Sex & Relationships

Judd Apatow's Insidious Virgin/Whore Complex

Apatow's male characters' attitudes towards women fall into one of the two categories: dirty punchline or pedestal.

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.

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 ofKnocked 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.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.