I’ve observed that there’s a subset of films that certain kinds of white men insist on hating, and I have a theory about why. I am speaking outside of some of the bad-faith arguments and hot takes I’ve seen on social media, where some people simply write whatever critical nonsense will get them clicks. In the past ten years, we’ve seen more women-directed action films and other content, and while there isn’t enough content to establish a clear pattern for how women direct movies, I have noticed a couple of trends about where women directors’ priorities lie when creating stories. In much of the content created by women there are few, if any, male heroes for the audience to look to, and for some men, if the content isn’t about them feeling good and/or powerful, then it’s essentially worthless.
I’m apparently one of the only five people who think fondly of the 2016 version of Ghostbusters, which isn’t to say I hate the originals. I love the original films, even though parts of them have not aged well. I was a teenager when they were released, and I thought them very enjoyable, well-made, fun, and funny. I’m also one of only five people who thought the sequel was funnier, even though the Stay-Pufft Marshmallow Giant from the first film is iconic! But I enjoyed the new version too. I thought parts of it were deeply funny, and some parts were, just like in the first two movies, kind of cringe. I thought Patty, like Winston, the only Black Ghostbuster, was terribly used (I keep wanting to find things wrong with her character but Leslie Jones made the absolute best of what she was given) and I like that her “Uncle” turned out to be Winston (Ernie Hudson)! I also liked the other cameos from the original actors. There is one thing that a lot of men might have unconsciously clocked, in both this movie and the 2020 Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey movie, which starred one of my now favorite actresses, Margot Robbie.
In the 2016 Ghostbusters, all of the men in the movie are either angry schlubs like the villain, ridiculously incompetent, screaming cowards, bullies, or total morons like Kevin and the Mayor, and incerdibly, in the case of Abby’s former boss, all of the above! There’s not a man in this movie who comes off looking especially good, not even in the cameos. They may be funny, but none of the men are brave or heroic, making it is a lot harder for straight white men to project themselves onto these mediocre, everyday villains, who engage in typical run-of-the-mill misogyny, foolishness, and self-aggrandizement, because there’s no power fantasy element for them to latch onto. The narrative gives the audience no choice but to see the women as heroes, and some men simply aren’t capable of that.
No man wants to identify with those kinds of villains. The men of these movies are distinctly NOT likable, powerful, or cool, on any level, which can be the kind of movie you get when women are the ones calling the shots behind the camera, (although, it must be noted that Ghostbusters 2016 is directed by a man).
For the last hundred years of cinema, most movies have been made by, for, and about straight white men, the things that interest them, and make them feel and look good. This includes the way they think the world is, how they see others in relation to themselves, fantasies of how they’d like to be seen, and how men are supposed to behave to be considered masculine. Not that there haven’t been sniveling villains and toadies in movies, but they were always offset by the strong and powerful hero, or the tall and cool-headed-under-pressure white guy, who dresses well, drove the fast cars, used the best weapons, engaged in the best ultra-violence, and got the best women Sometimes even the villains were enviable. They were powerful men who wore black, got the best lines, had the hero on the ropes before being defeated, and in some cases were forgiven their trespasses before being redeemed.
Straight white men were the audience at which these movies were aimed and they were easily able to project themselves into the characters. For some men, seeing so much of who they wanted to be (or thought they were) onscreen, or sometimes just the consumption of these idealized images of masculinity, became an identity in and of itself.
“I am who I am because of the media I consume.”
What happens when a piece of media gets remade or updated and you’ve been excluded from it? What happens when the media that created your identity is no longer interested in you as the audience or doesn’t pander to what you want? What happens when those movies that used to give you sexy bodies, with lots of ass and boob shots, aren’t interested in showing you any of that? What happens when there’s no straight white man in the story to see yourself as? That you can latch onto? What’s the real message behind these men’s cries about their ruined childhoods?
The villain in Ghostbusters makes it clear why he is doing what he’s doing. He is an unlikeable bully who wants to destroy the world because, despite a wealth of media that teaches how wonderful utterly mediocre men like himself are, he doesn’t think humanity has been properly kissing his ass. He is a narcissist who thinks he’s the only person who has ever been disrespected by society, which is lightly addressed in one of his scenes with Abby, where he states that no one is as disrespected as he is, and Abby chimes in, that as women, they get disrespected all the time. In fact, the movie shows all the women being disregarded, talked over and/or down to, disagreed with, bullied, and blatantly disrespected multiple times by all the other men in the film. The villain gives what he thinks is a grand speech about how the world needs to be destroyed, but the entire speech can basically be boiled down to “everyone was mean to me, and that hurt, so I want to see everyone suffer”. It’s not some grand design, a pitch to solve one of the world’s problems or even an intent to rule. It’s just petty revenge against a world that hasn’t properly kissed him up. Contrast his decision against the mistreatment of the women, and their decsion to save the world instead.
If you were a straight white man who has spent his entire life having his sensibilities and power fantasies coddled by such films you wouldn’t think this movie was funny either. Many of the funniest jokes are at men’s expense and the humor must feel nasty when it strikes just a little too close to home. In films like Harley Quinn, Ghostbusters, Turning Red, Carrie, Jennifer’s Body, and The Eternals – all movies helmed by female directors, male audience members are not given a choice about who to identify with in the story.
In Harley Quinn, the two primary male villains of the movie are not romanticized villains. It would have been difficult for certain kinds of straight white men to project themselves onto Black Mask and Mr. Zsasz, not because of the homoerotic tension between them, (although that is a factor), but because the violence the two of them engaged in wasn’t choreographed to make them look powerful. For example, when Black Mask sexually assaults a woman at one of his nightclubs the scene isn’t romanticized or fun. it is not shot with the titillation of the male audience as its priority. It is filmed in such a way that makes it uncomfortable for men to want to see themselves in his character.
In Harley, the nightclub scene is shot in closeups to focus on the face and reaction of the victim, the horror and embarrassment of the people around her, and the scene is not lovingly shot with closeups of Black Mask’s glee. He is not positioned as powerful but standing on the floor, below the eye line of the character he is bullying so that he has to look up at her. He shows no joy at what he is doing, just petty anger and spite. In fact, throughout the entire movie, Roman is never shot from a position of power, where he is shown towering above adversaries, but almost always at head height, even with those who work for him. He is shown as a small, weak, petty, stupid, vain, and occasionally incompetent villain, and he is never depicted in any other way, even when he is being violent. His violence isn’t quietly enjoyable and doesn’t show his dominance over others as anything other than needy and insecure.
Contrast that scene with the one in the first Suicide Squad film when Joker shoots a man who was lusting after Harley. The focus is on Joker’s power as he protects a commodity (Harley) that belongs to him. The scene is shot with closeups of the Joker’s face as he stands over his clearly terrified victim, a Black man, (being shown standing above another character’s eye line is always a power position) and the focus is on his glee at killing this man. Joker, terrorizing, and killing this supposedly tough Black tatted-up gangbanger is a pure white male power fantasy. The male audience members at whom this movie was aimed were meant to identify with The Joker and his sense of dominance.
In Harley Quinn, Black Mask does enjoy the horrible things he does, but that is not what the camera focuses on. Instead, we see the harm to his victims and get closeups of his face as he states rather petty reasons for hurting them. He makes no lofty speeches for the violence he commits. Like the villain from Ghostbusters, he espouses no grand philosophy justifying his behavior, and the one time he tries, Harley, speaking for the audience, tells him to shut up. He spares the life of a child of one of his rivals only to change his mind and kill her moments later because she was crying and he thinks snot bubbles are icky. Cathy Yan, the director, shows him for exactly what he is, a vapid, none-too-bright, bully.
I’ve spoken before about my mistrust of white male reviewers when it comes to popular media that is aimed at marginalized audiences. That they often do not know how to critique media that is aimed at other audiences, and too much of the media they consume that is aimed at them involves straight white male power fantasies, which they don’t question. Much of my distrust comes from the many bad faith arguments I’ve encountered, that critique the source material by saying it panders to a marginalized audience, like the complaint that all lead female characters are Mary Sues. First, as if it’s a given that Mary Sues are a bad thing, and second, as if thousands of movies hadn’t also been made that centered white male power characters. What they really seem to be saying, as was stated by one of the critics at a website called CinemaBlend, regarding Pixar’s 2021 animated film Turning Red, “I can’t see myself in any of these characters, and it was exhausting to try, therefore, the movie is no good.” (That movie prominently features a second-generation immigrant Chinese-Canadian girl.)
This is also where unconscious bias comes in as well, where people don’t like something but have failed to examine why they might have antipathy towards it. Narratives aimed at marginalized audiences, (like PoC, the gay community, or white women) many times don’t feature white men in the center of the story. The story isn’t about them, and their points of view and sensibilities are not given priority. White men, if they are included at all, are side characters, and/or given negative qualities with which no man wants to identify. There is a type of white male fan that is used to men like him being shown as power fantasies who can harm whoever they please with impunity, or heroic characters that save lives, and I don’t actually have a problem with that. This isn’t a condemnation of such characters, as I’ve enjoyed plenty of movies with them, but I also enjoy movies where women and PoC get to have power fantasies (Black Panther), save the world (Ghostbusters), or sometimes just themselves (Captain Marvel). This particular contingent of men wants ALL of the stories to be about them because that’s the way it’s been since the inception of film.
I suspect that these men are not just unhappy to have a movie centered around female characters’ points of view, so much as that there are no male characters in the story that they would want to be like. Movies like The Batman have the kind of heroes and villains who are sympathetic, onto whom they can project their personal desires. Even in a movie like Wonder Woman, there is a least one heroic male character that is central to the plot, even though the movie is titled Wonder Woman or Mad Max Fury Road where all of the male characters are shown as powerful, but unattractive, narcissistic, and cruel except for the two who are redeemed by the end of the film by being shown as heroic.
These critics seem much more able to project themselves onto a villainous character if the villainy is justified, romanticized, or fun, especially in movies like Joker, The Dark Knight, and Avengers Endgame. In films where the violence engaged in by the villain isn’t romanticized, like Birds of Prey and the female-led Ghostbusters, it’s difficult for such viewers to empathize with them. After all, they’ve been watching movies and TV series on, what the Sci-fi author John Scalzi calls, The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Unlike the rest of us, who have had to do it our whole lives, they have never been challenged to see themselves in characters that don’t look like them.
Part of it was getting out of the content what we could, and the other half was not looking to the consumption of that content around which to form an identity. That’s what too many of these men did and look how they are behaving now that this type of content no longer caters exclusively to them. The type of media they consumed WAS their identity, and that is changing, so how do they know who they are now.
For every one of these types of critics, there are plenty of white men who can see themselves in different characters (like Miles Morales, Shuri from Black Panther, and Captain and Ms. Marvel). They seem to enjoy the experience, and I enjoy and appreciate many of their well-thought-out critiques of these properties.
Explanations of how representation matters falls on deaf ears for some critics, though, because the only representation they’re interested in is their own. They want things the way they want them and think they can troll creators, and terrorize actors on social media into getting what they want, but the corporations that produce these entertainments are businesses (as they kept telling the marginalized when we demanded representation), and they are not going back to the way things were before. They have discovered that appealing to our demands for adequate representation is much more lucrative than acceding to the loud demands of a small (and aging) population of straight white American men (after all, we kept telling them that if they make it, we will watch). Disney has already learned that if the representation shown is merely adequate they can make millions, but when it’s excellent and well thought out, they can make billions.
In fact, the idea that such movies were not internationally successful was debunked by Bob Iger and Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios, and all of this was well documented in the press:
Ghostbusters was released in 2016, and thanks to this loud minority there will never be a sequel to a movie that, while far from perfect, improved on the weaknesses in the original stories. A few years later the same tactics that were used to destroy the reputation of the Ghostbusters remake were attempted on the movies Black Panther and Captain Marvel and failed. Both movies made billions internationally. This has encouraged the Disney Corporation to continue with its Phase 4 and 5 plans in the MCU, almost all of which focus on women and characters of color.