Exploring Apatow and Rogen’s Shlubby Non-Misogyny
by Sean Hackett
“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’?” – Ann Hornaday
“You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!” – Andy Stitzer, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
2005 wasn’t a terrible year to have a comedy in theaters. Wedding Crashers, Hitch and The 40-Year-Old Virgin all finished the year with record numbers, regardless of genre. Of the three, Virgin was the most shocking surprise. For Universal Studios. For Hollywood. At the time, Steve Carell (The Office had only been out for half a year to underwhelming ratings), Catherine Keener and the rest of the cast were seen as character actors and indie drama mainstays, not movie star leads.
At the center of the low-budget film was Judd Apatow. A co-creator and producer of Freaks and Geeks, Apatow’s personal voice and vision in the world of cinema was not just unique, but refreshing to audiences and talent alike.
Unlike Hitch or Wedding Crashers, Virgin didn’t attempt to hand in the classic story of Misogynistic Handsome Man Turns Reformed Gentleman. Instead it spun the comedic formula that studios had profited on since Some Like It Hot. Apatow focused on a man who was anything but misogynistic. A spinster who felt more at home with his still-in-the-box toy collection, Carrel’s Andy Stitzer was pure in a world where co-workers objectified women in Steel Magnolias-esque debates.
Through Andy, the audience experiences the social anxiety a man feels when he’s inexperienced but appreciative of women in a male-driven setting. True to reality, the concept of a man who does not give into his primal desires is continually treated with homophobic theories and sudden tribal rejection.
Andy’s flawed mentors (Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Romany Malco) are amateur pick up philosophers, and although they don’t wish violence upon women, they speak and breathe misogyny. Retail workers who gawk, stare and “charm” with little care or concern.
In a swing opposite from the opening moments of Wedding Crashers, Apatow hammers home that men who claim to have had grand hedonistic conquests are more talk than success. Each one of Andy’s three wise men come loaded with a very personal and depressingly dark past. By the end of the film, there is more empathy toward their problems than for Andy’s virginity-losing quest.
Positioned as the student of the film, Andy ends up being the one person in their lives who untangles their wrongheaded view on women.
Cal (Seth Rogen)
Cal, the youngest of the group, is a burned out pothead. He takes sleeping pills and competes with himself to see if he can jerk off before going to sleep. Instead of focusing on writing his Great American novel (about a father who never taught him to love), he has the lowest paying job at Smart Tech.
Early on, Cal is an advocate of the “pleasure principle” – insisting on rationalizing the good and then making love to it. However, by the end of the movie, he encourages Andy to see Beth and not lie to her about being a virgin. Even if that means losing her. Honesty trumps sexual opportunity.
Jay (Romany Malco)
Jay not only objectifies women, but he openly brags that he doesn’t believe in faithful monogamy. He sees life as a competition between men to see who can sleep with the most women. Jay’s stories and reality are often blurred. The only prostitute he knows ends up being a transvestite and his fail-free missions for Andy end up being horror stories.
As Andy rejects his philosophies of negging women, Jay begins to understand that he doesn’t actually exemplify the definition of a man. In the third act, Jay breaks down and seeks Andy for solace after being caught cheating.
Andy: Why did you cheat on her?
Jay: Because I’m insecure! You can’t tell?
Andy: I know, man. It’s gonna be okay.
Jay: I’m cold. It’s gonna be all right, man.
Andy: Seriously, man, I’m sorry.
Jay: I apologize to you. I know. If you wanna have a meaningful relationship…you’ve got to leave the sex out of it, man. You’re right.
Andy: It’s all right. You’re good.
Jay: I’m sorry. Come here. I love you, man.
Andy: Man, I love you, too.
Jay: You’re a good guy.
David (Paul Rudd)
Rudd is the emotional leader of the tribe. He finds sympathy for Andy, inspiring him to live outside of a self-imprisoned world in his apartment and interact with women. Unlike Jay and Cal, David is a flawed hopeless romantic, unable to get back in the saddle since losing the love of his life Amy (Mindy Kaling).
Amy reveals in the second act that she only knew David for a month and has gone great lengths to protect herself from his stalker senselessness. David’s moping conquest of women to fill the void of his heart is seen as desperate, creepy and ultimately he’s a character who needs much more therapy than friendly advice.
Throughout the film, Andy is tested to compete in misogynistic acts but stays true to heart. He treats women with respect and never goes into hate-filled rants like his counterparts. He doesn’t contemplate why they aren’t attracted to them. He doesn’t contemplate the fairness of life with a woe-is-me attitude.
Afraid of his lack of experience with his first girlfriend in years, he suggests a 20-date limit before sex. Trish (Keener) is relieved and refreshed because of the sleazy dates she’s had in the past. This is about getting to know each other and, yes, falling in love.
In the climactic scene, Carell is confronted with the opportunity to lose his virginity to Beth (Elizabeth Banks) after using Cal’s misogynistic approach to seduce her into the bathtub. As he pauses for reflection of finally losing his virginity (and completing the presumed goal of the movie), Andy is confronted by his idiotic wise men mentors. Having changed, they admit their flaws and remind Andy that he wants more than a one night stand. Rejecting the surface-level version of what he wants, Andy leaves and goes after what he needs – a strong, loving relationship with Trish.
The film ends on the entire cast enjoying a rendition of “Age of Aquarius” by the 5th Dimension. Although losing his virginity on his wedding night is a new day for Andy, the late 60s song preaches humanity and equality. A vision that we not only see in Andy, but also in his new friends going forward.
Apatow worked again with Seth Rogen (who wrote and starred) to create the successful teenage comedy Superbad. Once again, the film relied on personal subject matter over massive star power (neither Jonah Hill nor Michael Cera had lead roles by then). Also once again, Apatow and Rogen’s partnership created a financial and critical hit.
Superbad took on the subject matter of virginity and peer pressure and moved it back to its cinematic roots: high school. Director Greg Mottola had invaded John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and George Lucas’ American Graffiti territory of “Graduation Goodbye Parties.” This time focusing on two best friends, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) who desperately want to pop their cherries.
Throughout the film, Seth is the bull to Evan’s brakes. Lemon to Matthau.
That being said, they share unspoken characteristics seen among high school boys. Both watch considerable amounts of internet porn, play violent video games and fail to be part of the popular crowd of their high school due to lack of identity/confidence. That being said, they avoid detention and have nice relationships with their parents.
From act one on, Evan’s friendship with Seth appears to deteriorate in fast form. Most of this comes from the misogynistic and hateful comments that Seth makes in reference to Evan’s long crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac). The dam finally breaks.
Evan: I’m fuckin’ sick of this shit, man! Seriously. Why do you hate her? Is there even an actual reason? Because seriously, I’m beginning you think you like her.
By the end of the film it’s revealed that Seth’s hatred toward Becca, his anxiety of losing his virginity and his objectification mindset is all an admitted cover:
- He’s afraid to lose his best friend as they leave for college.
- He’s afraid to be alone. Evan’s pending relationship with Becca would mean he’d have no friends.
- He has low self-esteem due to his bodily image and only believes that his crush Jules (Emma Stone) would need to be drunk in order to find him attractive.
The mythology of throwing an awesome party = women’s respect is rightfully explored. The story’s plot is driven by their hope to find a laundry list of alcohol, and thereby become the Jake Ryan in their crush’s eyes. But as simple as it is, they learn that a life-threatening journey to get alcohol could have been solved by 30 seconds of courage to have a real and honest conversation with a smart, attractive woman.
The tables are turned with Evan and Becca. The girl of his dreams is an over-the-top drunk and admits that she sees him as the object of her own sexual conquest. As the bedroom science escalates, the film not only gives us the ugly realistic truth to the romanticized mythology of sex at a high school party, it also puts Cera’s characters in the uncomfortable position of being in bed with a person who’s not in control.
The pinnacle of his sexual conquest reaches fruition, but the girl of his desire is a shell of the personality his deep feelings resonate with. Evan ultimately wants more than tits and blow jays with Becca. As the film ends, in a moment reminiscent of The Jungle Book, both characters bid adieu – still virgins but closer to becoming true men.
Knocked Up is Apatow’s second feature as a director and Rogen’s first leading role in a film. It starts out with Ben Stone (Rogen) boxing and jousting his pot-smoking roommates (Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Marin Starr – all alumni of previous Apatow works) in a hazardous pool in Northridge, CA. Ol’ Dirty Bastard serenade’s the audience with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.”
The song is about enjoying unprotected sex with a wild, untamed woman.
It’s thematically fitting as Ben and his friends hope to make a living off of objectifying women. Taking their pastime of watching movies with nude scenes and turning it into a Mr. Skin-esque website (which offers a comedic beat when it turns out they’ve never even heard of Mr. Skin).
The other star of the film is Alison (Katherine Heigl). She is the opposite of Ben. An aspiring journalist who has worked her way up through the E! network. On the night of her promotion (a victory over the network’s own misogynistic reputation), Alison is convinced by her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to unwind and celebrate.
Ben is nothing more than nice to Alison in the cute-meet club scene. She finds his hair to be cute and his mellow attitude to be refreshing. She doesn’t even mind that he does the dice move while they dance together. Alison eventually invites Ben back to her place, and because she does, the movie lasts longer than 15 minutes.
When it comes to pregnancy and the relationship, Apatow puts Alison in the driver’s seat. Ben fights his own emotions and instincts to try to be sensitive and compassionate to this woman every step of the way. Without question, this is not an easy battle. His brotherhood of roommates has little experience or honor for women outside of raw objectification, and his father admits to being stoned often during the important developmental years.
Helping the two along are Alison’s brother-in-law Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) – capturing the oil and water aspects of a marriage with two children and a mortgage. Debbie expects devil-may-care Pete might be cheating on her. Instead he is simply seeking friendship with a group of fantasy baseball geeks his own age, hiding it from his wife because he’s afraid to communicate with her. Pete has honest moments of unhappiness and nostalgia, but at the center of the character is a man who loves Debbie too much to imagine a life without her in it.
Their children (played by Apatow’s own two daughters) are refreshing takes on the family relationship as well. Instead of playing the typical daughterly tropes , Apatow chose to focus on curious and unbashful – registering some of the best laughs in the film.
Alison, although attracted to Ben, is not afraid to be vocally critical of Ben’s self-defeating vices – mostly his usage of marijuana and profound lack of career ambition. Their future child is a catalyst for Ben’s improvement, but Alison and the audience are quite certain that she could handle this child without him. Ben could easily be the absent father who spends Saturday’s at Six Flags on mushrooms.
On his own, Ben leaves his house and roommates for a job and a two-bedroom apartment. He also quits drugs cold turkey and begins reading parenting books. The film’s final scene ends with the song “Daughter” by Loudon Wainwright that counters the opening ODB song. Alison and Ben leave the cinematic world as parents of a beautiful daughter, and Ben has received a new respect for not just Alison , but women in general.
The song is an emotional ballad about the uncanny joy a woman can bring to a father’s life. And that all women are daughters to be cherished and respected always.
Apatow is not a denialist of misogyny within society. In fact, if you read the many personal #YesAllWomen anecdotes – all of his films verify that sad reality in a non-condoning, often vilifying way. Through non-traditional heroes, he navigates his audience to a hopeful future.
With personal, transformational films comes the expectation of reality. Characters who grow out of objectifying mindsets and characters who have avoided those ideologies without hatred. It is apparent that a hatred from within is the reasoning for these actions and not the actions of women in particular. Ignoring pubescent wish fulfillment, the lovable losers of Apatow’s films are still men who must figure out their flaws before gaining the true, romantic love many hope to achieve.
Within Hollywood, Apatow and Rogen have gained a strong reputation for optioning and greenlighting personal projects with female writers, directors, and leading actresses. Girls, Bridesmaids, For a Good Time Call and Trainwreck are the first of many sounding boards that Rogen and Apatow have produced. Critics and audiences appear to be eager for more.
The change being called for in male-dominated Hollywood can happen faster if more men like Rogen and Apatow hire the next Shauna Robertson, Allison Jones, Sarah Heyward, Deborah Schoeneman, Jennifer Konner, Illene Landress, Angela Demo, Barbara McCarthy, Barbara Hall, Nicole Brown or more from a list that will and should continue to grow.
Are there characters that disrespect women in his filmography? Yes. Definitely. However the ultimate goal of these films is to guide us away from that netherworld to a place where we can let the sunshine in.
Sean Hackett is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. He gained recognition with his directorial debut, Homecoming, which played in the festival circuit in 2011. In 2012, he teamed up with the family of Robert Altman to co-direct a documentary, American Songwriter, focusing on longtime Altman collaborator Danny Darst. Currently he has features in development with Michael Roiff’s Night & Day Pictures, Short Term 12 producer M. Elizabeth Hughes, and Gotham Award winning producer Frederick Thornton.
We previously interviewed Sean about Homecoming here.