Magazine | August 1, 2016, Issue

Who Ya Gonna Troll?

I haven’t seen the new Ghostbusters yet, but I have an opinion about it. And, reader, therein lies the problem.

My opinion is that — though I revere the original Ghostbusters and think its sequel wrongly maligned — a “reboot” featuring all-female leads is a perfectly fine premise. While I consider myself a purist in most things, I didn’t have the reflexive aversion to this particular bit of demographic pandering that some of my friends did. And I find all four of the women cast in the leads — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — funny and watchable to greater and lesser extents.

Apparently my opinion is shared by precisely no one else — or at least no one else who spends his or her free time TYPING IN ALL CAPS ON THE INTERNET.

You see, when the movie was announced and the Great Ghostbusters Civil War of 2016 commenced, the bloodiest factions were the contingent of anti-PC bros who promised to boycott the film and the horde of Problematriarchs who decreed opposition to it ipso facto misogynistic. Both of these positions ossified, mind you, before there was even a fricking trailer.

At that point I found both positions thoroughly silly. But there’s something interesting — and since it’s 2016, you can safely substitute “terribly depressing” for every use of the word “interesting” — about the way this particular scrimmage in the culture wars has shaken out since the movie actually started screening for critics.

As Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard pointed out, the critical-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes shows an odd split on the film: Overall, critics have a 78 percent favorable view of it (a respectable C+) as I write this. But when you consider only the reviews from “Top Critics” — designated as such by the site based on the size of their audience, the length of their tenure as critics, and their overall reputation — Ghostbusters’ score drops to 48 percent. A big fat F–.

What could account for this discrepancy? It could be just a highbrow/lowbrow thing, sure. But could it also be the product of a pop-cultural commentariat increasingly populated by hyper-politicized smarm-merchant scolds who have to turn every human endeavor into a political proxy fight?

Consider the headline of a recent Vanity Fair piece from Laura Bradley: “Sorry Haters: Ghostbusters Producer Says the New Franchise Will Be ‘Endless.’ Start Nursing Those Ruined Childhoods Now.” Or of the New York Times review from Manohla Dargis: “Girls Rule. Women Are Funny. Get Over It.”

Mmmkay.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this problem is one-sided. For instance, there was a great effort among haters to tank Ghostbusters’ rating at another popular film site, the Internet Movie Database. How do we know this effort was driven by bitter bros? For one thing, because 4,268 of the users responsible for the movie’s current 3.7/10 rating are male, compared with just 509 female raters. For another, and by way of reminder, the film hasn’t even been released as of press time.

But even if both sides are guilty of dumb, ultimately faintly sad acts of trollery, the pathologies are very different.

The haters are hating on something that, by their own oaths, they will never experience. I met a fellow at Oxford. He told me of his uncle, also an alum, who his life entire refused to set foot at Cambridge. The closest he came was to once pass nearby it on a train. And in the event, he closed the curtains until he was well clear.

That’s silly and small but also kind of endearing in a way that only temperamental conservatives will well understand. It’s the same reason I’ll never know what it’s like to catch a Pokémon or learn how the Harry Potter books end. (Personal motto: When was the last time 100 million people were right about anything?) And even if, in the current case, the stodginess is flecked with a little misogyny, it’s just about the most harmless way I’ve ever seen misogyny expressed.

Odder to me is the headspace of the sight-unseen Ghostbusters lovers. Will they be obliged, once they see it, to pretend it’s good even if it isn’t? More interestingly, will they in some way even convince themselves it’s good? We live in increasingly Orwellian times, but can one brainwash oneself?

Could something like this explain the critical divide? By my math, 71 percent of female “top critics” on Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie favorable reviews, while only 35 percent of male “top critics” did the same. Do the male “top critics” have more in kind with the bitter bros than the female top critics do with the “Girls Rule, Get Over It” set?

Are the curmudgeons with the curtains closed more right about the new Ghostbusters than the cinema suffragettes overplaying every chuckle into a guffaw?

Similar thoughts occur to me when I watch John Oliver and the dozen other heirs of Stewart and Colbert half-leap across their desks as they expectorate about the latest outrage under the never-ending stream of Photoshops and bullet points dropped in over their shoulders.

I think our politics has broken these PowerPoint comedians. I think there is something almost tragically feeble in their attempts — after 20 years of making every conservative sound like Donald Trump — to parody the actual Donald Trump. I can’t remember the last time I cracked a smile watching one of them destroy this or that abstraction. And yet there remains a sizeable audience for this sort of thing, sitting at the edge of its seat with mouth agape and eyes wide and hands held expectantly a foot apart, waiting to explode into rapturous affirmation at every Bill Maher zinger.

Are they right, or am I? I suspect the answer to this question is no laughing matter.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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