Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gender in Judd Apatow's Superbad

"have you ever seen a vagina by itself? Not for me." - Seth [Jonah Hill] to Evan [Michael Cera]

This quote, uttered in the closing lines of Superbad's opening dialogue by Jonah Hill's foul-mouthed libidinous child-man, points toward the underlying framework that Judd Apatow establishes for his sprawling discussion of gender roles and relations contained therein. The film creates and attempts to resolve a tension between two age-old rite-of-passage premises: that (1) it is desirable to relate to females, at least from the perspective of the movie's three pubescent male protagonists (and, by implication, the movie's pre- mid- and post-pubescent male audiences [the question of what and how a female audience is to relate to the movie is an interesting, and ancillary, issue]), and (2) relating to females is confusing, irreducibly so. In essence, Apatow is asking his audience: is it worth it? Does pursuit of the feminine define masculine coming-of-age, thereby validating such impulses, or is the essence of maleness (as Socrates, Plato, and Wilde might support) to cling to obtuse, crotch-grabbing masculinity, placing "bros before hoes" and rejecting the physiological and biological mystery of the female?

To complicate matters, the line quoted above is followed immediately by Jane, Evan's mother, emerging from their house to thank Seth for "taking care of [Evan]". The irony is palpable: thoroughly virginal as Seth and Evan are, despite their vulgarities acting as desperate protestations to the contrary, emergence from their mothers' vaginas has been their only first-hand experience with the female genitalia. Seth's sexualization of Evan's mother is expected, and telling: if Seth and Evan form a twin-headed protagonist (whose story throughout the night moves in counterpoint to the second protagonist, Fogell [Christopher Mintz-Plasse] a/k/a McLovin), then Seth is Evan's Freudian id acting out, in a way that Evan cannot himself vocalize or otherwise express. In essence, Seth is the opposite of a Jiminy Cricket: an anthropomorphicized anti-conscience, expressing the base desires that would be unthinkable - but not wholly unpalatable - for Evan.

Interestingly, in this scene, there is also a transferral of parental roles taking place: Jane, largely absent for the rest of the film, is asking Seth to take care of Evan. Seth's response to her is not that of a preadolescent, but rather a budding post-adolescent sexualization of the feminine. This brings to mind the Freudian stages of male maturation and development: while the female grows into womanhood by clinging to Mother, the male grows into manhood by rejecting - or being rejected by - Mother, and instead embracing a characteristically-male Society. Anything less results in crippling neurosis: and, while Evan may be awkward, I have no sense that he is supposed to be viewed by the audience as sexually repressed. Sexually desirous, yes, of a seemingly-unreachable goal (putting women on pedestals, and thereby objectifying and ironically denigrating them, is another theme of the film) but unfulfilled desire is a far cry from sexual repression.

Cera's character is himself a study in tension: quirky and callow in worldview and experience, he is oddly youthless in mannerism and speech. He is the anti-protagonist, the opposite of what society says is Cool and Teenage. While he wears a hoody - as iconically Mid-'00s Teen as tight white tees were in the Arthur Fonzarelli/James Dean era - it covers a boring, beige-striped polo shirt; Evan is a man concealed in the body of a child, and while his longings are awkwardly and childishly expressed, they are not awkward and childish longings (compare them, for example, to the musings of Hill's Seth, which are garishly explicit and thereby come off as a good deal more undeveloped than Evan's quiet romanticism and the muted sexuality of his courtship).

That addresses two out of the three (or one out of the two, given their existence as, essentially, two sides of the same coin) protagonists of the film: there is also Mintz-Plasse's Fogell, better remembered to audiences in his film-stealing performance as "McLovin". In his characterization, we again see Apatow's sense for incisive irony (demonstrated previously in his high school magnum opus, Freaks and Geeks) at work: Fogell, despite his pseudonymous loverboy aspiration, is the least overtly sexual of the three. Fogell's sexual quarry for the night, Nicola, is a cipher, a caricature next to the comparatively fleshed-out Jules and Becca, Seth and Evan's respective crushes. Fogell pursues Nicola not as part of a coming-of-age ritual, but in a muted mimicry of Seth and Evan's ultimately deeper and fulfilling relational desires. While Fogell, Seth, and Evan all begin the movie with the aspiration of Being Cool, their paths diverge in a twinned what-if scenario: as Fogell's creation of his McLovin persona (a meta-device if ever there were one, and likely conscious commentary from the screenwriter of the process of character-creation) spirals out of control into zany wackyness, his exploits growing larger-than-life, Seth and Evan's night falls out in the opposite direction. McLovin is a brand of teenaged wonderchild, a High School student's idea of a good time: shooting guns, blowing up police cars, getting drunk (we can note that, while Evan and Seth were toting alcohol around all night, it is Fogell who seemingly winds up the most inebriated), and so on. Tellingly, the epilogue only addresses Evan and Seth; Fogell, it is implied, has no denouement in this story, because he has had no character development, no arc to speak of. While the fictional McLovin has been created, grew, and climaxed, his experiences have no bearing on the (comparatively) real Fogell.

Evan and Seth, on the other hand, seem to reach a verdict on The Question, albeit a complex verdict within which remains much to be resolved. As the last act of the film draws to a close, Evan and Seth curl up in side-by-side sleeping bags, reaffirming their masculinity as defined by one another: Maleness, in Apatow's world, stands largely on its own graces, a conclusion demonstrated in his other films (particularly Knocked Up), in which men and women seem to operate in thoroughly defined and tangential spheres. However, in the epilogue, Evan and Seth, finally happy and settled into their roles as Men, are at the mall the following day (in what is likely a telling clue, the entire narrative falls neatly into the structure of a single day, from morning through dusk, evening, late night, and concluding on the following morning) when they run into Jules and Becca, also recovering from the previous night's debauchery. The parallels between the Boys and Girls in this scene come as a surprise: Apatow has spent the whole movie telling us that the lines between Men and Women are high, nigh-insurmountable, and affirmation of Self involves, to some extent, rejection of the Other. But Becca and Jules, in this final scene, are a mirror of Evan and Seth, hinting at a complete story, from their points of view, paralleling the journey of our boys (a movie I would be interested in seeing, as much for the technical aspects of how it would be put together as for its narrative), and intimating to the audience that, when it comes down to it, Boys and Girls are not so much different as simply distanced.

In the final moments of the film, Evan and Seth and Jules and Becca exchange their other selves for new counterparts: Evan gives up his libidinous (and vocal!) id - Seth - and stands with Becca on his own, while Seth replaces Evan - his "son" - with Jules, and the prospect of a budding relationship, courtship, and potentially actual fatherhood. This is the first time that they take leave of one another - physically and, implicitly, emotionally - without a sense that this, too, will pass; perhaps, this time, it will not. The boys have finally taken their initial steps into manhood, and they depart - throwing meaningful glances at one another - with their respective love interests. Having cemented their masculine bonds the night before (I do not, as many seem to do, take this film as having homosexual undertones, except in the broadest and least interesting sense possible. Rather, Evan and Seth are, to me, two halves of one whole teenaged Male character), they no longer have to cling to or strive for them, and they are free to go their own ways, secure in Male relationship and ready to explore the grown-up and altogether more confusing world of heterosexual relationship.


Anonymous said...

Well written and executed, and delightful.

Ryan said...

i haven't seen it. but now i don't think i have to.