Ruining Your Childhood
About six years ago, I wrote a personal essay about dressing up as a Ghostbuster for Halloween. It was written as an example for my students, but it was also an important story for me, that I wanted to tell.
Today, a few days after the premiere of the new Ghostbusters movie featuring four women in the titular roles, and in the wake of continued outrage from dudebros across the internet that these women dare to think they’re worthy of wearing a proton pack, I’m feeling compelled to revisit that story.
I was born the daughter of a pescatarian feminist flower child and a gearhead hippie whose number had come up in the draft. They’d grown up in rural Illinois, found each other, lost each other, found each other again, moved to even more rural Illinois, and some time later, there I was.
One of the major themes of my youth was that I could be anything I wanted to be, and do anything with my life that I wanted to do. Essentially nothing was really off limits. Want to go to church because the other local kids all do? Sure, no problem. Want to dabble in witchcraft? Sure, that’s cool, too. Want to read up on Buddhism? Yeah, of course, check it out. Want to learn about cars, or try your hand at woodworking, or play the flute, or do gymnastics? Absolutely, find what you love. Want to grow up to be a veterinarian, or a paleontologist, or an astronaut? You can be any of those things. You might have to work hard to achieve some of the things you want, but you can do them.
This is all some attempt to explain why a small moment in early grade school became such a cardinal moment in my own personal history.
The simple truth is just that I believed, like most children do until we teach them otherwise, that my world was limitless. I could be anything I wanted to be. And somewhere around the age of 5 or 6 or 7, what I wanted to be was a Ghostbuster.
So I became one for Halloween. I had the jumpsuit, I had the proton pack, I had the PKE meter, I had the trap… It was glorious. I walked into my class Halloween party fully geared up and ready to bust, and I was so excited about this costume.
And one of my classmates looked at me scornfully and said, “You can’t be a Ghostbuster. Ghostbusters is for boys.”
In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been surprising. I have one of those personalized children’s books, with my name inserted into the story, where I get to go on an adventure with the Ghostbusters. And the drawings in that book of the “Kari” character are all from the back only, so that theoretically, the child receiving this book could project themselves into it. But the drawings are all very clearly of a little blond boy. There was no option for a girl character.
In my memory, though, this is the moment the entire weight of the world’s sexism and gender expectations and bullshit crashed down around me. I’m an ardent, unapologetically vocal feminist because I have so often in my life felt mired in the swamp of that bullshit. Because I have always liked “boy things” as well as “girl things” and have been made to feel unwelcome, or sometimes simply invisible, in the hobbies and pursuits that I love. Because I have frequently straddled the line between feminine and masculine, or moved between the binaries in some way.
Because when I lost my last teaching job, my principal told me I wasn’t maternal enough.
Because men on the internet have accused me of being ugly, or fat, or sad, or lonely (as though these things are worthy of condemnation) because I disagreed with their opinions.
Because in college a young man harassed me, stalked me, broke my dorm room window, and devoted a page on his website to me, because I turned down an invitation to watch porn with him.
Because in high school a man at a bus stop reached under my skirt to grab my ass, and another man on the bus rubbed his erection against my thigh.
Because in middle school, I trained myself not to laugh out loud, because boys didn’t like girls who cackled loudly instead of giggling musically, the way pretty girls in books always do.
Because when I was a little girl, a little boy told me I shouldn’t love something because it wasn’t for me.
I could go on. Every woman you know has a litany like this. Every woman you know has waded through the bullshit, is still wading through it.
But I wasn’t, when I walked into that classroom suited up as a Ghostbuster. Not until someone else told me I should be.
I have often said that was the day I became a feminist. I doubt I knew the word at the time, but I absolutely embraced the basic concept.
I just read a lovely piece yesterday written by Violet Ramis Stiel about her father, the late Harold Ramis, and her perspective on the new Ghostbusters movie. In it, she quotes her father as having explained to her, about the ardent Ghostbuters fans in her own school who would mob him on the playground to ask for autographs, “When people get really excited about something, we don’t care if it’s ‘real’ or not. We just want to get as close to it as we can.”
It’s what I was doing, when I picked out that costume for Halloween. I was the kind of geeky kid who would watch PBS science specials for hours. The Ghostbusters, especially my hero Egon, solved scary problems with science! That was awesome, and I loved it. It had never truly occurred to me that gender was relevant to any of this, or to my ability to appreciate it. I just wanted to get as close as I could to something I was excited about.
It’s been disappointing, though not surprising, to see that hordes of adult men never managed to outgrow the idea that Ghostbusters was for boys. I know that even if those outraged internet men who need to understand this somehow make it to my blog, they won’t really hear me. They’re too busy being outraged that “their childhood is being ruined” and claiming that “women aren’t funny anyway” and generally pitching a fit because any demographic other than their own is being “pandered to.”
But if you grew up thinking that Ghostbusters was for you, you were right. If you grew up thinking it was only for you, and people like you, you were wrong. It was for me, too, and for people like me and unlike me in every possible way. It was for anyone who loved it, or found some bit of themselves in it.
If you’re upset that the new Ghostbusters movie isn’t for you, then you know what, you’re right. It’s not for you. Stand back and let the people who might love it, who might find some bit of themselves in it, enjoy it, if you’re not able to.
I haven’t seen the new film yet. I’ll be seeing it this weekend, and I’ve been mostly avoiding reviews. When it was first announced, ages ago, I was so worried. “What if it’s bad? What if it’s a terrible movie and everyone takes it as further proof that women can’t front big popular movies, are not funny, and can’t pull people into theaters?” After all the cycles of vitriol and anger and fragile masculinity (oh my god so fragile), I honestly don’t care anymore. Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it’ll be good, maybe it’ll be mediocre. Doesn’t matter.
If just one little girl, anywhere in the world, watches it and believes that she can be anything that she wants to be, including a Ghostbuster, that’s good enough for me. And this time, no one can tell her otherwise. The proof is right there on the screen.