(Originally published on March 10, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)
The 1980s were the heyday of wildly successful woman-led movies, though no one seems to acknowledge it and today’s moviemakers have apparently all forgotten it. This happened with both mainstream movies like 9 to 5 (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton living a feminist corporate fantasy that’s still applicable 40 years later), The Color Purple, and Steel Magnolias, and iconic genre movies like Terminator 2, Aliens, and Labyrinth.
While I enjoyed T2 (and didn’t see Labyrinth until much later), my choice for Woman-led Genre Pic was Aliens, to such an extent that I cannot count how many times I saw it in the theater (the only movie that I saw in the theater more was Rocky Horror Picture Show). I loved Ripley, had a huge crush on Vasquez, and oddly did not find Newt annoying. (Actually, the actress, Carrie Henn, was bloody brilliant.)
Of course, the 1980s also sported a number of iconic and formative genre movies and series: Star Wars, Star Trek, the Indiana Jones movies, Superman, Mad Max, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Bill and Ted’s, Robocop, and The Princess Bride. I enjoyed a lot of them. My first birthday party with friends rather than family was going to see Superman II. I cried like a fool when Spock died at the end of Wrath of Khan and adored the soundtrack for The Voyage Home (still have the vinyl). I had to have friends tell me when it was okay to look again in the scene that punched all my horrible phobia buttons in Temple of Doom. A college friend and I bonded over quotations from The Princess Bride, as was required for all good geeks of the era.
But I wasn’t seeing anything like me in most of these movies. Vasquez was the closest thing to a butch that this baby butch saw in any movie of the time, and I was just starting to edge sideways into my butchness. Every non-woman-led genre movie had one (1) straight femme to exist in the male gaze and act as a love interest for the hero. There might be an accidental nerdy girl or a female villain in mainstream movies, but usually in genre, they kept the budget for hiring women short. (Also, sexual assault was normalized and romanticized, as in Blade Runner, and made things extra creepy.)
The 2015-2016 movie season suddenly served up 3 movies that punched straight through my middle-aged cynicism to the sad little teenager in the back of my head. It was an incandescent Utena experience all over again, only I was older and crustier and more cynical than I was in 1997. Why didn’t I have these in 1984?
The answer, of course, is Patriarchy.
Who Killed the World?
Speaking of Patriarchy, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Mad Max series. I watched the first 2 movies on VHS with my parents on a giant toploading VCR that Dad borrowed from work. And TBH I don’t remember them at all. They were kind of… brown and full of toxic masculinity and cars and desert? Oh, and that asshole, what’s-his-nuts. The only thing I got out of the third movie was that Tina Turner looked good in chain mail and sang a pretty good song about not needing another hero, though I wanted that movie to be better (and more about her character) than it was. But you know, what’s-his-nuts poisons everything he touches, so it’s not surprising.
I was more than a bit cynical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. It was going to be another wet dream for the man-fans, I was sure. And I prepared to ignore it.
But then media I half-respected started to talk about it, and then my friends started to go see it and rave about it. Despite the enormous inertia I usually have to overcome (in myself mostly) to arrange outings to see movies, I did so.
I spent the entire movie expecting the other shoe to drop. I waited for Max to become the star of the movie, the savior for all the poor li’l womenfolk. I waited for some sickening romantic BS between Max and Furiosa, some feminization of Furiosa. I watched for Nux to turn into the shithead I was sure he was. I anticipated the deaths of all the wives (Angharad’s death was a red herring down this road, but at least she died doing something instead of just getting fridged), or graphic flashbacks for their “origin” stories, or for one of them to betray everyone in order to get back to Joe.
I really wasn’t sure what to do at the end of the movie when… none of those things had happened. I joked that Eve Ensler, the “feminist consultant” on the movie, must have stood over the writer/director with a rolled-up newspaper and thwacked him every time he did something stupid or toxic.
Additionally, the movie was the most cinematographically beautiful endless car chase I’d ever seen, with human interactions that felt raw and real, and a storyline that was actually heartwrenching. The loss of the Green Place. The Vuvalini so diminished. The devastation of all hope. Who killed the world, indeed. And Max’s best moment of the movie, cutting through the grief with a suicidal plan that might work, but if it didn’t, they’d be just as dead as they would if they tried to traverse the dry ocean.
I will probably never watch this movie again, though I own it, because the unrelenting violence is too much for me in my tender and soft middle age. I wish I didn’t think that it was a wild fluke on the part of the makers, one of those ideas that Pratchett talked about sleeting through the universe until it found the right place and time to get made. I wish I believed that any further movies in the series would be as amazing as this one was. But I don’t. Toxic masculinity ruins the party again and again and again.
We’re All Fine Here, How Are You?
I didn’t see the original Star Wars movie until it was rereleased a year after it first came out. I was very out of touch with pop culture as a small child, and it took my cousin getting an array of toys to convince me that I needed to see the movie. The Empire Strikes Back was the last movie my grandmother ever took me to (after that, I was going on my own), and she complained about not being able to nap through it because of the loudness of the shooting. I remember waiting in a line that wrapped around the mall for the opening day of Return of the Jedi. I listened to my double album of the Star Wars soundtrack on repeat throughout my childhood and tween years. I collected a number of the action figures, though my family couldn’t afford the playsets. I made my own Millennium Falcon out of a boot-sized shoebox, roughly laser-cannon-shaped pieces of plastic left over from a model I built, and a lot of scotch tape.
I was skeptical of Princess Leia as a character, and certainly couldn’t be Leia in my imaginative play with my friends. I preferred Han or Chewbacca, letting the “real boys” play Luke. (And therein lies a whole analysis of Han Solo as feminized character or at least as acceptably detoxified Mary Sue Fanfiction Blues bait.) As I got older, I came to a deep appreciation for Leia’s presence and ferocity, as well as Carrie Fisher’s determination to make the character memorable when stuck in a film that should have ignored her. (We can thank George Lucas’ wife Marcia for her script and film editing as well as Fisher for making her performances unforgettable.)
While I enjoyed the callbacks to the Star Wars universe, I was disappointed in the depiction of Luke and Leia’s mother in Phantom Menace, and so I didn’t bother to watch the second or third prequels.
Cue being extremely skeptical about The Force Awakens.
But the advance hype sold me. Another woman, and this one a focus character? A Black character as a focus character? Leia returning? Han and Chewie returning? At the last minute, I convinced the gaming group to go see it on opening night.
The opening credits did their usual goosebumps thing (damn you, John Williams, damn you). But I didn’t expect to cry. I cried at multiple points in the movie, but my first breaking point was Leia’s appearance. Because, whether we knew it or not as kids, Princess Goddamn Leia was the fiercest, most memorable character in SF&F film at the time. And here she was, older and wiser and with far fewer fucks to give: precisely the model I needed in my middle age.
This was the movie I came out of saying, “My inner 16-year-old wants to know why we didn’t get this movie the first time.”
It would have been trivially simple to make the twins both girls. (If Lucas had even had the idea of having Luke and Leia be twins originally, which I disbelieve.) It would have been even easier to give Leia a lightsaber and Force training. But no. It was a boys’ club and Leia was the Smurfette of the universe… until Rey came along. Rey was fantastic. Rey interacting with Leia was downright flooring.
Of course, none of my sniffling during Force Awakens could compare to my ugly sobbing at the end of Last Jedi when the dedication to Carrie Fisher rolled. Losing her was worse than losing Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was sad. Fisher was heartbreaking.
Here. I can’t say it well enough. Watch this fanvid by Eruthros instead. Have Kleenex in hand.
Who You Gonna Call?
Was the original Ghostbusters amusing? Yes. Was it quotable? Yes. Did I quote it? Of course. Did I watch the heck out of it and its sequel? Yes. Did I mostly watch it for Sigourney Weaver? Yes. Was the humor chock-full of sexist bullshit? Yes. When I tried watching it again 10 years ago, was I able to watch it without spiking my blood pressure? Nope.
Not only was the original movie a pit of seething toxic masculinity “humor” but it was racist af (see all the information about what was done to Ernie Hudson and the character of Winston in case you missed that discussion). I think the movie had pretty decent bones, honestly, or it wouldn’t have been so enduring despite the shitty body it was given. I still feel pretty fond of the concept of the thing.
But but but.
Then the “reboot” (which I read as “alternate universe” or AU) of 2016 happened.
Not only did we get an all-women team of Ghostbusters, but I got one who rang queer, geeky, and butch to boot. The writing and comedy was solid, the characters were engaging, and I enjoyed the hell out of defenestrating Bill Murray’s character.
My main issue was with Patty, who they treated at least as badly as Winston had been treated, and I wish to hell they’d fixed that problem. There’s no reason she had to be the “add-on” Ghostbuster. Leslie Jones would’ve rocked the hell out of a role like Abby or Erin. Patty could have been a disaffected PhD who was working for MTA because the benefits were better than in academia. (I’ve written some fic that postulates this too, because that’s one thing fic is for: fixit.) There were literally hundreds of less racist (and misogynist) possibilities other than what they chose.
I can still appreciate the Ghostbusters that Inner 16 wanted so much: the fat, competent scientist; the big, loud woman taking up space; the high-strung, serious scientist; and the geek butch geeking out and flirting madly with the nervy straight-wannabe who is attracted to both the project and the butch.
I think we saw the movie 3 or 4 times in the theaters and then I preordered the Blu-ray with the extended cut (I enjoyed the new content, particularly between Holtzmann and Gorin, but I think the released film is mostly better). I even started planning Holtzmann cosplay — I don’t do cosplay, you understand.
By the time Ghostbusters appeared onscreen, I hadn’t really spontaneously written fic for anything for something like 15 years. I don’t really count the little dribs and drabs that spooted out here and there (one very short piece for Fury Road, some cranky things about The X-Files and Doctor Who). For me, really being inspired to fic is the kind of thing I did with Utena: a few short pieces, a few longer pieces, maybe a novel-length monster that takes 10 years to finish. Ghostbusters was striking in that I not only had a several pieces appear in relatively short order, but I also wrote some Mature Content, which is very unusual for me.
Ghostbusters 2016 has actually gotten me more harassment than any of my other fandoms combined. I put a bumper sticker on my car that read, “Safety lights are for dudes,” with Holtzmann’s heart-radiation symbol, and I started getting dudes blowing their horns, flashing their headlights, and even following me as I drove through city streets (way too closely with brights on). (This behavior stopped as soon as I took the sticker off. It had never occurred with the pride sticker I had there before.) I have a “We Can Bust It” t-shirt with Holtzmann in the iconic Rosie the Riveter post and at a store in my town, the man (of course) behind the counter pointed at the picture on my chest (his finger halting less than six inches from my actual frontispieces) and opined that the movie wasn’t as good as the original. (I haven’t been back to said store, opting to go to a similar store at the other end of town instead.)
I cannot convey how much I wanted THIS Ghostbusters in 1984 and couldn’t even imagine it to want it.
Representation in media matters, y’all. (I say, preaching to the choir.) Women — and love between women — saving the world means so goddamn much to me. The way Black Panther means so much to so many Black people. The way having actual Native people playing Native characters matters. Inclusion matters. Having us not be goddamn tokens or placeholders to enable some dull interchangeable white dude matters.
What would these movies have done for me in 1984?
They would have given me joy. So much joy that it makes Inner 16 tear up.
And Patriarchy — as embodied in the white cis het men who whine and kick and throw whole screaming tantrums about these movies — is thoroughly invested in keeping that representation away from us. We — the queers, the women, the enbies, the BIPOC folks, anyone who isn’t a rich white cisgendered heterosexual man — are Not Meant to Have Joy in Western heteronormative capitalist neoliberal society.
If we have Joy, we might get Ideas, you know.
Carpe gaudium, my friends. Seize the joy.