On Ghostbusters and Race

On Ghostbusters and Race

The most annoying argument I've heard so far against the relative goodness of the upcoming all-woman Ghostbusters remake, is that Leslie Jones' character Patty is a racist representation of a black woman because she isn't a scientist like the other three.  I understand the sentiment, but I find it strongly misplaced. 

It assumes... 

1. Random White People Know Better Than Leslie Jones

Clearly, she could've said 'no' to the part if she (an actual black woman) thought it was too stereotypical, bordering on racist. By criticizing the role, you've criticized Leslie's choice and announcing that You Know Better. You, as a white person, know better than Leslie Jones as a black comedian on what kind of roles she needs to take and what kind of roles she needs to turn down. Next on Oprah: White people save black people from racism by telling them what they should and should not do. 

No, sorry, you don't know better than Leslie Jones, and if you think the path to equality is by being an overbearing asshole that tells people you have no ability to relate to what they should and should not do, you're missing the point. 

"Missing the Point", a hobby by dudes and white people everywhere.

"Missing the Point", a hobby by dudes and white people everywhere.

2. College Education is the Only Valid Form of Intelligence

I grew up in a family that's poor. Not complete poverty poor, nor poor enough to qualify for assistance, but poor enough that there was no college fund for me when I finally graduated high school. I knew throughout high school there would be no money, and student loans looked like a shit show, even in the early 90s. When I left my parents and went out on my own, I didn't even have enough money to afford classes at the local community college. 

Instead of college, I taught myself. I worked a day job that didn't often have anything to do with what I really wanted to do (pizza cook, burger cook, light industrial work putting together products, mall portrait photographer, mall glamour shots photographer, and a whole lot of scripted tech support), then spent every spare moment I could learning how to code for the web. Eventually, I worked my way up into 6-digit programming jobs without any form of college education. It can be done. We worship the college education in this country while simultaneously making it too expensive for a lot of people to reach. 

The poverty gap in this country is ridiculous, and it plays into the education gap... but, let's not focus on that only. There are plenty of people out there without college educations who aren't stupid, and don't live their lives as complete societal rejects working at McDonald's until they die. Those people deserve just as much respect as anyone else. 

3. The Trailer Tells All and Only Scientists Are Heroes

At the beginning of A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a whiny kid who's only future is farming water in the desert or joining the Empire. He clearly wants to be so much more, but his circumstances won't allow it. 

The same thing happens with Rey at the beginning of The Force Awakens. She's trapped on Jaku as an oppressed scavenger, but she wants to be something that's so much more. There's this scene where she's cleaning off her scavenged goods and she looks at an ancient woman across from her. It's clear she's wondering, "Is that going to be me?" 

This is the plight of far too many people in this world. By circumstance alone, we get trapped in situations that leave us believing we'll be in a dead-end job forever, or we'll never find that special person to build a life with, or we'll never travel to all the far-off distant places we only dream about. All because our parents didn't have enough money to send us to college. We've been told this lie all our lives to try and terrify us into doing better in school so we can get into college and start a life where we're trapped under the weight of student loans. 

There's an assumption that because Patty doesn't have PhDs in parapsychology and psychology (that's a paraphrased quote from the original for all you fake fanboys out there), she's not going to have a crucial role in the movie, or that her role is somehow lessened because of that. I don't know this for sure, but from both what she's said, what rumors have gone around, and from what I know about story writing, this is a premature judgment. 

Not to mention this string of tweets from Leslie turned back into a whole letter in a Heroic Girls article entitled 'Leslie Jones Responds to Criticism of Her Ghostbusters Character' that came out in March: 

I received this from a MTA worker:
Hey Leslie, thanks for being you. A question was asked by a news writer about your role on your new movie as a black actress.
This was my response:
I work for the MTA in that role as a Token Booth Clerk and I was happy to see my job, something which provides me with plenty of jokes, a great perspective on society, and a bird’s eye view of horrible shit that I witness everyday on screen. (I wished Leslie would have hooked me up…a joke) however, the fact that my position as a clerk is the most abused by society, I feel this may give us a semblance of humanness. That’s what I attempted in my one woman show “Swipe This! My Life in Transit
That glass in the booth have folk thinking I’m invisible, that I’m not a college graduate, and a producer, comedian, writer, actor, etc. I’m a verb. I’m not a college graduate, and a producer, comedian, writer, actor, etc. I’m a verb. I’m not a miserable, neck-rolling, stereotype in civil service. I love my job and I enjoy engaging people with information infused with humor.
Leslie is a comedian. She’s a larger than life personality and it’s the first thing we see no matter what role she gets. As she grows, she will be able to tap into all her greatness. I am supporting this movie because I see me.
I hope you receive all that’s for you. You looked so cute in the uniform. Congrats Sis. I’m proud of you. Kick ass.

The same article went on to mention that Leslie's character sounds like it has a more crucial role than is played up in the trailers. 

Interestingly enough, this defense of Jones’ character may not even be the strongest one out there. Multiple sources close to the movie have mentioned that the trailer undersells Jones’ importance to the plot and her contributions to the team. In early press materials she is described as a “municipal historian.” It is quite possible that her encyclopedic knowledge both of the city and its history are every bit as crucial to the team’s success as the folks behind the science.

I've been incredibly frustrated with the way people have torn this movie to shreds with a strange level of absolute certainty the film will be terrible based only on less than five minutes of cut-together bits and pieces of the movie. The editing of the trailer gets criticized as if it were the entire movie itself, which is bullshit. Trailers have become terrible lately, revealing way too much of the movie along the way. I suspect this is why. 

4. Equality Looks Like White Male Culture

Frequently, when fighting for women's equality, I experience the shocking reality that many people in the world think an equal environment looks like women acting like men. In tech, when I would point out that it's difficult to have a conversation with a group of men because they talk over me and interrupt me all the time, I was told I needed to behave that way as well in order to fit in, and be heard. The same thing happened when I had trouble accepting and adapting to the default tech industry attitude of aggressively attacking the ideas of your co-workers.

The message I received from them, and receive from all over society is for women to have any chance of equality, they must accept, adapt to, and learn to use traditionally male attitudes, behaviors, and methods. There's something wrong with telling the oppressed that the only way to gain equality with the oppressors is to become just like them

I hear the same thing when white people get uncomfortable with the presence of black culture anywhere near them. Like, when people flipped out because they realized Beyoncé is black and doesn't apologize or reject black culture...

While it might be awesome to normalize the appearance of a black woman in STEM, it's a reality that very few women of color get to experience - and the reality is just as important a thing to see on the screen as is the idealized normalization. Not all women are in positions where they can rise above the forces working against them. Those people deserve to be heroes, too. 

Turning Patty into one of the few women that have managed to make it through all the hurdles keeping them from getting there would undoubtedly make all the white people in the room feel a whole lot more comfortable, but there's a reason for that discomfort, and it shouldn't be ignored. 

Number of STEM degrees/certificates conferred to U.S. citizens and nonresident aliens 2012-2013

Total, of all levels of degrees/certificates. Data courtesy National Center for Education Statistics

If it bothers you that there are so few people of color in STEM fields, and of that so few of those are women, it should. It's an uncomfortable situation, and comes with some uncomfortable statistics. This movie, and Leslie Jones, don't owe you freedom from that discomfort. 

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