Welcome to Epic Episodes, another hopefully recurring feature where we examine notable episodes of TV shows. This first installment is on what I feel is one of TV animation’s best metafictional episodes.
Recent events have shown that trying to discuss the role of women in “Ghostbusters” is like someone with a papercut asking for a band-aid and having gasoline, lighted matches, and oily rags thrown at them in response. But if I have to get oily rags thrown at me, bring ‘em on. Today, we’re talking about The Real Ghostbusters and Janine.
Many popular 80’s movies, including Police Academy, Beetlejuice, and Videodrome (maybe not that last one) got repurposed for Saturday Morning Cartoons in the 80’s and 90’s. In hopes of hooking a new audience and more cash from those sweet, sweet toy lines, those movies naturally had to be made a little more kid-friendly in their transition to animation. So “Ghostbusters” left behind its dick jokes, cursing, and smoking, and moved that little scamp Slimer to the forefront. Now, don’t get me wrong- you can clean up a movie like this one and still get an entertaining cartoon. For example, I really loved the “Beetlejuice” animated series when I was a kid, and it still holds up fairly well today. In fact, the many, many differences between the show and the film made me realize that they’re equally effective in the story they try to tell- just in different ways. Ghostbusters didn’t have nearly as many changes made to its premise- but many agree that somewhere along the line, the show lost whatever magic it had.The problem seems to have been that the network didn’t understand how their changes compromised the group dynamic of the main characters. It’s my belief that the character interactions made the original Ghostbusters so popular- not just the premise. The most dramatic changes revolved around the Ghostbusters’ long suffering secretary, Janine Melnitz. Dana, Sigourney Weaver’s character from the film, was never even mentioned on the show, so Janine was the lone female recurring character. At first, Janine was a lot like Annie Potts’ portrayal in the movies: she had a broad Noo Yawk accent, a quirky sense of style and was always there with a cutting remark when Venkman started to believe the big game he talked. But the execs thought for some bizarre reason that Janine, as “the girl’, should be a mother figure for the team. To them, this meant she should have a softer, more traditionally feminine personality and the looks to match. I don’t think the team needs a mom- they’re grown-ass adults. But it happened:
Above is a compilation (not made by me) of how Janine’s look changed throughout the show. Nobody seemed to have a clear idea of how this ‘other’ Janine should look, but they’re all more generically ‘pretty’ and ‘softer’ than Original Flavor Janine. “Best’ part- they wanted to get rid of Janine’s pointy glasses, because the glasses might ‘scare children.’ (slams head on laptop repeatedly)
Let me tell you, I was soooo happy Annie Potts had the pointy glasses on in 2016 Ghostbusters. And to see Janine looking more like herself in “Extreme Ghostbusters”, and most of all to see Janine wearing her pointy glasses in this episode.
This was the point where series story editor J. Michael Straczynski had had enough. He was going to explain why Janine had changed, and more importantly, why no one seemed to notice.
Summary: Slimer finds a photo album and sees that in an older photo, Janine looks almost totally different. He shows it to the Busters, who are equally shocked by her appearance (and different voice) and resolve to find out what’s going on. It turns out Janine is under the spell of a spirit that she thinks is her Fairy Godmother, who has been making her more ‘beautiful’ so Egon will notice her. In fact, the ghost’s powers prevented everyone from noticing how Janine changed. Worse yet, the graceful, fairylike creature is actually an evil spirit called “Makeoveris Lotsabucks” (yeah, I know, I’ll just call her “the monster” from here on out) who feeds on low-self esteem. Egon explains that the creature makes people “so perfect (they’re) not even human anymore”, eventually creating a creature like itself, and it may be too late for Janine. The monster tries to convince Janine that her friends have turned against her, and that she’ll never be perfect or pretty enough unless she becomes ‘like her’. Janine powers up and prepares to ‘destroy’ (okay, MURDER) Egon. She angrily confronts him over ignoring her. He actually puts his proton pack down and pleads for her to see reason. He loves her, he says, just the way she is- as do the rest of the busters. Janine regains her humanity and instead, attacks the monster (now in her snakelike true form) and stops her from killing the other characters. We end with Egon asking Janine out on a date- though nothing comes of it in future episodes.
Why it’s notable:
This is probably one of the only times a kids’ cartoon pointed out the changes that had been made to a certain character, and explained where the changes came from . They also made it clear that those changes, and being ‘prettier’, were not necessarily good things.
Things I’ve Noticed
I’m not really sure why Janine didn’t change back to her original self when the monster lost its hold on her, unless the monster had changed her so much already that a full ‘reset’ was no longer possible. The narrative seems to support this. Perhaps the show just didn’t want to fire Kath Soucie, and thought it wouldn’t made sense to have Janine’s appearance change back, but not her voice.
When Janine “powers up” and becomes dangerously close to changing into the same kind of monster who corrupted her, she starts taunting Egon by changing into the forms of beautiful women from history. It looks like a metaphor for Janine having a nervous breakdown, especially because she keeps yelling things like “AM I GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU NOW?” The forms she takes also have some interesting symbolism. Her transformations go in chronological order: Greek/Roman Goddess,Cleopatra, Medieval Lady, Marie Antoinette, a Gibson Girl, Marilyn Monroe. TV Tropes pointed out that both Marilyn and Cleopatra were remembered for their looks rather than their intellect. I’d also like to add that Marie was seen by her contemporaries (and some today) as a self-absorbed airhead who only cared about her looks. (I think the truth is just that she wasn’t cut out to be queen.) People will always judge you based on how you look, even if you’re considered beautiful. And by many accounts, Cleopatra wasn’t even that great-looking, but she still has this mythology built up around her. The Gibson Girl was designed by artist Charles Dana Gibson to represent the ideal woman of her time, and now, Marilyn represents the ideal of Hollywood glamour- but Marilyn was a real person, who was never comfortable with the media’s distorted view of her while she was alive, and would probably be terrified at how we slap her face on all kinds of products now. (Snickers, anyone?) Also, she met a tragic end- are they hinting that if Janine’s friends didn’t arrive in time to help her, she’d meet a bad end too?
I like that the monster’s ‘fairy godmother’ form isn’t a cute little fairy or cute older woman, like Disney versions of that type of character- she’s a beautiful adult woman who looks like a Greek Goddess with wings. (Joel actually thought she looked like Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) when she is possessed by Zuul! I think he’s right.)
Of course, she would have to be beautiful to tempt Janine into being perfect ‘like her’, but Janine wants to be desirable to Egon, so it makes sense that the person who offers that to her would represent adult sexuality. What’s odd is that the softer personality Janine got in the change made her seem less sexual (more passive and ‘innocent’), and her clothes also got less revealing during the change. Look how much longer her skirt is!
This is like a more subtle version of all those anti-eating disorder TV episodes and PSAs. There’s not a huge amount of emphasis on it, but Janine does ask to become thinner as part of her transformation. Later, when Egon tries to help, the monster says that Egon’s trying to stop Janine from ‘being all (she) can be”. Eating disorders are about anxiety and wanting control, and people under the influence of that type of disorder do not want that control to be taken away. Because they’re so caught up in trying to control their weight, they will often withdraw from people, and they will also cut off people who tell them their behavior is harmful. Speaking from personal experience, parts of this episode are also a good metaphor for anxiety disorders, especially social anxiety. This is most obvious when the monster tells Janine “I know you think you’re not pretty enough or good enough” and keeps insisting to Janine that “your friends have turned against you.”
Another interesting thing is that this whole episode feels like a Disney movie or fairytale played for horror. (Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much?) Janine’s nightgown even looks like a flowy princess dress. And there’s a nice moral- you are always beautiful if people love you, and real beauty comes from who you are- but we really have to go through hell to get there.
One thing I will say for the excecutives: they wanted Janine to actually become a full-fledged Ghostbuster on the show. I honestly think this would have been a great idea. But for whatever reason, her status as a buster was regulated to just a few episodes where the other guys were out of commission. Winston also got a bone thrown to him in an episode where he had to save his three friends, but for the most part, they were still on the sidelines. Sadly, the executives gave him a much more raw deal than Janine- they thought of Winston as “the Driver” for the other three Ghostbusters! And oh yeah, Ernie Hudson isn’t even on the original character poster for the film, AND he tried out to play Winston on the cartoon and was turned down. (Isn’t this like that legend of Chaplin entering a Chaplin Look-Alike Contest and coming in third?) What if both of them had taken a more active role in the cartoon? Maybe if people were used to seeing a female Ghostbuster, and if Winston had been in the spotlight more (with Ernie playing him here!) , the petty racist and sexist crap surrounding the recent film might not have been quite so bad. We’ll probably never know, but I can’t help wondering.
Finally, I’d just like to say that Kath Soucie and Maurice LaMarche, who were in SO MANY cartoons that I religiously watched as a kid, did some of the best acting I’ve ever heard them do in this very emotional episode. If this story wasn’t in the hands of capable actors, this attempt to justify what happened to Janine would have fallen flat, but they really came through. And with those thoughts, I dedicate this post to them and to Ms. Leslie Jones.