are scientists

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The dynamic dream team

 

The standout of the film and why I will endorse it as a good representation if scientists is that the four leads are well rounded humans (in the context of a blockbuster comedy, remember, it’s not Ben Hur) (Oh, and speaking of shape, it looks like actresses who don’t all look like Natalie Portman do still exist (who incidentally is a published scientist and therefore 20% cooler automatically (let’s see who get’s that reference!)) It’s just nice to see variation in female casting when no one blinks at people like Tommy Lee Jones or Bruce Willis still getting work. Moving swiftly on!)

Erin has a crush on Hemsworth’s character Kevin (well it’s one way of addressing the elephant in the room of hiring Hemsworth) but also still harbours a lot of hurt from the bullying she received at school which is reflected in her need to be taken seriously as a scientist and her attempts of dismiss the existence of ghosts for the sake of her tenure. She is a gentle spirit who takes a while to get into the ‘busting properly and starts off not knowing how to react to Holtz’s oddness before loosening up later in the film and embracing her goofy side (first seen right at the start of the film while she’s practising for a lecture and does an little impromptu dance before someone walks in).

Abby is the slightly disapproving older sister character who rolls her eyes at Erin’s behaviour towards Kevin, has arguments with the take-away delivery guy over wantons in soup, enjoys practical jokes, films and making sarcastic quips  (the best one of which involves an extended gag about Patrick Swayze).

Patty is grounded and savvy, outfitting the ‘busters with a car and workers overalls for the messy job of ghostbusting. She’s the practical mind alongside the blue sky thinkers and even when she feels like she’s in over her head  she stays loyal to the team.

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Holtzmann, quite possibly mad,  undoubtedly rad and definitely dangerous to know. 

And Holtz, dear me, Holtz. I’d say that she’s the closest character to the stereotype of “crackpot” scientist except her frothing, bubbling joy for her work is in stark contrast to the seriousness or melodrama of the scientist stereotype of yester-year. She effervescences when she explains the new pieces of kit to the team, revels in getting stuck in in the field and clearly doesn’t give a monkey’s what you might think of her.

In fact, the joy and wonder that the team is filled with is the most heartening aspect of the film. Science is the exciting, bizarre, confusing, beautiful unknown and it should be a joy.

Who’d have thought a Ghostbusters film would be the film to most illustrate that, hay?

Conclusion

So while you might take or leave the new Ghostbusters film I feel like if it’s inspired just one young person to start a journey into the scientific unknown it is absolved of all it’s sins.

When you need an example of female scientists doing what they love,
Who ya gunna call? GHOSTBUSTERS!

Quotation of the day that is somewhat inspired by the above:

John Green on madness:

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Why yes, he is wearing a T-shirt made of pages and pages of his own signatures… it’s a long story.

The author reminds the reader that her opinions are her own and shouldn’t be grounds to put her in bad standing with her institution, a la Ghostbusters style. 

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