Judd Apatow and Fairytale Sexism


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.


10 Responses to “Judd Apatow and Fairytale Sexism”

  1. Devilsadvocate Says:

    Apparently it’s “sexism” whenever a reasonably attractive woman chooses to be with anyone who isn’t “Sexiest Man Alive” material.
    I sense father issues.

  2. Confused... Says:

    So I suppose it is “feminism” these days for a film to advocate a woman partnering up with only those who can support her financially?

  3. Carrie Says:

    I know I’m several months late here, but…I don’t know, I stumbled on this site and feel like someone should stand up for you, since the only two comments sort of attacked you with no real arguments of their own.

    It’s not that the men are unattractive (in fact, I must say as a woman I find Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Segel all to be incredibly attractive) and the women are attractive. The fact, however, that the women all tend to be attractive in that sort of universally excepted, generic western way of being attractive is telling. The men are flawed but because we have a sense of the kind of people they are, because they are developed characters, we find them ultimately lovable (sort of like how they’re attractive but not “classically handsome”). The women, however, are just presented as good or bad, not really flawed in realistic way. Their characters are more like archetypes. We like Katherine Heigl at the end of Knocked Up because we’re told to like her from the beginning. We like Jules in Superbad because she is forgiving and kind in relation to Seth, not because we like her character.

    Sarah Marshall (from…Forgetting Sarah Marshall, of course) come closer to breaking out of this mold. We’re expected to dislike her at the beginning, but as the film goes on, she becomes a lot more sympathetic (of course by then end you’re back to thinking she’s a bad person who gets what she deserves in the end…so it didn’t exactly succeed, but it came closer than the other Apatow Productions films).

    And of COURSE it isn’t feminist for a film to advocate women marrying simply because someone can support her financially. But it isn’t NOT feminist for a film to allow a woman to consider her options–in Knocked Up, Alison and Ben enter into a relationship because of their child. Assuming (in a very typical heteronormative western way) that they are planning on this being a long-term relationship that could eventually result in a marriage, it’s PRUDENT for Alison, at the beginning of the relationship, to take into account that she would have not only a child, but a husband relying on her as the sole financial provider. It’s completely understandable and believable for her to then say “nevermind, I really like this guy,” and move on with the relationship, but financial issues DO exist in relationships.

    While the original post DOES focus on the difference in physical appearance between the male and female characters (as noted by the first commenter) a bit more than I would, I generally agree.

  4. E.E. Says:

    Or how about this one (directed to the two idiots who posted before me),

    Maybe it’s sexist because it’s completely unbelievable not because he couldn’t financially support her (which she was capable of doing on her own). Promotion remember stupid? It’s because her choices, behavior, and eventually staying with the slob was completely utterly FAKE. They didn’t even truly explore the option of abortion. Which to me would have been a more daring film or at least if she would have accepted that what happened that night was a mistake and she would raise the child herself of course with him being somewhat involved. But no, the movie didn’t happen that way. What happened is she forgave him and accepted all of the stupid shit that he does.

    I don’t even give a rat’s ass about his appearance. What I do give a rat’s ass about is how Heigl’s character was just as the person is the post had stated, a “clay princess” for Apatow to manipulate to his own view. Women despite all the warning signs are going to settle down with slack-jawed idiots in contrast to all the better decisions she could have made (again ABORTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!). But the only discussion we get is some guy saying the “word” rhymes with “smushmortion” WTF?

    I thought Apatow was doing ADULT comedies. If this is what to expect from his films he is quite the hack, which is sad to say because I did enjoy freaks and geeks and I did watch that show while it was on it’s initial run. I really liked the chracter Lindsay and I have the special edition of that show on dvd. So, I liked Apatow humor, but it seems he lost what sense he had of women being people and not just pin up fantasy creatures who make decision like lemmings.

    This film pissed me off so much it’s not even funny. It’s just depressing. I can’t wait until a director male/female or other can have funny stories about the lives of women and how we are imperfect sometimes juvenile and enjoy being immature too.

    However, that wasn’t Heigl’s character in this film. Instead she was the clay princess waiting to be pulled apart by the dummy that created her.

  5. Too True Says:

    Your article is spot on and I wish more people would acknowledge this issue and bring it to the awareness of others. I think the above posters have missed your point entirely. Good job on an insightful and long-overdue piece!

  6. New Movies Streaming Says:

    Just watched this movie online and it was great. Watched it full streaming. I’m glad I got to watch the review in my seat and still continue my motherly duties. There wasn’t any malware or viruses at all.

  7. Matthew Demeter Says:

    Too cool! Bookmarking your blog and am going to start working through the archives as soon as I get time. Glad there’s someone out there writing about this with your attitude and honesty.

  8. Will Says:

    “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.”

    You need to do your research a bit more before you criticise Apatow for Superbad, the film wasn’t written by him (it was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) and it wasn’t directed by him either (it was directed by Greg Mottola).

    Also, criticising Apatow’s work for being sexist is kind of redundant; as a male writing about male/female relationships in his own films, there is obviously going to be some kind of gender bias. It is true that the women in the films are marginalised to supporting roles but I think that this is done in order to allow ‘Apatow’s man’ to address his own issues; often Apatow’s films aren’t about the attainment of the woman, but are instead about the lead learning how to better himself (eg Ben getting a new flat, getting a job, learning to be a parent in Knocked Up).

  9. thank you Says:

    both the above comments are ridiculous! it’s just common sense to want to be with a person who is reasonably attractive and is going somewhere in life. don’t play stupid!

    what closed minded responses- and this was a great article.

  10. Novem Says:

    Wow, it’s truly a sad state of affairs when — according to these comments — a woman in the 21st century has only 3 options: A) be with a slacker, B) be with the “Sexiest Man Alive” or C) be with someone who can support her financially; if one is against Option A, then one is automatically advocating for Option B or C. This may be a crazy idea, but what about none of the above? Is it really that hard to imagine a woman choosing to be with a hardworking partner who treats her with respect or even *gasp* choosing to stay single?

    I think NSB’s point is that these smart, attractive women in Knocked Up and Superbad seem to be unaware that they have options beyond being partnered with a slacker or they seem to exist in an alternate universe where they have no choice but to be with a slacker/immature person and hope that he changes for the better. If those were the only options for a male character, I wonder if there would be as many people raving about Knocked Up and Superbad.

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