The Apatovian as Multi-dudes: A Response to Natalia’s Response

I was going to respond to Natalia’s “Response to Aaron Bady” in the comment box at her blog, but then — as inevitably happens when one writes a ridiculously large number of words — I started to feel proprietary about my text, and so I’m going to post it here, with the caveat that it will remain an open letter, and you should probably read her post before you read mine. At a certain point in the writing, too, it became a bit more self-absorbed than it began as — and if I’ve misrepresented your argument or missed the point of it, Natalia, please let me know — but I found that Natalia’s personalization of the issue (making it a response not to my writing but to me) usefully clarified the extent to which this writing that I do on this blog is, fairly basically, an exploration of me, me, me. And that leads, in turn, to my argument: self-absorption in the pursuit of bloggery is no vice.

I’m glad you wrote this at some length, because it really is helpful for me; many of your comments have been provocative but cryptically brief, and if I’ve misrepresented your claims, it’s because it often has been very difficult to understand what they were. So although this response will, unsurprisingly, take issue with the thrust of your comment, let me preface that by emphasizing that I don’t so much mean to *reject* what you’ve said as think it through, exactly by challenging it. At the very least, I’m concerned that you may be right that a certain kind of critical detachment is enabled (and mis-named) by a kind of privilege which is thereby un-thought, and whether or not we are going to ultimately agree on what that means, it‘s something I hadn‘t been thinking about, but which I now am. So thank you.

Now, on to being disagreeable. Several points need to be made. One is the argument that I am implicitly gesturing towards what is important and that, in selecting what is important, I tend to give short shrift to the misogyny of those texts (and to prioritize the male perspective and predicament). This seems like a fair characterization, actually. But I would say this: because the choice to write about anything is going to be an implicit statement of that thing’s importance, it is difficult to be interested in something without seeming to make the claim of priority for it. And in this case, I’m not making that claim; when you glossed what I had written as “Patriarchy hurts women. But that’s not the point. The point is, it hurts men” you were emphasizing what was, at most, inadvertently implicit in my discourse at the expense of ignoring everything that was actually, explicitly, stated.

To be clear — as I seem to symptomatically keep saying over and over again — these films are, in a few very important ways, very basically misogynist and I don’t mean to downplay that fact. But I think I have a good rationale for bracketing that off, at least temporarily: as with the fact that Jefferson owned slaves, the importance of the fact can sometimes mislead us into thinking that simply pointing it out accomplishes more than it does. I call this Sociological Images syndrome, the tendency to confuse pointing out a text as symptomatic of a naturalized systemic projection of power with neutralizing its power as such. Doing so can have real value, I agree — though I believe we’ve discussed this point before — but while I love Sociological Images (and I think I discovered that blog via you), they have a real tendency to identify and emphasize the misogyny of the images they dig up at the expense of reductively simplifying the constitutive complexity of those artifacts. Of course, they often have good reason for doing so; as a clearinghouse for found images and as a pedagogical resource, their commentary, it seems to me, is largely intended to provoke and to serve as a suggestion for how a discussion could begin. Saying “this image is misogynistic” is, in that context, a prelude to a much richer and deeper discussion that they, there, have the space or intention of having.

I, however, am after something slightly different. First of all, the problem with pointing out the misogyny of the Apatow movies is that it’s so obvious as to make pointing it out not particularly an interesting thing to do: it might be, on a certain level, the most important thing about those movies, it is also true that the film’s themselves recognize their own misogyny, trope on it, and (in the postmodern move par-excellence) do so as a means of re-establishing it as an object of nostalgic attachment, rendered safe for consumption by the very fact that they’ve ironically distanced themselves from it.

This wasn’t exactly the thrust of your complaint, and I understand that. But my point is that because this claim of “importance” is always an implicit one, produced less by anything I’ve said — I think — than from the underlying presumption that a writer chooses to write about the thing that is the most important, holding me to that standard somewhat unfairly puts words in my mouth. And so, it’s worth establishing that when I emphasize, for example, the consequences the “man-cave” has on men over the consequences it has on women, I’m doing so not because I actually think the former is more important, but simply because, I think, the former strategy would constitute the texts as rich and interesting, while the latter constitutes it as very simple, if that; Forgetting Sarah Marshall, after all, has almost nothing to say about the consequences of this on women, which is precisely why I’m not triyng to “applaud male directors for making visible contradictions that feminists — and not just academic feminists — articulated, raised consciousness about, and fought to ameliorate thirty years ago.” Far from it; I am interested in the consequences of the man-cave on men because that is what those movies are about, because they are doing irreconcilably different things than the writers you are talking about. If one is interested in the consequences of the man-cave on women, then one should read the feminist criticism that addresses itself to that question (any suggestions?).  But as one discovers if one sets out to write about female characters in Pixar movies, for instance, there just isn’t anything there; even the women who *do* exist are so purely a function of male fantasy that hating them isn’t even something the movies have that much invested in doing (which is to say, in fact, that their misogyny tends to be blind rather than violent, a distinction I think is at least interesting, but which is still located in the men themselves).

But this leads me to my second point, the claim for objectivity. Again, I take your point that the staging a choice of subjects as an intervention makes it seem as if I’m claiming a kind of privileged critical status and asserting a kind of objective claim about the materials I’m writing about. But while I can accept this as an unintended consequence of the rhetoric I‘m using — and I can thank you for making me aware of it — “objectivity” is the last thing I would actually consciously claim for myself. To be as blunt as possible, this is a blog, and while I have a great deal of respect for the medium (obviously), it isn’t because I want it to be like other forms of writing, but because I think the ostentatiously and unavoidably situated nature of its rhetorical subject positioning opens up a variety of powerful rhetorical options. No blog post is ever finished — and this is only partially a function of the comment box — while the “online diary” ethos of the form also completely permeates it, however subtly, reminding us, always, that these are not disembodied words floating through the ether, but are, rather, the voice of a speaker imbricated in space, time, and subjectivity. In this sense, while I can understand why I would be read as claiming objectivity, I certainly don’t mean to, nor do I think I should be.

Parenthetically, of course, this is an excellent illustration of how privilege works: one doesn’t have to actually claim it to enjoy the benefits of it. But, for me, this is then a double bind; if even the fact that I vigorously foreground the first person pronoun in my writing can’t dispel the claim for objectivity, then what am I to do? In this sense, I’m not rejecting your argument, so much as looking at it as a useful provocation without, I think, having a clear solution except for what you (quite properly I think) disclaimed the intention of doing, the prescriptive demand that I write in a certain way. But this is exactly the problem: because white male privilege isn’t a function of what one does, it is a mistake to think that what a white male like me does or does not do has any impact on the kinds of privilege a WM like me is able to enjoy. This, I think, is why a project like this one (thanks Phoenix Complex) is interesting but somewhat misguided: while it is certainly true that being “racially conscious” is something that white people have the option of doing without sacrificing their ability to benefit from the systemic structures of racial inequality that exist, their choice to do so also has no practical effect on those systemic structures, nor does attacking the hypocrisy of the gesture.

However, this is still a parenthetical, and I want to talk about the double indemnity post to show why. Though it was written quite a long time ago in blog time — frankly, I blushingly regard it as blog-juvenilia — I do see what you mean with respect to it, though I think your characterization of my “tendencies” are far more applicable to that post than to the stuff I’m writing now. But still, to call it a “double indemnity post” is to misrepresent it, since the closest thing to a thesis in the whole piece would be this one:

“I guess my point in all this is that there seems to be a real continuity in the ways I’ve been trained to respond to the sexual ignorance of hicks, the ways I’ve learned to laugh at people’s own ignorance of what they themselves are doing as a way of illustrating that I, as urbane sophisticate, do understand what they’re doing.”

Not only is that not at all a far-reaching claim — in terms of either objectivity or importance — it also seems to me to be fundamentally circumscribed by the subjective terms in which it’s couched, and should be regarded as such. Or at least that’s what I aspire towards, and while I can accept the critique that I don’t always stick to it as a guiding principle (and can benefit from that perspective on my work), I’m still going to claim that it’s the guiding ethos of my writing, and should be. It’s why I blog. I have a dissertation, after all, and that’s where I explicitly pretend to be objective and important, yet the advantage of the blog-form, both its attraction and its limitation, is that it doesn’t do this at all, that it can be a solipsistic playground, a work-bench, and a scratchpad, and that one is freed from the burden of being more than that. Play, of course, is a deeply important thing, but isn’t the same thing, for example, as work.

In this sense, let me say what I have been trying to do: I’ve been trying to think about why I, Aaron Bady, am so interested in these Apatow movies, and I do so with a very fundamental focus on my own subjective desires. I confess, if confession is necessary, that I find these movies compelling in ways that sometimes surprise me; they are comedies, of course, but laughter is truth, on a level that I lack the ability to articulate except by approaching them slant, as I have been. Which is not to say that I am learning from them how to behave, but something quite different: they formalize thoughts, emotions, desires, and fears that I recognize as already existing in myself, and thereby allow me the detachment to think about them. This makes them an interesting site for interrogation, I think, but only as long as it is recognized that the subject, from beginning to end, is me. And while that’s certainly a limitation, I don’t think it’s a problem; as one of the first great bloggers puts it, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”

At this point, too, I have more questions than answers about this genre which I’ve been calling the Apatovian, which is exactly why I’ve been blogging about them: they are comedies of masculinity in a style which is, I think, quite significantly different from any other cinematic tradition I can think of (as well as being quite contemporary), and while I don’t yet know how or why in any deeply theorized sense, I feel there is something there that is worth teasing out. In this sense, approaching each one separately is part of a larger project, but a project which is still quite exploratory, still defined far less by a thesis (which I might objectively claim) than by a kind of subjective desire, an urge to understandwhy I find them compelling. And this is, in fact, the opposite of a claim for their objective importance: it is an interrogation of my subjective investment which begins from the premise that my perspective is not universal.

To put this another way, the critical agenda with which I approach these movies is less political than personal: I wept while watching one of them — not the one you’ll think though — and I want to understand why, what it is about these ostensibly silly movies that affects me as deep as that. And while this perspective is not completely divorced from politics — since all life is political — the difficulty, then, is that when I — a man — write subjectively about the things that concern me, as a man (among other things), that necessarily male subjectivity becomes almost automatically a claim for the objectivity, importance, even priority of that perspective. I’m not accusing you or anyone else of doing this, you understand; again, this is what privilege is and I can concede that it happens (and can thank you for pointing it out to me) but that’s not the same thing as showing there to be a clear solution to it (or even of showing that blindness to be the problem itself). After all, “white male” is a big part of the interpellated subjectivity I live through, and I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t: to say that being male is a difficult and vexed thing is not to say it’s more or less difficult than being a woman or being an anything, but it is true, and since it’s the position I occupy, it’s going to define the things I find compelling on a very basic level.

There is much leeway in thinking through that position of course; the whole point is that what “male” represents is much more amorphous that we often imagine it to be, and I would speculate that part of the power and appeal of the Apatovian is that they seem to understand this, at least a little, or at least to inadvertently render it visible. But while I can critically regard the fact of my being a male, I cannot transcend it, nor do I particularly think it’s something I should try to do: it is precisely the claim to have transcended the subjective, in fact, that allows “white male” to stand in for universal in all sorts of silently oppressive ways. Which is, by the way, is why I call this blog “zunguzungu”: my goal is not to pretend that I’m not an mzungu (or to struggle to not be one), but to think about what kinds of mzungu it’s possible to be.

With regard to these movies, I’m specifically interested in thinking about how to be a better male, which is something I think the Apatow movies are, in some ways, quite interestingly innovative about trying to do, and sometimes quite disappointingly not. But this isn’t a thing one does by trying to reject one’s socially determined subject position; instead, it’s a thing one does by acknowledging the complexity, contradictions, and textured nuance of that subject position, the way there are a multitude of different ways to be male (if Walt Whitman were Judd Apatow, he would be large and contain multi-dudes) but also the ways these differences get articulated in contradiction, uncertainty, and awkwardness.

One of the glaring absences in the Apatow movies, of course, is empathy for women. They will, as I argued with reference to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, occasionally recognize that glaring lack, but they almost never transcend it (I’m still unsure whether Freaks and Geeks does that, as SEK suggests). And you can and should criticize them for this, as I have: these movies would be so much more interesting if they could figure out a way to make hetero-sociality a part of their narrative structure; observe, for example, how a director as limited as Kevin Smith almost inadvertently made Chasing Amy an interesting movie simply by introducing the idea of a male-female relationship that doesn’t ultimately reduce to heterosexuality. I say “almost” because he could only do so by making it as a failed heterosexual romance, but still, the fact that it ends with the two main characters emotionally linked without being romantically linked is huge, and still incredibly rare. If the Apatow movies could do something like that, they would be much much better movies, and it‘s disappointing that they seem to be moving in the opposite direction from that.

Empathy, however, isn’t everything. In fact, while empathy is a deeply important thing, it also has its limitations and this is, I think, one of the many reasons why the brouhaha about Sotomayor’s “empathy” misses the point. After all, the point of diversity on the court isn’t that a Latina justice will be, because of the benefit of subalterneity or something, more wise, but that she will be differently wise, and that a court filled with different perspectives will almost definitionally be better than one defined by a singular type, any type. This was her original point, in fact, and the reason why the right and the media had to decontextualize that statement to make it say something else: while Sotomayor probably will be more “empathic” in an important sense, and given the choice between nine Latina judges and nine Wasps, I would choose the former, I don’t really want either of those homogeneities. It would be a dangerous trap to select for a particular ideal type — any type — and would miss the more important argument for diversity on the Supreme Court: we need a diversity of perspectives on the court precisely because empathy has its limitations, and we are all hemmed in by the limitations of our subjectivites; every justice needs to strive to overcome their subjective position and see from as many perspectives as possible, but it’s the fact (I think) that we can only ever be partially successful in doing so that makes it necessary to have other perspectives actually there, both to point out when we’ve fallen short and to take the lead when our own subjectivity prevents us from doing what is necessary.

To return to the substance of your response, then, my point is that is that when you write that my reading “doesn’t go very far, because, as you have readily pointed out, these internal dynamics of an oppressive system are not explored in a way that can even countenance, much less suggest a path toward, a genuine refusal of that system,” I can more or less agree with your analysis without agreeing with the implied imperative you’ve slotted me into. There are several reasons for that; one of them is a fairly basic reluctance to think that it is the job of “theorists” to imagine new forms of practice that we can thereby follow. I don’t think it works that way, and I think there’s a kind of implicit logo centric fallacy in imagining that the word always precedes the deed; in point of fact, I think much more often it’s the reverse, that theories are a practical function of practice.

But the more important reason is simpler: the Apatow movies lack empathy with women, but I continue to be interested in them because, at their best, they manage to say something interesting about the extent to which the subject position of “male” is formed precisely by this very lack of empathy — if not as a defining trait, then as a problem to be struggled with — and does so in ways which allow us to think about the kinds of limitations that people have in recognizing and dealing with those aporias. The most powerful moment in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for example, is not only Sarah Marshall’s rebuke of Jason Segal’s callow callousness, but the contrast between her articulation and his inarticulate inability to respond. That worldessness speaks volumes, both about why he cannot answer (why no response to what she said is possible for him, at least then) and how that silence comes to be part of his path towards recovery. But the important thing is not that it seeks to step outside the social structures and life-worlds that constitute us (as a feminist theorist might do); it simply narrativizes them, subjectivizes them, particularizes them, allowing us to view them, objectively, as subjectivities.

The premise of the Knocked Up post was that the kind of desire which the man-cave represents is a false choice, and although nothing in my effort to understand what makes that desire work necessarily suggests a desire to step outside of it, neither does it suggest a desire to occupy it (in fact, I pretty explicitly stated the opposite). But it isn’t because I don’t want an alternative to this oppressive system that my intervention wasn‘t geared towards finding one; the fact that an alternative would be a good thing doesn’t make it the *only* good thing. More pertinently, I don’t have an alternative: it’s easy to say that we want something that isn’t patriarchy, but actually creating it is the real trick, right? By comparison, my goal is awfully more humble. I just want to understand how that movie works, and why I find it compelling. So to note that my reading “doesn’t go very far, because [I don’t] suggest a path toward a genuine refusal of that system,” is true without being, I think, particularly damning: if you expected me to solve misogyny, to be blunt, you’ve been reading the wrong blog (here at zunguzungu, after all, we only solve the problems of capitalism, imperialism, and racism).

But it does make me think, and I don‘t want to make my disinclination to be convinced by your argument seem like a disinclination to continue to hear it and be provoked by it. The opposite, in fact; it’s precisely because my agenda in these posts has been solipsistic self-absorption in what it means and could mean to be a dude that I’m most in need of the provocation, from whatever quarter, to think outside that framework (or rather, to situate that framework within a larger one). This may be why I have a tendency to seem like I‘m doing one thing when I’m really not, but I emphasize my own perspective precisely because I‘m aware of (and interested in) its limitations. Which is, in fact, quite Apatovian: after all, while the Apatow movies might be flawed in their gender politics, they are also very basically structured by their need to respond to the problem and the opportunity that feminism poses for dudes. Which is simply to say, whether or not the answers they give are any good, they register by their engagement with the problem that women pose for men (or the ways that fantasies of “women” prevent men from ceasing to be boys and how that problem relates to lived experience with women) the fact that this is a question that needs to be answered, and is answered, in lots of different ways, and they model for us many of the ways in which living human beings answer them. I hope my answers are better, of course, but I find them powerful because I recognize most of those characters (for better or for worse) as manifestations of my own inner multi-dudes. And this also might be a way to address J.’s question about why they’re comedies: maybe I laugh because I register the fact that the questions they ask and the problems they raise have not been satisfactorily answered or solved, by them or by me.