The Dark Underbelly of the "Bromance"? Judd Apatow’s Problematic Female Film Characters

In Hollywood, humor tends to go in cycles, with the late ’80s and early to mid-’90s heavy on romantic comedies (”Pretty Woman,” ”When Harry Met Sally ,” ”Sleepless in Seattle,”) and I’m-with-stupid-style movies (”Dumb & Dumber,” ”Kingpin,” ”Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”). The latter part of the 1990s was thick with gross-out comedies like ”There’s Something About Mary” and ”American Pie.”

This decade seems to be the province of Mr. Apatow and his broader group of comedy buddies — Mr. Carell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn among them. But not everyone thinks this vein of humor is entirely worthy.

— Alessandra Stanley, “My Friend is from Another World,” New York Times, Oct 1 2007

Undoubtedly, the last five years of comedy have belonged to Judd Apatow and his disciples. Yet, while movies like Knocked Up, Superbad, The Forty Year Old Virgin, I Love You Man, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (some Apatow written, some directed, some produced) have raked in ticket sales and for the most part, critical favor, not everyone has been thrilled. If some people find his “bromance” comedic structure tiresome, others point to more disturbing developments. For example, the blog site Alphazero suggested that though Apatow’s works, particularly Knocked Up and Superbad, are not necessarily misogynist, they do exhibit what the blog labels “fairy tale sexism.” Put simply, “It’s idolizing the woman at the cost of her identity.” Anti-dis-arts-and-entertainment argued a similar point: “The driving force of Apatow Women – to coin a phrase – isn’t intelligence, or a developed personality, or an independent mind. They exist primarily as the unattainable goddess in flesh, made attainable only as a reward for male epiphany. Increasingly, Apatow Women have seemingly little existence outside the fantasy lives of the Apatow Men. Her basic subservient role is to ratify the nerd fantasy found in each of the writer/director/producer’s grasping male losers.” Anyone whose kept tabs on Apatow’s film work can not deny that his female characters often lack the depth (okay, this is a relative statement) of their male counterparts. However, when the same website suggests that each subsequent Apatow related feature employs actresses of declining talent, the author’s argument seems hard to refute, “Why would an Apatow film need to pay for top-level female talent? There’s no need for a Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne. The women here are intended as objects of male worship, to set up raunchy male humor, and to emotionally fellate male fantasy lives. Then the women can take a few bucks and leave. Notice I diplomatically chose to say ‘leave’ rather than ‘blow.’”

Certainly, Apatow films suffer from gender blindspots, even those of us (and I am one of the many philistines that have enjoyed several of his movies) who generally like his work acknowledge the poor construction of his females roles. For example, Paul Rudd’s wife in Knocked Up comes off as a shrew who belittles her husband for sneaking off to fantasy league baseball drafts and actually seems more upset over this than had she confirmed her mistaken concern of adultery. Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real life partner and Rudd’s fictional wife in Knocked Up, admits that when it comes to women Apatow remains basically disjointed. “’We’ve been married for 10 years in June, and he’s still really uncomfortable with me sometimes,” she said. ”He still spills things before giving me a kiss. He’ll knock a glass over and get flustered by it. Sometimes it feels like we’re on a first date. He didn’t outgrow the geeky boy he was. It’s still there in him.” Mann also plays Adam Sandler’s main love interest in Funny People (a movie that is decidedly unfunny despite being about comedians). Unfortunately, her character in the Adam Sandler feature might be even more limited than Knocked Up.

Perhaps, Apatow’s works simply reflect generational trends. Though it would seem Hollywood’s record of creating memorable female characters remains anemic, without a doubt, gender roles over the past 30 years have undergone serious alterations. Today more women attend college then men, while the professional ranks from lawyers to doctors to accountants and beyond feature increasing numbers of female faces. Even reputable news shows like the PBS Newshour (previously titled the Lehrer News Hour) have reported on diminishing male numbers in college and the fear it has struck into the hearts of columnists such as David Brooks (Messrs Suarez and Cummings find his work intoxicating) who noted that men fare worse in economic downturns, “The economic response to the crisis is everywhere debated, but the social response is unformed. First, we need to redefine masculinity, creating an image that encourages teenage boys to stay in school and older men to pursue service jobs. Evangelical churches have done a lot to show how manly men can still be nurturing. Obviously, more needs to be done, and schools need to be more boy-friendly.” Yes, schools need to be more boy friendly, a counterintuitive notion considering the nation’s nearly 235 year history. However, no matter what one thinks of Brooks, his larger point illustrates the very quagmire Judd Apatow envisions men trapped within. Journalist Sharon Waxman extrapolates on this point in a 2007 article, asking what about Apatow’s movies draws so many American males: “The reactions to Mr. Apatow’s work suggest something close to catharsis in the depiction of hapless losers as heroes, a notion that, in movie terms, probably starts with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. But Mr. Apatow turns out mainstream comedies, not cutting-edge fare, and unlike Benjamin in that 1967 film, the men in these contemporary comedies often consider women as scary (like the self-pleasuring vixen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘) as they are unattainable (Alison in Knocked Up). Perhaps there is something in the culture, a generational cue that may come from the rise of women’s economic and sexual independence or from the arrival of a recognizable geeky archetype, that makes this paradigm comforting for audiences.”

Not only have economic and educational levels been altered between genders, but even broader social discourses about attractiveness and the like have come into play. Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (2000) argued that in many ways the American male now found himself subject to the same physical standards of beauty that women have endured for decades. Speaking to the New York Observer’s Alexandra Jacobs in 1999, Faludi argued “that men have been betrayed by similar cultural forces that women have grappled with for so long . . .The same culture that puts a premium on appearance and image and marketable fame and glamour and display,” she said. “It’s the water in which we all swim, and it’s hard to get away from it.” If Faludi’s point proves correct, Apatow’s male characters gain a sharper focus as the very sorts of men these standards further punish. Outcasts prior to such cultural developments, their schlubby underachieving nature places them at an even greater disadvantage while idolizing their female peers.

Still, one more factor deserves attention. The role of irony in today’s comedic circles. In a 2007 article in Journalism Studies entitled “The New Sexism: Reader’s Responses to the Use of Irony in Men’s Magazines,” Bethan Benwell suggests that “Irony is a versatile device which allows a speaker to articulate certain views whilst disclaiming responsibility for, or ownership of, them. This strategic use of irony is arguably a common device in men’s lifestyle magazines; firstly, to facilitate the expression of sexist or homophobic views, and secondly, to legitimise participation in the ‘‘feminised’’ realm of consumption.” (Benwell, 2007) Television series such as The Office and 30 Rock traffic in this sort of humor. In fact, 30 Rock’s third season featured several hysterical lines that while funny, might also prove troubling for some viewers. Take CEO Jack Donaghy’s response to underling Liz Lemon’s $12,000 savings account (“Lemon, what are you an immigrant?”) or when he suggests that NBC page Kenneth’s economic status makes him the equivalent of “an inner city Latina.” Other characters besides the imperious Donaghy engage in similar jokes. This is not to say 30 Rock is racist or classist or anything else, but it does illustrate the kind of problems one encounters when employing this sort of ironic positioning. Dave Chappelle’s experience need not be recounted here as further proof.

In relation to Apatow, while much of his humor seems aimed at rehabilitating his loser characters, sometimes it seems less a rehabilitation than a crushing indictment. Apatow collaborator Kevin White speaking to the New York Times shared his growing reservations, that “jokes in both ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’… skewer gay men and dismiss women. ”To me, I definitely stand in the corner of wanting to give voice to the bullied, and not the bully. Here’s where comedy is catharsis for people who are picked on,” he said. ”There’s a strain in ‘Knocked Up’ where you sort of feel like something’s changed a little bit,” he continued. ”My sense of it is that because those guys are idiosyncratic-looking, their perception is that they’re still the underdogs. But there is something about the spirit of the thing, that comes under the guise of comedy, where — it’s weird. At some point it starts feeling like comedy of the bullies, rather than the bullied.” Perhaps, some lyrics off of Radiohead’s OK Computer might place Mr. White’s comments in perspective: “when I am King/You will be the first against the wall”(“Paranoid Android”).

Yet, things were not always so in the Apatow creative universe. One of his earliest critical successes Freaks and Geeks failed to suffer the gender blindspots of his films. Written by collaborator Paul Feig along with several collaborators such as the aforementioned White and produced by Apatow, F & G wowed most critics to the extent that six years after its one season run, writers continued to reference it as short hand. Take a 2005 review of indie rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. When lead singer Alec Ounsworth sarcastically announced, ”We’re the kind of guys that everyone carried around on their shoulders in high school,” New York Times music critic Jessica Pressler commented, “It’s clear that back in high school these 20-somethings had more in common with the cast of ‘Freaks and Geeks’ than with the cool kids on ‘The O.C.'”

F & G featured two main characters within an ensemble cast, the sibling duo of Lindsay (Lisa Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) Weir. When compared with the female characters that inhabit Apatow’s films, Lindsey appears to be a complete anomaly. Sporting her father’s old army jacket and a general attitude of discontent, Weir smokes up, causes trouble, but remains sweet and intelligent throughout. She’s complex and insightful, easily one of the most, if not the most developed character on the acclaimed but short run series. For those readers who actually experienced the 1980s, F & G gets a lot right. For example, the debate over Molly Hatchet, the perennial Scottie Pippen to Lynyrd Skynryd’s Southern rock Michael Jordan (or as neo-southern rockers the Drive By Truckers belt out in “Let There Be Rock,” “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet”), or the episode in which Weir’s mother prepares her famous holiday cookies for Halloween only to be ostracized by Trick or Treaters because of fears over hidden razor blades, poisoning and the like (pitch perfect). More to the point, gender roles in the 1980s had yet to be truly challenged. Anyone whose seen Nine to Five knows that the early 1980s remained tied to sexist ideas of female roles and employment, yet F & G ignores this to a large extent but also refuses to traffic in the “bromance” humor of Knocked Up or Superbad. Ironically, despite being situated in a decade notorious for white male privilege, F & G seems downright feminist when compared to Apatow’s movies, even though professionally, the Aughts provided far more opportunity and equality than the 1980s.

F & G identified the new comedic medium that would sweep the aughts, humiliation. Terry Teachout suggested as much in a 2001 retrospective article on the show: “The most believable thing about this utterly believable show is that virtually every episode is made to pivot on an experience intrinsic to teenage life: embarrassment. Things rarely go right for Lindsay, Sam and their friends, at least not for long, and the things that go wrong are often as pathetic as they are amusing.”  F & G collaborator Jon Kasdan admitted as much six years later, observing, “’The culture in the last 5, 10 years is one of shame and humiliation, and Judd gets that… Part of the experience of being a man in this postmodern life is humiliation, and wearing it as something to be proud of. This is a true frustration that Judd is expressing in his work, almost a romanticized version of being a schlub.” When one considers the explosion of gotcha TV shows like Punked and the in your face awkwardness of Borat, Bruno, and several other work along with the fascination/horror directed at post 9-11 torture, maybe Apatow simply tapped into an unconscious vein of American thought.  Still, while Kasdan’s point certainly holds merit, it fails to explain why Apatow’s female movie characters remain barred from such considerations. Lindsey Weir illustrates that Apatow once had a sense of this, but now seems to have turned his back on it. To be fair, while many critics note F & G as a previous Apatow production, few if any ever bring it in to the discussion regarding Apatow’s treatment of women or even any sort of juxtaposition with his films. Moreover, after the cancelation of F & G and its college sibling Undeclared, perhaps, Apatow and others simply concluded that America would rather explore immature adolescent men then sullen, challenging women.
Ryan Reft