Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue

New-Style Culture War

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters (Columbia Pictures)

I’m old enough to remember the days when culture-war controversy about a movie or a TV show usually involved some transgressive, taboo-busting scene or plot or character — a bare buttock! a gay kiss! — provoking boycotts or protests from family-values conservatives. Maybe that still happens: The Reverend Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association is still technically in business, after all. But the world has changed, the old taboos are all gone, nobody pays attention to religious moralists, and we have a new kind of controversy now.

In the new-model culture war, shows and movies and singers don’t get in trouble for transgressing the bounds of Judeo-Christian decency. They get in trouble for sins against political correctness: for cultural insensitivity and inappropriate appropriation, for inadequate representation of various minorities, for promoting “rape culture” and ratifying traditional gender roles, and so on through the social-justice catechism. Hit productions can make their nudity and violence as graphic as they want, but an awkward is-it-rape? scene on Game of Thrones or the absence of a major black character from Lena Dunham’s Girls will launch outrage, think pieces, tweetstorms.

All this ideological policing, in turn, has provoked a backlash from the realms of fan culture that has spread like kudzu across the Internet. This backlash often gets tagged as “right-wing,” and in a sense it is — but again, not in any traditional-values, pastors-on-their-soapbox sort of way. As a response to PC it offers performative vulgarity, misogyny, and bigotry; it’s much more Trumpian than traditionalist.

Indeed, the world of Trump supporters and anti-PC culture warriors overlaps, most notably in the person of Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay alt-right provocateur. And Yiannopoulos has been prominently involved in the latest, most depressing pop-culture conflict: the ideological war over the new, all-female Ghostbusters.

That war broke out as soon as the movie was announced, with Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy directing and his comedic leading ladies, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, stepping into the ghostbusting shoes of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Apparently many people (many men, I should stress) feel very, very, very attached to the Murray Ghostbusters — a great movie, a fun movie, but not a movie I can entirely understand obsessing over. But obsess it seems they do: Turning the story over to a clutch of chicks (not the only c-word that would be hurled their way) was just a bridge too far, and soon a wave of truly toxic hate greeted every online mention of the movie.

At which point it was time for the social-justice apparatus to fight back. Ghostbusters became a cause célèbre, a chance to stick it to the fanboys, an opportunity to prove that gender doesn’t matter and ghostbusting is for everyone — all the genders and races and sexualities and identities. When the movie finally arrived this month, the critical reaction made it very clear: You must see the new Ghostbusters, you will personally dismantle a piece of the patriarchy when you buy a ticket, and if you help boost its opening-weekend numbers high enough, the tears of the fanboys will be just so, so very delicious.

And all this controversy, all this sound and fury, for a film that is, at bottom, just a nothingburger: a minor, intermittently funny, inoffensive reboot, and just another disappointing summertime example of Hollywood’s creative drought.

The new Ghostbusters isn’t truly terrible, because at least its cast is good at comedy. McCarthy and Wiig always have good chemistry, Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live has a gonzo energy as their team’s gearhead, Andy Garcia has some fun as the mayor of New York, and Chris Hemsworth is fabulous as the dumb-as-rocks studmuffin they hire to answer phones.

But the story doesn’t have a single truly inspired idea. Like every summer blockbuster these days, the movie conspicuously lacks a second act, and then it degenerates into predictable and endless CGI-laden fight scenes that by summer-movie standards now look ridiculously cheap. (Feig seems to have attempted to recreate the look and feel of the original’s FX, though presumably at a zillion times the cost.) Apart from some heavy-handed references to its own controversial status — online trolls taking cheap shots at our heroines, a pudgy villain who resembles the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons — the movie never makes anything interesting or novel out of its gender switch, and never deploys its professed feminism to any real artistic end (unlike Feig’s last movie, Spy, in which McCarthy’s chubby CIA desk jockey–turned–superspy was actually a clever commentary on the Bond genre’s gender politics).

Yet despite the wan mediocrity of the movie, the controversy rages on. Indeed, as I write this, Yiannopoulos has been banned from Twitter for allegedly encouraging the prolonged online abuse of Leslie Jones, the very tall black comedienne who plays the token black female Ghostbuster.

It would be hard to come up with a better distillation of all that’s wrong with pop culture, its fans, and its critics. The rut of big-budget reboots, the pulsing obsessions of fanboys, the critics as an arm of Team Progressivism — it’s all here.

Where have you gone, Donald Wildmon? A nation turns its lonely eyes . . .

In This Issue

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Politics & Policy

Letters

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