I know it’s a little late to be talking about Superbad, but this is less a review than it is a reflection on Judd Apatow’s two newest and successful movies, Knocked Up being the first one. It should be noted that Apatow is credited only as a producer on Superbad, but the two films have essentially the same personality. While that personality might be actor/writer Seth Rogan’s, I’m assuming it belongs to Apatow. It doesn’t really matter either way. What does matter is that behind the big laughs and revenue these movies have garnered lies something a little more sinister. I don’t know exactly what to call it — misogyny is too strong — it’s more like fairytale sexism. By that I mean an extremely crude simplification of women characters for the sake of the male protagonist and his ego.
What I don’t mean is the sort of thing that no-name critic Angela Baldassarre talks about in her review. She accuses Superbad of having “misogynist undertones” because it “shows insensitivity when it steps out of character and focuses on, say, the merits of menstrual blood or why women don’t get excited at erections. A line should have been drawn.” How dick jokes are out of line for a character who is obsessed with drawing dicks is beyond me. The characters, and by extension, their humor, lack “sensitivity” when it comes to women, but as we see their awkward come-ons and painful rejections, isn’t that the whole point?
What I’m talking about is more along the lines of what no-name critic Carina Chocano talks about in her review of Knocked Up: “Knocked Up is so enamored of Ben and his insouciant charm that it fails to wonder what it must feel like for the girl. It’s one thing to go with the idea that Ben and Alison dwell in different leagues, which after all is the point of the movie. It’s another thing altogether for the heroine, who in true girl-on-pedestal form is beautiful, smart, successful, nice and pretty much cool with everything, never to get even the tiniest chance to wonder if maybe she might have done a little better.”
This is what fairytale sexism is. It’s idolizing the woman at the cost of her identity. By making Alison essentially perfect, Apatow prevents her from noticing what any real woman ought to: Ben is an overweight deadbeat pothead. A funny and kind guy to be sure, but probably not marriage material. That Alison never even takes this train of thought is a fatal flaw to the movie’s structure.
So it’s extremely disappointing to see Superbad make the same mistake, only worse. An otherwise solid movie culminates in a bizarre scene at the mall. Seth, Jonah Hill’s character, sees his crush Jules at the escalator. The previous night, Seth had drunkenly tried to make out with Jules, who rejected him. Following this he wept and then headbutted her in the face as he passed out on the ground. To top it off, Seth is even fatter and less attractive then Ben in Knocked Up, while Jules is fairly hot. So this encounter at the mall shold be intensely awkward. Yet for some reason, Jules eats up Seth’s graceful apology and invites him to go buy makeup with her. (She needs something to hide that black eye.)
What the fuck? How could a movie all about superficial lust and pre-college sex preparation end with a girl ignoring all aesthetic and social cues to hang out with Seth? What is Jules thinking?
The answer is, apparently, that she’s not. At their best, Apatow’s women characters are as shallow and horny as their male counterparts. But when the fat guy needs to get laid, shallowness and horniness aren’t going to cut it. Neither, for that matter, is an emphasis on personality, because Apatow’s fat guys aren’t particularly good people. The result is a golem, a clay princess, someone designed to give herself away without ever questioning her own feelings. A patient Rapunzel letting some porker clamber up her hair when there are better, and lighter, princes out there. It’s this failure to locate the woman’s motives, this fairytale sexism, that spoils Knocked Up and Superbad for me.