We have met the enemy and he is us

In responding to Christian Lorentzen’s N+1 piece on Judd Apatow, Adam Serwer makes a point just right enough to be quite wrong:

I don’t think his criticism of the Apatow canon grapples with the most consistent theme in all of his films, which is that in American culture, heterosexual men have almost no means to express mutual feelings of platonic intimacy without seeming all super-gay. At least for me, this is what often leads to his funniest moments — like when Jonah Hill and Michael Cera wake up next to each other at the end of Superbad. The whole scene takes on the awkwardness of a conversation that takes place the night after two exes somehow end up sleeping with each other again after a bitter breakup. Apatow movies always cleverly acknowledge the extent to which American masculinity is a performance, and how our internalized obligation to perform it makes us do really stupid things.

This is, I think, a nice way of describing the narrative impulse that motivates these movies. But in doing so, it describes their imaginative limitations, not their strengths. After all, why exactly is it that “heterosexual men have almost no means to express mutual feelings of platonic intimacy without seeming all super-gay”? Who is it that’s enforcing all this homophobia on them? Is it “American culture”? Yes, insofar as “American culture” is the same thing as “homophobic heterosexual men,” which, sadly, is pretty far. But that’s the thing that all of these weak verbs let him skate right over: heterosexual men are not oppressed by “American culture”; such a “culture” exists to the extent that it is homophobic dudes repressing themselves.

The point, in other words, is that Serwer frames Apatow as responding to an external force, the artist critiquing the culture which makes it so damn hard to be a straight white man in America. But that’s utterly silly, and not only because only morons claim that straight men are oppressed in American culture. There is no more important cultural master-text teaching heterosexual men how to fear and repress platonic intimacy because it’s super-gay than dumb Hollywood comedies like the Apatovian. If you’re already smarter than the movie, you can recognize how all the jokes hinge on male anxieties, yes. But if you simply already feel those anxieties, you will simply laugh, having confirmed them (and relieved some of the tension).

More importantly, while movies like Superbad are quite canny in exploiting the difficult time homophobic dudes have being friends with other dudes — a real phenomenon — they never solve the problems they raise, and more often tend to present them as virtuously unsolvable, handing straight men a way to feel sorry for themselves before going on to enforce normalcy. The best of them are movies like 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Role Models, because those movies dramatize a process of introspection and growth by which adult men figure out how to resolve the issues they have with being adult men and find ways to get healthy. But the rest of them follow the Knocked Up script, putting forward a grimly joyless moral about the nobility of sacrificing happy-fun-times with the bros in favor of doing the right thing by raising children with a humorless she-harpy (which is why Ross Douthat digs it). Homoerotic banter with the bros is the heart of those movies, but the moralistic core of their plots ride that sad escalator of adulthood away to soul-deadening marriage.

After all, in the ending that Serwer pointed to, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera’s characters don’t put anything they’ve learned from the experience into practice; instead, having discovered that they love each other (platonically), they go back into the closet. This makes that last escalator scene quite touching, and nowhere near the naked dishonesty of the ending to Knocked Up. But it’s still the same picture of frightened conformity to self-imposed homophobia, and one in which women come to seem to be the agents of that sadness, obliviously tearing the two friends away from each other. In this sense, while the two friends seem to grow from the experience of that night — through all the “coming of age” cinematic sign-posts the movie throws out — what they actually learn (and teach) is that adulthood is a time when you can express your platonic love in code, while drunk, and in silence. But you can never act on it; adulthood requires tortured self-repression, self-pity, and submission to the nuclear family unit.

We’re bigger than that; we Americans contain multitudes. The heterosexual males in Judd Apataw’s films are utterly unable to express platonic male-male love in any other way than homophobic banter. But while many American men fit this pattern, not all are so blinkered and all struggle with it in their own ways. Yet defining “American culture“ in terms of the former (and excluding the latter) not only reinforces the normalcy of homophobic self-repression, it renders it the end-point of the adulthood’s socialization. Which is, then, the biggest problem with giving the name “American culture” to the array of cultural texts and practices that teach us to be heteronormative: we (silently) reduce the vast and heterogeneous multiplicity of American society to a singular and monolithic entity, and one we define in terms of its homophobic fear. Because in order to construct a narrative where “American culture” is an oppressive force that closes off options for American men, you have to define “American culture” in terms of the people that do that to themselves. Which is exactly the problem, a closing off of alternative stories and ways of expressing love that both the movie and this kind of critical framing not only reinforce, but invest with spurious nobility.