The new Ghostbusters film has become somewhat of a litmus test for for women in Hollywood. Outrage against a remake of a nerd-culture classic starring (Zuul forbid!) women slimed across the internet like ectoplasm. Its first trailer almost immediately became the most disliked video in YouTube history. The backlash prompted backlash — now, some critics argue it’s become impossible to review the movie on its merits without losing feminist credentials.
Obviously, the movie wouldn’t be such a fraught conversation topic if it weren’t so rare for a major blockbuster to be headlined by women. But when it comes to the gender representation in Ghostbusters, there’s something even more significant going on: It features women who move the action forward with their scientific know-how.
Media portrayals of female scientists are rare — and incredibly important. When it comes to scientific role models, little boys are comparatively spoiled for choice, both in their textbooks and on their television. Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science guy all worked wonders for popularizing science — but they’re all men. The Big Bang theory, which remains one of the sole popular, long-running shows to focus on scientists, pits feminine Penny against the awkward male scientists. Silicon Valley too has a serious gender representation problem.
Little girls, on the other hand, have far fewer women to look up to. The contributions of real-world female pioneers, like Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace and the early women of NASA, are often glossed over or forgotten. And while there have been movies that feature — well, at least, have — female scientists, usually they are surrounded by a sea of men.
That’s why it’s so significant that Ghostbusters features three female scientists with different focuses, personalities, and motivations (although, as many have rightly pointed out, it’d be a more progressive vision if the foursome’s sole woman of color were also a scientist by training, rather than the one with “street smarts”).
Dr. Erin Gilbert, played by Kristen Wiig, is a Columbia particle physicist up for tenure. Dr. Abby Yates, her childhood best friend, is a physicist at a new for-profit school, and extremely passionate about her research even in derelict circumstances. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, in a movie-stealing turn by Kate McKinnon, is an engineer practically inseparable from her mess of tubes and wires and metals. The new villain, acting out his bruised ego and toxic masculinity on the world by orchestrating what is, essentially, a ghostly terror attack, uses research gleaned from Erin and Abby’s own book.
Behind the jokes, the slime-gags, and the winking asides to internet-troll culture, the backdrop of the movie is a love letter to the process of science. Unlike the popular image of the scientist as logical, cold, and isolated, wearing white coats and soberly tinkering with test tubes, these women take exuberant joy in what they do. They make science and engineering look incredibly fun, and it’s their mastery of science — both paranormal and quantum physics — that empowers them to save the day.
In the 1980s film, the Ghostbusters take up Ghostbusting as a business endeavor (and in a problematic effort to get close to Sigourney Weaver). In the new film, however, they’re trying to catch ghosts because they are evidence of an undiscovered fact about the world — essentially, they’re trying to prove their hypothesis.
This new scientific focus is no accident for Director Paul Feig, who relied heavily on MIT’s Nuclear Physics lab and three of its researchers — two female — to get the feel of the film right.
In Erin Gilbert’s opening scene, as she stands in front of a lecture board filled with equations, it’s a physics problem transcribed by MIT professor Lindley Winslow.The books and props in her office were borrowed from the office of Janet Conrad, also a researcher in MIT’s department of physics. The tech lab inhabited by the film’s other two scientists is also modeled after real MIT physics and engineering labs. The proton packs — in the movie designed with aplomb and somewhat of a cavalier attitude toward human life by Kate McKinnon’s Holtzman — were actually designed by James Maxwell, then a postdoc in the MIT Nuclear Science lab, to be as scientifically plausible as possible. When kids look up how they’re made, they’ll actually be looking up physics.
Movies like this can have a real influence on the real world. Research has shown that one factor pushing women away from the STEM fields that the new Ghostbusters occupy — Physics and Engineering — is a lack of female role models. Conditioned by pop culture and historical precedent set by gender barriers, when people think of scientists, they think of men. Representation can help change that.
“Exposing people even temporarily to women leaders, and scientists, shifts their ideas of gender and science,” Dr. Linda Carli, a professor at Wellesley college, told ThinkProgress in May.
And it’s an effect that’s already been demonstrated. Purportedly, in the 1990s, Dr. Dana Scully, the coolly competent and ridiculously qualified FBI agent and medical doctor on the X-Files, inspired an uptick in women studying scientific fields.
Kate McKinnon — Ghostbuster and real-world physics geek, according to Popular Science — was a fan, to say the least. After the movie’s opening weekend, Jillian Anderson, the actress who played Scully, tweeted a picture of a young Kate McKinnon dressed up as her X-Files character; it subsequently went viral.
— Gillian Anderson (@GillianA) July 18, 2016
The effect of the Ghostbusters could be even stronger. While Scully was undoubtedly revolutionary, the X-Files was at its heart a show about the need to simply believe in the paranormal; Scully’s insistence on objectivity kept her two steps behind for far too long. The ladies in Ghostbusters don’t need Mulder to show them the way — they would kick him and his mansplaining to the curb, with science! And Ghostbusters is a middle-school-friendly comedy — meaning that girls can see themselves as funky, ass-kicking tinkerers, and investigators from a young age. And ultimately, that’s one of the driving reasons behind the female-driven reboot.
“I wanted for little girls to be able to see themselves up on the screen,” Feig told Vulture in reference to the film. “I’d like girls to be able to put on a proton pack and run around.”