When I was growing up, my favourite television show was Disney’s That’s So Raven. In 2006, I watched Akeelah And The Bee so many times, I quickly memorised it. There’s a fundamental reason why these films and television shows had such an immense impact upon me, and that is because the leads were girls who looked like me, who had hair like mine and skin like mine and in them, I saw myself. And for a little black girl to see herself represented on the screen, that was enough. So when the news came out that Leslie Jones, a renowned comedian, brilliant on Saturday Night Live, would be starring in the new Ghostbusters film, I resolved to see it, even though I’d never heard of Ghostbusters before (sorry, I’m 18).
Since its conception, the new Ghostbusters reboot has been hailed by many as a feminist victory, a film that would serve to empower girls and women across the world. There are many reasons why I could have gone to see it, it is a major blockbuster with four female leads and no romantic subplots, and a film that clearly demonstrates that women get to be heroes too. But that wasn’t why I went to see it. I went to see it because of Leslie Jones. I went to see it because if a black woman is playing a major role in a film, you can almost guarantee that I will be there. Because we hardly ever get the opportunities to shine, even when we have proved our worth, because we hardly ever get the chance to see ourselves represented. And also because that’s what black women do: we support our sisters.
So, when this morning, I woke up to see that #LoveforLeslieJ, a hashtag started by another black woman, @MarissaRei1, was trending, my heart broke a little. When I read Leslie Jones’s tweets, about how she feels like she’s in a “personal hell”, how she talks about “proving [her] worth” and only getting hate back, my heart broke a little. When I saw what people on the internet were sending her – calling her an ape, sending her death threats, likening her to Harambe – my heart broke a little. When I saw the lack of response from Twitter, claiming that they can’t deal with “individual accounts”, my heart broke a little.
When I saw what people on the internet were sending Leslie Jones – calling her an ape, sending her death threats, likening her to Harambe – my heart broke
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There are so many reasons why I wasn’t completely happy with the latest remake of Ghostbusters. That they made Leslie Jones an MTA worker and not a scientist, I felt, was a missed opportunity. There isn’t anything wrong with being a subway worker, and the inclusion of such was also revolutionary, but that could have easily have been played by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, or Kate McKinnon. That stereotype that “black girls don’t do science” is one we need to shatter. The slightly uncomfortable but rare moments where we see an unequal balance of power between the white female actresses, and Leslie Jones, were acute. I have been told that the film was riffing on the representation in the original, but I don’t feel like it was worth the joke.
And yet, there were so many reasons why the new Ghostbusters was quietly revolutionary too. The female characters here were not dismissed or demeaned; Melissa McCarthy wasn’t the butt of a “fat joke”; the characters were warm, funny, rounded and human. They were smart, and Leslie Jones may have been the only black woman, and she may not have been a scientist, but she was just as smart, just as capable, and just as good. To have a visibly dark-skinned woman in such a role, is just as huge, and just as important too.
In my view, and in many ways, Leslie Jones was the star of this film. And the recent attacks on her are because of this, not in spite of it. The world cannot see a black woman succeed. For when they do, they try to break her. To force her back into her shell, to make her invisible again. The world works to instil fear in us, so that we do not ever try again. To be black, to be a woman, to be visible, and to succeed, is, for so many people, an oxymoron.
I remember in 2011, when I was flicking through an interview in ESSENCE magazine with Viola Davis. She said, “As black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences – experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.” Four years later and in one night, Uzo Aduba, Viola Davis and Regina King, won Emmys. I cried, uncontrollably. There are people who are trying to bring Leslie Jones down, but they will not win, because it is already too late. Leslie Jones is out of her cocoon. She is flying already, proving her determination, her worth, her warmth and her strength. And underneath her wings, are so many other black girls, who are being carried by her strength. It is only a matter of time before they too, break out of their cocoons and fly.