Friday, June 6, 2008

Are Judd Apatow Movies Sexist?

While rewatching most of Knocked Up last night with my roommate Sky, I noticed something that I hadn't the first time. (For the record, I enjoyed it but didn't think it was that great.)

The female characters aren't very good. Yes, they are funny at times. (Leslie Mann is funny pretty much the entire time.) But they aren't very realistic or given any true depth.

Since there's been talk of sexism in this film as well as Superbad, I thought I'd take a look at recent films associated with Apatow and give my take on whether or not they are sexist.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Well obviously. That's pretty much the point. The film is little more than a parody of the blatant sexism that existed in most workplaces in the 70's.

Still, it gets most of its laughs from making us laugh AT the ridiculous actions of the horny, chauvinistic male characters. And by making Christina Applegate's character a plucky professional who fights back, it avoids being completely sexist.

The 40-Year Old Virgin

Sure there are some one-note female characters (the drunk, the inappropriate older woman, the slut, etc.), but Catherine Keener plays a believable, complicated, emotional (without seeming crazy), well-rounded woman. And her daughter is pretty good too.

I still think this is the sweetest of all his films and the best one that he's personally directed.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

I'm not saying I didn't laugh, but let's examine the female characters: Bobby's mother (the awesome Jane Lynch) is the only one that is semi-believable and not entirely one-note. Leslie Bibb, who plays his wife, is an airhead that clings to money and success. Molly Shannon is a drunkard.

And as much as I love Amy Adams, her role is this film is ridiculous. She appears for like, five seconds, disappears for the entire movie, then shows up to be the love interest.


I have to defend this one a little bit. Yes, the film's main characters are definitely sexist towards women. But I must remind you that they are high school boys. You'd be hard pressed to find a high school boy that ISN'T. Some are more vocal than others, but just wait until they get alone with other guys. Believe me, I've been there.

The two main female characters, while relegated to very little screen time, are actually pretty interesting. We find out one character isn't all about sex and getting drunk. In fact, she doesn't drink. It's not much, I'll admit, but it is interesting.

The other character gets trashed and suddenly turns sexy. Well...tries to be sexy. But vomit isn't so sexy. At least to most people.

It's not as if this take on a character hasn't been done before (see Allison Hannigan in American Pie), but I wasn't expecting it.

Knocked Up

After watching this film again, I have to say that the two main females are pretty ridiculous. Sure Heigl's character is pregnant, but even taking that into account, she's excessively crazy. As my roommate pointed out, part of her reason for breaking it off with Rogen's character is because he didn't read the baby books. But as proven later, she didn't read them either.

Mann's character is a little more believable but is ultimately depicted as someone who loves her husband...and that's it. Everything else she does or says is a response to that. Even in her breakdown scene while trying to get into the nightclub, she's mainly worried about being old because she thinks her husband is leaving her.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

I haven't seen it, but considering that it's a parody of musicians' life stories where they are with a woman and then leave her for another woman, I'd imagine the female roles are pretty shallow.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I thought it was a pretty believable film, in a weird way. And the two main female characters, played by Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis, are very believable in their actions and well-developed with their motivations.

But considering that the only other female characters are Jack McBrayer's unsatisified horny newlywed and Bill Hader's cloying, naive girlfriend (Or wife? I don't even remember.), the overall female component fails in comparison to the numerous male characters that could have been one-note but are given time to shine.

What really stuck out to me is that ultimately Bell's character is called the "devil," and since we don't really see any resolution, it appears that we are supposed to agree with that assessment. Sure, she cheated, but she seemed genuinely troubled by the pain she had caused and really DID want her old beau back. Branding her as Satan in female form seems a bit harsh.

I don't think you can accuse Apatow of being sexist. Unless sexist means that "his" films don't usually have very well developed or believable female characters. But if that's the case, then almost everyone in Hollywood is sexist.

P.S. I'd really like to see an Apatow film centered around a female lead. I'm curious what he could do with it.


Jon Pyle said...

Very few movies in general create good female characters, even those with a woman cast as the lead, so Apatow isn't unique in that regard.

Box Office analysts were surprised at the success of Sex and the City, but women went to see it because, while it may be rehashing the show, it had 4 strong, multi-dimensional female leads.

Hollywood, by and large, is by men and for men, with a few male created interpretations of women (rom-coms) thrown in for good measure. There are exceptions, but their underwhelming quantity just seems to prove the rule.

This is even more true for comedies, where "women aren't as funny as men" is the prevalent thought (which, of course, I disagree with). Most female characters are one-dimensional stereotypes meant to be laughed at, not to make us laugh.

But I imagine you could take almost any comedy writer's films and come to a similar conclusion you did with Apatow. They're not overtly sexist because the Hollywood sexism problem is systemic. If women were given more opportunity to create their characters and tell their stories, movies like this would be less likely to be labeled sexist because there would be an alternative.

And to be totally honest, I think most sexism in film is the product of bad writing or acting more than anything else. What movies have ANY three-dimensional characters (male and female) with good dialogue?

Now I'll go back to teaching my Feminism Course at the local liberal arts college.

Jonathan K said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to pick on Apatow or anything. I just know a lot of people have talked about how great "Knocked Up" is and were upset that Heigl implied it might be sexist.

I appreciate your thoughts on female characters. It's a topic I'd like to address further at a later time.

Michael Escoto said...

Funny story (or disturbing)

My ex-girlfriend calls me one day (note this is long after we broke up) and says (paraphrasing) "I just say 'Knocked Up' and it made me think of you."

I just wanted to note that for the record. Also, i grossly disagree with the above comment. I feel Hollywood is for women by women. This is why i don't go to a lot of movies. Men are dipicted as ridiculous mindless flesh bags which does not apporpriately capture the complicated and secret world of being a man. I have no opinion as to whether Aptow is a sexist.

Michael Escoto said...

by the way, I add a link to your blog from mine.

David said...

Reminds me of the Far Side cartoon where one bear asks another something like, "Is the sky blue? Does a bear...well, I know YOU do, Chuck..."