I’m a huge fan of Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived 1999-2000 TV show produced by Judd Apatow, which treated adolescence in about the most realistic way I’ve ever seen—which is probably why it got canceled. It was at turns painful, hilarious, frustrating, and totally honest, carefully probing the all too human depths of each of its characters. The series starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, and others who have turned up In later Apatow productions, becoming a sort of millennial “brat pack”—except these guys are all in their 30s or 40s.
Even if you’re not familiar with Freaks, you’ve undoubtedly seen some other Apatow production, since he’s been behind almost every successful comedy of the last several years: Walk Hard, Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Anchorman. In most of these, you can see his trademark mix of satire, sentimentality, and a weird obsession with gender politics, especially the oddball tribalism of guys. And most of the time, it works and is funny. But recently I’ve seen both Superbad and Knocked Up on DVD, and was completely turned off by both of them—like, close-to-hitting-stop-and-ejecting-the-DVD turned off.
I wanted to like both of these films, especially Superbad, since it had the most promise to revisit the adolescent angst of Freaks and Geeks. But the sexism of both really pissed me off, and what pissed me off even more is the way both films try to justify their sexism by framing it as such—as if an ironic consciousness of sexism somehow excuses it. In both films, at least one of the main male characters is obsessed with porn; in Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s character and friends are developing a website that will tell visitors how far into any given movie they have to fast-forward to get to the nudity, and in Superbad, the character “Seth” tries to figure out which internet porn site he can subscribe to without his parents’ finding out.
In Knocked Up, this is gotten around by having Katherine Heigl’s character join her unlikely beau in screening movies to spot the tit shot; in Superbad, Seth’s friend Evan toes the pansy “you need to respect women” party line, refusing to have sex with a girl he’s liked for years because she’s drunk. The ultimate punch line is that the girl Seth is chasing turns him down because he’s drunk, creating a lame “feminist” joke that really only underscores the film’s misogyny by showing how that kind of turnabout just emasculates Seth even further.
Now, it may well be that I’ve turned into the prototypical middle-aged prude lamenting the crassness of contemporary pop culture. But really, it’s the fact that I know Apatow is capable of dealing with issues of gender and sexuality in more complex ways that frustrates me. One of the best episodes of Freaks and Geeks revolves around the geek boys’ discovery of some old 16mm porn films, which they watch during the meeting of the projectionists’ club. One of them, Sam, is deeply disturbed by what he sees—so much so that he finds himself terrified of girls. His seeming enemy, the gym teacher, figures out what’s happened, and in a surprising turn of character, talks Sam down by demystifying porn for him. The show ends with a shot of the two of them in the teacher’s office laughing, Sam clearly relieved to have some perspective on the whole issue. It’s an insightful look at the confusion and terror of teenage sexuality, and the isolation teens feel, hearing stuff from peers but being unable to double-check things with a trusted adult.
(The 40 Year Old Virgin manages this delicate balance of crassness and emotional weightiness, too.)
So, the way in which both Knocked Up and Superbad seem to revel in the insularity of that adolescent view of sex, even to celebrate it—well, to me it seems so backhanded, like “You know we don’t really think this way, but isn’t it funny? Isn’t it?!?!?”
Not to mention the pure male fantasy of Knocked Up: would any sane woman actually keep Seth Rogen’s baby AND date him, too? (Don’t even get me started on the way that abortion is handily ruled out as an option for the sake of the plot.) And the way in which menstrual blood is both fetishized and loathed in Superbad—it’s just appalling.
Judd Apatow, what happened? I know you can do better than this. Or maybe I just need to stop watching movies with Seth Rogen in them. He is the common denominator here…hmmm.