Who you gonna call? If you’re the gender-swapped Ghostbusters reboot, the answer is Thor. Paul Feig’s female-centric reimagining of the franchise recently cast Marvel mainstay Chris Hemsworth as its receptionist, a role originated in the 1984 original by a bespectacled Annie Potts. Hemsworth joins Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon in what’s sure to be one of the most widely discussed movies on the Internet in 2016. (If you’ve been following the anti-feminist backlash on Twitter, it already is.)
While putting comedy A-listers like Wiig and McCarthy in Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd’s iconic shoes is important, Hemsworth’s casting is equally noteworthy. What the Internet chatter about Hollywood’s woman problem tends to ignore is that it’s not just about the underrepresentation of women—it’s also about the overrepresentation of men. A widely cited statistic finds that women comprise just 30 percent of all speaking roles in Hollywood, but that’s only half the story. It also means that men take up 70 percent of the space.
In the case of Ghostbusters, gender-swapping the roles means that men are forced to occupy the space that’s typical for women—relegated to the side or the background. In action movies and blockbusters, women largely get to be window dressing, the stock wife or girlfriend. They’re not one of the guys, but somebody who gets to observe the action with a pensive stare; like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley or Megan Fox in the Transformers series, women glance up at the heavens to watch great men battling robots—just in time to put on their lipstick.
Like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley or Megan Fox in the Transformers series, women glance up at the heavens to watch great men battling robots—just in time to put on their lipstick.
However, for women to be able to join in the fun, it means that men have to be willing to step to the side. Chris Hemsworth’s supporting role in Ghostbusters follows Tom Hardy’s faux-lead performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that made its title character into a mostly silent sidekick who was a catalyst for the film’s action without truly being a part of it. If anything, he was a blank surrogate for the audience. It was Charlize Theron, playing the one-armed Imperator Furiosa, who got to have all the fun.
If the Ghostbusters casting ruffled some feathers on Twitter, it paled in comparison to the male tears spilled in the men’s rights activist community over Mad Max. A blogger for the controversial MRA stomping ground Return of Kings, Aaron Clarey, vented his frustrations about the film in a May blog post that quickly went viral. Clarney takes particular issue with the fact that a woman is in charge: “Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.”
He continues, “And the real issue is not whether Hollywood has the audacity to remove the name sake [sic] of a movie franchise called MAD FREAKING MAX, and replace it with an impossible female character in an effort to kowtow to feminism.”
If his take sounds absurd and extreme, the anxiety about “women taking over” has become surprisingly commonplace. In a Q&A session during the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto Star critic Peter Howell asked Hardy if he was surprised by the script for the film, thinking that Mad Max “was supposed to be a man’s movie.” Dismissing the question, Hardy quickly replied, “No, not for one minute. It’s kind of obvious.”
While Hardy obviously felt it was an absurd, misogynistic question, Howell later clarified in a statement to BuzzFeed that “intended as the opposite of sexism,” as he meant to “[congratulate] him for his willingness to share the screen with so many strong women in a franchise and genre more inclined to celebrate the male over the female.” Despite your opinions on the question’s intent, the fact that it has to be asked in the first place says a lot about male reluctance to take a backseat to their female counterparts.
Whether it’s wives making more than their husbands or male comedians throwing up their hands at the rise of feminist criticism, gender equality is either treated as the end of an era—killing either comedy or your childhood—or even the end of a marriage. As the Daily Dot’s Cynthia McKelvey recently reported, “Survey data of nearly 3,000 married men and women showed that men who make less than their female spouses are more likely to cheat than if they make the same or more than their spouse.” Clearly this isn’t just an industry problem–it’s a guy problem.
If anything, Mad Max was a blank surrogate for the audience. It was Charlize Theron, playing the one-armed Imperator Furiosa, who got to have all the fun.
McKelvey suggested in her piece that alleviating male panic is about changing the definitions of masculinity through a more inclusive feminism, but it’s also about men being willing to be models for progressive change. Before confusingly taking back their complaints (it was just a joke!), Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin made headlines for criticizing Netflix’s wage practices. The streaming service paid their Grace and Frankie co-stars, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, the same as the show’s leads, despite the fact their names are in the title.
While it was awesome to hear women take on pay inequality, even if it was later debunked, where were Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston in that discussion? When the Today show put pressure on Amy Adams to discuss being paid less than American Hustle’s characters, why didn’t they do the same for Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner?
Men may be reluctant to stand up and be an example, but they shouldn’t be. While outspoken women are often punished for criticizing the system (remember Megan Fox vs. Michael Bay), men are given a pat on the back for being “enlightened”—for better or worse. Hemsworth’s Ghostbusters casting led to widespread fan meltdowns on Twitter, while Hardy’s willingness to play second fiddle earned him his own Hey Girl meme, the Internet’s ultimate symbol of undying adoration. Together, they’re in a combined 11 upcoming projects on IMDb, so clearly their careers aren’t hurting either.
To a certain extent, this problem will always be structural—the result of an industry and society that allows for too few roles for women at the top. But if we ever hope to change that structure, men have to join the fight—and then let women lead it.
Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)