With all this talk about the Ghostbusters all-girl reboot (upon which I have no official position until I see a damn trailer, because GB III has been in development hell since forever), I think it’s timely for us to revisit the most important female character in the franchise.
No, not Dana Barrett. I mean Janine Melnitz.
Janine Melnitz is the Margaret Dumont of The Real Ghostbusters universe – a significant foil to the rest of the cast and one with as much right to be called a ‘fifth Ghostbuster’ as Dumont was the ‘fifth’ Marx Brother, as Carol Cleveland was the ‘seventh’ Python, or Clarissa Kinnison was the ‘Red’ Lensman.
Janine’s character was loathed by executives, and her personality was forced through a sieve to soften her to appeal to focus groups. In her truest form, with her pointy glasses and snarky Brooklyn accent, Janine was labeled unmaternal, bitchy and even slutty. I won’t go so far as to say there was a conspiracy involved in ruining her character, but it’s interesting and upsetting that both the show and the second movie attacked Janine in exactly the same way – making her ‘look softer’ and tossing her away from her sparkly snarkiness to foist her off on the movie’s other ‘loser’ character. (The cartoon and the second movie had more influence on each other than anyone really wants to admit, I think.)
JMS pointed this out with a savage protest episode in season six, well after the show had lost its momentum, called “Janine, You’ve Changed” – a shots-fired-across-the-bow retcon story aimed at everyone who failed to understand the value of the original character.
“As for Janine…the change bothered the hell out of me, to go from a strong, smart, fashion-aware (in a weird way), independent woman…to a mommy-character. And, in time, they kinda realized that I was right, and the consultants were wrong…mainly when the mailbags filled with angry letters from mothers and young girls raising ten kinds of hell. – JMS
Female Characters In 80’s Cartoons
When The Real Ghostbusters originally aired in the heyday of the mid-80’s, there were precious few ‘strong adult women’ as we would think of them today on the ground. In fact, I think I can only name five or six. She-Ra, Jem and Rainbow Brite all bucked the overall trend to come up with centralized female characters with agency around whom entire series revolved. They’re the statistical outliers. Penny from Inspector Gadget – although ultimately a primary plot resolver in a huge number of episodes and actually the stealth main character of the series – was also a small child prone to the usual kidnappings and damsel-in-distressisms.
The female characters of G.I. Joe tended to be left in support roles, not as primary plot drivers. Likewise Niko from Galaxy Rangers. Thundercats‘ Cheetara is mostly remembered for being naked in the pilot and that dumb episode about gold. Other female characters were tokens (Arcee/other female Autobots, Smurfette, Cheetara), villainesses (The Baroness, Evil-Lyn, and any number of other awful screeching default harridans/dominatrixes) or at best, “support characters” (Sandra Shore, Carly Witwicky and Melissa Faireborn). Usually the Token Female would get one showcase episode, which was often also her origin episode or entry story. If she was lucky she might get two.
Women in the 80’s could be on the sidelines, and could even clean up the mistakes of others, but were rarely elevated to a ‘star’ role.
It’s under the guise of ‘support character’ that Janine sneaks into The Real Ghostbusters. With the context of the time in mind, her influence and position within the series is pretty impressive.
Of the golden age of Real Ghostbusters – roughly seasons 1 & 2, a few bits of 3, and the syndicated run of 1987 – Janine has four primary feature episodes and is important to the plot resolution of at least two more. Many of these resolutions involve her picking up a damn proton pack and going to town either alone or alongside the guys. She plays significant roles in many other episodes, either providing a key piece of exposition or serving as part of the episode’s resolution (Cold Cash and Hot Water, Ragnarok and Roll) or emotional support (Doctor, Doctor). These are just the ones I can name immediately off the top of my head.
This may not sound like a lot on a sheer numbers basis, but Ray, Winston and Peter all have fewer “feature” episodes than she does – only Egon has more, as he was considered the physical embodiment of the show’s core values, science and reason as a primary defense against the unknown. Given the time, six feature episodes is a phenomenal number for a non-show-running character. There are few episodes Janine isn’t in in some way, making her an omnipresent cast member equal to the male Ghostbusters.
So, okay, Janine’s important to the series and she’s in a lot of episodes. So what? What’s important is that every accusation thrown at her character is flat out wrong.
Accusation: Janine is a Slut
When does Janine date anyone? She’s interested in Egon, because she thinks he’s cute, and the series
basically pairs them off from the get-go, so how is that ‘slutty’? They go on a couple of dates throughout the series, and it’s clear (Ragnarok and Roll) that Egon returns her feelings. Meanwhile, Venkman tail-chases almost every female NPC that enters an episode (The Collect Call of Cthulthu, Hard Knight’s Day, Revenge of Murray the Mantis) but he’s not considered a slut? Where does this come from, the fact that she’s extremely well-animatedly blowing the guys a goodbye-kiss at the start of every episode?
Janine does make an offhand comment about the demon Proteus’s physical appearance (Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster), and about Egon’s mind really being the thing she likes (Slimer, Is That You?), but hey.
Accusation: Janine isn’t Feminine Enough/isn’t Maternal Enough
Are you kidding me? Her last name is MELNITZ. Janine is nearly an archetypal Jewish Mom figure. While it’s true that Janine does not put up with anyone’s shit (particularly Venkman’s, and often Slimer’s), I can easily counter this by pointing at the episode Doctor, Doctor – in which Janine brings the ailing Ghostbusters chicken noodle soup with mushrooms, donuts, “Melville, Dickens and Alan Parsons as requested”. I can think of several times she brings food to the firehouse.
And let’s face it, if you had to put up with Peter Venkman on a daily basis, you’d get pretty crabby too. What show were you guys watching anyway?
Conclusion: You’re Wrong, Janine is Awesome
Janine Melnitz was given exceptional latitude, agency and depth for a female character in her time. She was not depicted as boy crazy; she was not portrayed as being obsessed with clothes. makeup or shopping, ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ – she was portrayed as a loyal mensch, a long-suffering and devoted friend and comedic foil to the guys. Janine deserves our respect, and moreover, she deserves more recognition in 80’s cartoon history than she has often received. Janine was perhaps the only fully functional adult female character in 80’s cartoons, period; she didn’t live in a world that was complete fantasy and she didn’t have to change her identity or put on a disguise to become something more “authoritative”.
She was the fifth Ghostbuster.
If the new “female” Ghostbusters doesn’t feature Janine Melnitz’s reincarnation in a primary role putting on the pack and kicking ass, everyone involved is fired.
See also: How Image Makers Shape Kid’s TV: Q5 Firm Advises ABC on the Look and Style of Cartoon Shows; Some Writers Call It Intrusion ( Diane Haithman, LA Times)