“Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts,” Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) reads online, in the comments section of a video of said ‘bitches’ doing exactly that. It’s one of a number of wonderfully knowing moments served up by Paul Feig’s joyful, goofy reboot of Ghostbusters, which this time, charges four women with saving Manhattan from paranormal disturbances. Since well before the casting of McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, Feig’s film has been up against comments as nuanced and poetic as this.
For better or worse, the pre-release outrage has set the tone for much of the post-release conversation about Ghostbusters. As a result, Ghostbusters is not just a film. It’s also a significant cultural moment.
Heading inside the cinema to see the film earlier this week, I wondered what all the pre-release fuss was even about. Was the original 1984 film, scripted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, directed by Ivan Reitman, even that good? What was the perceived sacrilege being committed on what is, arguably, only an average work of cinema? After all, it’s not as if Feig had announced he was remaking Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. As with most online outrage, which loses all sense of perspective and any sense of what is truly important in life, I’ve done my best to remain detached. I’ve tried to do this despite knowing that images matter, that mainstream film is an important barometer for testing the pulse of social and cultural issues, and that this was all just good, old-fashioned, filthy misogyny at work, a truth it always distresses me to acknowledge.
Maybe I just don’t get it. My childhood attachments are more of the Mary Poppins/Charlotte’s Web/Roald Dahl variety – mostly bookish. And I wonder if the so-called ‘ghostbros’ realise how good they had it growing up in the 1980s. WatchingGhostbusters 2016 turned me to a consideration of my own childhood viewing. I was ten-years-old when the original film was released. I don’t have any memory of seeing it at the cinema, although I know I watched it several times as a young teen.Ghostbusters sits alongside a series of films that were constantly replayed on our family VCR – The Goonies (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). There were others, but what they all have in common are boys or men having cool adventures, doing the seemingly extraordinary, and proving themselves heroic.
Watching Ghostbusters 2016, I felt genuine elation when the four women – McCarthy’s Abby, Wiig’s Dr Erin Gilbert, McKinnon’s Dr Jillian Holtzmann, and Jones’ Patty Tolan – stepped from the hearse, ‘Ecto-1’, in their jumpsuits with proton packs at the ready, working as a super-competent team, for the first time. It was like a reverse nostalgia – it had me thinking, how great it would be to be a young girl right now, with the chance to see a big, bombastic film like this, with four funny, smart females at the helm. Whining fan boys feel they’ve lost something profound (perspective again, please), but have they ever stopped to consider the many females they know – their mothers, sisters, cousins, friends, maybe even girlfriends – who never found a significant place in that narrative back in 1984? Have they ever paused to celebrate what these women might have now gained from this reboot?
Ultimately, this conversation seems like a waste of oxygen to me. Like most women, I look forward to a day when female-centric narratives, especially ‘blockbusters’, are neither cause for celebration nor hailed as political statements. I’m sure female actors in Hollywood and beyond just want to get on with their jobs, without every performance they commit themselves to being greeted with misogynist bile and cries of collective male trauma.
Proton packs were designed to weaken ghosts. Now, they’re also being used to weaken the patriarchy. Live with it.
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A few months ago, my friend Maud was in town from New York, and one afternoon I met her and her stepdaughter at a teahouse downtown. The conversation turned to what we were each reading, and I mentioned that I was rereading Harriet the Spy. Within a minute, I noticed, we’d all grown extremely animated: three women in the corner of a dark tearoom, waving their arms around and exclaiming “Harriet the Spy! Harriet the Spy!!”
The Wisdom Of Ole Golly
Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy came out in 1964. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of an 11-year-old girl who lives in New York City who plans to one day become—wait for it—a spy. Which is to say, a writer. In preparation, she fills her notebook with observations on everyone she sees—including, disastrously, her friends and classmates.
What else, what else? When Harriet’s working on her spy route after school—which entails eavesdropping on five households in her neighborhood—she wears an old sweatshirt, jeans, a pair of old dark glasses that she thinks “make her look smarter” (there is no glass in the frames), and a belt of tools with a flashlight. She always has her notebook with her. Always! Her house has a cook and a live-in nurse (the wonderful stern Ole Golly), and if you were a kid growing up outside New York City these last points may have seemed curious when you first read the book. Huh, maybe everyone in New York has a three-story house and a cook, you may have thought. One pleasure of rereading the book as an adult is seeing how sharply Fitzhugh was depicting a certain strata of wealthy Upper East Side New Yorker. (If you’re curious, this map shows a walking tour of the spots in the book.)
A couple years ago, in honor of the book’s 50th anniversary, Anna Holmes wrote a marvelous essay for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog exploring the many things that Harriet has in common with Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. She notes that by the conclusion of both books, Harriet and Scout have become “more aware that everyone has secrets, and everyone has a complex inner life.”
In Harriet the Spy, this theme is signaled at the book’s beginning when her nurse Ole Golly reads aloud a Dostoyevsky passage to Harriet. Ole Golly enjoys an edifying quote, but this one is long enough for its inclusion to be significant:
Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
To get at the divine mystery, Harriet has to develop empathy. She has to learn, as Holmes points out, to walk in a friend’s shoes and feel “the holes in his socks rub against his ankles.”
Along the way, Harriet grows more aware of the feelings of strangers, too. Here she is on a walk to school: “Everything looked very green and holy in that sad light before a rain. Even the Good Humor man on the corner, the one with the ridiculous nose, looked sad and moody. He took out a large blue handkerchief and blew his nose. It was somehow so touching that Harriet had to look away.”
Near the book’s close, Ole Golly delivers one final piece of wisdom, this time in the form of a letter. I’m going to quote a chunk of it because it’s GOOD advice. The mention of “love” serves as a call-back to the Dostoevsky passage she’d read to Harriet earlier:
Now in case you ever run into the following problem, I want to tell you about it. Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally these notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:
1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.
Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.
If Harriet wants to be a writer, the two bits of Ole Golly wisdom are the bookends to her journey. On reread it becomes strikingly parable-like: Love and a tender curiosity toward your fellows is the goal; telling the truth is the compact you always keep with yourself. Your notebook is where you practice both.
The Spy And The Notebook
I’ve reread Harriet The Spy as an adult a couple times now and appreciate it more each time. This time around I amused myself by trying to imagine how Janet Malcolm would describe the whole saga of when Harriet’s classmates find her notebook: “Every 11-year-old spy who is not too stupid or too full of herself to notice what is going on knows that what she does is morally indefensible.”
Hard Truths From Sport
“Writers don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them.”
— Sport, Harriet’s best friend (his dad is a writer)
Let Us Praise Louise Fitzhugh
Lizzie Skurnick Books has reissued another Louise Fitzhugh book, Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change. If you’re a Harriet the Spy fan or have one in your life, you should get a copy. And if you know a young reader, there are worse things you could do than outfit them with a Fitzhugh corner for their bookshelf.
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