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Ghostbusters, Frozen, and the strange entitlement of fan culture

Ghostbusters (2016)
Ghostbusters (2016)

It’s probably safe to say that James Rolfe does not consider himself a sexist. Rolfe, apparently better known as the “Angry Video Game Nerd,” has bravely crossed over from the world of video game crit into a broader discussion about movies via his internet-famous video wherein he announces his intentions to not see or, as such, review the upcoming remake of the 1984 film Ghostbusters. For many people, the decision not to see a particular film does not require a lengthy video announcing that intention (if it did, just imagine how many minutes of internet video would have been dedicated to Norm Of The North). But the 2016 version of Ghostbusters is different.

What makes it different may vary from viewer to viewer. For a lot of observers, it looks like a vocal group of male fans throwing fits because this Ghostbusters will star four funny women instead of four funny men. For Rolfe and others, it’s the “fan” part of that equation, rather than the “male” part, that inspires such passionate outrage. As Rolfe explains in his video, he is a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters movie. The idea that it would be remade and/or rebooted, especially without heavy involvement from the original cast and filmmakers, bothers him as a fan—not, it’s implied, as a man.

This idea—that it’s good taste and faithful fandom, not sexism, that fuels backlash against an unreleased, as-yet-unseen movie based on nothing more than a trailer—has been capably refuted elsewhere. What interests me about Rolfe’s response is the way it reflects modern fan culture, and what might be dubbed the fanification of everything. The simultaneous rise of comic-book movies and the internet has certainly brought a fair amount of formerly nerdy pursuits into the mainstream. But while it’s beloved by plenty of nerds, and has plenty of Dan Aykroyd-penned mythology in its genesis and background details, Ghostbusters has never been a particularly niche interest. During its initial release, it became one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. It’s still pretty high on the inflation-adjusted list, rendering it about as obscure as Beverly Hills Cop or Home Alone. (The unadjusted list was recently topped by the new Star Wars movie, the ultimate “nerdy” pursuit that happens to be wildly popular in just about every demographic.)

Despite its far-from-humble beginnings, there are certain fans of Ghostbusters who feel particularly possessive of that film and its unlikely magic—the way it fuses post-Saturday Night Live comic looseness with strange, inventive special effects. It’s not so unusual that some of these fans would find the idea of a remake unpalatable. Personally, I’d rather see the movie’s quartet of talented comedians (Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones) and director Paul Feig riff on Ghostbusters less directly, finding their own original movie, perhaps inspired by the alchemy of the 1984 classic without retelling that particular story. (When will this generation get its own gross Hi-C flavor, rather than being forced to sip leftover Ecto Cooler?) On the other hand, remakes have been a part of Hollywood more or less since its inception, and hiring a bunch of Saturday Night Live vets and a director who’s worked with some of them before is very much in the tradition of the original film’s talent lineup. These are similarly talented people and their movie will probably be pretty good, which is to say at least as good as Ghostbusters II.

Still, I can’t insist that everyone ought to go see a remake of Ghostbusters, because most people see maybe five movies a year in the theaters. If my movie diet was that strict, a new version of Ghostbusters wouldn’t be a priority for me, either. But Rolfe’s video is striking because of its central presumption that he deserves to want to see it—that the movie is letting him down by not following his preferred template for a new Ghostbusters movie, which would be, as he describes, a proper Ghostbusters III where the remaining cast members return and hand things off to a new generation. In short, he would be more enthusiastic about this movie if it took his feelings as a fan into account (and, judging from the way he talks around the female cast, probably also if it had fewer women in it. You know, a reasonable number—something less reflective of the actual number of women in the world, and more reflective of Hollywood in the ’80s). He also brings up children who will know the non-sequel 2016 version more readily than the 1984 version, implying that they, too, will suffer when Sony fails to preserve his vision for Ghostbusters III.

This kind of fannish delusion runs deep, and when paid any mind (as I admit I’m doing here), it threatens to turn creative endeavors into clunky Choose Your Own Adventures. Yet because of fan-friendly successes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, fan service has gotten almost too good of a rap as it has worked its way into mainstream film, often with considerable skill. In this context, it’s understandable that some fans of another Disney franchise-in-waiting, the wonderful animated movie Frozen, took to the internet to request that unattached princess character Elsa (whose journey in the film has ample coming-out subtext) be given a girlfriend in the forthcoming sequel. More broadly, though, the idea that hashtags, even progressive and non-sexist ones, might determine plot points of movies is a little chilling. (If we’re really taking votes on how Frozen 2 goes, I’d be happy to cast my vote for “leave Frozen alone and don’t make a sequel.” Just don’t look for my seven-minute video explaining how I’ll be ignoring Frozen 2 by talking about how stupid it is sight unseen.)

The entirely valid reasons for wanting Elsa or another Disney princess to be confirmed as gay are outlined in Caroline Siede’s excellent essay. And to be sure, there is a fine line between giving into ridiculous fan demands and listening to your audience, especially regarding representation. If an all-female team of Ghostbusters is the result of filmmakers finally and belatedly catching up with the reality that it’s okay, even preferable, to have more than one major female character per movie, all the better. Even more direct campaigns can still have positive effects; perhaps the support for #GiveElsaAGirlfriend might convince Disney that even if they don’t take that specific suggestion for Elsa, broad enough support exists for them to include gay characters in future films. But there’s still something unnervingly prescriptive about the notion that the storyline of Frozen 2 and the sexuality of one of its main characters should be, in effect, crowdsourced into large-scale fan-fiction. While the intentions come from a better, more inclusive place, insisting that Elsa should be given a girlfriend by popular demand is not so different than insisting that ghostbusting ought to be a male profession, to better conform to childhood memories (which often include, it should be noted, Ghostbusters-related ephemera that is mostly crap).

Look, we all feel gratified when a movie, book, or TV show gives us what we want in the deepest recesses of our hearts. As a Girls fan who ships Marnie and Ray, believe me, I understand this. This is why artists, especially genre artists, like to tell fans that they’re the lifeblood of the operation—that they’re the reason these movies get made, that these shows stay on the air, that these books keep getting published. This kind of PR line is its own, almost insultingly direct form of fan service. Moreover, it also provides a kind of false empowerment, which in turn can lead to a very real sense of entitlement. James Rolfe didn’t see the 2016 Ghostbusters and share his opinion about how it works (or doesn’t work) as a film, or even as a remake. Instead, he thinks it’s reportable news that he doesn’t want to see it, because it presumably shocked his system a little to realize that maybe this movie wasn’t being produced with his particular wants and needs in mind.

Fans so hardcore they become irrational are hardly a new phenomenon, but they have more access to each other than ever. This is partially because of the internet, but it may also have to do with the galvanizing effects of major pop-cultural events like, say, adaptations of the Harry Potter books back in the early ’00s. Adaptations of bestselling books had been delighting and (perhaps more often) disappointing audiences for decades, but suddenly, an instant-classic book series was being adapted near-concurrently with its original run. Concerns about fidelity were paramount and, indeed, the first Harry Potter film is a model of forest-for-the-trees fan love, including as much material from the book as possible. Even now, with general consensus that the series improved with a less-faithful Alfonso Cuarón take on Prisoner Of Azkaban, fans hunger for more unadapted corners of their favorite books. Whenever the idea of remaking or rebooting Harry Potter is broached, someone inevitably mentions that it would be great to do as a TV series, to really dig into the minutiae of the books’ world. Even after eight faithful movies, fans can still feel underserved.

Of course, the things fans are actually entitled to are their own opinions and feelings, even petty or deeply stupid ones. But it’s more than a little depressing when passionate fandom and fan glorification allows anyone to become convinced that resistance to a Ghostbusters remake is a principled stand rather than sexist whining. James Rolfe issued his anti-Ghostbusters manifesto while sitting in a room full of Blu-rays and various nerd memorabilia. The intention, conscious or not, is for his nerd bona fides to radiate off the screen. (Again, this is something I understand to a perhaps troubling degree; if I were photographed in my living room, it would be difficult to find an angle that didn’t show off some combination of records, movies, action figures, Legos, and a warrior bug from Starship Troopers.) I’m sure that for Rolfe, this functions as de facto proof that he’s not being sexist; he’s just being a fan.

But loving a piece of art or pop culture shouldn’t be about constantly looking backward, or placing all of your hopes and dreams in the preservation of a particular vision. Ghostbusters doesn’t need to stay a virtually all-male Ivan Reitman film—or rather, it does stay that way no matter what else happens, because the 1984 movie is still around. Frozen doesn’t need a sequel that turns its heartening subtext into literal-minded canon to become a truly meaningful piece of art—but at the same time, if it happens to get one, the original movie will still be there as a standalone piece.

Fans don’t need to get what they want, and much of the time, they probably shouldn’t. Sometimes, they will; it’s unrealistic to expect that every piece of art or pop culture with any kind of dedicated following can find a way to satisfyingly sidestep or subvert the expectations of every person in that following. But the more often that can happen—the more often movies can assert themselves as creative works made by directors and writers and editors and actors and cinematographers, not in service of fans—the better. When opinions start focusing so intently on the very idea of a new Ghostbusters or Elsa’s sexuality or Harry Potter scenes that don’t appear in the books, fan culture becomes dangerously anti-art, promoting a form of conservative stasis rather than active engagement. It’s not always easy to put our trust into filmmakers, or novelists, or TV showrunners. Trailers and news bites and internet punditry make it easier than ever to abandon that trust at the merest provocation, be it tweaked superhero costumes, rumors of characters engaging in the “wrong” romantic relationship, or a lifelong fear of women coming to a boil. Fandom offers the comfort of familiarity, and, for some fans, absolute certainty. But isn’t it more exciting when art, or even just pop culture, doesn’t settle for asking you how you feel?