Paul Feig and The Female Experience

By  · Published on July 19th, 2016

How the Filmmaker Honors Women by Capturing Our World Authentically.

In case you missed it during your trip to Mars: the new, very funny and in some ways, revolutionary Ghostbustersco-written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feigstars four exceptional women in lead roles. After much noisy whining and many buckets of tears shed by insecure manbabies, we finally know that the Paul Feig-directed remake is indeed very good, stands on its own as a fresh take on an existing universe and resides harmoniously alongside the original film that came 32 years before it. But that’s not all. We also know that the new Ghostbusters thankfully isn’t just a simplistic gender-swapped comedy that forces male-centric themes onto its story just for the sake of being gentle on the aforementioned manbaby crusaders and skeptics. It is instead unapologetically true to the female experience in portraying its lead characters (played by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon) and many of the ways our gender walks the earth in female shoes. In Ghostbusters, we are in the presence of a group of smart and savvy female ghoul hunters, who complement each other’s expertise and are not defined by any romantic relationships. Ghostbusters makes sure the connection between the leads is defined by teamwork, and the on-screen sisterhood flourishes as a result of the women’s joint success as scientists and geeks.

This is not exactly a surprising accomplishment, as Paul Feig (who often teams up with female screenwriters) has long established himself as a filmmaker committed to telling female-driven stories that capture the world of women truthfully, through groundbreaking comedies that dismiss the pressures of patriarchal rules and the superficial male gaze. In fact, Athena Film Festivalan annual showcase and celebration of women and leadershiprecently recognized this dedication with the inaugural “Athena Leading Man Award,” honoring him for his consistent work toward championing female-driven projects. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) was perhaps the most groundbreaking of them all. In what launched the movie star phase of Melissa McCarthy’s career, he brought the laugh-out-loud funny story of a peculiar bridal party onto the screen, while depicting female friendship, loyalty and competition with outrageous humor. Bridesmaids didn’t spare its punches in critiquing men who continually let or slow women down in marriage and in bed. It also proudly proved women could be just as hysterical, gross and driven by a desire for casual sex as men (remember a lustful Megan, played by Melissa McCarthy, chasing Air Marshall John and a sexually oppressed Becca, played by Ellie Kemper, voicing her unfulfilled desires during a drunken plane ride.)

With The Heat (also written by the Ghostbusters-scribe Dippold), he applied the traditional buddy-cop comedy formula to a story charged by female competence. In a lot of ways, The Heat is the anti Miss Congeniality (both starring Sandra Bullock in the role of an FBI agent.) Where Miss Congeniality beautified its lead and taught her lady-like manners to please the male eye, The Heat allowed its female leadsthe second one played by Melissa McCarthy — to be professional good/bad cops without physically transforming them. In the end, The Heat duo get the job done as a team without resorting to any male-defined feminine charms and even gloriously (but unregretfully) failing at it when they give it a half-hearted shot (as seen in one hysterical scene, where Bullock’s character tries to alter her clothes in a nightclub for some feminine appeal.)

Finally in Spy (written solo by Feig), we follow the misfit but overwhelmingly talented FBI agent Susan (Melissa McCarthy) as she tries to prove her worth to her equally-tenured male colleagues, who won’t take her professional competencies seriously until her female boss offers her the opportunity. We also get a brilliant female villain (Reyna, played by the always outstanding Rose Byrne), a nerdy best friend (Nancy, played by Miranda Hart) and a subversive form of female unity and understanding in the end, over a pair of loaded fuck yous warmly exchanged by potty-mouthed women with a playful wink. Once again, female sexual desires are legitimately articulated here too (through Susan’s crush on Agent Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law), while various dreamy-looking tough guys (Agent Rick, played by Jason Statham, for one) are ridiculed and frowned upon.

One can see traces of all these regular Paul Feig tendencies in Ghostbusters, which doesn’t only gender-swap the four leads but also invents a male eye-candy. Playing a part that would normally be saved for a female in any traditional Hollywood flick, Chris Hemsworth terrifically assumes the role of the dumb, incompetent, but well meaning and yes, excruciatingly gorgeous receptionist Kevin. And his character is certainly not a throwaway comedic afterthought written to score additional laughs in an exhaustively hilarious flick. As Stephanie Zacharek accurately observes in her rave Ghostbusters review, he is a form of gentle revenge for years of stereotypical sexy secretaries. And as Sam Adams eloquently outlines, he is one of the hysterical “male idiots” of Paul Feig films, growing in number and “deconstructing masculine archetypes” one charmingly idiotic act or remark at a time. Kevin is all that, and then some. He is an object of lust for Professor Erin Gilbert’s (Wiig) gaze, and a vehicle for openly articulated female sexual desire that women often get denied in Hollywood films.

And that’s still the least of it. Ghostbusters, first and foremost, celebrates nerdy, intellectual women who dress in their own idiosyncratic ways, set their own rules for their chosen field of work and disregard obtrusive male authority that sometimes questions their clothing sense, and other times, professional legitimacy. But it’s through their unspoken unity and respect for one another (so much that they even set ground rules around who gets to say “Let’s Go” first) that the women find a collective purpose and form a strong sense of kinship against all the noisy male nonsense.

Related Topics: , ,

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.