The Ghostbusters Controversy Haunts Halloween—and I’m Glad

photo by A. MartinelliJust when you thought it was safe, the Ghostbusters remake controversy (a.k.a. Ruining my Childhood) is back from the dead this Halloween. Only this time it’s girls that are doing the haunting. I know what you’re thinking. You thought neither the movie nor the backlash would have a lasting impact. To recap, a few grown men on the Internet spent the summer claiming that the movie’s all female cast destroyed their ability to enjoy the original film. The mere sight of the Ghostbusters logo was now tainted by unpalatable visions of female empowerment. The online protests devolved from traditional levels of misogyny to racism and criminality culminating in the hacking of Leslie Jones’ accounts. In spite of the ruthless attacks, the online static registered low on my list of priorities. I had things to do. But now that Halloween is upon us, the ghost of this controversy came back to haunt me, when my daughter chose her costume. I suddenly realized the movie had more relevance than just another mediocre remake. Halloween is about playing with identity, a foundational aspect of childhood. My daughter has been many variations on the theme of female: a mermaid, various princesses, and fairies. So I braced myself for the femsplosion of pink, but I was thrilled when she said, “I want to be a Ghostbuster.” It is a rare moment when media encourages girls to be themselves—kids. And she’s not the only little girl out there asking to be a Ghostbuster this year. Halloween Express sold out of the child’s Ghostbusters deluxe costume weeks ago. I got one just in time and I’m thrilled my little girl is going to be out busting ghosts this Halloween for these reasons.

1. Busting ghosts can open up new career options.

No. Of course I don’t think she is going to become a Ghostbuster, but I do think it could lead to an engineering career. Why? Because Halloween is preliminary vocational exploration. There are many theories of child development, but what many have in common is that roughly before the age of 12, a child’s mind is a no commitment imagination lab. They are free to role play and often emulate adults. One day they may love Thomas the Train, the next week it might be Legos, Star Wars or Beyblades. This play exploration slowly leads to a loose but more realistic self-concept in the pre-teen years, when you hopefully realize you can’t really be a professional Pokemon Trainer. (I know, some of us adults are still coming to terms with that.) Eventually as a young adult a vocational identity forms based on experiences, social expectations, culture and perceived talents. Some studies even show that difficulty assuming a vocational identity in young adults can lead to psychological issues.

So when Halloween rolls around, I can’t help but notice that girls’ costumes are often limited to princesses, ballerinas and mermaids. I become concerned that these costumes will eventually translate into my daughter developing a vocational identity that emphasizes physical appearance, leading to few career opportunities and economic dependence. Even if identifying with princesses doesn’t put you in the mind set of waiting for prince charming, I suspect limiting your imagination to costumes that express traditional female roles might limit your imagination to other careers that hinge on appearance. You know —”Actress, model, dancer, whatever,” to quote UnWritten Law. I attempted two out of three, so I know how hard performers train, but I also know the career options are few and the physical standards for women can be impossible.

This Halloween is different though. A piece of media with female performers, is making it socially acceptable for my daughter to think outside of the box; to imagine a role that doesn’t pertain to beauty. When girls imagine themselves as Ghostbusters, they are really imagining themselves as scientists, doctors, and engineers. We talk so much about attracting girls to STEM because it is the foundation of the careers of today and tomorrow. But girls have to start wanting to rub elbows with male peers in those classes. Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are a fun yet crucial first step in the equation that attracts girls to STEM. Girls first need to be encouraged to envision themselves as perhaps funky bi-spectacled problem solvers who wear jumpsuits, before they can strive to become engineers and scientists. In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund,

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

2. Busting ghosts doesn’t sexualize my child.

Every Halloween moms are appalled by the sexy costumes. Mothers have been driven to write open letters to Party City protesting sexy cats, sexy zebras, and sexy witches that seem to be available in smaller sizes each year. Occupational costumes for girls are few and far between: mostly waitresses and nurses. But there is a sexy cop costume that fits 5 year olds! What’s next? A Taxi Driver inspired Iris costume in 5T? Even the Ninja costume has a patronizing pink version, because we all know girls aren’t agile enough to silently tippy toe or back flip, so they may as well completely blow their cover and look pretty in pink. Halloween costumes such as these inform girls it’s not about what they can accomplish; it’s who they can attract. Research shows girls who are taught to prioritize attracting the opposite sex invest valuable time and money pursuing physical goals rather than developing capabilities. This internalized sexualization leads to depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

Internalized sexualization is one more reason I was thrilled my daughter chose to be a Ghostbuster—that is until I saw the sexy Ghostbuster and the patronizing skirt Ghostbuster. The skirt may seem innocuous and even dictated by kid preference, but I question whether throwing a skirt on a physically demanding profession like busting ghosts—or construction, or policing—actually trivializes the prospect of female contributions to those professions. Everyone knows you can’t fight a ghost in a skirt. It’s just uncomfortable! Thankfully my daughter chose the slime-proof one-piece uniform with awesome inflatable Proton Pack! Practical and kick-ass!

3. Girls who bust ghosts help boys be themselves.

Does raising girls who only identify with princesses prevent boys from relating to them? And more to the extreme, do prematurely sexualized costumes hamper age appropriate play and communication between girls and boys? I asked my son if he met a girl in a princess costume and girl in a Ghostbusters costume, who would he approach? He said, “The Ghostbusters costume. We’d have more in common.” While anecdotal, the comment leads me to believe there is the potential to stifle childhood interaction by encouraging girls to become objects of desire. Childhood is the only time when you can be whoever you are without concern for how others perceive you. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where men and woman understood each other better? That understanding develops through healthy interaction.

If interactions are hindered as kids, how will they effectively communicate as teens and adults when more complex issues of intercourse and consent arise? In trying to understand issues surrounding campus rape, researchers noted that men often perceive the world in sexual terms causing them to misread friendliness as sexual advances leading to rape. Not surprised are you? Men objectify women, so why reinforce that flawed mindset by training little girls to self-objectify at Halloween?! We live in a world full of harmful, out-dated ideas about masculinity and the worth of women. My daughter’s Ghostbusters costume throws a small wrench in a toxic spill that threatens my son’s development as well. If girls are still defining an identity that prioritizes appearance over substance, it only makes sense that boys eventually accept that as fact. It becomes the definition of “girl”. Worse still, the sexy costume runs the risk of engendering young male minds to believe girls are some sort of sex “it”. This threatens both the women who conform and the women who don’t conform to a definition of femininity conceived long ago as boys trick-or-treating beside a 7 year old sexy witch. These boys might even come to one day dehumanize girls, like Leslie Jones who don’t meet their preferences by perhaps bullying and hacking their accounts or worse.

So I’m not saying throw out all the pink! Burn the tutus! Destroy the ball gowns! In fact my daughter’s room is hot pink and I’m not repainting. I am just saying I’m glad Hollywood gave my daughter and son a new lens through which to view themselves and the world. One that could help my daughter envision many different careers, STEM and otherwise. One that doesn’t objectify her or put her at risk for internalized sexualization. One that gives both boys and girls freedom to have fun and be themselves. This Halloween that lens is my daughter’s “favorite girls”—Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. My childhood ended 20+ years ago and I will always identify with the original version, but her and her brother’s childhood is happening now—something grown men with enough time on their hands to devote to protecting the sacred memory of the original Ghostbusters franchise should consider.

Additional Viewing – Miss Representation and The Mask We Live In

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