Why an all-female ‘Ghostbusters III’ is the reboot we need

When reports started to emerge that Ghostbusters III, the latest installment in/reboot of the legendary comedy franchise may not only happen, but that it could star a female-driven cast, it felt like a big moment. The revelation that this team of Ghostbusters for a new era would be comprised of all women was almost like a symbolic representation of the current state of comedy.

Then this week, the passing of the torch practically became official, when original Ghostbuster Bill Murray himself weighed in on who should lead the next generation of the franchise.. “Melissa [McCarthy] would be a spectacular Ghostbuster. And Kristen Wiig is so funny—God, she’s funny!” he said at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival, continuing, “I like this girl Linda Cardellini a lot. And Emma Stone is funny. There are some funny girls out there.”

Mr. Murray is right: To say there are some funny girls out there is a bit of an understatement these days. Ever since the announcement regarding the new Ghostbusters, speculation about who should star has been growing, and Murray has only reinforced many of the most popular choices. But no matter who the leads ends up being, the movie is looking like it will be a pretty exciting project. Director Paul Feig, of Bridesmaids and Freaks and Geeks fame, is already on board, and promises to be a good choice. More importantly, however, there are more amazing female comedians out there than ever to choose from for the cast.

And this is what’s so cool about the prospect of Ghostbusters III. In carrying on the legacy of one of cinema’s most popular comedic series, the new Ghostbusters promises to acknowledge women’s rightful place in comedy today: at the top of the food chain.

Despite that stupidly persistent claim that “women aren’t funny,” there have always been great female comedians, no matter what sexist male comics would tell you. This past week, in the wake of Joan Rivers’ passing, the legacy of comedy’s female trailblazers is once again being examined, but although Rivers’ contribution to the medium was incredibly important, she was hardly the first.

In 2011, after Bridesmaids prompted everyone who wasn’t incurably obtuse to admit that funny women are a force to be reckoned with, David Quantick at U.K.’s the Telegraph noted, “Women have always excelled at every aspect of comedy, from the one liner (Mae West and Dorothy Parker) to character comedy (Hilda Baker and Irene Handl), and are as much part of comedy’s deranged heritage as men.”

Keeping that in mind, it’s foolish to claim that women have only started to excel in the world of comedy over the previous few decades or so. If it feels that way, it’s because the world of comedy has been designed for a long time to keep women on the fringes.

But the antiquated belief that comedy doesn’t have room for more than a handful of women at a time is finally being chipped away at. Inspired by the recent boom in popular female comedians, Marie Claire editor Yael Kohen decided to trace the history that led up to this, in her 2012 book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.

Paul Harris reviewed We Killed for The Guardian, where he discussed the journey female comedians have taken through the ages.

The book begins by looking at [Phyllis] Diller, whose appearance on the standup scene in the late 1950s in New York comedy clubs was nothing short of revolutionary… The book goes on to the tell the story of the female comics who emerged in the 1960s, such as Joan Rivers, who also made a name for herself with self-deprecation. Yet Rivers also put raunchy material in her act… That helped to pave the way for more political and feminist comics to emerge, such as Lily Tomlin in the late 1960s. Then in the 1970s, women comics burst onto television—not in the role of wives and mothers, but as independent women, such as in the Mary Tyler Moore Show… By the 80s, comics such as Elayne Boosler were doing edgier material… By the 90s, comedians such as Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres had mainstream hit shows led by feisty, powerful women.

Alternative comics such as Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho were major standup names and Whoopi Goldberg had gone from standup to being a wildly popular movie star. Yet still it was not easy.

It’s not easy today either. Even with all the inroads female comedians have made, they are still subject to frustratingly disparate highs and lows. The rise of women on Saturday Night Live has been marred by the show’s typically lackadaisical approach to diversity among those women. The highest grossing comedy of 2013 was female-driven buddy cop movie The Heat, yet statistics indicate that the number of major motion pictures with female leads from last year comes out to a pitiful 15 percent.

And while many hoped a post-Bridesmaids Hollywood might be more inclined to usher in a new breed of smart, funny, female-centric stories, this year’s The Other Woman and Walk of Shame did the the exact opposite, according to many.

However, there have been legitimate advances for women in comedy as of late, chief among them the growing refusal to refer to them as just “women in comedy.” The tendency to “Peggy Olson” women in all fields, so to speak, is pervasive enough where most people don’t actually notice it. But to refer to women comedians merely as “women in comedy” does them a huge disservice. It segregates them and qualifies them as less than their male counterparts.

Comedian Gaby Dunn, a former writer for the Daily Dot, talked about this at Slate, where she stated that her one problem with Kohen’s We Killed was that it often got stuck looking through this narrow prism. “The more women are encouraged to think they are merely a subset of comedy, and not an equal part of its world—the ups and the downs—the more of a disservice we do to them and to the art form,” she writes. “Indeed, many of the women in Kohen’s book resist the very idea of being discussed as ‘female comedians.’”  

In the end, Dunn’s favorite anecdote in the book ended up coming from a seemingly unlikely source. She recalls, “I was most intrigued…by an interview with Upright Citizens Brigade founder Matt Besser, who speaks admiringly of his co-founder Amy Poehler. While she’s eager to encourage other women in comedy in an act of loyal sisterhood, he says, ultimately she just ‘[does] her best and [doesn’t] give a shit.’”

Dunn goes on from there, concluding, “It might sound odd to say that the book inspired me not to give a shit. But that’s high praise… It’s because of the amazing women who came before me that I have the privilege to do so. I hope everyone, male or female, who wants to grab a mike, pen a sketch, or get on stage reads it, so they can be inspired not to give a shit, too.”

No one is saying female comedians shouldn’t derive pride from their place in the historically masculine field that is comedy. But perhaps, in 2014, the best thing (other than enjoying and supporting their work) we can all do for female comics is to recognize them as more than representatives of their gender.

Consider, for instance, the late, great Joan Rivers, who always rejected the notion that she was a pioneer for women; Joan Rivers knew that she was a pioneer for everybody. Similarly, to say that “Kristen Wiig is one of the funniest women alive” is somewhat reductive. Kristen Wiig is one of the funniest people alive, period.

Discussing the film’s 30th anniversary earlier this year, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman told the Los AngelesTimes he thinks the film has stayed a part of the American consciousness for so long because it has a “feel-good quality,” which “creates something… more timeless.”

Hopefully, this spirit will also be on display in Ghostbusters III. There is a lot to be learned from a good gender swap, but a female-centric Ghostbusters needn’t be strictly a political move. Yes, women and men are different, but one of the best things about modern entertainment has been America’s slow realization that when it comes to comedy, women can play everything that men can.

The new Ghostbusters has a ways to go before making it to the big screen, but if all goes right, its biggest victory will be the causal assertion that, “Hey, it’s been 30 years. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that women can hang out and fight ghosts pretty well, too.”

And if Bill Murray can get onboard with a female Ghostbusters team, why can’t you? Not that the film has to cast McCarthy, or Wiig, or one of his other picks for that matter. They could also go with the likes of Ellie Kemper, Anna Faris, Mindy Kaling, Aisha Tyler, Aubrey Plaza, or any number of the dozens of funny women working in Hollywood right now.

You can bet that by the time the film gets made, the list will be even longer.

?Photo via Thoth, God of Knowledge/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.