Gender relations served as the primary
obsession of Judd Apatow’s first two films, and the subject returns to center stage in the last hour of Funny People. The
film centers around George (Adam Sandler), a famous comic suffering from a
fatal, then non-fatal disease, and his relationships with first a younger
comedian, Ira (Seth Rogen), and then in the second half with a married
ex-girlfriend named Laura (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann).
As before, Apatow’s treatment of gender has sparked intense debate. In Apatow’s
movies, men bond, fight, smoke pot and get drunk, laugh, fight, cry, make up
and eventually grow up. Women exist mostly as the objects of lasting affection
or the punchlines of dirty jokes.
A look back at Apatow’s oeuvre
reveals that his male characters’ attitudes towards women fall into one of the
two categories: punchline or pedestal. 40-Year Old Virgin‘s Andy was a pedestal-guy–hence his
virginity–with his randy workmates as foils. In Knocked Up, both Ben and Peter begin as punchline guys,
kvetching about women and declining to fulfill their stereotypical
male obligations. But after a meandering trajectory, they end up seeing
the light, giving their partners the "proper" respect, and sacrificing
their fun times for the sake of the Family and the Little Woman at home. And
now in Funny People, Ira’s disgust
with George’s casual attitude towards women ends up causing a rift between them
that George only begins to mend as the film closes.
Judd Apatow has the most insidious Madonna-whore complex in Hollywood, but he
is obsessed with the tension between the two extremes in men: the Georges who treat women as sex-object punchlines, and
the Iras who see them as creatures to be worshipped and obeyed.
Ultimately, Apatow’s plan for the Georges is to have them evolve and become more like
Iras–while he milks their misogyny to provide entertaining yuks and gasps
along the way. Apatow fails to understand that both attitudes towards women are equally
problematic–two sides of the same coin. In Apatow-land men are always from
Mars and Women very much from Venus–and the central question is how Mars
should gently, reverentially, approach Venus despite his libidinous need to
fornicate with her. The idea that men and women may be from the same planet is
never really considered.
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The most obvious way this attitude is manifested is in the "fun gap"
between Apatow’s male and female characters. While humor is the vehicle that
brings men together, in Knocked Up in
particular, the women have no such rollicking times. They do one of two things: talk about
men, or act catty towards each other in the workplace. In Apatow’s other films, women are responsible loners. Writes Jessica Grose at Double X:
In the opening scene of Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s character is going
on roller coasters, playing American Gladiator-style games, and smoking pot
with his five best friends in a sprawling if decrepit house. To this girl [i.e.
Grose], that sounds truly awesome.
By contrast, look at the life of Alison (Katherine Heigl) in Knocked Up. She’s apparently friendless,
living in her sister’s guest house, and working incredibly hard at her job at
E!. And what about Leslie Mann in Funny
People? She’s trapped in a difficult marriage, where her husband is away
most of the time. She is wistful about her former career as an actress. Both
these women are in a no-fun zone.
In Knocked Up,
that "fun gap" spreads out in a creepy anti-choice way to the
characters’ parents. There’s Alison’s shrill mom who tells her daughter to
abort the pregnancy — "get rid of it!" — and Ben’s laid-back dad who
urges his son to view the unintended pregnancy as a gift. It’s this dynamic
that led its star Katherine Heigl to call the film "a little sexist."
"[I]t paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints
the men as goofy, fun-loving guys," she told Vanity Fair‘s Leslie Bennetts. For daring to say this, she
immediately got slammed so hard by the blogosphere it was shocking–and Apatow and Rogen mocked her recently on the set of Howard
Stern, a truly tasteless frat-boy moment that showed how little
introspection they engaged in after her comment. (Here’s Apatow denying that he’s sexist.)
In Funny People there is one
noticeable change in the "fun gap" dynamic: Daisy, Ira’s love
interest, is a comedian herself and is, to a certain extent, a part of the dudely
universe, as said dudes jostle for her affections. But the set-up has its
own share of problems that undermine this improvement.
First of all, in Funny People there are absolutely zero
female-female interactions–the women are literally interlopers in a
(heteronormative) male world. Secondly, both female characters’ motivations towards the men are muddled;
their positive feelings seems to arise from being treated like dirt. Laura
carries a torch for George, who cheated on her, and also for her husband, who
cheated on her. Daisy likes Ira even after he screams at her for betraying him.
The betrayal? Sleeping with his more famous roommate after he (Ira) has asked
her out on a single date–he’s lambasting her even before they’ve had a real
conversation, as she points out to him. Later, she explains why she slept with
his roommate–if a famous girl propositioned him, wouldn’t he
acquiesce? "No!" he shouts. "I’d ask her out to a Wilco
concert." Suddenly his borderline-abusive behavior is forgotten. She looks
at him wide-eyed and tells him he’s the only man she’s met who would have that
chaste reaction–and is won over. By putting her on a pedestal, he’s proven
himself purer than she is, purer than the other men around him, and he gets rewarded
for it. In contrast, George, who reacts to women’s desire for him by
"desiring" them back–frequently–is punished.
Judd Apatow’s power to irk and compel comes from the way he combines a genuine
talent for raunchy comedy with a maudlin sentimentality that veers into conservative preachiness. His
movies aren’t just taken as laugh-fests, but as Humorous but Important
Statements on Modern Life–particularly about The War Between the Sexes. And
that’s why it’s important that he get his gender issues straightened out.
What Apatow may not realize is that the women in his universe are punished
along with the lustful slackers–punished by being the gauntlet men must run to
prove their virtue. Misogyny does not come from men who see women as sexual
beings or men who sleep with lots of women, which seems to be how he sees it.
Misogyny is seeing women as less than
full equals. Apatow needs to turn his female characters into actual
characters, rather than rewards given to men who have proven able to resist
their libidos and outgrow their immaturity. Even if those women exist on the
periphery of a male-centric comedy, they should be engaged with as people, not
grappled with as a concept.