Two Lakehead professors explore the intersections between fan culture and democratic engagement in public lecture
By Leah Ching, Editor in Chief
Dr. Monica Flegel and Dr. Judith Leggatt of the Lakehead University English Department provided a public talk Friday January 20th at noon that proved to be both highly attended and thoroughly engaging.
The two professors provided a thought-provoking look at the links between democratic engagement during the 2016 U.S. election and fan culture as it relates to the backlash against the Ghostbusters reboot of the same year. Far from purporting that the Ghostbusters film provided a primary impetus for the election of the Twitter-Fingers President, the professors explored the intersections between pop culture and politics in their talk and drew parallels between sexism, misogyny, and racism inherent in the campaign tactics of Agent Orange and popular responses to the new Ghostbusters film.
The professors began by commenting on the “trolling” that took place on a TB News Watch article written in promotion of the event. They invited the audience to ponder the question: How do we engage with ideas that are adverse to our own in order to understand them? How do we understand the reasons behind why people consume what they do, culturally and politically?
Throughout the presentation, a recurrent theme was the misogyny and sexism that was inherent in fan reactions to the Ghostbusters reboot, led by an all-female cast. Harassment and constant vitriol even caused racialized star Leslie Jones to delete her Twitter account.
Some fans took the high road and didn’t directly use racist or sexist arguments to challenge the film. Instead, a recurring theme in their rejections was nostalgia for the Ghostbusters mega franchise of the past, and widespread consensus that the reboot paled in comparison with the original classic. Trump’s campaign evoked a similar nostalgia for right-leaning Americans who yearned to “make America great again” – much like those fans of the original Ghostbusters film who rejected the new cast and its lack of acknowledgement for the 1984 “masterpiece”. The question remained for the presenters: why did these fans allow themselves to be aligned with hate-spewing commentators, and not call out hatred amidst the larger fan community?
For Flegel and Leggatt, the movie faced “criticism that was way out of proportion to its flaws” in a way that was similar to the campaign of “Nasty Woman” Hillary Clinton. In their eyes, criticism of both was definitely connected with gender and misogyny. For some male critics online, Ghostbusters was a “guy movie” that had been rebooted in a way that they couldn’t see or claim as their own, meaning that they could not connect with the film in any meaningful way. Much like the 2016 film, Clinton has faced criticism about struggling with “authenticity”, and failing to connect with American audiences in meaningful ways.
Fan investment in the Ghostbusters franchise was undoubtedly overlooked, a failure that ultimately led to the film’s demise, according to the professors. Backlash also centred on what fans of the original film saw as a corrupt corporate media establishment, aligned with elite liberal interests, and disconnected to the everyday fans.
In a similar way, The Donald’s campaign, equally ripe with racist, misogynistic and sexist discourse, drew successes in the ways it was a fight against the “corrupt establishment”, and drew on frustrations with a “liberal dominated media with a democratic bias”.
Flegel and Leggatt drew laughs, applause, and an array of questions from the crowd. The talk was an insightful look at the ways the cultural field is expanding in the digital age, and contracting at the same time, making real life conversations more difficult. In a toxic environment where each online response is an automatic “vote” for one political view or another, where political figures can be easily linked to particular views and ideas, there is little room for nuance or engaging in constructive debate.
In the end, both women agreed that there was indeed no 1-1 relation between the Ghostbusters reboot and how the international hotel mogul and failed casino entrepreneur came to be elected as the leader of the free world. Instead, they chose to parallel how both the backlash to the film, and the 2016 U.S. election tapped into distrust of the “mainstream” and provoked anti-establishment discourse throughout.
Looking towards our next steps, listeners were encouraged to learn how to debate while refusing to normalize racist and sexist discourse, and challenging it at every turn. In the end, according to Dr. Leggett and Dr. Flegel, we need to find ways to find new stories out of old.