"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Feminist Critique of Superbad (You Heard Me)

I was reading some ideas from bell hooks on positive male role models in mass media. She was listing examples of characters who made a good attempt at escaping patriarchal roles over the course of a film. She listed Life as a House and Good Will Hunting as examples of this paradigm shift.

That's all well and good, except I hate those movies. I found them both to be sappy, contrived, boring, tear-jerky crap. "It's not your fault...It's not your fault...It's not your fault...It's not your fault..." I get it already! Ya, I know it was his technique, but his technique made me start reading the paper as I watched the movie.

But you know what movie I really like - enough to see multiple times with different people even? Superbad. Call me low-brow or juvenile, but I love this movie. BUT is it a good feminist film? Let's take a look! (Spoilers galore, but that won't really affect your viewing pleasure - really.)

First let's use the Mo Movie Measure as a guide: the movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. Well, two girls speak in the background about how to get booze for a party. That might fit. But that misses the spirit of the rules I think. It's disheartening how many films focus on men with nary a woman in sight except as dates. This movie really doesn't help that cause. However, I don't think bell hook's choices fit either. Some movies focus on guys' experiences together, and that's okay. Unfortunately, I also tend to wince at many female-focus films (Steel Magnolias immediately comes to mind). There are good ones out there that fit the criteria, but that's a different post.

So if we've accepted that the movie is focused on guys, what else determines the feminism factor? One criterion that is important is the extent to which the main character develops away from traditional patriarchal roles, and I think the character of Seth does a pretty good job of this over the course of the film in many ways, eventually becoming a model of male feminism in action, sort of.

The big lesson Seth learns is that women are human beings, not just toys that work best well-lubricated with alcohol. He's a pig for most of the movie, working all the angles to get laid, but comes to some semblance of an epiphany after myriad comments from Evan and finally a good talking to by Jules, the object of his objectification.

But even along the way, as a pig, Seth is pretty enlightened. His description to Evan of his hoped-for sexual encounter with Jules is all about him, "going down on her for a couple of hours...she'll go out with that!" His sexual desire is not centered on his orgasm, but on his ability to give pleasure. From friends' comments on the one-night stand circuit, it seems he'd be above and beyond.

At the end, after getting dissed by Jules, Seth gets teary. Jules notices, and he tries to hide it, but he actually pulls off crying in public. He isn't made to look pathetic or passive or wimpy. He's a guy's guy who's getting a bit emotional. A feminist man should be able to act in ways typically ascribed to women and not be made to appear any less of a man for it. Cool.

Together Seth and Evan's relationship illustrates a profound ability to express their feelings, like when Evan laments, "Just imagine if girls weren't weirded out by our boners and stuff, and just wanted to see them. That's the world I one day want to live in." And later they make the bold move to say the "L" word to one another in drunken snuggliness. Then, after a stereotypically awkward morning after, they even elect to continue hanging out together despite their disturbing memories of the previous night's admissions.

Finally, Seth and Evan have a couple of run ins with angry drunken idiots and corrupt cops. Both times, their choice of action is to run like hell. I admire this choice. In too many movies, the plot is driven by a revenge motive after a humiliation or threat. This movie doesn't go there, but ignores the bullies completely, avoids the violence instead of adding to it. There's no shame in walking away from a fight - really quickly - and we cheer them on.

Evan doesn't cut it as a good feminist role-model on his own however. He's moral and means well when he wants to stay to help out Fogell, or when he makes sure to have nice lube for her pleasure, but he's so passive he gets dragged into doing the wrong thing: deserting Fogell despite his quiet objections. This is sensitive nice guy pseudo-feminism. Feminism takes courage to act rightly, not just meekly suggesting what's right. Even when he defends Becca he's more whiney than insistent. However, he does get kudos for his Jimmy-Stewart-in-Philadelphia-Story "there are rules about that kinda thing" later on when he stops a very drunk Becca from having sex with him even though he's dying for it.

Now, the whole premise of the film is that these guys are desperate for sex and go out of their way for even a glimpse of body parts (a jog-by to see a new breast reduction). Some will toss the film for that alone, refusing to see such sexist trash. But how is it sexist to want to get laid? I question the notion that sexual desire is anti-feminist. Sex is a powerfully pleasurable thing we don't need to stop enjoying in order to promote a message of equity, in order to stop rape and assault, in order to be heard. It's amazing that we're made such that what one person wants to do to another because it turns them on, actually turns the other on too! That kind of symbiosis is to be celebrated, dammit. So I certainly don't fault guys for hoping to be a part of it all.

My only concern with Seth and Evan, based on their longing look back after their final parting in the film, is that I fear the ten-year sequel will look like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. One of them will have a frustrated wife who has to listen to old stories of her husband holding hands with a teammate across the beds the night before a big game. Can they actually connect with the women they long for, or just with one another? Only time will tell.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ok I googled "superbad feminism' in the hope that someone would feel the same way as myself about watching this film. I have to say I feel let down. I really thought that the first entry from google on the subject would be able to dissuade me from feeling like I was being repeatedly informed THIS IS HOW MEN ARE. and instead remind me that there are good, kind, loving people out there that don't view the possession of breasts as both a plus point in aesthetics and a minus in capacity.
I realise that this post may not be meant to support any cause in particular, but a serious criticism of our expectations of 'manhood' need to be seriously changed if your own post is the most visited of the bunch when combining the two ideas!