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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 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.)

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