Ghostbusters fans have lit up social media with reactions to the new Ghostbusters movie. The film, which features an all-female lineup of phantom fighting comedians, opens this summer and the controversy over the cast’s gender has grown bigger than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. According to Julie Koser’s new book Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe a film featuring female ghost fighters opening during the most disruptive and divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory is more than a coincidence. Whether you love or hate the idea of female Ghostbusters, this isn’t the first time that depictions of female warriors have coincided with periods of political uncertainty. The destabilizing political environment produced by the French Revolution led to “reestablishment of clearly defined gender roles as a form of social control” in nineteenth-century Germany. In her new book, Julie Koser examines tropes of the woman warrior constructed by print culture and how women’s bodies became a semiotic battleground for competing social, cultural, and political agendas in one of the most critical periods of modern history.
In the wake of the French Revolution … depictions of women and violence embodied the climate of apprehension, uncertainty, and instability that held western Europe, and German-speaking territories in particular, captive at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A full contingent of women warriors of page and stage triggered persistent anxieties as well as powerful fantasies about women’s use of violence—and forms of “perceived” female transgression more generally that destabilized the status quo of entrenched structures of power. Evoking simultaneous feelings of aversion and attraction, women warriors, as the embodiment of female transgression writ large, appear at once as ghastly prospect and feminine ideal, deceitful criminal and valorous patriot, deviant villain and sacrificing heroine, bloodthirsty hyena and defender of the domestic good, paragon of love and repository of unregulated passions, aberration of nature and emancipatory fantasy.
So whether she is depicted as an Amazon queen wielding a sword or a funny lady with a proton pack the woman warrior has long been a harbinger of political anxieties. Though it does not outwardly carry any political message the new Ghostbusters movie reflects the unease of our time in the same way: by making women’s bodies the site of the struggle for power.
Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe is available for preorder here.