Ghostbusters and Kpop, Men and Women

If you’re hoping for something about Peter Venkman hitting on a Kpop star, or who’s the sexiest female ghostbuster according to Koreans, or some Korean pop Ghostbusters mashup video? Sorry, this isn’t the post for you. (It’s not really an addition to the middle-aged man kvetch-fest of last summer, either.)

I just saw the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters for the second time (in just over a year: we saw it in the cinema in Canada last year, but I wanted to see the extended cut). Watching it, all the little callouts in the film to online furor and criticism and outcry reminded me of the insane furore in real life, spewed onto the net by frail manchildren were all hurt because their childhoods had been “destroyed” or some bullshit like that.

(Well, also, the insanely racist backlash against Leslie Jones. Seriously, does being the black Ghostbuster have to be such a rough gig every damned time?)  

I assume those who raged against the reboot have realized the films they love are still available, as are ten or eleven season’ worth of various animations, plus a bunch of comic books, all of which explore the further adventures of their beloved characters and the generation to follow in the original Ghostbusters universe (and other universes, apparently).

If you wish there had been a Ghostbusters III and want to blame someone for preventing it from happening, I suspect there are far better targets for your ire: you could blame Bill Murray for refusing to do the gig until after Harold Ramis passed away, or blame whoever you want for the way Ghostbusters II flopped—that, surely, was what stifled the return to the franchise, after all:

Me, I have no problem with a reboot featuring all-female Ghostbusters. 

In principle, anyway. Personally, I still liked the original better, but I’m self-aware enough to know that’s subjective and that nostalgia probably has a lot to do with it: the original was a touchstone for me as a kid—in fact, some of the first fiction I wrote was a reworking of the concept with my friends and me as ghostbusters, clearing out a local haunted house. So while I wasn’t really disappointed by the reboot—it was a fun couple of hours—neither did I fall in love with it. It was, to be honest, the first film I got to see with my wife in over a year, so even if it’d been bad, I’d have had fun. Still, even being lukewarm about the film, I wasn’t surprised when one of my nephews said he maybe liked it better than the original. He’s not a traitor to his sex or the franchise: the films are probably about equally cheesy, all things being equal. 

Anyway, what I want to talk about is the odd idea that an all-female Ghostbusters team is a feminist win. Last summer, I heard a lot of geek women—and some geek men, too—saying that, and my reaction was always, “Really?”

To me, that seems a lot like setting one’s sights unfortunately low. I feel like maybe if you’re looking for for a progressive coup in Hollywood, you may not understand Hollywood. Hollywood is going to continue to whitewash movies. They’re going to continue to make female characters who suck. All the fan outrage in the world isn’t going to change that, because Hollywood isn’t about fan love: it’s about selling as many tickets (and DVDs, and tie-in merch) as possible , and the best way to do that is to pander to the backwards sensibilities of most average schlubs out there in ways that feel very safe and familiar to the people putting the money into projects.  

Don’t get me wrong: I can understand that it was heartening to finally have a female Ghostbusters team. I can imagine being a geeky girl in the 80s and consuming show after show—all the great touchstones of geek culture—and seeing how the female characters were consistently love interests, sidekicks, plot coupons, and supportive (or annoying) moms. I can understand sitting down to watch an all-woman Ghostbusters film being a feelgood moment: women who bust ghosts! Women who aren’t just secretaries or eye candy or boob-joke fodder or someone for Venkman to hit on! Yeah, I can understand that.

Still, it makes me think about something my wife mentioned about Korean pop groups in the 90s, versus today. Here’s two major Korean pop groups currently active, respectively called Girls’ Generation and Big Bang.

No, I’m not posting a video, because I despise both. You can thank me in the comments for sparing you the horror.

Now, here’s a few Korean pop (okay, and hip-hop) groups from the 90s… respectively Roora, Cool, Uptown, and Koyote:

Sorta jumps out at you, huh? 


I’ve seen it mentioned a few places (and my wife has mentioned it too) that gender segregation was far less de rigeur in Korean popular music groups in the 1990s, and that one frequently saw groups including both female and male performers. By the time I arrived in Korea at the end of 2001, that had changed: every group was all-male or all-female, or so it seemed. Certainly the most famous ones all were gender segregationist. I’m guessing changes in the role of played by music companies here (who’ve basically have set up a whole industry filled with corporate, company-created pop bands) has something to do with it, but that’s probably not the whole story: there’s a lot of evidence that socially the Asian Financial Crisis resulted in serious backsliding when it comes to gender. 

I don’t care for Kpop (at all), and pretty much agree with my wife, who once called it “the shame of the nation,” but I do find it amusing when people go out dowsing for proto-feminism in Kpop lyrics, dance moves, or the tropes in the narratives of the music videos. To me, that whole a paradigm of all-girl or all-boy bands is in itself anti-feminist and anti-egalitarian, and says a lot more about the status of women in Korean society. 

Come back and talk to me when it becomes possible to have a mixed-gender group, in which women can be viewed as equals within the group. I think that would be proto-feminism in a pop music context. Having gender exclusive groups is in and of itself the opposite of a feminist triumph, because the real hidden message is that women can only matter when there’s no man around, because as we all know (ahem) if there is one, he’s going to automatically matter more. 

Going back to the Ghostbusters, I’d argue that the Extreme Ghostbusters—the last cartoon series from the 90s, which featured a female team member, Kylie Griffin, working with male teammates but holding her own and saving the day from time to time—was way more of a “feminist” win than an all-female team of ghostbusters: 

Maybe not a total win. I mean, is a she a token female? I don’t know the series well enough to say, but I’d argue she might not be: she’s a genius, she fights hard, and she’s the team’s expert on the occult, from what little I do know. Then again, even in the earlier The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, Jeanine (the secretary) saved the day a few times, and Kylie’s the only Ghostbuster not to wear the usual jumpsuit—she has some kind of skintight goth outfit with body armor instead, for, um, whatever reason. (It’s because she’s a girl, right? Maybe… or maybe because she’s a goth? Maybe it’s even addressed in the show, I don’t know.)

The show, though, was clearly making an effort at inclusivity. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia, describing the team members:

Kylie Griffin, a goth girl genius and expert on the occult; Eduardo Rivera, a cynical Latino slacker; Garrett Miller, a young white paraplegic athlete who uses a wheelchair; and Roland Jackson, a studious African-American machinery whiz.

So… yeah, I dunno… I think this mixed-gender, racially diverse, disability-inclusive team of ghostbusters is still much more progressive in absolute terms than a team that’s just, you know, all-female and mostly white. It envisions a world where women and men (and white, black, and Latino people, and disabled and non-disabled people alike), can all cooperate and work together as equals while being heroes and saving the damned world.

Doubtless, some (mostly middle-aged white guys) are going to complain that the showrunners were “trying too hard” or “being all P.C.” Funny how, when you call it “trying to be inclusive” or “showing some basic respect for your fellow human beings” it suddenly sounds like not such a bad thing… but someone slapping that pejorative “being P.C.” onto something, it’s supposed to sound like you’re being awful and horrible, huh?

Ultimately, like I said: all-female Ghostbusters are fine, but it feels to me like the underlying assumption behind it is that it’s not possible to write a Ghostbusters script where there a couple of women and a couple of men who are colleagues, who work together and don’t need to be romantically involved, and where they’re all relatively authentic characters who contribute crucially to the team. Would writing that really be so hard? (I don’t think so, and I hear IGN’s been making a comic series where the new and the original Ghostbusters team up together, across different dimensions.) Would filming it be somehow more difficult? (Why would it be?) Or it is just that no matter how well it was achieved, the audience wouldn’t perceive it that way? (Again, I think it could, if the director was on top of the issue.)

That is, if the studios let it happen. That’s probably the biggest barrier: men and women working together? As equals? Why is it I can easily imagine studio people balking at the very idea if sinking millions of dollars into a film that hinges on that idea?

Maybe all of this is obvious, but I haven’t seen anyone else say it. So now I have. 

Oh, here’s two a bonuses:

First, Ivan Reitman has actually mentioned the idea of expanding the Ghostbusters franchise in Northeast Asia: a Ghostbusters film set in China or, yes, Korea was something he mentioned in an interview just last month.  

And second, though I haven’t seen a Ghostbusters/Kpop remix, I just noticed (via Slashfilm) that there was a J-pop remake of the theme song released by Sony before the reboot came out last year. It’s a big ol’ slab of fromage, but pretty faithful to the cheesiness of the original, featuring an all-female group of Japanese pop singers: 

7 thoughts on “Ghostbusters and Kpop, Men and Women

  1. I really enjoyed the 2016 film. I’ve had fe female greeting friends talk about Holtzmann’s big action scene at the end and what a rarity it was that she wasn’t sexualised at all.

    Interesting on the K-pop front. I knew the labels basically manufactured the band, but the 90s “mixed” bands were new to me.

    1. Yeah, I mean, I think one could maybe argue Holtzmann sort of tried to sexualize herself—licking the guns and all—but that reads very differently than being sexualized by the narrative. It’s more like seeing Chris Farley in that Chippendales routine where he strips and dances—he’s trying to be sexy, and failing in the most hilarious and human way.

      Holtzmann was definitely my favorite of the quartet, probably because she’s so unhinged… and yet so terrifyingly competent.

    2. Oh, and yeah, the music companies absolutely manufacture the bands. I’m not sure how much the the shift is just those companies being careful with the time and money they invest in groups (after all, even non-romantic relationships within a group can lead to a group imploding: how much more risky it is with men and women working together isn’t an issue, because the increase in potential risk is obviously nonzero).

      Oh, and I’m not claiming all 90s groups were coed: they weren’t. But from what I hear, you saw more high-profile coed groups then than you do now. That’d certainly fit into the picture of a general backsliding of women’s status following the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98 that I’ve seen discussed (and, from older feminists, heard about in person)…

  2. My thoughts on Ghostbusters 2016 were 1). I’m glad this movie exists because so many people I know are happy about it and 2). maybe modern feminism means that women have the same rights to make vapid, limp movies, just the same as men.

    To me, Ghostbusters 2016 was certainly a mixed bag, but not any more so than any Will Ferrell/Paul Rudd/etc buddy movie that are far less criticized.

    I agree that to me, it would be nice to see integrated men and women, but because the pendulum is so far to the other way, I understand why an all-female non-sexualized cast was reason for a lot of women to celebrate.

    1. I agree that I was glad it existed because so many people were happy. I can accept the idea of an all-female cast as a step towards getting the pendulum swinging, too, I just feel like in a lot of the rhetoric I heard from fans of the show, there was a perception that this was some kind of feminist win, when to me it kind of left me wondering how we came to this point. (And maybe feeling like a 70s feminist might have pointed this out.) Then again, maybe an integrated crew would feel like more of a win after people get used to films where a plucky group of female protagonists is… just another story, rather than an occasion for the outpouring of whining, bizarre, rage-fueled netrage.

      Your second point, I think, speaks to a not-new observation about feminism: at the moment, it’s still fighting the fight after which women get to do the same kinds of things men get to do, including the crappy things men get to do. That’s fine, as long as we don’t mistake that for the whole fight. A forward looking feminism needs to bear in mind that the redefinition of the roles of both sexes or genders (or all sexes or genders) is necessary and that that will require forcing employers institutionally to recognize, enable, and support that redefinition. Funny how companies have had to give up so little, and have gained so much, by the changes to the status of women… completely, I’d argue, because there’s been no real change in the roles men are expected to play (and supported, institutionally, in playing).

      I also agree that the criticism of the Ghostbusters reboot was much, much more than a lot of terrible comedy films that come and go with minimal response. Of course, like I said, I think some of that is misplaced outrage at the lack of a longed-for Ghostbusters III (and the long-abiding nostalgia for the series felt by geeky males in American culture—a lot of geeky dudes aren’t good at separating “I’m a fan of X” from various feelings of entitlement regarding X), but also, a lot of it seems to be opportunistic online woman-hating, straight up. Strange that that would be such a familiar thing—I’d never imagined that being one of the things we learned from having an internet, back in the mid-90s when I first got online—but obviously it is a widespread problem. I guess this is the appropriate spot to link something I listened to today, the recent Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast interview with Zoe Quinn, another recipient of online woman-hatred.

      Anyway, I agree: it was a mixed bag, but that in itself isn’t a big deal. And I did like it enough to see it a second time, after all…

      1. What you say makes sense, however, even though I consider myself a feminist I am leery of dictating where I think feminism should be/go when ultimately I don’t think it is/should be my decision.

        As to the actual movie, when you think about it it’s an odd choice for a sacred cow. The 2nd Ghostbusters was pretty terrible and the first one, though I do like it, is at times more than a little disconcerting to modern standards.

        I agree with you (and most everyone who saw it) that Holtzmann was by far the stand out character, good enough to make the movie worth watching.

        1. I understand what you’re saying, but I think there are some assumptions inherent in it that I at the very least doubt, and probably reject. Thoughtfully expressing dissent about an ideology that after all proposes to change our society radically (in a positive way) and saying, “Er, you’re not being radical enough,” isn’t somehow “dictating” how it should be: it’s an opinion. Likewise, to have and express an opinion isn’t the same as arrogating upon oneself the power and sole right to “decide” anything. I understand that historically men did dictate this to women, and did arrogate to themselves the right to “decide” but that’s clearly not what I’m doing in this post. Also, excluding reasonable and reasoned critique of anything because of how the speaker’s genitalia are configures is a surefire a way of throwing out good, useful, and important ideas: that, indeed, is one of the great lessons feminism was supposed to have taught us!

          Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, though, in saying that I understand the happy reaction and as a provisional step maybe that’s laudable. Part of my frustration is more general: as Russel Jacoby argues, radical progressive ideology has sort of withered. Now single payer universal health insurance looks utopian by American standards (and is something we have to fight to defend in the rest of the first world): actual utopias, we’ve forgotten how to imagine or strive for altogether, if you see what I mean.

          (Which is also to say that it’s not that I imagine I’m the first to express this critique, by the way—I’d swear Joanna Russ argues something along those lines in What Are We Fighting For?—but I see it very rarely and boosting the signal seems worthwhile.)

          And, really, I do see what I’m saying as the neglected logical extension of basic, mainstream feminist ideology: if women’s status and role in society is to be radically transformed so that they have opportunities and the right to do more than housework and childrearing (which is necessary and good), then men’s status and role will also need to be radically transformed. The failure of this to happen has only really served employers (and men), and frankly even if mechanization can replace housework (which, I mean, good!), children will not be able to rear themselves. (And most of the institutions we pretend can act as surrogates generally do a piss-poor job of it.) Men will need to be freed up to take a bigger hand in it, and it seems like nobody’s going to fight for that ideological change if feminists aren’t.

          (Not that everyone has children, but the dilemma of who is supposed to be doing the work of raising children isn’t irrelevant just because some people choose not to have them.)

          EDIT: And on reflection, I should note that I haven’t seen anyone holding up the film as bogus evidence that feminism had finally won or anything—well, anyone outside of the misogynistic alt-right who were whining feminism had won, boo hoo. I guess on some level I’m grousing about my frustration at how the majority of political discussion I see online these days is the politicization of entertainment: not because that’s horrible (it’s fine) but because it kind of seems to have overshadowed the politicization of much more pressing issues. An all-female Ghostbusters hasn’t exactly made the STEM disciplines more welcoming to women, or eliminated unfair pay rates in most fields (including entertainment), or any of a host of much more profoundly life-affecting things progressives have been working at getting addressed for decades. The politicization of entertainment seems to be about feelings, and while feelings are, you know, not nothing, they’re maybe not the firmest basis upon which to build a set of priorities, or measure forward movement.

          As for the movie: it’s beloved because so many people fell so deeply in love with it since childhood—the number of “Ghostheads” online is pretty astonishing. But even most of them willingly admit that Ghostbusters II wasn’t great: they’re more in love with the franchise in all its forms: animations, comics, the RPG, cosplay, and so on, and most such fans feel the typical degree of entitlement that fans of anything feel. (And troubling stuff in a film from your childhood is something people often seem eager to gloss over saying, “That’s how it was back then.”)

          I think it ended up being the object of a such a Holy War (or Unholy War, really) mainly just because a bunch of Men’s Rights and Alt-Right morons online decided to point their perpetual hate-boner that way. The hate boner is always erect, it just gets pointed at new targets because the thrill of shitting on any one particular woman seems to wear off after a while for guys like that. A long while, in some cases, and with very baffling justification, too: Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn were definitely targeted a lot of men who simply don’t gave a shit about indie games or the critique of mass market computer games. There’s a lot of follow-the-leader, too.

          However, I think there’s likely a degree of overlap between the two groups: guys who fell in love with Ghostbusters as kids (and may or may not have had an enduring interest in the franchise), and guys who are part of the New Misogyny (same as the old one, except Now On Twitter!). I mean, there’s a lot of, er, socially challenged dudes in both groups.

          And yeah, Holtzmann was fun. I kind of feel like, if they launched a franchise of international films set in faraway places, Holtzmann should be the contact person: she’d fly over with the gear ordered by the new franchise, teach them how to use it (and not blow themselves up), and scare the living crap out of the new franchise owners. She’d probably also come bearing experimental prototypes and waiver forms: free field testing? I can see that making her salivate.

          (This is a scenario I’d be using if I ended up running a Ghostbusters Korea RPG—with PCs who’re a mix of locals and cashed-out-of-TEFL-expats… which, I have to admit, is a very tempting idea at the moment. The fun of having them test prototypes in the field—and maybe go on to develop their own—is really, really tempting. Sort of way of bringing in the “field testing” trope from Paranoia, which just so happens to have been another West End Games RPG at the time the Ghostbusters game was produced. I’m actually sketching—a few minutes a day—prototype images to do up some equipment cards that will supplement the Nerdy Show equipment cards that I’ll be getting next month.)

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