The following is a true story.
In the late 1990s my parents decided to sell their by-then-ancient television, a TV so old it still gave a metallic clunk and static fritz when you changed channels and came in fake wood paneling lacquer. After putting an ad in the paper, one rainy Saturday night we got a call, and five minutes later a whole family was at our door. I was downstairs watching said television because, well, Aliens was on again, and you have to watch Aliens. Mum, Dad and three kids come in and start looking at the TV. They try a few channels, coming back to Aliens. There’s that kind of nodding that indicates sure, they like the TV. But they don’t move the conversation towards purchase. Mostly, they keep talking about Aliens. Then we realise there was a lightning strike during the storm and half the city is in blackout.
These people aren’t here to buy a TV, I realise. They’re here to watch Aliens.
And as they start to explain to my mother why Aliens is so great, because of the importance of a female protagonist in an action movie and a sci-fi movie, I realise these guys may be crazy, but at least they’re nerds. And I also think, well of course Aliens is ahead of the curve. Of course it’s enlightened. It’s nerd media. We’ve got this. Sigourney – that’s our girl.
And she was our girl. She still is, thank god, but she really was back then. She was ‘one of us’ at a time when we still didn’t know what that meant, before geek had really cemented into a media-controlled subculture and far before it had taken over the world. She was up there, though, with Linda Hamilton and Carrie Fisher and Nichelle Nichols. They were nerd girls. Kicking ass and taking names. We knew they were often in the back seat of the spaceship but we gave them equal place in our hearts. It wasn’t just about the gold bikini, it was about the guns and the high-kicks and the battle cries. We had pre-teen boners for Princess but we also expected her to Battle the Planets just as hard as the rest of her team.
So I saw Ghostbusters (2016) today.
Ghostbusters (1984) was a pretty important film for me. Not so much because I wanted to be a Ghostbuster but because it felt really well-written. It introduced me to the wonders of carefully built characterisation and team building, of wit and sharp dialogue, and of well structured film-making. When Winston Zeddemere yelled out “I LOVE THIS TOWN” something fundamental shifted inside of me. It wasn’t just that it was the perfect feel good ending of a perfect blending of sci-fi silliness, action and comedy. It was also because it combined those elements I adored in other media I was watching at the same time – the big-concept monster-punching action of cartoons and action movies and genre films – with something that felt adult. It wasn’t Shakespeare but it was a far more “adult” product than Transformers seemed to be.
And all of that combined to make young Steve feel something important. It made me feel-good so much I felt like I could change the world. And I recognised that it was doing that in a way nothing else had before. It made me feel something potent about stories and how they were told. About heroes and villains and struggle and victory and how all of that could be combined and shaped to make people feel like gods.
And I said to myself “I want to do that. I want to write stories that make people feel the way I feel now”
Twenty five years later, I’d forgotten that goal until today. (I’ve got some ways towards it, I hope.) And I wasn’t reminded just because of nostalgic invocations of the past, from seeing songs and signs I once held sacred. Because I’m less about symbols and more about stories and structures. And what sang to me in Ghostbusters, what carried it across the weak points and story gaps and weird bits, is the things it did right. And the thing it did right most of all is it got what those nerd stories were all about for young Steve.
A team of people. With cool names, cool powers and cool toys. Who get together, suit up, and kick all kinds of ass in the coolest ways imaginable. It felt – in the best, most sacred way – like a cartoon. Like a Saturday Morning Cartoon. And like nerd media. Right in the big-concept monster-punching wheelhouse.
If this world wasn’t insane, this should be the best news ever. Here they are, front and centre: our girls. Four new girls as bad-ass as Ripley and as tough as Leia and as sassy as Buffy and as unstoppable as River Tam. McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Jones, these are our girls. Sure, their movie is a bit uneven but we didn’t stop liking Jean Claude Van Damme just because his movies constantly sucked. This is four Sigourney Weavers. Four Linda Hamiltons. Do you know what twelve year old me would have done for four Linda Hamiltons?
This should be the greatest news ever. Four new ladies in our wheelhouse. Four new geek girls walking over to us, sitting down at the nerd table and joining our fandom. We should be pretty damn happy. Most of us are. And some of us are trying to stop the film from existing or cripple its finances, to ignore it in the hope it vanishes because it is unworthy of ours sight. Others are trying to destroy its stars. To lynch them. And I do not use that word lightly. To string them up and beat them to death.
I mention River Tam in there to point out this is actually an extremely recent phenomenon. Eleven years ago River Tam mary-sued the big screen and nobody tried to murder her. Something changed. The sharp rise of neo-fascism and anti-feminism and their targeted recruiting of young men, for example. And the world of hyper-marketing that let this fester in dark parts of the fandom. The causes can be discussed elsewhere. The point is, things are wrong. Things are broken. The world is backwards. It needs to be fixed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everything was fine in the halls of geekdom in 2005 or in 1985. Like I said, we knew women were sitting in the back seat of the spaceship far too often. We were working on turning that around. We still are. But there was a time when, I think, when there was something more important than the gender of our heroes. I’m not saying we didn’t see gender, but we were united by a theme and a structure. Everyone was on the team, and they teamed up and punched monsters with cool powers, and nobody gave a damn that two of the Power Rangers were women because they were goddamn Power Rangers first. They were nerds first.
We were nerds first.
Now, it seems, we have to be men first, and nerds a long way down the list.
And that makes me ache not just at the injust politics, but at what nerdiness has become.
To put it in terms we can really understand, there’s always that bit in the 80s nerd movie where the nerds find out the girl they like is a nerd too. And at first they’re stand-offish. They make her step back. Then there’s the tilt where they realise she’s just as bad-ass as they are. And then she’s like “Move over, buddy. I’m driving.” Because she’s better at it.
And at that point, the nerd-who-doesn’t-get-it-yet or maybe even the douchebag jock goes “what’s with the girl?”
And the nerd-who-gets it says “No, guys. She’s got this.”
And she does. She always had. We just couldn’t see it because we were wrapped up in our own bullshit.
This is that moment. Right now. You can be the nerd who gets it, or you can be the douche who gets left behind. Because you WILL be left behind. Where we’re going, we have no need of you.
We’re going to suit up, team up, kick ass and take names. We’re going to kill bad guys and then make out over a Kenny Loggins song. And it’ll be glorious. And team douchebag is not invited.