I love comedy. I moved to New York City to do comedy. I'm finally doing comedy as my career. Needless to say, I loved the Ghostbusters franchise as a kid (had all the Happy Meals toys and watched the animated series) and was super excited when the news of the all-female remake was announced last year. The official trailer was released by Sony Pictures yesterday:
What many are praising as a triumph (having 4 women on screen at the same time is still rare in 2016!) felt like a particularly harsh slap in the face after one of the wokest Black History Months on record; it certainly looks like Leslie Jones' character is the butt of the joke and playing the "sassy Black woman" trope—again.
As the trailer begins we are introduced to the updated 'busters, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), doctor of particle physics; Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a "brilliant" engineer; Abbi Yates (Melissa McCarthy), some other kind of scientist; and Patty Tolan (Jones) as the MTA agent whose uncle has a car.
One of these things is not like the other.
Throughout the trailer, we see Leslie Jones hollering, bitch-slapping, using the actual phrase "AWW HELL NAH," and generally creating the kind of minstrel show we should have transcended by now. This is likely not her fault (she didn't write the script), but it is reflective of a lack of diversity of talent and imagination in the writers rooms and on sets in Hollywood. I expected to love this trailer and reblog gifs on Tumblr for hours afterwards, and instead I got that familiar sinking feeling that this would be another upsetting failure to showcase a black woman in a positive light.
After tweeting my discomfort about the trailer, I immediately received a Twitter response that sums up exactly why representation on-screen and in STEM matters:
And that's why this is so sinister and problematic: Someone immediately defended of Jones being an MTA worker because "Black women aren't scientists." Now, obviously that is untrue. Black women in STEM exist—and have for ages. But for some, it's easy to say—to believe—"well, if they existed, the movie would have shown that." It is truly that simple to dismiss the existence of real people in defense of a sci-fi movie. That's why representation matters.
The fact that Jones plays a working-class citizen isn't the problem, either. It's that she's a shallow representation of black women, juxtaposed with thoughtful representation of white women. She may indeed be a nuanced, fully-drawn character; the poster deems her a "municipal historian" and "metaphysical commando." While this sentiment may be amplified in the full-length film, the trailer sure as Hell doesn't show that.
Portraying a black woman as a scientist isn't unrealistic. In fact, I made a video about ten moments from the trailer that are less realistic than Leslie Jones playing a scientist in a world in which ghosts are so abundant that they need to be busted:
Azie Dungey, the genius behind the Ask a Slave web series and writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, raised a good point on her Twitter account stating, "In comedy, there's a place for the fool, the clown, the buffoon. She's funny. But that should NOT be ALL black women do."
And moreover, that shouldn't be what the biggest black female comics in Hollywood do in sure-to-be blockbuster hit. Leslie Jones would be hilarious as a deadpan particle physicist. Just thinking of her in the dumpy suit-dress Kristen Wiig wears is laugh-out-loud comical.
Increasingly, I find myself wondering why it seems like this (being the loud, uneducated, black character in every scene) is ALL Leslie Jones does. In 2014, I wrote a blog post about her now-iconic stint on Weekend Update rubbing black women the wrong way. Since being added as a featured player on SNL, Jones has played this role ad nauseum. I'm ready for something new.
Ghostbusters "ain't scared of no ghosts," but is it afraid of well-developed, positive black representation?
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕