In praise of Freaks & Geeks’ rude, crude Kim Kelly

Posted on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 at 3:57 pm under tv.

Kim Kelly

Do not mess with this chick.

Whenever the old “Are Judd Apatow’s movies sexist” debate gets dusted off again, someone inevitably trots out Freaks & Geeks’ Lindsay Weir as proof that Apatow and his roving band of merry potheads might not be completely allergic to decent female characters. Lindsay’s strong and smart, but has her flaws. She’s not just another generic girlfriend or sister type, but the three-dimensional protagonist of her own show. She’s a girl so many of us were (or felt like) in high school, but rarely see reflected onscreen. And for all those things, Lindsay deserves her place among Daria Morgendorffer, Veronica Mars, and Angela Chase in the pantheon of great female teen characters from the turn of the century. Bravo, Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, affiliated writers, actors, and assorted crew members!

But we’re not here to talk about her today.

No, we’re here to talk about that other underrated gem of female characterization from Freaks & Geeks: Lindsay’s friend Kim Kelly, as played by Busy Phillips. Now, I’ll admit straight off that Kim Kelly isn’t just my favorite Freaks & Geeks character, but one of my favorite television characters of all time, for reasons both personal and, uh, less personal. The personal reason is this: Kim Kelly is my id.

I was more Lindsay than Kim as a teenager, complete with my own adoptive gang of apathetic slackers, but it’s Kim that really strikes a chord with me. I’m loud and graceless like Kim is, but where I’m ruled entirely by my head, she’s governed by her heart. As someone so rational, I find something fascinating, even admirable, about that, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that way. The things she screams at her boyfriend or friends are the things I think inside while out loud I say “Let’s just calm down and talk this over.” Her aggressive bullying is the kind of behavior I’d be tempted to engage in if I weren’t trying so hard to be a “good” person. And who among us hasn’t wanted to try to run over an asshole we catch hitting on our significant other? Sure, Kim’s often irrational, but what are you going to do about it? She’ll tear your head off and throw it over that fence.

There’s something gleefully subversive about Kim’s disregard for social norms. If females are socialized from birth to never impose, to stay quiet, to not take up space, you can see in Kim’s every move that the lesson didn’t stick. Busy Phillips nails Kim’s physicality perfectly. She saunters into any room (even Sam’s bedroom) like she owns it, raises her voice so she can be heard, and doesn’t mind shoving people aside if they’re in her way. It’s true that all the freaks defy conventional manners– much of the show’s humor come from just that– but it’s especially exciting to see a girl who does it. Think of, say, Apatow’s later work, or the female-oriented romcoms of Katherine Heigl. It’s almost always the men behaving crassly, while the women purse their lips in polite disapproval. I’m not saying Kim’s rudeness is model behavior, but it’s not so bad or unusual, either. Women like her exist, and it’s refreshing to see that acknowledged. Like Lindsay, Kim is a character we recognize ourselves in, but hardly ever see in mainstream pop culture.

Of course, there’s more to Kim than just her fantastic bitchiness– there’s also an innocence to her that’s funny at times, and poignant at others. She may be a hellcat, but she hasn’t hardened yet. To the contrary, she is, as her boyfriend Daniel puts it, “the rawest nerve there is.” This vulnerability is most clearly emphasized in Episode 4, “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” as we follow Kim through what I’d call the worst day of her life it weren’t painfully apparent that days like this are all too normal for her. She calls Daniel’s unfaithful behavior typical, but is still heartbroken when she catches him in the act; she’s quick to argue with her parents, but seems genuinely upset when an actual fight transpires. Kim is a girl who’s come to expect the worst, but has yet to stop hoping for the best, and that quality adds a depth to her bitchy-girl act that pushes it from amusing schtick to fully realized persona.

Notable, too, is the way Kim is framed in Freaks & Geeks– not from a male gaze, or even as a female protagonist’s accessory, but as an independent person with her own history, personality, and thoughts. It’s the difference between a bad girl stereotype and a strong, compelling character. Bad girls have been male fantasy fodder for ages and ages, when they’re not busy serving as punchlines or punching bags, but Kim isn’t any of those. Kim’s more in the vein of the more recent Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, who was lauded for defying all the usual notions of what a female character “should” be like, and for doing it as her own woman, rather than as some guy’s quirky plaything or a convenient plot device.

So I saute you, Kim Kelly. For being as obnoxious and lewd as any of the characters Seth Rogen’s ever played, for acting out all the evil that I couldn’t, for reminding the world that not all ladies are ladylike, for proving that a female character can be bad on her own terms. Lindsay may get all the praise– doesn’t she always?– but you’ll always be my favorite.

(Note: Photo credit for the above goes to Daydreaming.)

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