Holding Out for a Hero: Role Models, Jillian Holzmann and a Fun, Female Future

The older I get, the more role models I want.  This is a markedly different attitude than my teenage self had, where you couldn’t pay me to tell me what to do.  I thought that identity was something found solely within an individual, and any outside influence or mentorship was somehow corrupting.

Now, as a 36 year old woman, I am psyched to find new mentors and people I can look up to.  Every single one of my friends is a role model to me in some way, and I wouldn’t have it differently.  Where’s the benefit to being the smartest one in the room?  (My friend Rebecca taught me that.)  I’d never really thought about why I was so resistant to the idea of a role model, attributing it to my exceptionally stubborn teenage self, but something happened recently to change all that.  

That something?  I saw Ghostbusters.  

I actually saw the reboot of Ghostbusters two times in less than fifteen hours, on the day it came out.  It was that good.  

And it’s funny to type that, because while it was really, really, really great, it certainly wasn’t perfect.  There are other movies I like better, and Ghostbusters didn’t unseat any of them.  What made me go back so quickly, and what has stuck with me since my initial viewing, was the ghostbusters themselves.

Abby (Melissa McCarthy) was so deadpan and funny! Erin (Kristin Wiig) was so smart and neurotic! Patty (Leslie Jones) was so knowledgeable and assertive! And Holtzmann….where to start.  

Reviewers everywhere swooned over Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Jillian Holtzmann, the quiet, quirky, and hyper-intelligent engineering brains behind the ghost-busting operation.  How could they not? Holtzmann was funny and whip-smart, confident, stylish, loyal, and brave.  All of the characters displayed these qualities, but Holtzmann’s passion was amplified because she clearly did not give a fuck about anything but her work.  Abby had to deal with the delivery guy and the university brass; Erin had her tenure to think about; Patty had an actual job; Holtzmann made complicated machinery all day and didn’t do anything else.  Watching her was freeing and awesome in ways that I had never expected to experience.

To be honest, when I first watched the movie, I was so entranced with Holtzmann that I thought maybe I was a secret lesbian.  I am talking rapid heartbeats, total adoration, goofy smile when she would appear on screen.  I questioned my sexuality for about ten minutes before it occurred to me why I was so entranced by her.  It was because I had never seen anything like her in my entire life.  

I guess it was kind of like lust or love — that obsession, the wanting to talk about them all day.  But for me it was sheer adoration.  She worked all day — and she loved it.  She was quirky and quiet — and her friends loved her.  Holtmann wore unexpected clothing combinations and had what I will generously classify as weird hair, and she was still absolutely attractive — because of her awesome, confident actions and personality.  She didn’t have a boyfriend, kids, a fight with her mother, or a gossipy brunch with her friends.  She didn’t work as a docent, or in publishing, or as a nanny, or as a nurse.  She was a scientist, she found it exciting and rewarding, and she didn’t apologize for it.  I can’t imagine Holtzmann apologizing for anything.

At the climax of the movie, Holtzmann is fighting some of the super-size ghosts who have invaded New York City, and she realizes that she has some “toys” that she’s constructed and neglected to use.  She breaks them out, and the camera zooms out, the better to get a full body shot of Holtzmann using double-lasers to bring down one of the giant beings.  Revamped, guitar-heavy Ghostbusters theme music plays over the scene.  Hellooooo, sailor! Watching Holtzmann in action brought a goofy grin to my face, and I practically spilled my popcorn I was so excited.  I thought to myself that I should calm down, since I was acting like a kid.

And it occurred to me — how amazing, how truly empowering it would be to see this movie as a kid.  

I love the original Ghostbusters as much as the next person, but if you were a young lady looking to be empowered, the pickings were slim.  Janine, the nasally, “bug-eyed” secretary?  Dana, beautiful and accomplished and smart — who becomes a sexed-up succubus when possessed by a ghost, who must be rescued by the Ghostbusters, and who succumbs to Dr. Venkman’s insistent, childish advances, even though a modern day audience would probably view those advances as stalking?  It’s a fun movie, there’s no denying that.  And for young men, and maybe some young ladies, the four main male characters were uplifting role models — hero scientists, small business owners, persistent and nerdy and smart and ultimately victorious.

The difference in seeing this new Ghostbusters would be profound if you were a young girl — none of these women are concerned with children, their appearance, or having a boyfriend (Erin has an odd obsession with the boy-toy secretary — whose presence is problematic in itself — but her interest reads as out of character, and honestly something that a studio executive asked to be included to make her “more accessible” or similar).  Their friendships are front-and-center, they work together, and they mentor each other.   I am confident that until very recently, most movies geared toward young women either overtly or subconsciously tread the same boring ground, where a woman realizes that the most important thing in her life is her relationship, or her friendships, and that her work has to come in second to these relationships.  Ghostbusters is hugely refreshing in its singular vision of these capable, funny, confident women concentrating so fully on one thing — getting their business off the ground, advancing in their fields, and solving important problems.

I like to think that if I were ten years old and saw this movie, I’d be wearing a Holtzmann costume for Halloween this year.  But maybe it’s just as important that I wear one as a thirty-six year old mother of two boys.  

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