“My safe word is ‘teacup.’”
A few years back, and as a few of my long-time Internet friends will be able to attest to being the case and that I am not exaggerating this stuff, I had an infatuation with a videogame character called Kinzie Kensington from the Saints Row series. Infatuation really is the word, by the way. I friggin’ adored her for reasons I could never fully articulate or understand. Oh, I understood why I loved her character so much – Kinzie, like nearly every character in the Saints Row universe, is an exceptionally well-rounded and entertaining character, and her Insufferable Genius Sexually Voracious personality is a non-stop laugh riot, helped by Natalie Lander’s pitch-perfect delivery – but I never truly realised why I connected with her to the degree that I did. I’m talking hanging on her every word, relishing her every appearance, practically cheering when she knocks The Boss on her arse late on in Saints Row IV, and maybe going a little giddy over the announcement of her being playable in Gat Out of Hell.
I bring this up because I’ve recently experienced that same sort of infatuation with another character, that of Dr. Jillian Holtzmann from the new Ghostbusters – side note: there really has to be a better way to distinguish between the new and the original Ghostbusters movies without resorting to that unwieldy mess or “Lady Ghostbusters.” I loved Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in case you hadn’t gathered that from my review back when it came out or the fact that I haven’t shut up about it, but I adored Kate McKinnon’s live-wire Holtzmann. That scene of her busting loose and busting ghosts is obviously my favourite scene of the year, as it also should be for every single person who went and saw movies this year, but she had captured my heart long before then with her hammy, goofy, and unapologetically brash and outsized personality, and barely restrained pansexuality (although she is canonically just homosexual which is still great).
My desire to re-watch Ghostbusters for the third time has been rampant for pretty much the entirety of the last month, seeing it plastered all over digital download services long before it actually hits real home media leading you to falsely assume that it’s already out, and also just plain not having the money or time to pick it up and watch it, will do that to you. But it’s not just relentless advertising for a film I really enjoyed that’s been responsible for this strong of a desire. Primarily, it’s been because of my connection to Holtzmann, that kind of lightning strike connection that only comes along once every blue moon or some other such cliché. I was invited to my first ever Halloween costume party this year and, after cycling through a whole bunch of other potential choices of questionable replicable value within such a short time-span and dealing with unsupportive parents over my insistence on going as female characters, I was dead set on going as Holtzmann. And I did! Sort of. I didn’t have the tinted spectacles or the wig and so looked more like a slimed-Dan Akyroyd, which is why I don’t have any pictures of me in costume, but the sentiment was there!
The realisation hit me, the other day, that the connection I have to Holtzmann is not too dissimilar to the one I had with Kinzie all those (3) years ago, and that started spurring off a train of thought where I realised that there was a common thread linking these two characters. In fact, they’re remarkably similar to one another. Both are introduced in instantly memorable ways that quickly lay out their characters in one fowl swoop – Kinzie, tied up on a barge, pragmatic and anti-social whilst instantly oversharing her preferred sexual kinks to people she doesn’t even know; Holtzmann with her posture and one simple “Come around here often?” telling you damn near everything you need to know about her. Both are very socially awkward yet completely unapologetic about that, totally comfortable about themselves and unashamed about their goofiness, wholly owning that shit and not interested in whether or not you’re turned off by it. They’re both capable, talented, and smart women with vital roles to play in their respective plots, and who are relentlessly sexual and gay as all get out without being sexualised by the works they star in.
And as I sat further pondering the similarities between the two characters from wildly different works in totally different mediums, I was finally able to articulate and realise why I am, and was, so infatuated with both Kinzie and Holtzmann. I connected so much with these characters because when I watch them, not only do I see parts of myself in the both of them, I see the versions of myself that I wish I could be. They are my aspirational fantasies, my escapist characters, the ideal I hope I could be like.
That is where things start to get a bit murkier. Of course, media does not lack for goofy antisocial nerd characters – the #1 sitcom on the planet right now is chocked full of them – and they’re also a prime avatar for writers using their fictional works to reminisce on their youths in some nostalgic way. They come in all shapes, sizes, genders, sexualities, appearances, attitudes, capabilities, and relevance to their respective plots, yet none of them have connected with me in the same way that Kinzie and Holtzmann have. The connection I have with them goes beyond them being well-written and entertaining characters in works that I really enjoy with characteristics and traits that I identify with. There’s something more, a piece of them that sticks with me even long removed from having experienced the works in question, that’s strong enough for a younger and less-emotionally-developed Me to misattribute as something approaching genuine love. So why Holtzmann and Kinzie specifically and totally?
Well, I hope you’re ready for some wild speculative assumptions and cringe-y Psych 101 readings, cos both of those things are inbound!
I’ve never really been comfortable with masculinity. I’m comfortable identifying as Male – at this point more because my general personality makes me reluctant to explore that which I am not already familiar with, but that’s a whole other can of worms for myself and my therapist to work through – but I’ve never been particularly comfortable with masculinity, or at least the social construct of being masculine. Most of the men I’ve known throughout my life have been very, for lack of a technical term, guy-y; very boorish and outsized and stoic when it comes to their emotions. They don’t really talk about themselves much, at least in an honest emotional way, particularly my Dad and my Mum’s various boyfriends over the years (told you some pat Psych 101 was inbound), and many treat having strong emotional reactions to something as some kind of weakness that deserves to be roundly mocked out of the person in question. My childhood bullies all being guys probably also helped with this.
It’s not that I don’t have masculine friends or that I can’t talk to them when I’m in a room with them, it’s that I find it near-impossible to talk with them when outside of that, again for lack of a better term, forced situation, and I find it super-difficult to talk to people out of the blue anyway. I just don’t connect particularly well with people like that, despite occasionally indulging in enjoying excessively masculine things myself from time to time. I adore a good violent action movie, I too have my moments of loud boorish self-absorption, and I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy getting right into the thick of a moshpit at a Kasabian gig. But every now and then I catch myself having those reactions and feeling guilty for enjoying them, like I’m somehow betraying myself by indulging in the thing that mostly makes me uncomfortable.
So, growing up and today, I find it easier to talk to and connect with women. Now, I’m going to spare you any more awkward, mildly offensive and inaccurate generalisations explaining why – which I only use because I’m still working out very slowly through my therapy the more concrete reasons as to why – but I’ve always identified more with femininity and women than I have masculinity and men. This applies to my best friends (with a few exceptions), my personal heroes and inspirations (Kathleen Hanna is just as amazing and inspiring and kick-ass in person as I hoped she would be thank you for asking), and even the characters in the media I consume. There isn’t really a lot separating Greg from the execrable Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Nadine from the phenomenal The Edge of Seventeen besides their gender, and the quality and self-awareness of the writing powering them… OK, that second thing is actually a huge difference maker, but assuming that they were both on an even playing field, I’d still probably find it easier to see myself in and connect with Nadine than I would Greg, and that’s largely down to her gender.
I reside at that awkward intersection where I am comfortable in my biological gender but am actively made uncomfortable by the traditional gender performance associated with it, which may be why the most effort I put into my fashion involves whether it’s shaped like a t-shirt and is either plain or contains a band or media image on it that I like. Where I identify instinctively more with women despite not being totally feminine, where I feel like an outsider but don’t identify with the labels of “nerd” or “geek” or any such like, and where the concept of sex makes me uncomfortable but where I do have some kind of biological attraction drive and am becoming slowly more comfortable with identifying as bisexual rather heterosexual. This is also all without bringing in the depression, anxiety, and Asperger’s Syndrome that also affects all of my behaviour and relations in various ways.
That’s the madly specific set of buttons that a character has to press to get the kind of deep-rooted connection that other people are able find on a slightly more regular basis. I can relate and empathise with many characters, I actually find that super easy, but I can never envision seeing myself fully in any kind of media, of seeing somebody like me in a work in any way – which seems hilariously stupid given that I am a White Man with nerdy tendencies and an awkward demeaner, so you could throw a stone in any direction and hit 14 different works that feature people like me in some way, but you’re missing the point. One of the few other times that that kind of connection happened to me came from Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead Season 2 with the character of Sarah and in that, as I’ve written before, the game called me a useless draining hindrance on everybody who should just die already to avoid dragging everyone down cos it’s not like they’d miss me when I was gone. You know, positive messaging.
But I saw myself in both Kinzie Kensington and Jillian Holtzmann. In fact, they both went one better and presented me with images of the version of myself that I could be if only I applied myself more. They’re both socially awkward and goofy but make no bones about it. They’re both unique and confident and unafraid to be anybody but themselves. They’re in a push-pull between masculinity and femininity but totally uncaring about that whole aspect of themselves. They’re both sexually voracious, and their sexualities are full-blown gay at the very least (everybody is bi or pan in Saints Row that’s just how that world works), and proud of that fact. Both of their respective works treat them as capable, necessary, valuable badasses where their badassery is just another facet of their characters and not tied to a leery sexualised depiction.
What’s best, though, is that they don’t feel worlds away from myself, although that came across as way more egotistical than I meant for it to. They’re aspirational figures in a rather mundane, attainable way. Sure, I can’t become a master hacker so single-handedly capable of repelling an alien invasion that I have to be personally kidnapped just prior to the end game by the Big Bad in order to slow my progress, but I can be unapologetically assured in my talents and value in my day-to-day life and more willing to let my mostly-bottled-up sexual desires and fetishes fly every now and again. Sure, I can’t go around busting ghosts with the world’s greatest pompadour and fashion sense whilst creating scientific miracles, but I can be so comfortable in my own skin and my own personality that I won’t feel the need to tone down or hide my goofier or more feminine sides around people I’m not already 100% confident in and be more immediately forward with people in general.
Kinzie Kensington and Jillian Holtzmann have struck such a strong chord with me because they walk that line between “aspirational figure” and “relatable figure” for me so finely. They’re so well-written, so well-realised, and so idiosyncratic in their details and nuances that they convince totally to me as not just real characters, but reflections of myself. I see me – the shy, awkward, occasionally witty and cutting, constantly uncomfortable, bisexual outsider – in the both of them, but with the major flaws, insecurities, and self-doubts scrubbed away. I see logical extensions of myself in the both of them, an attainable goal to strive towards that I may one day succeed in reaching. I connect so totally to the both of them because, in defiance of every deeply-held belief I have about myself, I see myself represented in the media I consume by them, which I simply did not believe could ever occur. I see myself as a confident, useful badass, who is still a weird outsider but defiantly and proudly so. One day, I actually may be. For now, though, I have that ideal.
So, thank you Volition, Natalie Lander, Paul Feig & Katie Dippold, and Kate McKinnon. Despite the last 2,360, words genuinely cannot express the effect that your efforts have had on me. I can only hope that I’ll one day be able to pull off a decent Halloween cosplay of both characters.
Callie Petch knows a place where we can dance the whole night away.