Ghostbusters, Misogyny, and Perceptual Bias

Did you know there’s a new Ghostbusters remake? If you’re a woman on the internet I bet you did, since it’s been the subject of intense debate over the past few months, and by “debate” I mean “misogyny.”

Perhaps it started with everyone referring to it as “the all-female Ghostbusters,” as if it were such a big deal that they were all male in the first two. It wasn’t a big deal, just like it’s not a big deal for most major characters in every film to be men, but noting that this movie would feature some of the other half of the population led to an explosion of misogyny online, with the cast, director, and random women receiving the brunt of criticisms about feminism ruining young men’s childhoods, as though women like me didn’t have a childhood or at least one that mattered.

I found the reaction confusing, because I’ve had an essential media product of my childhood remade in recent years and co-opted by the gender opposite me, and somehow I’m still able to hold onto happy memories of enjoying playing with My Little Ponies as a little girl. But hey, who am I to tell people what should or should not upset them? Cry if you want, but leave it out of my Twitter mentions.

So now the Ghostbusters remake has premiered, and the critics mostly like it. As of this video it’s rated as 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty good (and certainly better than the all-male 1998 remake of Godzilla or the all-male Independence Day sequel -- well, mostly male, I guess, since some of the minor characters in Independence Day: Resurrection are women and also Godzilla turned out to be a woman in the big twist for that film, sorry, spoiler alert, Godzilla is a woman, by which I mean “female”).

But a pretty good rating hasn’t stopped all the misogynists of Reddit from scurrying to rationalize why the film they’ve spent 5 months saying is going to suck doesn’t seem to suck. They argue that the critics have been paid off by the production company, or that the critics are all feminists who have too much invested to admit the movie sucks.

The former rationalization is pure conspiracy theory (we know some critics can be bought, but it’s ridiculous to assume that the majority can, when multi-million dollar films like Independence Day get absolutely wrecked), but the latter touches on a good point. It’s known as perceptual bias, and where the Redditors go wrong is in assuming it only affects feminist film critics (and also in assuming most film critics are feminists). Everyone is affected by perceptual bias, and that bias gets worse the more people personally identify with the thing that is biasing them. For instance, I hate Hollywood remakes and want them to stop, so that biases me against Ghostbusters. But I love making misogynists angry, and that biases me in favor of Ghostbusters, maybe a little more. So, I’m more likely to enjoy Ghostbusters knowing that it makes misogynists angry. I’ve never stated publicly that the movie is definitely going to be great, so I’m not that invested in it, but I definitely want it to succeed.

Similarly, misogynists are quite clearly biased against this film. Not only do they think that women in a film automatically ruins it, but they’ve spent many months arguing vociferously that the film is going to be a disaster. They’ve become so invested in the belief that the movie is a disaster that they will do anything they can to rationalize it, including inventing conspiracy theories to explain why it’s being critically praised and why it’s doing well at the box office.

This type of perceptual bias has been studied to death. One of the more famous studies involved a football game -- when fans of opposing teams watched the same tape of the same game, they had drastically different reports of how many violations they saw each team commit. That’s just one example, and it involves verifiable facts! When it comes to whether or not a movie is a disaster, we’re talking about some facts, like the box office take and the ranking on various review websites, but we’re also talking about opinions, like whether a person enjoyed watching the movie.

So is Ghostbusters a disaster? No, obviously not, if you are judging by whether most people seem to like it or whether it’s making any money. Is it a great movie? Well, that depends on your personal perception, which is yours alone because of your unique biases. But also yes it is a great movie because of all the misogynists it made cry. That’s a fact.