Hello there, writers and commenters on Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post piece criticizing movies about “arrested adolescents” who wind up with out-of-their-league women! It’s so nice of you to notice a genre we’ve been writing about for seven years now. I don’t think any of us were expecting a horrible tragedy like the one at U.C. Santa Barbara to shine a light on our work; nor did we expect quite so much confusion about the last 15 years of what David Denby dubbed the “slacker-striver” genre. When I say “we,” I mean myself and the students in the years of film classes I’ve taught at places like Sacramento State and St. Mary’s College. You just started tweeting about these sorts of films last week. Mind if we clear up one or two misconceptions?
Let’s start with the facts. Last weekend, an idiot named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in the student community next to U.C. Santa Barbara. Perhaps questionably, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday used the massacre to reflect on how movies foster an attitude like Rodger’s – movies, she said, like ones made by Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. In the resulting twitterverse freakout, Rogen and Apatow forcefully condemned Hornaday’s piece. As you can see here, Apatow directed several of his replies to Sasha Stone, perhaps the only American woman to write thoughtfully every day about current cinema. This, Stone does on her own site, where she also was nice enough to publish me this year. Stone is right to remind Apatow that misogyny rules the internet, and many of the kneejerk defenses of Rogen and Apatow were less knee, more jerk. Even the estimable Frank Bruni, writing in today’s New York Times, questioned Hornaday’s “tenuous graft of entertainment-industry shortcomings onto a tragedy irreducible to tidy explanations.” There’s something to that, but I would like to defend Hornaday – and Rogen and Apatow.
Ann Hornaday’s original piece includes: “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like Neighbors and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?” Again, perhaps Hornaday could have stated her thesis better, but my students knew exactly where she was coming from. The “slacker-striver” sub-genre is as real as the screwball comedy genre of the 1930s, and perhaps just as warped a reflection of who we were/are. Beyond my students, other scholars have written about these kinds of films, but I’m only asking you to read the (easily linked) Denby article, which includes this:
“She wants to ‘get to the next stage of life’ — settle down, marry, maybe have children. Apart from getting on with it, however, she doesn’t have an idea in her head, and she’s not the one who makes the jokes. When she breaks up with him, he talks his situation over with his hopeless pals, who give him bits of misogynist advice. Suddenly, it’s the end of youth for him. It’s a crisis for her, too, and they can get back together only if both undertake some drastic alteration: he must act responsibly (get a job, take care of a kid), and she has to do something crazy (run across a baseball field during a game, tell a joke). He has to shape up, and she has to loosen up. There they are, the young man and young woman of the dominant romantic-comedy trend of the past several years—the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow. The movies form a genre of sorts: the slacker-striver romance.”
In line with her response to her own controversy, I give Hornaday the benefit of the doubt, and I understand that she wasn’t trying to overly focus on Neighbors or Judd Apatow movies, any more than the people who have promoted the Bechdel Test are particularly focused on The Avengers or Transformers. This is hard to understand in our shame-shamey internet culture, but discussing trends is not the same as excoriating individuals. Think of the following three lists: destructive hurricanes, gay celebrities who hadn’t come out of the closet by 2008, and countries who have never had a female leader. As compendiums, these lists say something worrying about the problems of global warming, gay visibility, and feminism. But if you single out any one on such a list as part of the problem, you’ll get outraged expressions of contingency and circumstance and Apatow-Rogen-like blowback up the yin-yang. I take Hornaday’s point to be about a preponderance of films, and that point stands. Could Hornaday have been less opportunistic? Yes. Might she have chosen better examples? Yes. Who’s willing to produce such a list? Me.
Hornaday would have been better off citing Shallow Hal, Big Daddy, Old School, About a Boy, Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, I Love You Man, Grown Ups, Just Go With It, Knocked Up, and okay, Superbad – only the last two of which are connected to Apatow and Rogen. Her point was less about the unrealism of frogs finding a princess (it’s not very feminist to take the position “she’s too beautiful for him!”), and more about Elliot Rodger being fed fantasies of plaid-clad Peter Pans finding love by (barely) teaching an uptight, beautiful woman that she needs to loosen up. And yes, to over-summarize my students’ papers: despite their often-satirical intentions, such films do somewhat promote adult-male infantilism and often reduce women to object prizes and/or humorless harpies. (They don’t generally lead to mass murder.) It’s not just films: it’s also sitcoms like The King of Queens, reality shows like Beauty and the Geek; even in Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (coming to theaters as David Fincher’s Oscar bait six months from now), the titular character says “Well, don’t you know a lot of powerful, fabulous women who settle for regular guys, Average Joes and Able Andys?” There hasn’t really been a public conversation about this cultural trend (and its basis in reality?) until now, and its emergence is a net positive. Hornaday probably hoped for such a conversation (at least about films), but in her examples she – mostly – got the wrong guys. If she’d have said Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn, I would’ve agreed with one of my students’ sentiments: “oooo burn.” Check the imdb profiles: Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen haven’t exactly spent their career Getting Her to The Geek. Right problem, wrong targets.
I know some of you reading are thinking: well, I can hardly be expected to have seen every film on those imdb profiles, and besides, Apatow and Rogen were involved in a few such films, so they were as good a target as any. Well…not really. The major problem with last week’s Hornaday-Rogen-Apatow twittering was its ahistoricity, which is a fancy word us academics use when we mean: have you checked the history? And by history, I don’t exactly mean Genghis Khan and Napoleon. Seven years ago, after Knocked Up catapulted Apatow and Rogen to the A-list, Katherine Heigl called the monster-hit film “a little sexist” and her role in it a “shrew.” Well-educated, paid media writers tweeting last week should have remembered the Heigl foofaraw and Denby’s slacker-striver piece. (This is a problem when media reacts to Hornaday’s invoking of a decade-long problem; heck, this is a problem when media lays off their longtime J. Hobermans and Owen Gliebermans to replace them with kids who got twitter accounts before their high school graduation.) Why should the media have known? Because in reaction to Denby’s and Heigl’s comments, Apatow changed.
In 2007, Denby ended by saying: “The perilous new direction of the slacker-striver genre reduces the role of women to vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up. That’s why they’re all so earnest and bland—so nice, so good. Leslie Mann (who’s married to Apatow) has some great bitchy lines as the angry Debbie, but she’s not a lover; she represents disillusion. As Anthony Lane pointed out in these pages, Apatow’s subject is not so much sex as age, and age in his movies is a malediction. If you’re young, you have to grow up. If you grow up, you turn into Debbie—you fear that the years are overtaking you fast. Either way, you’re in trouble.
“Apatow has a genius for candor that goes way beyond dirty talk—that’s why Knocked Up is a cultural event. But I wonder if Apatow, like his fumy youths, shouldn’t move on. It seems strange to complain of repetition when a director does something particularly well, and Apatow does the infantilism of the male bond better than anyone, but I’d be quite happy if I never saw another bong-gurgling slacker or male pack again. The society that produced the Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard movies has vanished; manners, in the sense of elegance, have disappeared. But manners as spiritual style are more important than ever, and Apatow has demonstrated that he knows this as well as anyone. So how can he not know that the key to making a great romantic comedy is to create heroines equal in wit to men? They don’t have to dress for dinner, but they should challenge the men intellectually and spiritually, rather than simply offering their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor. ‘Paper bullets of the brain,’ as Benedick called the taunting exchanges with Beatrice, slay the audience every time if they are aimed at the right place.” (Denby conveniently ignores that screwball comedies were, Molly Haskell’s re-reading notwithstanding, not exactly feminist ur-texts, but that’s not really the point here.)
Judd Apatow, to his credit, basically agreed with Denby and Heigl and their Shakespearean references. His only two post-Knocked Up directorial features, Funny People and This is 40, are introspective and deconstructive; the women are fleshed out the right way. Sure, he’s overseen a few boys-will-be-boys movies since 2007, like Pineapple Express, Stepbrothers, Drillbit Taylor, and Get Him to the Greek, but these films hardly imply that schlubby men deserve good-looking women. Meanwhile, in a 7-year period as productive as anyone in Hollywood has ever had, Apatow has also found time to use his clout to bring us Girls, Bridesmaids, and the now-filming Trainwreck starring Amy Schumer. (Yes, some writers remembered Girls; the larger point is that they missed Apatow’s previous recognition of a problem.) I’m not calling Apatow the second coming of Betty Friedan. I’m just saying: context, people!
Was Apatow over-defensive in his tweets last week? Yes, absolutely. Perhaps he felt he’d tacked enough not to be attacked; perhaps he was thunderstruck by the irony of a mass slaughter precipitating another round of Hollywood hand-wringing…this time focusing on the industry’s least testosterone-driven genre. But think about it. Has Quentin Tarantino put fewer n-words in his films because of a few loud critics? N-o. Will George Lucas will stop re-editing his old films because of a few purist complainers? What planet are you on? So here’s one director who actually listened, and he’s getting thrown under the bus for not getting it. I tell you, I don’t get it.
This post is meant as a corrective, not some kind of full-throated defense of the Judd Apatow oeuvre. However, based on the Apatow papers my students have written, I do think that someday, when Apatow isn’t running comic Hollywood, feminists will miss him. His ear for dialogue is uncanny; his characters are familiar, neurotic people in a constant state of comeuppance. Again and again, his moments ring painfully true, and we can’t wait for more of them – that’s not easy to pull off. (I loved Funny People, not least because of how deep he repeatedly dug into his soul; if the internet has another week like the last one, that’s guaranteed never to happen again.) He’s what we hoped James L. Brooks would be after Broadcast News; he’s what we hoped Cameron Crowe would be after Jerry Maguire. Maybe his films aren’t quite as outstanding as those two (though I’d make a case for The 40-Year-Old Virgin), but I’ll take the quantity. Apatow was late to the slacker-striver genre, and by then, you could almost say he was commenting on it while reinvigorating it with honesty and searing satire. And then he was onto better things. I hope that continues.
As for Seth Rogen, I absolutely agree with Jessica Goldstein that Rogen shouldn’t have said “how dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage”. Goldstein’s reply was letter-perfect: “GIRLS ARE NOT A THING YOU GET. They’re not a goody bag at the end of the frat party. It honestly feels like Rogen could not miss the point more if he were participating in some kind of point-missing contest.” But I’m prepared to cut Rogen a little slack as well. He’s only led two films that sailed past $100million, Knocked Up and Neighbors. On each one, now, he’s run into a feminist buzzsaw that seemed to suggest that his ugliness is a problem for women in general. If that wasn’t enough, he keeps seeing Jonah Hill get all the roles and Oscar nominations that Rogen might have otherwise had; and Hill’s younger than him, too. (Was I crazy to sense a subtext in This is the End of the ultra-nice Jonah Hill being considered a snake in the grass by Rogen’s hometown bestie?) Now, let’s not over-state this; Rogen is now an A-list comedy writer-director, with more projects in development than your iPhone has apps. I’m just saying: context, people! (Hey, Seth: I don’t see anyone apologizing for the rush of why-is-it-always-a-white-guy? stories, despite Jeff Yang’s brilliant piece, so don’t expect any public backtracking here.)
Where does this go from here? As Hornaday said, she hopes the conversation continues. Can these conversations do anything? Well, yes; Kat Stoeffel in New York found that thanks to online agitation, this year’s Super Bowl ads were, in the words of her headline, “Way Less Sexist Than Usual.” In a larger sense, the slacker-striver era may be over (or changing) in any event, and the three most profitable films of 2013 (compared to cost) were the female-focused Frozen, Gravity, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Please don’t get it twisted: women live in a world of sexist, misogynist double standards, steadily perpetuated by TV and the movies. If Elliot Rodger’s disgusting melee has opened up more online conversations about that, then it’s nice to see that people made lemonade from lemons. But if you really want online conversations to change filmmakers like Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, you – paid writers, unpaid commenters – might try remembering that they once did. If I were Apatow, I might have a problem doing a second public evolution if no one remembered the first one. As George Santayana almost said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to re-tweet it.”
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey