“Nowadays, schlubs play schlubs and audiences are expected to accept that geeky males can win over classically beautiful women. What does it tell us about the state of gender relations, sexual fantasy, and desire that a physically average geek like Seth Rogen can trump an iconically attractive and glamorous star like Cary Grant?”
In 2008, Vanity Fair ran a tongue-in-cheek photo spread depicting geeky, overweight comedy star Seth Rogen reenacting the crop duster scene from North by Northwest (1959), thereby equating the likeable if schlubbish Rogen to debonair screwball comedy star Cary Grant. This parodic photo represents a provocative moment in the evolution of the romantic comedy, one of Hollywood’s most enduringly popular and profitable genres. It suggests that in the new millennium, suave and attractive male protagonists like Grant can be dismissed in favor of a new breed of male romantic lead: the geeky, slackerish underachiever. How could such a drastic substitution have taken place? Actors like Grant have long played the role of the feminized geek or “professor hero” for comedic purposes, but underneath the glasses and the mawkish behavior, Bringing Up Baby‘s Dr. David Huxley is still Cary Grant, always dashing underneath his awkwardness, and always emerging from his feminized pedantry to become a more virile and adventurous Ideal Male.1 Nowadays, schlubs play schlubs and audiences are expected to accept that geeky males can win over classically beautiful women. What does it tell us about the state of gender relations, sexual fantasy, and desire that a physically average geek like Rogen can trump an iconically attractive and glamorous star like Grant?
To answer this, we must examine the rise of the pop-cultural geek since the 1970s. At that time, responding to the crisis in white, masculine hegemony brought about by the rise of feminism, the civil rights movement, and, later, queer activism, pop-cultural texts began foregrounding sensitive, intellectual (but still white) males as protagonists. Schlubby geeks like Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy) and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) functioned as trojan horses for white masculinity, maintaining white male centrality while seeming to deconstruct traditional masculine paradigms via their intellectual, non-materialistic, underdog status. Hailing from the bottom of the traditional masculine hierarchy vis-a-vis their jockish predecessors, the geeks swept onto the scene and by the early 1980s were dominant in practically every popular film genre. Their rise was abetted by a concomitant ascension of geeks into real-life positions of cultural and economic power: the 1980s saw the rise of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron, to name just a few prevalent examples. These technological innovators and filmmakers paved the way for the rise of the next generation of geek cultural producers such as Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder, Kevin Smith, Christopher Nolan, and Judd Apatow.
The pop-cultural rise of the geek supposedly introduces intellect and sensitivity to the dominant masculine paradigm, but it is not truly progressive because white male privilege, and the deeply ingrained sense of entitlement that accompanies it, have simply expanded from the figure of the insensitive jock or classically appealing male lead to include the figure of the “sensitive” geek or undesirable schlub. The geek, as promoted most recently and successfully by the works of Team Apatow and others, has done nothing to smash or subvert patriarchal privilege; he has merely taken it over as his own. Using Team Apatow’s film comedies as textual examples, this essay elucidates the recurring tropes that express the pop-cultural dominance of the white male geek.
The films of Team Apatow, which carry on the “nervous romance” tradition and additionally incorporate aspects of the male-centered buddy film, subvert the feminist potential of the classic rom-com by claiming the genre as the territory of the male geek.2 They achieve this by pervasively applying the eight tropes of geek-centered film narratives: (1) Conflict with Jocks, the fundamental wedge by which a geek’s intellectual and creative capacities are valorized above the physical and sexual powers of his more traditionally appealing and attractive male rivals; (2) Geek Melodrama, in which victimhood is invoked to generate feelings of sympathy for geeks, despite their culturally privileged status; (3) Simulated Ethnicity, a name given to the appropriation of blackness and the discourses of racial oppression by white geeks; (4) Voyeurism and Stalkerism, two key activities in which geeks engage that their narratives wish to condone and naturalize; (5) Creativity and Vivid Fantasy Life, an integral quality of geeks that allows them to carry out their melodramatized fantasies and claim access to beautiful women “out of their league”; (6) Bromance, the term designating the millennial male-centered buddy comedy, elements of which pervade all the geek comedies, romantic or otherwise; (7) Marginalized and/or Masculine Women, the strategy by which women are shunted aside, vilified, and turned into objects of ridicule, fear, and/or objectification in geek narratives; and (8) Slackerism and Underemployment, a crucial trope that dominates geek comedies since the 1990s (i.e., the rise of Generation X) due to its powerful enabling of geek melodrama.
While the tropes analyzed in this essay are applicable to all film genres in which geek narratives appear — i.e., all contemporary genres — their gendered and raced reversals are staged in particularly dramatic fashion in the romantic comedy genre, that being a genre in which women traditionally achieve narrative dominance or at least parity with their male counterparts. Further, while Apatow himself is the figurehead of a diversified media empire — Apatow Productions — that produces geek centered films and television programs across many genres, Apatow’s auteur persona and directorial efforts strongly identify him with the bromance-influenced rom-com of the new millennium. Since the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005, Apatow’s name has become synonymous with film comedies built around groups of male geeks and slackers, usually portrayed by the same repertory company of recurring players including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Paul Rudd. As Apatow’s star has risen, he has helped many of his creative collaborators to realize their own film projects, serving as a producer on a great many successful comedies written, directed, and performed by writer/actors Rogen, Segel, and Hill; actors Baruchel, Starr, Kristen Wiig, and Bill Hader; musician/actor Loudon Wainwright III; writer/directors Paul Feig and Nicholas Stoller; and directors Greg Mottola, John Hamburg, Jake Kasdan, and Bryan Gordon. This group, plus a few extended outliers like Mike White (writer/producer on Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks), have become known as “Team Apatow” in pop-cultural parlance. Team Apatow, which, as of this writing, has its own subheading under the “Frat Pack” entry on wikipedia, denotes both the wide array of media productions made by this network of confederates, usually under the official Apatow Productions brand, but also, as I argue here, any number of geek-centered films influenced by the trend spearheaded by the enormously successful Apatow and company.
While acknowledging that generic analysis is crucial to understanding these geek-centered films, a tropic analysis is equally if not more useful in getting at the specific thematic moves these movies make and the cultural ideologies they disseminate. Tropic analysis offers a different kind of analytic flexibility than genre analysis, retaining the historical specificity of the former while cutting across generic categories to highlight specific features of a cultural trend — in this case, the rise of the pop-cultural geek — present across multiple, sometimes widely disparate genres. This helps account for the genre-hybridizing work of Team Apatow as well as many films outside Apatow’s purview. For example, many of the tropes discussed here are found in contemporary action/adventure films: e.g., computer geek Matt Farrell (Justin Long) competes with the jockish John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), exemplifying the “Conflict with Jocks” trope, and geek protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is paired with an out-of-his-league female striver (Megan Fox) in the first two Transformers films (2007, 2009), which evinces the “Vivid Fantasy Life” and “Marginalized Women” tropes. Similarly, the Oscar-winning film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Return of the King pours on the homosocial melodrama between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), forcing the latter to weep his way through much of the film as he pines for his suffering buddy, thus enacting the “Geek Melodrama” and “Bromance” tropes. These tropes are also found pervasively in contemporary geek-centered TV situation comedies like The Big Bang Theory (2007-present), Arrested Development (2003-06), and Party Down (2009-10).
This essay explicates the eight tropes of geek film comedy via analysis of three Team Apatow-produced romantic comedies: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005, dir. Apatow), Knocked Up (2007, dir. Apatow), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, dir. Nicholas Stoller). While my sole focus on Apatow productions is to some extent arbitrary, I have chosen this focus for my textual sample in part because Team Apatow’s rom-coms cut across many relevant geek-centered genres and hybridize them in more unexpected ways than many other works produced by so-called “frat pack” filmmakers such as Adam MacKay and Will Ferrell, Danny McBride and Jody Hill, and Todd Phillips. All the films in my sample carry the Apatow Productions (sometimes Apatow Company) label and are distributed by Universal Studios. In my analysis I refer only to content appearing in the theatrical versions of the films, not extended DVD edition or deleted-scene material.
Further related research on geeks and their tropes surely remains to be done: to cite two prominent examples, the massive popularity of cinematic blockbusters based upon superhero comic properties such as Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man is clearly tied to the rise of pop-cultural geekdom, yet receives no analysis here. Furthermore, I focus my analysis upon the incursion of white, male geeks into the genre-hybridized romantic comedy; female geeks and geeks of non-white ethnicities also warrant critical attention.3 But my hope is that these eight geek tropes will serve as useful analytical tools for other researchers investigating the rise of geekdom in other genres and modes besides romantic comedy.
Revenge of the Nerds: Grotesque to Ambivalent
Leger Grindon locates the male-centered striver-slacker comedies in the “grotesque to ambivalent” cycle of romantic comedies that began in 1997 with There’s Something About Mary and Chasing Amy.4 His analysis is accurate, yet many of these striver-slacker films, especially those produced by members of Team Apatow, elide generic boundaries, frequently hybridizing the romantic comedy, the raunchy sex comedy, and/or the male buddy film with something else: e.g., the sex comedy/rom-com (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), the sex comedy/buddy cop film (Pineapple Express), the male buddy film/rom-com (Role Models), the male melodrama/rom-com (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), plus a few examples of relatively “pure” sex comedies (Superbad), buddy films or “bromances” (I Love You, Man), and romantic comedies (Adventureland). Of course, all of these films are male-centered, a point Denby emphasizes when he argues that “the perilous new direction of the slacker-striver genre reduces the role of women to vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up.”5 I agree with Denby yet I want to use tropic analysis to expand his definition of the “slacker-striver genre” to embrace more than just the “classic” romantic comedy. A broader interpretive model is called for; the unbalanced generic conventions caused by geek-centered tropes is what enables a critical analysis of these tropes to create a more expansive, useful definition of the slacker-striver motif across multiple subgenres and hybridized genres. Thus, while my own focus will be mainly upon ostensible romantic comedies, I will gesture toward the ways in which these geek tropes extend into other related films and film genres.
Both There’s Something About Mary and Chasing Amy feature geek protagonists, and Judd Apatow himself has publicly acknowledged the enormous influence Kevin Smith, writer/director of Amy and contemporary geek culture icon, exerted upon his own work.6 Yet along with Amy and Mary, one other key film stands as a precursor to Apatow’s cycle of hybridized, geek-centered film comedies: American Pie (1999), itself a near-perfect hybrid of Animal Comedy — defined by William Paul as a 1980s cycle of male-centered, sex-obsessed, gross-out comedies launched by the success of Animal House (1979) — and romantic comedy elements.7 While retaining a male focus, centering upon a group of four buddies attempting to lose their virginity by prom night, American Pie takes this sex-comedic premise and infuses it with some surprisingly emotional touches of genuine romance, particularly between Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari).8) Of course, Pie displays copious amounts of sexual hijinks and grotesquery, and more than one of the central couples bears an ambivalent relationship toward love: in a nod to The Graduate, Paul Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has great, obligation-free sex with the much older mother of one of his companions, whilst longtime romantic steadies Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Vicky (Tara Reid) lose their virginity to each other only to break up immediately afterward.9
American Pie ultimately grossed less than There’s Something About Mary — $102.5 million versus Mary‘s $176.5 million — but it did so on half the budget ($11 million to Mary‘s $23 million) and with no known stars except Eugene Levy in a small role. By contrast, Mary had Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in the leads, and other industry names like Matt Dillon in supporting roles. American Pie also launched a highly successful and enduring franchise, including three theatrical sequels and numerous straight-to-DVD spinoffs. So in terms of return on its investment and overall economic and cultural impact, Pie is an important prototype of the geek-centered R-Rated comedy, and points even more emphatically than Mary to the increased male-centeredness and genre mixing to follow in the millennial sex comedy/romantic comedy hybrids of Team Apatow and others.
American Pie and There’s Something About Mary both foreground an explicitly Jewish geek protagonist, Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) respectively. This deployment of a coded-Jewish hero aligns these films with the rise of key romantic comedy geeks like Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock in The Graduate, the characters played by Richard Dreyfuss in the early works of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the onscreen persona of Woody Allen, and Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) in When Harry Met Sally. . . (1989), placing Jim and Ted in a long tradition of nebbish romantic comedy leads, a move that would influence (or at least resonate with) all of the Team Apatow works that followed in the wake of Mary‘s and Pie‘s enormous success. Like Steven Spielberg before him, Judd Apatow began his career in television, first working as an executive producer and occasional sketch writer on The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993), then catching a break as consulting producer, episode writer, and, in its final season, co-executive producer on Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show (1993-1998), both for HBO. Apatow then co-created (with Paul Feig) the critically beloved but short-lived Fox drama series Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), executive producing the show and writing and directing several of its episodes. After helming one more short-lived series, Undeclared (2001-2003), and producing the hit comedy film Anchorman in 2004, Apatow made his feature film directorial debut with The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005.
Before commencing the trope-by-trope analysis of Team Apatow’s geek film comedies, I will introduce the specific generic affiliation(s), narrative structure, and major themes of each of the films under discussion. While structured as romantic comedies, all three — The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall — contain pervasive elements of male-centered buddy comedy, that is, “bromance,” though each film incorporates bromantic tropes to a different degree.
All of these films bear some relationship to Oedipal trajectory, whether it primarily be to embrace a classic Oedipal narrative or to reject it in favor of a pre-Oedipal celebration of grotesquery and arrested development. While all these comedies begin in the realm of the pre-Oedipal, all of them ultimately reform the slacker, allowing male homosociality to give way to heterosexual coupling, moving the male protagonist out of his state of arrested development and resolving his Oedipal crisis.
While The 40-Year-Old Virgin is inflected with a certain amount of grotesquery and ambivalence, it is the least sex comedyish and most traditionally romantic comedyish of any Apatow production.10 Virgin is a classic boy-meets-girl film with two Team Apatow-ish distinguishing features: (1) its male protagonist, Andy (Steve Carell) is extremely geeky and sexually naive, and (2) the film includes intermittent episodes of raunchy, lower-stratum humor infused into the proceedings by Andy’s male co-workers. The first quarter of the film, until Trish (Catherine Keener) is introduced at the twenty eight-minute mark, is more or less an Animal comedy (raunchy sex comedy with a male-dominated ensemble cast) focused upon Andy’s newfound male buddy group trying to get him laid. Yet while the male pack of buddies learning of Andy’s virginal status sets the film’s narrative in motion, and while the buddy co-workers’ advice functions as one of the key obstacles to the heterosexual pairing between Andy and Trish, ultimately the romantic love plot drives The 40-Year-Old Virgin film to its climax and conclusion, which centers upon Andy and Trish’s marriage and long-awaited consummation thereof.
Virgin is romantic in tone and ends with Andy and Trish marrying, yet the focus of that final marriage is placed upon Andy’s sexual conquest of Trish. That is, like all sex comedies/Animal comedies, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is finally about sex, about the geeky male protagonist getting laid: see also Pinto in Animal House and Jim in American Pie. What Apatow achieves here is to successfully romanticize the male-centered sex comedy, much as American Pie successfully added rom-com components to its Animal comedy antics six years earlier.
Knocked Up is structurally identical to Virgin, a male-centered sex comedy or Animal comedy fused with a romantic comedy.11 Its conformity to the Virgin formula is evident in its close adherence to the “reform the slacker” plotline. In Virgin, Andy goes on an Oedipal journey in which he must learn to forsake childhood things, symbolized by his action figure collection which he sells off on ebay, but really indicating his deep fear of sex. Similarly, Knocked Up‘s Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) learns to overcome his resistance to getting a real job, leaving the house where he lives with his bromantic male buddies, and committing fully to Alison (Katherine Heigl) and the imminent parenthood indicated by her unplanned pregnancy.
There are further parallels between Knocked Up and Virgin: for example, Ben’s first serious discussion with Alison about her pregnancy takes place at the thirty minute mark, the same point at which Virgin introduces Andy to Trish. However, in contrast to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which has an overtly romantic-comedic tone, Knocked Up is more ambivalent. This tonal shift is due in large part to Knocked Up‘s provocative, sex-and-unplanned-pregnancy-before-romantic-love plot. Knocked Up‘s relative emphasis on non-sentimental sex comedy is abetted by reversing the gender roles of its heterosexual protagonists vis-a-vis geekiness and slackerism: Ben, the male lead, is a sexually aware, vulgar slacker rather than a high-strung, naive virgin like Andy, and Alison is a type-A, careerist achiever, having more in common with Sarah Marshall‘s driven title character (or Election‘s Tracy Flick) than Virgin‘s laid-back, slackerish Trish. Whereas Andy’s sexual naiveté allows Virgin to take a more idealistically romantic view toward sex, Knocked Up makes no bones about the accidental and casual nature of its lead duo’s first intimate coupling nor about the difficulties they face as a potentially mismatched couple. Knocked Up and Virgin are both raunchy, male-centered sex comedies that turn into heterosexual romantic comedies, but Knocked Up builds its romantic charge a bit later in the narrative than Virgin does and is much more “nervous” about that romance’s outcome until it resolves in the last reel. It is actually more melodramatic than Virgin in part because it deals with the weighty issue of new parenthood, which Ben’s slackerism (shown in the earthquake scene in which he rescues his bong rather than Alison from the shaking house) and the tenuousness of their romantic bond both threaten. Despite Alison’s insistence that “I really do love you” an hour into the film, her accompanying admission that “I don’t know what that love means” expresses the fragility of her and Ben’s very new relationship.
Despite its deep ambivalence about romance, Knocked Up devotes more screen time to its principal female characters than any other film in my sample. Unlike Virgin, which spends its first half-hour integrating Andy into his newfound group of work buddies, Knocked Up begins with its bromantic group already intact, thereby downplaying their narrative importance. Knocked Up gives Alison’s home life, family relationships, and point of view far more narrative attention than Virgin does Trish’s. Alison’s relationship with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) is a driving force and highlight of Knocked Up, and has no correlate in any other Team Apatow film under discussion. As a point of comparison, John Hamburg’s bromance I Love You, Man (2009) devotes narrative time to showing Zooey’s (Rashida Jones’) interactions with her female friends, but not as extensively as Knocked Up depicts Alison’s work life and relationship with her sister.12
The relative importance of women in Knocked Up is emphasized by the film’s climax, in which Ben must convince Debbie of his competence to be a good father before the delivery of his baby with Alison may occur: Debbie says “I think he’s going to be a good dad. I think I like him.” All that said, Knocked Up is still fundamentally male-centered and participates in structural misogyny, particularly in its privileging of Ben’s point of view and in its unfortunate vilification of Alison’s mother; see trope 7.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a romantic comedy with extreme doses of male melodrama, or possibly a male melodrama “rescued” by a romantic-comedy happy ending, a kind of “nervous romance” in reverse.13 Written by Jason Segel, its star, the film is structured around sad-sack protagonist Peter Bretter’s long emotional recovery from being dumped by Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), a famous and beautiful woman who is way out of his league in both looks and career success. Bretter spends the bulk of the film pining for Sarah, literally crying his way through several early scenes. He leaves Los Angeles for Hawaii, and once there, spends his time bonding with bromantic buddies like Chuck (Paul Rudd), and finally healing his wounds with the help of new romantic interest Rachel (Mila Kunis). Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s Rachel is a key example of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” type described by film critic Nathan Rabin as a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”14 Sarah Marshall uses Rachel to stage a climactic showdown wherein both she and a remorseful Sarah compete for the slackerish Peter’s affections, exemplifying the “one geek/two female suitors” setup (see trope 5).
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is structurally similar to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, only with an unambiguously happier ending. Both films document the geek hero’s passing from one romantic obsession to another, and both stage the geek’s recovery from a breakup via his reconnection with creativity and art: Allen’s Isaac Davis through Tracy’s gift of a harmonica, and Peter via Rachel’s encouragement of his inspiration to write his Dracula-themed puppet musical. However, whereas even Kevin Smith’s geek-friendly early films like Clerks and Chasing Amy preserve the ambivalence of the nervous romances, denying the geek his ultimate romantic consummation, in line with the cultural shift toward valorizing geeks now underway, millennial geek-centered comedies like Sarah Marshall always give the geek protagonist exactly what he wants.
EIGHT TROPES OF GEEK-CENTERED ROMANTIC COMEDY15
1. Conflict with Jocks
Conflict with jocks is one of the defining tropes of nerddom and geekdom, so central to the formation of the geek type that it is constitutive of it. The geek is always in conflict with jocks, and in geek-centered comedies geeks are frequently embarrassed, attacked, and humiliated by jocks. The term “jocks” is not synonymous with “athletes” — in fact, many athletes are geeks of the sports they practice — but constitutes its own category of anti-intellectual, sexually confident individuals whose main role in geek narratives is to best geeks sexually and to bully them verbally and/or physically. The terms “jock” and “geek” are interdependent, best defined relative to each other: the geek merely has to be physically or sexually deficient and intellectually better endowed with respect to his jock oppressor(s), and to feel threatened or be made insecure by the jock’s presence. This fundamental geek-jock opposition is strongly connected to trope 2, geek melodrama, in that the geek’s fundamental antagonism with people he deems less intelligent than he gives his melodramatized victimhood its raison d’etre. However, despite its strong ties to melodramatic geek suffering, the geek-jock conflict can also be played for straight comedy, as in the Delta vs. inter-house rivalry in Animal House, or turned around on the geek, as in the Roman vs. Kyle rivalry on Party Down, in which handsome girl-magnet Kyle (Ryan Hansen) is frequently allowed to best misogynistic geek Roman (Martin Starr). Regardless of specific tone, in geek-centered comedies the jock acts as a catalyst for the geek males’ sexual anxiety, which is especially central to the sex comedies, i.e., American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, and Pineapple Express.
The most prevalent geek-jock rivalries in our film sample are those seen in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In this film, the main jock, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), is both more narratively prevalent and more complex than the average jock character. A British pop star whose entire persona revolves around his voracious, over-the-top sexuality, Snow is the very embodiment of everything the schlubby, sensitive geek Peter Bretter fears. Knowing himself to be sexually inadequate and way out of Sarah’s league, Peter spends the bulk of the film being (comedically) tortured by Snow’s public displays of erotic affection toward Sarah, and listening to him regale her with sexually explicit love songs like “Inside of You” at a luau. All of Snow’s songs remind of us of his jockish orientation to sexuality and the body: even his ostensibly “political” hit song, “Do Something,” proposes that the solution to all world problems is simply to do something, a nebulous call to action reminiscent of the Nike “Just Do It” campaign, its indeterminate use of the verb “do” also being suggestive of the sexual act in and of itself.
Yet Sarah Marshall humanizes Snow more so than do most geek-centered films, even allowing Peter to recognize how cool and relatable the British rocker is by the end of the film. In part this takes place because Peter’s real struggle is with Sarah herself, and having him make peace with Snow sets the stage for his final showdown with his (by then demonized) ex-girlfriend — see trope 7 below. But Snow’s sympathetic position may also relate to his ties to the rock and roll industry, for creative types, no matter how jockish, hold a special place in the world of geeks: see also William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit’s) adoration of rocker Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical geek odyssey Almost Famous (2000).
Despite the absence of prevalent jock characters in Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, their implied presence and sexual threat is nevertheless felt by these films’ insecure geek protagonists, or is embodied in unusual ways by supporting characters. Knocked Up‘s Ben is well aware that Alison is out of his league — he admits to her early in their relationship that he is “the guy that girls fuck over” — and his slackerish resistance to her could be seen as displaced anger toward jockish “beautiful people” like her. This point is clearly made when Alison shows embarrassment at being seen with Ben in front of her beautiful female friends outside a department store. Ben is not overtly humiliated by this — he is too good-natured and clueless to pick up on it — but it is clear to the viewer, and Ben does note in an immediately subsequent scene that he thinks Alison has grown uneasy with him because he hasn’t proposed marriage to her, again misinterpreting the cause of their strained relations. He also goes on an enraged rant against Dr. Howard, their jockish, smooth-talking gynecologist, when the latter disappears to an out-of-town Bar Mitzvah just before Alison goes into labor.
Virgin makes interesting use of the geek vs. jock trope by incorporating a seemingly friendly jock into the male buddy group that takes Andy under its wing. Jockish black man Jay (Romany Malco) gives Andy all kinds of dating advice premised upon an exclusively sexual, objectifying approach to women: e.g., that Andy must go have meaningless sex with a “hoodrat” before trying to have sex with someone he actually cares about. This jockish advice echoes that of Trent (Vince Vaughn) to Mike (Jon Favreau) in Swingers, and is ultimately proven wrong when the geek protagonist finds his one true love, and his jockish adviser is ridiculed and infantilized, by film’s end. In these cases the geek and jock remain friends but the film still champions earnest geek values over slick jock ones.
2. Geek Melodrama
This is a form of male melodrama wherein the geek justifies his rage toward his jock oppressors by framing it as melodramatic suffering on his own part. Linda Williams defines the melodramatic mode as a loose set of tropes that generate “pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims.” According to Williams, melodramatic narratives “[consist] of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that [lead] to a climax that permits an audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value.”16 Geek-centered film narratives across all genres place the geek in the role of long-suffering victim vis-a-vis jocks and women, therefore activating viewer sympathy for his plight and placing him in the melodramatized position of moral righteousness: in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Peter Bretter suffers through the entire film at the hands of his cheating ex-girlfriend and her new paramour, Aldous Snow. While played to excess for comedic purposes, Peter’s many scenes of unabashed sobbing and suffering align viewer sympathies with him, as does the film’s insistence upon depicting all events strictly from his point of view. By film’s end, it is clear that Peter is the “victim” here, and that Sarah, as Peter himself puts it, is “the Devil.”
The geek protagonist’s morally charged victim status allows him to freely vent his rage at jocks and women, and for the audience to accept this rage as justified, as when Knocked Up‘s Ben Stone leaves a wildly inappropriate and threatening message on Dr. Howard’s answering machine: “You know what I’m going to have to do now? I’m going to have to kill you! I am going to pop a fucking cap in your ass! You’re dead, you’re Tupac, you are fucking Biggie, you piece of shit!” Ben’s racialized anger (see also trope 3) is justified emotionally and morally by his own geeky underdog status as well as his narrative position of defending the rights of a suffering pregnant woman.
This melodramatization of the privileged geek has been a dominant trope in mainstream Hollywood cinema since the 1970s, when filmmakers like Woody Allen, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg placed geeks at the center of their science-fiction, action-adventure, and romantic comedy films. A paradigmatic example much discussed by comedy critics is Annie Hall, a comedian comedy that plays upon male melodrama (Alvy’s suffering at having lost Annie) to defang the power of women’s laughter — indeed, diegetically Alvy “smothers” Annie.17
Films like Chasing Amy, The 40-Year Old Virgin, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall mimic the structure of Allen’s nervous romances, placing a traditional romantic comedy narrative within the larger frame story of a male-centered comedy, replete with heavy doses of male melodrama.18 Whereas classic romantic comedies tend to privilege female laughter and unruliness over male suffering, as in the bakery scene in Moonstruck in which Ronnie’s suffering at the hands of his brother is rendered comedic and ridiculous, the geek-centered films take their melodrama seriously, using romantic comedy tropes not so much to empower women but instead to provide happy endings for stories about male suffering and redemption.19 Exemplary in this regard is the Las Vegas scene in Knocked Up in which Ben and Pete realize, while tripping on mushrooms, that they are not worthy of the women they love. Their melodramatic suffering paired with drug use in this sequence renders Ben and Pete comedic and yet vulnerable at the same time: Pete muses “Do you ever wonder how somebody can even like you? How could Debbie like me? She likes me. She loves me. The biggest problem in our marriage is that she wants me around. She loves me so much that she wants me around all the time. That’s our biggest problem.” The buddies return to L.A. intent on doing whatever it takes to win their respective women back, a melodramatic turn that sets up the film’s climax wherein Ben literally rescues Alison from her missing obstetrician and the other difficulties of reaching the hospital and having her baby. These films deploy melodrama in order to ensure that audience loyalties ultimately lie with the male, rather than female, protagonists.
Additionally, regardless of the geek protagonist’s actual ethnicity, his victimhood and suffering is often raced, as when Jewish geek Neal Schweiber commiserates with an unnamed black kid about being racially stereotyped in an episode of Freaks and Geeks (see trope 3).20
3. Simulated Ethnicity
Simulated ethnicity refers to the process by which privileged white geeks simulate/claim a “marked” (and therefore broadly “raced”) identity, a trope tightly connected to the well-documented white fascination with imagined blackness that cultural critics from Leslie Fiedler to Norman Mailer to Eric Lott have argued constitutes white male adolescence in America.21 White appropriation of imagined blackness contributes to the marginalization of black characters by deploying the strategy of exclusion, whereby “repetition of black absence from locations of autonomy and importance creates the presence of the idea that blacks belong in positions of obscurity and dependence.”22 Instead, white characters remain central while appropriating simulated blackness with impunity. Of course, the white geek always has the option of abandoning his simulated ethnic status, which is why it must be designated as merely simulated; in fact, it is central to the geek myth that he will eventually rise above his socially abject status and, with the help of his intellect and education, claim his white masculine privilege like Scott (Keanu Reeves) does in My Own Private Idaho, cruelly leaving his homeless life and companions behind, or like Clerks‘ Dante, who becomes co-owner of the Qwik Stop convenience store at the end of Clerks 2.
The most common manifestation of this trope is in the figure of the white geek who acts black, indulging — and usually socially benefiting from — his imagined blackness. Everything about the Apatow-produced teen sex comedy Superbad flaunts this trope: right from its 1970s style opening credits, the film’s title and blaxploitation soundtrack frame the geeky white boys’ sexual misadventures in black pop-cultural terms, much like the frat parties in Animal House are accompanied by the music and performance of Otis Day and the Knights. However, where Animal House at least tries to point out, in its heavy handed and somewhat racist roadhouse bar scene, that the band and the black community do not appreciate the white frat boys’ adoration, Superbad never questions its white protagonists’ appropriation of imagined blackness. Fogell names himself “McLovin” on his fake ID, prompting Evan to ask him: “Are you trying to be an Irish R and B singer?” Yet when Evan, far from aware of his own simulation of ethnicity, successfully offers to buy Becca’s alcohol, he says he feels “pimp,” a raced term referring to blaxploitation-based stereotypes. Similarly, Virgin‘s Andy emulates the mannerisms of black friend Jay in attempting to pick up “hoodrats,” and Jay even tells Andy early in the film that “Your dick is my dick!” — a line which surely cuts to the core of the white fascination with imagined black masculinity. Simulated ethnicity is also seen in non-Apatow films: I Love You, Man‘s Peter Klaven loosens up and discovers his own coolness by playing bass guitar and, as he puts it, “Slappin’ da bass,” thereby emulating his imagined version of a black Rastafarian; Road Trip‘s Kyle Edwards (DJ Qualls) joins a hip-hop crew onstage at an all-black frat party and ends up dating black girlfriend Rhonda (Mia Amber Davis); and Office Space‘s geeky white protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) liberatingly slacks off at his off job as the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” plays on the soundtrack. All these instances exemplify the white fantasy of blackness as strongly associated with the body, sexuality, and easygoing slackerism or laziness — the precise qualities that geeks in particular lack.23
The uptight geek’s raced attraction to sexual and bodily looseness draws him to his frequent cinematic companion, the slacker. Slackers, while usually white, live in the moment and are more clownish and carefree than geeks. They are less introspective and sensitive than their geek buddies, though they share the geek’s love of comic books and other geek-cultural products. Geek-slacker buddy duos proliferate in the films of Team Apatow: Sarah Marshall‘s Peter and Chuck, Superbad‘s Evan and Seth, and Pineapple Express‘s Dale and Saul all embody such pairings. In Virgin and Knocked Up, whole gangs of underachieving buddies act as conglomerate slacker sidekicks to geek protagonists Andy and Ben.
It should be noted that the Jewishness of many geek protagonists is obviously not simulated, and that Jewishness is a legitimate, historically oppressed identity, but in these films that identity is usually flaunted by characters who are themselves privileged. Key in this regard is the geek buddy group’s discussion of Jewish action star Eric Bana in the dance club scene in Knocked Up, wherein Ben prophetically declares “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich!” In addition to foreshadowing Ben’s own imminent successful hookup with Alison, this brief talk foregrounds the Jewish identity of all these young men, and allows them to bemoan their difficulties with women as a result (see trope 2, geek melodrama). Yet the Munich talk, echoing the narrative move Knocked Up is itself about to make, simultaneously shows via its example of Bana that Jewish men can be accepted as romantic leading men and viable protagonists in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
However, the most pernicious dimension of simulated ethnicity is that it does not require the simulator to have or invoke any connection to a specific, real-world ethnic identity: the geek imagines that his social marginalization alone, especially in light of his superior intelligence and sensitivity vis-a-vis his jock rivals, justifies his claiming a marginalized or oppressed status. This explains why geeks are often the most virulent defenders of the fiction of “Post-Racialism,” that is, the insistence that race and ethnicity are not valid cultural or societal issues anymore. Despite their prolific engagement with racial appropriation, Team Apatow’s films rarely tackle (or critique) post-racialism head-on. However, edgier geek fare such as Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2 pushes the boundaries, offering geek protagonist Randal (Jeff Anderson) wearing a shirt with the words “Porch Monkey 4 Ever” and having him unleash a tirade about his right to call himself a “porch monkey” in an obviously misguided attempt to reclaim the term back from racist hate-mongers. Similarly, Party Down ‘s Roman (Martin Starr) claims to be “post-racial” after asking black funeral guests highly inappropriate questions about the nature and etymology of the term “jungle fever” in the “James Ellison Funeral” episode.
4. Voyeurism and Stalkerism
The geek is usually a connoisseur of visual media, such as film and comic books, and this emphasis upon visual consumption extends to his tendencies toward voyeurism, stalkerism, and interest in porn. A great many pre-Oedipal geek comedy narratives involve the geek protagonist and/or his buddies pruriently spying upon women; Blutarsky’s extended sequence of climbing a ladder to peep into a sorority house in Animal House provides the template here, and American Pie brilliantly updated the trope for twenty first century audiences by having Jim’s buddies watch foreign exchange student Nadia undress and masturbate via an internet webcam he set up in his bedroom for the purpose. The films often conclude these sequences by poking fun at the geeks – Blutarsky falls off his ladder, and Jim embarrasses himself by prematurely ejaculating during an attempt to seduce Nadia – yet they never seriously question the ethics of peeping tomism, never depict serious social or legal consequences for the person(s) committing the deed, and in fact reward voyeurism by always providing the “payoff” of nude women put on overt display for the characters and the viewer. They also sign off on these deeds diegetically by pairing Blutarsky off with his voyeurism target, Mandi Pepperidge, in Animal House‘s denouement; Jim is similarly rewarded when Nadia confesses her longtime crush on him in American Pie 2. Superbad extends this tradition by having Fogell follow Nicola down a school hallway, voyeuristically ogling her ass, then walking away uncomfortably when she notices him; yet he has sex with her during their only other encounter at the end of the film.
In addition to spying on women in general, geeks often feel no compunction against stalking the women they supposedly love. A key film in this regard is Cameron Crowe’s Gen X romance Say Anything . . . , in which Lloyd Dobler famously lurks outside Diane Court’s house playing “In Your Eyes” very loudly on a portable boom box.24 In this iconic moment, Lloyd’s melodramatic suffering at having been broken up with by Diane is supposed to justify his standing outside in the wee hours of the night blasting music in an upscale suburban neighborhood. Another variant on the stalkerism trope, best exemplified by Mike in Swingers, is the geek’s leaving of endless neurotic answering machine messages, to the point of his talking himself out of the possibility of a successful relationship even before the other party ever picks up. This exposes the geek’s underlying conceit: that stalking itself counts as a relationship, or as a legitimate phase in a relationship he imagines is transpiring (see also trope 5). For example, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy makes a phone call to Trish only to pose as a telemarketer when he loses the nerve to identify himself. Viewers are supposed to empathize with Andy for his extreme nervousness in the face of the potentially true romance Trish represents, but not ask themselves why this immature man is repeatedly calling Trish if he is incapable of mustering the honesty to conduct a simple conversation with her. Sure, this is comedy, but the film further endorses stalkerism by showing Andy watching Trish through her store window and accepting dating advice from Dave, a man who, like Andy, assumes the role of a sensitive “nice guy” yet obsessively stalks his own ex-girlfriend. Similarly, Forgetting Sarah Marshall excuses Peter’s stalkerism by landing him at the same Hawaiian hotel as his ex-girlfriend purely by random chance, and by having his brother-in-law Brian specifically warn him not to stalk her; yet Peter deliberately spies on her anyway, and Brian’s admonishment has more to do with Peter’s pain over what he sees — Sarah making love with her new beau — rather than the inherent ethical questionability of his voyeurism.25
5. Creativity and Vivid Fantasy Life
Geeks are highly imaginative fellows, and in their comedies the viewer is often given direct access to their imaginings, be they positive (struggling film director Nick Reve envisioning himself winning a “Best Film Ever Made By a Human Being” award in Living in Oblivion), prurient (Jay picturing himself kissing and fondling Justice in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), or nightmarish (Matthew Kidman imagining the fatal car crash that might result if he tries to skip school in The Girl Next Door). This trope is frequently expressed via geeks who are directly involved (or aspire to be involved) with media creation/production, for in addition to being avid consumers (“fanboys”) of contemporary media, geek protagonists are quite often filmmakers, comic book artists, writers, and the like.
Annie Hall‘s Alvy Singer is surely the principal template for this trope. The entirety of Annie Hall is presented to the viewer as a series of flashbacks told from comedian/writer Alvy’s point of view. The episodes that make up Alvy and Annie’s relationship unfold in an associative fashion, introduced by Alvy and mimicking the format of one of his standup routines.26 Further, the snippet of Alvy’s stage play seen in the film’s penultimate sequence, in which Annie stays with Alvy rather than leaving him as in the film’s diegesis, exposes Alvy’s (and the film’s) awareness that the geek protagonist is manipulating viewer perception of the events depicted, coloring his recollections, perhaps, to shift outcomes in his favor.
Explicit depiction of the geek’s imaginings gives the viewer direct access to the geek protagonist’s inner thoughts and point of view, reinforcing the male-centeredness of these films. An insidious corollary of this male focus is that geek comedies quite frequently pair the geek protagonist with a classically beautiful woman, who would be “way out of his league” in real life. This tendency may originate with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, in which Allen’s Isaac Davis is paired with Mariel Hemingway’s very young and angelically beautiful Tracy. Yet Allen’s film displays an awareness of the implausibility of their union — Isaac comments on it frequently — and ends fairly ambiguously, with Tracy headed off to Europe and the couple’s fate uncertain. That uncertainty has been dismissed in the contemporary geek films inspired by Allen’s work: it is hard to see either Sarah or Rachel developing sexual feelings for the awkward, schlubby Peter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, yet they do, and Knocked Up‘s insistence that Ben and Alison will stay together as a couple is the limit case of this geek-gets-the-girl wish fulfillment.
The geeky guy coupled with an out-of-his-league beauty motif demonstrates how the rise of the geek protagonist is bound up with the emergence of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a pernicious stereotype described by Onion AV Club writer Nathan Rabin as a sensitive, quirky, attractive girl who exists solely to teach emotionally damaged men to love again. She is a purely male fantasy projection of desirable traits, a figure “defined by secondary status and lack of an inner life” who is “on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.”27 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl proliferates in contemporary geek media: see Heather Graham in Swingers, Arrested Development, Scrubs, and The Hangover, Mila Kunis in Sarah Marshall and Extract, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory, Shannon Elizabeth in American Pie and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Elisha Cuthbert in The Girl Next Door, and even Catherine Keener as Trish in Virgin. In calling Cameron Diaz’s Mary “an exaggerated confection of male desire” in There’s Something About Mary, Leger Grindon implies this same stereotype.28
In many cases, male geek fantasies of hyper-exaggerated potency and desirability extend beyond simply being paired with one beautiful woman. Quite often the geek finds himself the object of affection of two such women at the same time: the “one geek/two female suitors” motif appears in Clerks, Dawson’s Creek, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and, most dramatically, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, wherein Peter’s harsh rejection of Sarah after she attempts to fellate him provides the film with its climax.
Geek fantasizing can also take the form of power fantasies involving guns, violence, and excessive action. Many geek comedies thrust their protagonists into highly exaggerated “action movie” situations only to have them prevail against far stronger and better trained opponents. Jay and Silent Bob escape mall security guards by enacting Batman-inspired fantasies in Mallrats, Ronnie beats up multiple policemen in Observe and Report, Dale, Saul, and Red wipe out a gang of well-armed drug dealers in Pineapple Express, and a group of four geeks do the same in the recent 30 Minutes or Less.
In short, if the geek can imagine it, it’s real to him since he lives mostly in his head anyway. His potential for vivid imagination is what enables him to feel justified in committing acts of voyeurism and stalkerism as substitutes for real relationships (see trope 4). Sometimes geek comedies ridicule the geek for this behavior, the classic example here being Brad’s masturbation fantasy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which ends with the real woman he’s fantasizing about walking in on him and humiliating him. But more often geek comedies sign off on the geek’s fantasy, making it come true. This is a disturbing trend.
“Bromances” are an extension of the male buddy film tradition analyzed by Robin Wood.29 The buddy road movie cycle hit its apex during the 1970s with films like Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Scarecrow, then was largely subsumed into the buddy cop/action film cycle of the 1980s which included the Lethal Weapon films, Midnight Run, and 48 Hours. The buddy films and the more recent bromances all center upon narratives of male bonding (bromance) and the concomitant suggestion and homophobic repudiation of homoeroticism between closely bonded male friends. Even when these bromantic films feature a larger “pack” of male friends, usually specific buddy pairs (in the form of geek/slacker duos) are emphasized. For example, in the paradigmatic Animal House, two distinct buddy duos are foregrounded against the backdrop of the larger ensemble: Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boone (Peter Riegert), and Pinto (Thomas Hulce) and Flounder (Stephen Furst). Similarly, while in Virgin Andy technically befriends the entire group of Smart Tech guys all at once, he takes turns bonding with each of them episodically and learning different (usually self-sabotaging) dating lessons from each of them. Knocked Up begins with a male buddy group much like the one that coalesces around Andy in Virgin, but the film’s attention rapidly shifts from Ben’s original somewhat homogeneous buddy group to the new, intense bromantic bond he forms with Alison’s brother-in-law Pete.
Of course, objectifying women and graphically discussing sex are key bonding rituals in which these boys-only groups engage: Andy and Jay discuss strategies for picking up “Hoodrats” in Virgin, and the opening minutes of Superbad consist of an extended vignette in which Evan and Seth discuss porn sites, their past sexual exploits, and bits of adolescent wisdom such as Seth’s oddly worded claim that “You don’t want girls thinking you suck dick at fucking pussy.” Further, pursuit of women-as-sex-objects takes up the whole plot of American Pie, much as it did that film’s precursors like Animal House and Porky’s. However, as Eve Sedgwick has documented in her groundbreaking literary study Between Men, this male rallying around the pursuit of heterosexual love (or lust) ultimately leads to a stronger narrative focus on the homosocial and homoerotic love-bonds between the men themselves.30 For example, in Knocked Up the love-bond between Ben and Pete develops over the course of the double-date dinner sequence, in which the two men bond over their shared love of Back to the Future and Ben declares that he finds Pete “cute,” and their subsequent trip to Las Vegas, a paradigmatic bromantic destination since the original 1950s Rat Pack and 1996’s indie landmark Swingers. Ben and Pete explicitly refer to the latter film by yelling “You’re so money!” at each other on their way into Vegas.
In line with this focus on the (possibly homoerotic) relations between men, many of these contemporary bromances are punctuated with explicit declarations of male homosocial love: in addition to Ben’s comments about Pete noted above, Superbad concludes with its male buddy duo vocally gushing about their love for each other. John Hamburg’s non-Team Apatow bromance I Love You, Man (2009) ends with a heterosexual wedding ceremony in which the usual climax is usurped by its two male leads, Peter (Paul Rudd) and Seymour (Jason Segel), spouting the film’s titular phrase at one another before Peter exchanges vows with his bride.
The underlying thrust of all these films is the homoerotic yet (usually) homophobic dance the narratives play around the bond between the central buddy pair. Steven Cohan has documented how the buddy road movie cycle has depended upon homoerotic triangles and coded queerness since the 1940s, stating that “the comedic framework of the [subgenre] plays upon intimations of homoeroticism,”31 and Robin Wood links the popularity of the buddy movie in the 1970s to the emergence of explicitly homosexual film narratives like Victor Victoria and Making Love in the 1980s.32 Wood notes that the more overtly homosexually themed 1980s buddy films contain the threat of male-male homoeroticism by eliminating sexual ambiguity and fluidity, instead presenting a milieu in which “sexual orientation is separated out; there are heterosexuals and homosexuals, but they are two distinct species.”33 This is likewise true of the 1990s and millennial bromances: their buddy duos embrace a kind of platonic and even semi-romantic love for each other, yet their heterosexual interests are never remotely called into question, and uneasy homophobic joking permeates these films, as when Seth repeatedly calls Fogell “Faggle” in Superbad. Yet the 1990s emergence of the mainstream bromance has been accompanied by independent films like My Own Private Idaho (1991), Chuck & Buck (2000), and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) more willing to explore the queerness constitutive of the male buddy relation.34
7. Marginalized and/or Masculine Women
This trope has a long history in Hollywood cinema, and a tenacious presence in the male-centered buddy film tradition delineated by Robin Wood. Wood argues that women in the buddy film genre are “merely present for casual encounters en route, ‘chicks’ for the boys to pick up and put down,” which presages Denby’s concerns about millennial bromance-influenced rom-coms and their inability to provide women protagonists of much depth or interest.35
Falling squarely within this tradition of Hollywood misogyny, the films of Team Apatow tend to depict women characters as either two-dimensional objects of male sexual desire (e.g., Beth in Virgin, Becca and Jules in Superbad) or as asexualized/hyper-sexualized objects of fear and revulsion, in the form of domineering mother figures (Debbie in Knocked Up, Liz Bretter in Sarah Marshall), awkward, asexualized female geeks (Jodi in Knocked Up), and/or scary, masculinized butches (Paula in Virgin, Carol the female cop in Pineapple Express).36
This trope also takes in the “unappreciated woman” motif that is prevalent in many geek narratives: perhaps intended as an indicator of the geek’s pre-Oedipal status and sexual naiveté, many geek-centered films feature an obviously attractive and sexually available female character who is nevertheless not recognized as such by the geek protagonist. This character is often regarded as “just one of the boys” until late in the film, when the male geek finally sees her for what she is and becomes romantically interested in her. Classic examples include Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) in Clerks, Zoe (Kristen Bell) in Fanboys, Jenny (Michelle Trachtenberg) in Eurotrip, and Joey (Katie Holmes) in the long-running, geek-centered television melodrama Dawson’s Creek.37
In addition to relegating most of their secondary female characters to longstanding stereotypes, geek-centered films usually vilify or sell short their female leads as well. Virgin‘s Trish is likeable, almost to a fault, but remains underdeveloped relative to Andy and his group of male buddies. Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s titular character is presented as a careerist achiever who, while justified in breaking up with the slovenly, unmotivated Peter, nevertheless fails to appreciate his unflagging love and support of her over time: numerous flashbacks from his point of view show her receiving public adulation and accolades while he stands humiliated and overlooked by her side. By the end, the film asks us to side with the vindicated Peter when he refuses Sarah’s sexual advances and shouts at her: “You’re the goddamned Devil!”
However, whereas Sarah Marshall’s ultimately thankless role in Peter’s narrative of recovery is anticipated by her dumping him in the first place, and her subsequent replacement by Manic Pixie Dream Girl Rachel (Mila Kunis), Knocked Up‘s Alison has an even harder road to travel. As Ben Stone’s love interest, Alison needs to remain sympathetic and on roughly equal terms with Ben, yet narrative events conspire to render her subservient to him and a villain of sorts as well. Much of Alison’s villainy comes via her relationships with other women, whose harsh advice stands in stark contrast to the warm, touchy-feely proclamations of the film’s various men. For example, Knocked Up features Alison’s mother (Joanna Kerns) in only one short scene, depicting her as an unsympathetic woman who calls the pregnancy “a big, big mistake” and icily suggests an abortion as the only solution to Alison’s “problem.” After a short sequence showing Ben with his father, Alison is next seen on the phone in a highly agitated state, telling Ben that she’s absolutely keeping the baby: the strong implication of the paired “talk with mother”/”decide to keep the baby” sequences is that Alison keeps her baby mainly to spite her unsupportive mother. By contrast, Ben’s dad (Harold Ramis) is totally supportive of, even thrilled about the pregnancy, and Ben’s friend Jay cannot even pronounce the word “abortion” aloud because the very notion offends his tender, life-affirming sensibilities.38 Finally, when Alison calls Ben, he, like his father, offers unqualified commitment and support, saying that “I know my job is to just support you in whatever it is you want to do, and I’m in, you know, so — whatever you want to do, I’m gonna do, you know. I’m on board.” In essence, Ben provides Alison the “maternal” support she could not get from her own mother.
In these examples, men (Ben’s father, Jay, Ben himself) usurp the maternal role, a trope with a long history in film comedy: as Lucy Fischer observes, comedy films since Chaplin’s The Kid (1920) frequently “substitute the clown for the mother,” staging a scenario “in which men [supplant] the female parent.”39 Indeed, male groups usually take on the maternal role in the geek comedies: Andy’s friends “mother” him through his journey of sexual maturation in Virgin, Chuck (Paul Rudd) and Kemo (Taylor Wily) emotionally nurture Peter in Sarah Marshall, and Evan and Seth frequently act as surrogate mothers to each other in Superbad, rescuing each other from dangerous situations.
In perhaps the most drastic and disturbing iteration of this men-as-mothers substitution, Knocked Up ultimately reclaims the act of childbirth for the man: in the film’s climactic sequence, it is revealed that Ben knows more about pregnancy than Alison by having read three baby books, and it is his reception of his daughter into the world that is given melodramatic weight, that takes up screen time, that “matters.” Similarly, the marriage in Virgin is centered upon Andy carrying his bride to bed and his first sexual experience — closing credits “Aquarius” song is an expression of his sexual awakening and post-coital ecstasy. The geek-centered comedies often treat marriage in similar ways: I Love You, Man reclaims the typically bride-centered institution of marriage for masculinity by making the site of Paul’s marriage double as the site of his bromantic reconciliation with Sidney. Wedding Crashers and The Hangover also use weddings as a mere pretense or backdrop to raunchy, anarchic male fun.
See also trope 5 and the framing of women characters as projections of male fantasy.
8. Slackerism and Underemployment
This trope, an outgrowth of the experiences of Generation X in the 1990s, depicts geeks as almost always working at mcjobs and suffering from various forms of un- or underemployment. The classic embodiment of this trope, and the melodrama that accompanies it, is found in Kevin Smith’s generation-defining Clerks, in which geeky convenience store worker Dante suffers when he is called into work on his day off, and spends the whole day repeating the phrase: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” Indeed, lousy, demeaning, boring day jobs provide the backdrop to a great many geek-centered comedies, for example, the tech firm Initech in Office Space, the convenience store in Clerks, the underpaying catering gigs in Party Down, and the entire setting of The Office.
It is important to note that while underemployed geeks may legitimately suffer for being intelligent people under-deployed at menial jobs, these guys are primarily not working-class: they are white, middle-class, college educated (or at least have the potential for college enrollment) and work these undemanding jobs because they are caught in a pre-Oedipal, deliberately melodramatized developmental phase wherein they are misusing their own potential while simultaneously bemoaning how the world at large does not appreciate them. What gets elided in their narratives is that the geek’s refusal to grow up depends upon his possessing a high degree of socioeconomic privilege to begin with.
Examples of this trope abound in the Team Apatow films. Virgin has guys who work at a Best Buy-style electronics shop called Smart Tech. The members of the male gang in Knocked Up are unemployed: they loaf around their shared rental house getting stoned, playing ping-pong, and discussing their “business,” a porn-related website that never launches. Even Sarah Marshall‘s Peter, who has a “real” job as a soundtrack composer for a prime time television show, hates that job and is creatively unfulfilled by it. He is relieved when the show is canceled midway through the film and a major part of his emotional recovery in the wake of his breakup is the restoration of his faith in his own talents: with Rachel’s help and encouragement he undergoes a kind of vocational rehab during the course of the film to believe in himself and put his musical talents to proper use writing and producing his own Dracula-themed musical.
This trope sets up geek melodrama by positioning the geek protagonist as a suffering victim (no one appreciates what he has to offer) and implying that, by dint of his intelligence, unexploited potential, and other advantages, the geek will rise again in the future.
A close relative of slackerism and underemployment in the contemporary cultural paradigm, stonerism is often present here: there is almost always at least one stoner among the geek’s group of friends: Reuben in Road Trip, Jay and Silent Bob in Clerks, Saul and Dale in Pineapple Express, and the whole male gang in Knocked Up. Stonerism is also subtly raced, with strong ties to stereotypical depictions of black gangster culture (see trope 3).
The rise of the geek protagonist is troubling because under the guise of offering a kinder, more intelligent, more sensitive alternative to the traditional jockish male, the geek acts as a trojan horse for rampant misogyny, racism, infantilism, and reification of white male centrality and privilege. The eight tropes elucidated here are tools the textual analyst may use to intervene in these areas, exposing the mechanisms by which geek protagonists and narratives are “sold” to consumers of film and pop-culture across many genres. It is my hope that these tools may be used to combat the structural inequities repeated and reified by these films and to lambaste texts that do not support feminist, anti-racist, socially just points of view.
- Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: UT Press, 1995), 146-7. [↩]
- For a thorough discussion of the 1970s “nervous romance,” see Frank Krutnik, “The Faint Aroma of Performing Seals: The ‘Nervous’ Romance and the Comedy of the Sexes,” The Velvet Light Trap Number 26 (Fall 1990): 57-72. [↩]
- Geek race is discussed in my co-authored article “Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity,” Jump Cut 54 (Summer 2012). [↩]
- Leger Grindon, The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversy (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 61-66, 171-180. [↩]
- David Denby, “A Fine Romance: The New Comedy of the Sexes,” The New Yorker (July 23, 2007), 65. [↩]
- Asked about his cinematic influences at a San Diego Comic-Con panel in 2008, Apatow replied that “Kevin Smith laid down the tracks [. . .] I remember seeing Clerks and thinking ‘You can do that?!’” [↩]
- William Paul, “The Rise and Fall of Animal Comedy,” The Velvet Light Trap Number 26 (Fall 1990): 73-86. [↩]
- American Pie‘s Oz is a key example of the geek-friendly jock, a good-looking and otherwise jockish character who is close friends with a group of nerds or geeks. The geek-friendly jock is a staple of many Animal comedies — see Otter (Tim Matheson) in Animal House — and appears sporadically in the 1990s and 2000s as the feminized geek assumes increasing dominance. Key examples include Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) and Pink (Jason London) in Dazed and Confused (1993), T.S. (Jeremy London) in Mallrats (1995), and the characters played by Vince Vaughn in Rudy (1993), Swingers (1996), Old School (2003), and Dodgeball (2004 [↩]
- American Pie, directed by Paul Weitz (1999; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Entertainment, 1999), DVD. [↩]
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin, directed by Judd Apatow (2005; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2005), DVD. The plot of the male virgin being too nervous to have sex with the woman he loves was previously explored by Apatow in “Parent’s Weekend,” an episode of Undeclared he executive produced for the Fox Network in 2002. That episode’s director was John Hamburg, who would later direct the Paul Rudd – Jason Segel bromance I Love You, Man (2009). [↩]
- Knocked Up, directed by Judd Apatow (2007; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2007), DVD. [↩]
- Apatow and Judge have both directed and/or produced female-geek-centered projects: Freaks and Geeks and Bridesmaids for the former (collaborating with Paul Feig as creator and director on both), and the animated series Daria for the latter. [↩]
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall, directed by Nicholas Stoller (2008; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2008), DVD. [↩]
- Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” Onion AV Club, January 25, 2007, [↩]
- Special thanks to Kom Kunyosying for his integral role in developing the tropes list. Note also that tropes 6 and 7 overlap with two of Wood’s features of 1970s buddy films; see Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 198-218. [↩]
- Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised,” in Refiguring American Film Genres, ed. Nik Browne (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 1998), 42, 58. [↩]
- For an example of this argument, see Thomas Schatz, “Annie Hall and the Issue of Modernism,” Literature/Film Quarterly Vol. 10 (1982): 180-187. [↩]
- Schatz, “Modernism,” 183. [↩]
- Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995), 53. [↩]
- Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig, executive produced by Judd Apatow (1999-2000; Los Angeles, CA: Shout! Factory, 2004), DVD. [↩]
- The interracial buddy fantasy at the heart of white adolescence in America has a long history that, according to Leslie Fiedler, sees an early and influential iteration in the relationship between Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Eric Lott has traced the same white fascination with and appropriation of imagined blackness in the twentieth century minstrel show, and Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” documents the same phenomenon among white fans of jazz music in the 1950s. The concept of geeks’ simulated ethnicity is discussed more fully in Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles, “ Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity,” Jump Cut 54 (Fall 2012), [↩]
- James Snead, White Screens Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side (New York: Routledge, 1994), 6. [↩]
- For an in-depth discussion of the assumed uptightness of white people, see Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997), 21, 23-24. [↩]
- Say Anything. . ., directed by Cameron Crowe. (1989; Century City, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 2003), DVD. [↩]
- In the Judd Apatow series Undeclared, Ken (Seth Rogen) stalks Kelly (Busy Phillips) and idealizes that stalking as a quasi-relationship, and The Big Bang Theory shows Leonard obsessing over Penny for a year or more before they actually date, endorsing stalking as a legitimate form of relationship or courtship. True to form, McBride and Hill take this to its squirmy extreme with Fred Simmons in The Foot Fist Way, exposing the delusional misogyny at the heart of the stalkerism trope. As I have written elsewhere, Chuck & Buck also queers and partially deconstructs this trope. [↩]
- Schatz, “Modernism,” 183. [↩]
- Donna Bowman, Amelie Gillette, Steven Hyden, Noel Murray, Leonard Pierce, and Nathan Rabin, “Wild Things: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls,” Onion AV Club, August 4, 2008, [↩]
- Grindon, The Hollywood Romantic Comedy, 174. [↩]
- Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 203-4. [↩]
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia UP, 1985). [↩]
- Steven Cohan, “Queering the Deal: On the Road with Hope and Crosby,” in Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, ed. Ellis Hanson (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 25. [↩]
- Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 199, 218. [↩]
- Ibid., 213. [↩]
- Perhaps in response to these queer independent buddy films, many recent bromances beyond those already mentioned include explicit and emotional declarations of love between the male buddies: Clerks 2, Role Models, also J.D. and Turk, who perform a musical number about their shared (insistently non-sexual) love on an episode of Scrubs. See my queer analysis of Chuck & Buck in Carter Soles, “A Stalker’s Odyssey: Arrested Development, Gay Desire, and Queer Comedy in Chuck & Buck,” Jump Cut 49 (Spring 2007), [↩]
- Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 203. [↩]
- As Leger Grindon has documented, sexually assertive women, like Paula (Jane Lynch), Nicky (Leslie Mann) and Beth (Elizabeth Banks) in Virgin, are presented as grotesque and “freaky,” an obstacle to true love and romance in geek comedies. As representatives of the grotesque, which is always closely aligned with sexuality, these women provide “a source of contrast between a demeaning physicality versus the grace of passion” (Grindon 63), showing Andy what he does not want so he can eventually realize that Trish is who he does want. [↩]
- A related but less frequently occurring trope is the “she turned lesbian after he slept with her” motif, seen with Randal in the Clerks cartoon and Andy Millman in Extras. This motif signifies male fear of lesbian sexuality and the false assumption that any woman who rejects or mistreats the male protagonist must be a lesbian. [↩]
- In this regard, Knocked Up played an influential role, alongside Juno (2007), in reinforcing the religious right’s anti-feminist stance against abortion and women’s reproductive rights. [↩]
- Lucy Fischer, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: Comedy and Matricide,” in Comedy/Cinema/Theory, ed. Andrew Horton (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991), 67, 69. [↩]