Apatovian Ethics: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by zunguzungu

Especially since watching The Hangover, I’ve been mulling over what I wrote about masculine responsibility in my post on Billy Bragg. Plus, when Natalia pushed me on that comment thread to articulate why the idea of the man-cave is attractive, I started wondering whether the same kind of fear that makes The Hangover such a nightmarish dreamscape — the fear that pleasure has consequences and that sex necessarily implies being imprisoned by domesticity — isn’t exactly why so many Apatow movies seem caught between a rock and a hard place when they try to think about what it means to be a man.

The problem, I think, is that if you aren’t careful, responsibility can look a lot like patriarchy, in its bad sense. After all, in the conservative head-space, “taking responsibility for your actions” can actually mean “be a father,” and — depending on what that “fatherhood” implies — one can seem to quite logically deduce an ethical responsibility to follow a very basically reactionary agenda.

I’m thinking specifically of Knocked Up, the very least good of the Apatow movies, because it not only completely ignores the question of the mother’s choice (she decides, implausibly, to have the baby more or less to irritate her mother, thereby rendering the entire idea of choice a dead  letter), but it also does this in order to make the narrative about Seth Rogen’s growth to maturity: he becomes an adult by learning to take responsibility, and the way he takes responsibility is — surprise, surprise — by dominating his mother in law and taking possession of his baby mama. Which is to say, the movie offers us two options: be an alpha male or be a child.

In reality, these aren’t the only two options, but then, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it. A text like Knocked Up doesn’t simply model a particular kind of behavior for us to emulate, but rather does something even more pernicious, defining the terms and categories through which we determine what kind of options are available to us and then foreclosing any alternatives by refusing to imagine them. It maps out what David Scott calls a “problem-space,” a  mental geography in which we are free to choice and act, but by which we are constrained in what choices are available to us. To put it another way, this kind of imaginative text doesn’t so much demand that we give a certain answer to a given problem, but rather, does the reverse: it defines the problem in ways that limit the “thinkable” to a particular set or type of answer.

The point of my post on Billy Bragg was that, I think, he was working to articulate a different kind of problem-space than is offered in Knocked Up: he wants to think through a way for males to take responsibility for their actions — which is only to say behave in an ethical manner — without being impelled to do so by dominating women. But the reason he does this is not because such a thing is fundamentally unimaginable — indeed, I would wager that most men actually do imagine it quite successfully — but because the false choice of Knocked Up is so powerfully and pervasively suggested in dominant culture as the only options, boy or brute.

There’s was something sneaky in that claim, and I want to admit it forthrightly: I’ve managed to say both that “dominant” culture powerfully influences us, and also that it doesn’t. But I think that’s true; which is to say, rather, that as powerful as a “dominant” culture can be, hegemony is a famously leaky thing and texts like Knocked Up are interesting not because they control our minds and tell us what to think but because they register the underlying conflicts through which ideology is articulated, showing us both the leaks and the attempts to shore them up the compose popular discourse.

For example, a brief tangent. I‘m struck by the moment in Say Anything where what’s her name tells what’s his name something along the lines of “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man!” It’s a fascinating line. But the language used to express that distinction contains the reason why the distinction needs to be asserted: while there is a recognition that being a guy is not the same as being a man, the insufficiency of being a guy only seems to register by reference to a more full adulthood. For while “guy” doesn’t exactly mean boy-man, the implication is still that, in moving from “guy” to “man,” male people complete the process of growing up, a growth thereby charted not in the ethical terms which non-men could share, but by reference to an ethics of becoming a man. But such a formulation makes ethics a function of masculinity rather than the reverse: rather than understanding what it means to be a man by reference to ethics — a man is an ethical male — we understand ethics by reference to masculinity, and have, therefore, an ethical responsibility to become men.

Which is where the man-cave enters the picture. Say Anything is a good point of reference because the film’s ethical heart is in John Cusack’s desire to opt out. As he puts it with a kind of callow Kafkaism, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.” Instead, his desires and his ethical imperative are precisely to not be a man according to the model offered by John Mahoney’s fabulous character. For him, being masculine is definitively the opposite of making enough money to provide for another man’s daughter: precisely in place of a job, he wants have “being with your daughter” as his job. He wants to have as his job: not a job.

Ultimately, of course, the movie’s resolution is to recover a kind of bourgeois social order by displacing it onto her: Cusack remains untainted by commercial society by pioneer the new sport of Kickboxing and sponging off her in England (reaping the dividends of her father’s buried crimes). But not only is this necessary because the movie recognizes — as does Cusack’s Clash t-shirt — that there is something deeply corrupt about the kind of society represented by Mahoney, but it articulates its ethics of opting out by reference to the need to resist that kind of corruption. One opts out, in other words, because while it is necessary to be a man (not a guy), the available options for being a man kind of suck.

Say Anything was a movie of its time, as was Knocked Up. But I want to suggest that what the “man-cave” represents in the Apatovian is the same kind of desire as The Clash t-shirt represents in Say Anything: a sort of quietly desperate dissatisfaction with the cultural options presented for American men. Which is to say, while Rogen in Knocked Up ultimately chooses to be a real man by getting a soul crushing job, reproducing, and dominating women, the movie is less a misogynist and reactionary fable about how abortion is wrong and bros are rad — my first impression — but is, rather, caught between a rock and a hard place, a choice with no alternatives between being a real man or being a man-child.

Its failure, in other words, is a failure not of politics but of imagination. And I say this because, just as Say Anything betrays its own darkness by pretending that you can just fly away from an intractable dilemma — that you can spend corrupt money and not be tainted by it — it is in Knocked Up’s willingness to entertain its own darkness that it rises above the banal. After all, Knocked Up can’t ultimately admit the impossibility of its choice; it would be, as Marlow puts it “too dark altogether”* to openly acknowledge what the movie ultimately seems to conclude to be the case, that American men are presented with a choice between the quiet desperation of bourgeois adult life and the shameful immaturity of perpetual childhood, and that they have an ethical responsibility to choose the less personally satisfying but more socially acceptable alternative.

In this sense, Seth Rogen’s choice to be a drone in preparation to taking responsibility for his child is, like the desperately pathetic last gaze between Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad: not so much glorified as something which is torturously necessary, a choice without alternatives. In Superbad, the real heart of the movie is the bromance, obviously, but the way the heteromance maps onto that is instructive: they want to have a summer of sex not simply because they want it, but because they feel they need it in prelude to the challenge that awaits them in college (to be good at sex in time for college girls). They are about to be forced to be more grown up than they feel able to be, and sex will be a desperate stab at holding off that inadequacy. They do it, in other words, because they have an ethical responsibility to be men, and they think this is what that implies. 

For the same reason, I think, Knocked Up is doggedly enamored of Seth Rogen’s life as a stoner loser. This was, by the way, my original complaint about the movie: it so glamorizes the man cave that Seth Rogen lives in with his various terrible roommates that it doesn’t even make the most token of efforts to argue that Rogen would be, on any level, a good option for the mother of his child. This is why he has to leave it, of course, why he has to become a drone and do all the things Cusack in Say Anything refused to do. Like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it understands that one can be in a relationship only by making yourself correct first; Rogin has to detach himself from his man-child man-cave life of pot and pornography before he can take responsibility and be a father. But while it does this as a way of narrating the difference between immaturity and maturity — the difference between being a guy and a man — I think it registers a deep and basic dissatisfaction with these options, for while it doesn’t ever transcend them, its pathos is that being a man really, really seems to suck: being a man apparently means taking responsibility for a baby you never wanted, marrying a woman who you have nothing in common with, and doing a job you hate. Since it lacks the imagination to imagine an alternate pathway, it ultimately does what it has to do, but its advocacy of putting aside childish ways is still both deeply dishonest and not even vaguely heartfelt. Rogen’s conversion is therefore not only basically unconvincing, but Paul Rudd’s narrative only underscores the point: marriage is hell, but you do it because what else is there? The best you can hope for is that occasionally — like once a week, maybe — you can escape your wife and play poker with the boys.

I still don’t like Knocked Up; as I said, I think it’s the least good of the genre. But I think looking at why it’s bad helps illustrate the vexed way the “man-cave” registers in these films, as an object both of nostalgic desire and as a trap. I think it registers — in response to something being rotten in the state of manhood — a refusal to be an adult male out of a desire to avoid the patriarchal violence that being an adult male seems to imply, through the lens of the false choice it lacks the ability to step out of. In other words, I want to suggest that while it’s important to assert that there are more than two options — that being an ethical adult male does not necessarily imply being father knows best — we should also try to understand why, in the face of this false choice, the option of not being a man at all persistently becomes as attractive as it is.* This is not to say that opting out isn’t still presented as an attractive possibility. It is. But in each case, I’m going to claim, the attraction of the man-cave is significantly less a function of the man-cave’s intrinsic desirability than of the even greater repulsive force of the only other options seen to be available.

In this sense, while I’m still skeptical about Natalia’s claim that even deconstructing the idea still implants it as an object of nostalgic desire, even if I were to grant the point I would still make this claim: in every Apatow movie I can think of, the option of opting out is always presented as coming at significant social and personal cost, and the bulk of the narrative investment in the idea is always on that cost. This is, finally, what makes the execrable Zack and Miri Make A Porno so completely and utterly not a part of the genre, for by carefully and conveniently plotting out a situation in which making and starring a porno comes at zero social cost (since our heroes conveniently have no relatives and nothing to lose), all the interesting questions that the Apatow movies at least ask melt away.

* Bonus Conrad content for Horatiox.