This post contains mild spoilers.
Conventional wisdom holds that the MPAA will allow filmmakers one (just one!) "fuck" in a movie before slapping it with an R rating. The Ghostbusters reboot may have earned itself a safe PG-13, but it takes a lot of liberties with another off-putting four-letter word: "girl."
If you know anything about director Paul Feig's new movie (other than, going strictly by the title, that there are ghosts in it), then you know that the main characters are all female. Since it was first announced, Ghostbusters has been met with furious backlash, much of it openly misogynist in tone—and the trolls show no signs of slowing down now that the movie's finally out in theaters. Just this week, an onslaught of sexist and racist tweets drove star Leslie Jones off Twitter.
I'm happy to report that Feig and Katie Dippold's script is eager to engage with the reboot's real-life haters. Much of the abuse the Ghostbusters take in the movie is explicitly gendered, from the distinctly familiar-sounding comments on their YouTube videos (“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” one reads) to the chair of the Columbia University physics department who implies his disapproval of Erin’s (Kristen Wiig) professional attire.
But nowhere is the movie's firmly feminist stance clearer than in its treatment of the word "girl." Despite the fact that they are grown-ass women, the infantilizing G-word is used to refer to the Ghostbusters by men, on a sliding scale from patronizing to straight-up evil, throughout the movie.
A theater manager (Michael McDonald) invites the “girls” to “mosey” around the basement where there they engage in one of their very first supernatural scuffles, with a female mannequin possessed by a ghost. (As they obliterate this naked, featureless stand-in for femininity with their laser beams, it’s a little hard not to read into the image.) Celebrated debunker Martin Heiss (played by a familiar Ghostbusters face who I won’t name here) shows up at their headquarters and accuses them of “pretending” to catch ghosts, provoking Erin into unleashing a spirit they’ve captured to prove him wrong. “Atta, girl,” Heiss says with slappable condescension as she steps on the release pedal. In a climactic showdown, the movie’s big bad tells the Ghostbusters that they “shoot like girls.”
Charged as it is in the present, the word also has a meaningful history within the world of the film. When Erin was a child, we learn, the mean old lady who lived next door to her family died. Erin saw the woman's ghost every night, standing at the foot of her bed, for a year. Her parents (unsurprisingly) didn't believe her and they sent her to counseling. When the kids at school found out, they called Erin “ghost girl.” The way she says that nickname, it's clear that the words still hurt, decades later. ("Ghost Girl" even serves as the title of a melancholy track in the movie's original score.)
When the mayor’s aide (Cecily Strong) roasts the Ghostbusters on television—in an effort to distance the administration from this PR nightmare, despite privately knowing these paranormal investigators are the real deal—Patty (Leslie Jones) observes solemnly, “We’re all ghost girls now.”
What is a "ghost girl," anyway? In Erin's story, it's a scared, alienated kid who persists in believing in herself even when no one else will. In Patty's version, it's a woman who might as well be invisible, except that when she is seen, she's ridiculed. I'll venture a guess that a great many of us have felt like ghost girls at one time or another—and that we're precisely who the filmmakers had in mind when they set out to find four women to fill those famous jumpsuits.
Most importantly, the movie gives its characters space to reclaim the word "girl," once they've proven their worth and their abilities not only to the city of New York, but to themselves.
When Ghostbusters reaches its happy ending (it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest that ghosts don’t actually bring about the apocalypse in this movie, right?), Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin take a minute to reflect on what they've accomplished. "Not bad, ghost girl," Abby tells her friend. Erin smiles, saying she accepts that title “proudly.”
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.