Thursday, April 17, 2008

Judd Apatow: Misogynist?

Is Judd Apatow a misogynist?

I don’t know. I’ve never met the man. For all I know, he may do volunteer desk duty at the battered women’s shelter on Tuesday and Friday evenings. But if misogyny is not part of his personality, it’s rather undeniable that it is part of the personality of his films.

The driving force of Apatow Women – to coin a phrase – isn’t intelligence, or a developed personality, or an independent mind. They exist primarily as the unattainable goddess in flesh, made attainable only as a reward for male epiphany. Increasingly, Apatow Women have seemingly little existence outside the fantasy lives of the Apatow Men. Her basic subservient role is to ratify the nerd fantasy found in each of the writer/director/producer’s grasping male losers.

The trend started as a disturbing sidelight to the admittedly funny Knocked Up, written and directed by Apatow. The most alive and best-thought-out female character is an intrusive, controlling, manipulative wife, the scourge of fantasy baseball leagues everywhere. Naturally, Apatow saw in this character no one other than his own wife, Leslie Mann. Meanwhile, Katherine Heigl’s mother-to-be floats through the movie as a galling question mark. What do we know about her? What do we know, if anything, about how she feels about her pregnancy? Does she feel any motherly joy? Does she have thoughts about her predicament outside of whether or not to ditch Seth Rogen? Is she anything more for Rogen than the idealized goddess and a reward for getting his act together? Do we know nearly as much about her as we know about Juno? Somehow, Apatow has managed the astonishing feat of making a pregnancy comedy in which the mother is the least interesting thing in it.

Of course, that isn’t so much hate as startling neglect. Watching it, I reached the conclusion that Apatow simply did not have the confidence or experience to create a strong character in a young woman. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t until this year’s Apatow releases that I have become more concerned that it might be a malignancy. The Apatow-label films have become increasingly slanted toward misogynistic adolescent male views, and negligence and disrespect toward women. In terms of character development, these releases make Knocked Up’s mother look like Norma Rae.

Take for instance the high-school love interest, played by Valerie Tian, in Drillbit Taylor, a critical disaster from Apatow Productions. In fairness, nobody in Drillbit is a well-rounded character. But in practice, she is by far the most barebone example of the Apatow Woman. She barely appears. When she does it is completely as a romantic goal and an object of fantasy for the story’s pencil-necked geek. Her duty in the film is to crown him, through the crystalline insight of her romantic interest, as a full man.

That brings us to the reprehensible Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also from Apatow Productions. Star Jason Segel’s screenwriting debut is, in the words of my review, an “outright stalker fantasy.” How shallowly are the females developed in this film? It’s easier to buy into Segel’s relationships with the television star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and the resort’s front desk girl (Mila Kunis) if you just accept they are the pathological hallucinations of a nerdy, nice-guy Travis Bickle.

Concurrent with this downward spiral of quality parts has been the downward spiral of the talent of the actresses cast to play them. It starts with the greatly respected Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. We have now reached the weather-girl-style eye candy Bell and Kunis. As little as this makes sense in terms of quality, it makes much more sense in terms of economics. Why would an Apatow film need to pay for top-level female talent? There’s no need for a Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne. The women here are intended as objects of male worship, to set up raunchy male humor, and to emotionally fellate male fantasy lives. Then the women can take a few bucks and leave. Notice I diplomatically chose to say “leave” rather than “blow.”

I have no objection to the basic Apatow template of screw-up meets dream girl. Comedy does not need to be tightly wedded to reality. It’s no more unrealistic than screwball-era heiresses marrying detectives, journalists, and scatterbrained professors. There also is certainly a level of Mars-Venus misogyny in screwball comedies, because most comedy rests on a level of playful cruelty.

At the same time, the screwballs found value in their women. Yes, The Thin Man’s Nora Charles might be a bit of a nag, a bit of a fantasy wife, and too nosy about her husband's business. But Myrna Loy’s character is also brainy, scrappy, spunky, and her wealth accords her with a sense of power and independence. She often gets the laugh on her husband. While Preston Sturges clearly thought of women in sexual terms, he also could write The Lady Eve, with the intelligent con woman (Barbara Stanwyck) getting the beat on the oblivious man meat (Henry Fonda).

Those examples highlight the problem with Apatow Women. They are getting less and less independent, less and less intelligent, less and less important, with less and less of an existence beyond fantasy.

Of course, it’s not Apatow’s fault that fanboy adulation means he must masquerade as the New Preston Sturges. He simply wrote or directed or produced films that appealed to him. What I do not get is the declaration of his genius, while he is simply selling a shallow version of the light misogyny that pervades out culture. What I find odd is that few film viewers and critics see it. Or care.

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