Who you gonna call?

August 11th, 2016

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie; you know, the one that has gotten all the press for being a remake of the original 1984 movie but with a female main cast. When the project was announced in 2014, there was an immediate outpouring of criticism from a vocal minority: unsurprisingly, mostly men. Most of the outrage wasn’t sexist on the surface but claimed to defend the original franchise. How dare Hollywood reboot such a classic? Never mind the myriad reboots of Batman, Superman, James Bond, and even Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Other critiques centered around the idea that an all-female cast was some sort of reverse sexism or that Hollywood was sacrificing storytelling at the altar of politically correct ideology. The subtext of these criticisms is the same sexist ideas that women have heard forever: women can’t be funny, and men won’t go see a movie starring women.

While I’m no movie critic, I thoroughly enjoyed the new Ghostbusters movie, finding it enjoyable and light-hearted, a much-needed distraction during this season in our national life. It’s certainly not perfect (I mean, did the one African-American character played by Leslie Jones really need to be a transit worker while all of the white women were scientists?), but it does a few things remarkably, even radically, well.

Unlike other female-centered comedies, the action and tension doesn’t center around romantic jealousy or other relationship issues involving men. Basically, it treats women like people — people who have interests and passions in a variety of arenas, people who have professional goals and struggles, people with complicated relationships with one another. It also blessedly avoids cheap jokes about any of the characters’ body shapes or size, a trap into which many movies featuring Melissa McCarthy fall.

Besides two hours spent in an air-conditioned theater on a rainy summer Saturday, my takeaway from Ghostbusters was that representation matters. It matters how women are portrayed in popular culture, on screens small and large. It matters that women are more than who they are in relationship to men. As the popular quote goes, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” and while that sounds obvious and a bit glib, it is shocking when you realize how often women are not portrayed as people in the media that we consume.

Despite its completely different mission, the church is not immune to the same struggles as Hollywood. Representation matters in the church as well, not only at the clergy level. Are women and girls proportionately represented as lectors, ushers, acolytes, and committee members? Do men help with Sunday School, or is that “women’s work”? Do people in the pews hear the Word of God read in a soprano as well as a bass voice? Are there unspoken rules at play in the leadership like, “We’ve never had a treasurer who is a woman because women aren’t good at math?” At many churches, all-male staffs are a regular occurrence, but an all-female staff would just be weird.

Even women in Scripture are frequently reduced to their roles in relationship to men — wife or mother or daughter or sister — or their sexual status — virgin or prostitute. These women are also people with hopes and dreams, with struggles and joys, with strengths and weakness. Do we acknowledge Sarah’s jealousy and Rahab’s bravery? Do we lift up the friendship between Ruth and Naomi or the familial bonds between Mary and Elizabeth?

Whether on the silver screen, at the pulpit, or the lectern, how women are represented and portrayed matters for men and women. Ironically, some men were offended by Chris Hemsworth’s character in Ghostbusters, the attractive but ditzy secretary, seemingly unaware that’s the role of many women in Hollywood blockbusters. In Hollywood and at the local church, my hope is that we will see one another as God sees us: beloved children, redeemed in spite of our sin.  

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