This article was originally published June 27, 2015 on #RyersonSA. Contains some minor spoilers for the television show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
I’d like to introduce you to Captain Raymond Holt, fictional character on the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and explain why I think this character is an important example of how to wear lenses in Student Affairs.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a (hilarious!) sitcom about a police precinct in Brooklyn full of many odd, but always delightful, characters. Andy Samberg leads the cast as Detective Jake Peralta—a heart-warming man-child that loves solving puzzles and putting away bad guys—and is surrounded by such characters as the terrifying, heart-of-gold Rosa Diaz, the awkward but always-has-your-back foodie, Charles Boyle, and the intelligent, focused, wants-to-be-teacher’s-pet Amy Santiago. Though all of them are well-rounded, complex characters, it is the inciting incident, new captain Ray Holt, that drew my attention.
At the opening of the show, Holt has just taken his first command, the Nine-Nine, after nearly a decade as a high-ranking member of the NYPD’s PR department. He is a no-nonsense, stoic individual with a passion for police work, orchids, and a natural-born leader. He made detective in the NYPD in the late 70s and had a (mostly) professionally successful career. He is married, has a nemesis, poses riddles, writes poetry, fences, paints, eats nutrition bricks—and is a gay, black man.
You can imagine how, given the way our society has historically and continues to treat individuals, those last couple character traits made his career an uphill battle from the start, but now, finally—after spending years stuck in PR as the representative “token” figure—he has finally achieved his professional ambition to command a precinct of his very own. This was, and is, the driving force inside of Holt: to be a captain, to have his own command.
But why talk about Holt on a Student Affairs blog?
I’m a writer, which is why the character of Holt, and in particular the way he and his stories are portrayed, interested me. In Holt I see a wonderful example of a well-rounded character, one that is nuanced and layered, whose every action is defined by his being as a whole, not a single character trait. But I’m also a Student Affairs professional, and I’m hyper-aware of the lenses we wear and how we apply them to the world and people around us. Which is why I see a perfect metaphor in the way the writers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine treat Captain Holt’s story-arcs as we should treat the lenses we use.
Captain Holt is not his sexual identity. If I had to pick a single trait to define his character it would be stoic, with a heavy helping of seriousness. I can imagine—scratch that, I don’t need to imagine:
It’s real easy to see a young Holt stoically waxing poetic—did I mention he’s also an aspiring poet?—on the meaninglessness of mac n’ cheese.
Too often, though, I’ve seen characters on television—particularly those “representing” the queer community—be nothing more than their sexual orientation. Imaging them before their show, or where they’ll be after, is difficult, sometimes near impossible. These characters are denied a chance to be a whole human being as every one of their story arcs revolves (exclusively) around their queer identity. They are prevented from engaging, as good art should, with the many different facets of humanity that we, as real people, experience in stories that allow us to come to terms with our world and how we fit into it as a whole.
But not Captain Holt; Holt is allowed to be whole. As Michael Schur, co-creator and executive producer along with Dan Goor, said: “You don’t reduce people to one thing in the modern age. That’s our No. 1 rule of writing.” And with that support the writers are free to use Holt’s character to investigate the many facets of humanity that he embodies, and most importantly, see how those pieces play off one another within Holt, as well as against the other characters around him.
Which is not to say that the writers ignore Holt’s sexuality. On the contrary: being gay (as well as black) was important to the kind of career he faced rising through the ranks of the NYPD, which had an incredible impact upon who he is now. It’s just not the only thing that did. His sexual identity influences who he is but so does his stoicism, his rivalry with his nemesis, his ambitions, his marriage, his dreams; not to mention the other characters around him.
Being gay is an important part of his character, but it’s not the defining nature of his character. Holt is a whole person.
Consider his marriage, for example, and the story-arcs leveraged from his partner Kevin (a delightfully staunch university English professor, the perfect partner for our “wild,” police-captain Holt). I have never felt these were token stories. Their stories are about them, as characters, and this marriage between two people that trust, love, and need each other. (In one such instance, Holt hides something from Kevin that he and several of the Nine-Nine team must uncover; in the end, it was Holt’s embarrassment at acting like a 20 year old and putting himself in danger that prevented him from telling his partner.) I don’t care what your sexual orientation is: if you have a long-term partner that you love and trust, you’ll feel the emotional crisis of Holt’s decision right along with him.
The writers don’t cater theirs stories exclusively to Holt’s sexual identity, nor do they shy away from it. His stories are the stories that matter in the moment, and all the many sides of him—his stoicism, his job, his orientation, his beliefs, childhood, humour, disposition, love of orchids; and the way the world treats him for these sides—they all influence how he acts. Just another complex tapestry holding up a series of mirrors to our own lives as we try, through art, to understand ourselves.
Which finally brings us back to lenses, and why I consider the treatment of Holt as an excellent analogy for Student Affairs. The character of Holt is not defined by one lens at a time. He is a nuanced picture of many lens layered one atop the other, transforming how he sees the world, just as people are:
My background is writing and editing; it’s my professional trade. My passion is storytelling. I work[ed] in Student Affairs, which has had a huge impact on how I look at the world, interact with language, and even laugh at jokes. I identify as a straight, white male. I’m a self-proclaimed Geek. And I have a partner, Candice, whom I love very much.
These are all important aspects of me that have defined who I am, but not a single one can define me alone.
Our students are not just international students. They are not just first-generation. Students are not defined by the accommodations they seek, the workshops they attend, or the support they require. They can’t even be defined by the programs they’re enrolled in (a guy in my undergraduate writing program, he intended to continue in a Masters of Medicine; he was going to go be a brain surgeon to please his family—but his undergrad, as he told me, was for him). In the end, our students should not even be defined strictly as a student. Being a student is just one facet of their whole identity.
Every part of you (parent, partner, student, soldier, athlete, artist, friend, fan, etc.) is just a piece of the whole. And with the addition of every new jigsaw shaped piece, the picture changes, evolves. Each of us is made up of a hundred different lenses, and when we proclaim to deal in the whole person, we must look at an individual through each lens simultaneously, because it is through all those lenses together that this person sees and interacts with the world.
It’s not enough to pick and choose the lenses we want to engage with, focusing on just the ones that fit into our portfolio. Whole people need holistic support. Just think of Captain Raymond Holt.