First of all, if you haven’t already seen the new GHOSTBUSTERS, go see it right now. You’re missing out on close to two hours of laughter, loving Leslie Jones even more, and developing a crush on Kate McKinnon’s character Jillian Holtzmann.
Second of all, Jillian Holtzmann is actually the best—and I’m going to tell you why. McKinnon’s queer character destroys the idea that a token character is necessary, particularly the Token Lesbian.
So, what the hell is a token character?
The Token Character
Let’s start by defining a few things. Tokenism, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.” By extension, a token character can be, but is not limited to, an addition to a show/movie/book/comic to avoid criticism for a lack of diversity in said medium. This token character can be any kind of minority—racial, LGBT+, gendered, religious, etc.
The most infamous of these tropes is the token black character, a trope that was popular during the ’90s. The main issue with the token character is that this person becomes the single representation for their entire group. As these characters are usually written by someone not a part of that minority, they often result in stereotypes. While not always the case, token characters have a tendency to become one-dimensional and just there for minority’s sake.
If there is one black character alongside four white ones in a predominantly white community written by a white author, what is really being represented?
The Token Gay Character
Even a show like MODERN FAMILY, which is relatively inclusive, is chock-full of token minority characters. What makes them token as opposed to non-token is due to how differently they are treated in relation to the majority characters. For example, gay couple Cam and Mitch are rarely seen involved in anything sexual despite being married—they seldom even kiss on screen. This is not true of the rest of the heterosexual cast, who openly talk about their sex lives and are shown engaging in sexual activity on-screen.
Gay male characters don’t have the same problem on television as lesbians do. Lesbians are often oversexualized and hyper sexuality for the pleasure of male viewers. Gay male characters tend to be undersexualized and there for entertainment, often campy and solely for humor. The problem with MODERN FAMILY is the inequality in which their characters are treated—it’s not equal if you’re scared to show two of your most popular characters making out while the rest half have sex on screen.
The Token Lesbian Character
The Token Lesbian character (different from the Token Gay) is a lesbian character added to either a cast of gay men or heterosexual women. She’s there to break up the monotonous casting and often conforms to a stereotypical, hyper-sexualized, and one-dimensional characterization.
According to TVTROPES.org, the Lesbian trope can come in many different stereotypical flavors: Butch, Lipstick, Cop, Jock, Vampire, Psycho, Schoolgirls, Discount, Wanting Kids, Dead—etc. Rarely does a lesbian character get the chance to be fleshed out. Personality is severely lacking in the women portrayed. That’s not to say it never happens, of course, but token minority characters are usually not written to be anything more than an attempt to seem inclusive.
Hell, even on a queer-centered show like QUEER AS FOLK, the two lesbian characters Lindsay and Melanie fall into the token trap. Their lives either revolve around having children, the gay male characters, or having a boring sex life. No seasons-long plot-lines or astounding character developments are bestowed upon these two. It’s a disappointing trend that litters television and film even now.
The consistency of minority token characters make those characters who don’t fit the token bill even more exciting and refreshing. Jillian Holtzmann embodies the break-away from the Token Lesbian character.
She doesn’t share any on-screen kisses with other women. She isn’t dressed in a provocative manner—she is not here for straight audiences, and specifically not for straight male audiences. Lesbian characters are often dolled up and put together with other female characters for the enjoyment of the straight men who watch it, not for women-loving women to identify with or enjoy. It’s the reason you can find articles that talk about the hottest lesbian scenes in movies, even if said scenes were super questionable, like anything from CRUEL INTENTIONS. The male gaze, a force so strong it usually renders even lesbian characters for the entertainment of straight men, is not found in GHOSTBUSTERS.
If you’ve been around the internet at all lately, you may have noticed a sort of explosion. Many fans of the new GHOSTBUSTERS, directed by Paul Feig, are embracing the character Jillian Holtzmann, played by SNL actress Kate McKinnon. Holtzmann is a master physicist and engineer in the film, often coming up with the ideas for most of the crew’s weapons and defense. She’s eccentric, hilarious, brilliant, and so very, very, queer.
Personally, I’m a huge proponent of confirming a character’s sexuality on-screen. GHOSTBUSTERS shows how that is not always necessary. Holtzmann is a character that is visibly queer without relying on words or stereotypes to tell a story. It is through the character’s mannerisms, like visibly checking out, winking at, and asking fellow female character Erin Gilbert if she “comes here often,” that her sexuality is acknowledged and immediately confirmed. The way she does it is unlike most scenes between a lesbian character and another woman—Holtzmann is not predatory and sex hungry like Cynthia Rose in PITCH PERFECT and its sequel, who verges on sexually harassing her team-mates most of the time.
Unlike a majority of lesbian characters, Holtzmann is not sexualized in any way shape or form. As mentioned above, she isn’t made to be a stereotypical sex kitten to help straight guys in the audience enjoy GHOSTBUSTERS.
She is a physicist who also happens to be a lesbian, and it makes all the difference.
However, before giving Paul Feig all the credit, I think what makes Holtzmann’s sexuality so visible and readable is the fact that the actress who portrays her, Kate McKinnon, is openly a lesbian. Many of the mannerisms that showcase Holtzmann’s sexuality, like the aforementioned wink, were all improvised by McKinnon herself (also, that gun-licking scene). An actual lesbian playing a lesbian character is undeniably the major reason why so many queer fans were able to relate and identify with Jillian Holtzmann almost immediately. She did things that women who love women do—eye men with a strange curiosity instead of unbridled lust, have amazing hair, and lick guns.
Just kidding. Mostly.
It’s difficult to say what exactly made her identifiable—it’s not just a sense of gaydar of course. Perhaps it was a bit of everything; her hair, her clothes, or the way she interacted with Chris Hemsworth’s character Kevin. It was definitely the way she interacted with Erin: flirty, making her fluster, but never uncomfortable. She wasn’t a stereotype, and the way in which her character was dressed and styled was far from a character designed for male stimulation. My girlfriend noticed it in the trailer; we gave each other the “that girl is gay” look in the movie theater about ten minutes in, and we couldn’t stop smiling.
Holtzmann is not there for the purpose of balancing out the group. She’s not made an example of, and her sexuality is never directly explicit nor referred to. Her sexuality is not exploited, and it is never at the mercy of any straight character. She’s not a stereotype—her personality is vast and deep. Her character is essential to the plot, and she cannot be replaced or removed without significant damage or effect to the film. Jillian Holtzmann is a brilliant queer physicist who does not exist for any ulterior motive.
She exists, it is as simple and wonderful as that.