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Pop Culture? What’s That?

I’ve been reading Knocked Up coverage all day (I mean, in between the usual editorial duties) and growing more and more baffled by what strikes me as a glaring omission. Everyone seems to have one of two takes: Judd Apatow … Read More

By / June 4, 2007

I’ve been reading Knocked Up coverage all day (I mean, in between the usual editorial duties) and growing more and more baffled by what strikes me as a glaring omission. Everyone seems to have one of two takes: Judd Apatow has a regrettable, though probably unintentional, inability to draw realistic female characters, leading him to write a movie that regrettably, but probably unintentionally, upholds all sorts of old-school conservative values. Or Judd Apatow is a feminist hero who created Freaks and Geeks Lindsey Weir (the most realistic high school girl since Daria Morgendorfer), which is why it’s OK that Knocked Up made the tough girls at Jezebel cry.

I very rarely disagree with Pandagon; for the most part, I fall into the second camp. If Knocked Up’s celebration of family is conservative, then the only truly progressive take on procreation is “I’m agin’ it.” (Which perspective isn’t problematic as a personal choice, of coursejust awfully limiting when applied to the world at large.) But there’s one thing about Knocked Up that struck me as really condescending towards my gender, and it’s this: None of the women in the movie seem to understand jokes.

At least, not good jokes. Katherine Heigl’s character certainly finds Seth Rogan funnywhich is important, since his sense of humor is his most appealing quality. (And it’s really appealing; you could certainly get knocked up by worse.) But the best lines in the movie occur as part of a game of one-upmanship among the dudes. These jokes are all creative but not terribly obscure riffs on pop culture: say, telling someone hairy that he looks “like Robin Williams’ knuckles.” To appreciate them, you need to have lived through the past thirty years of American pop culture and/or watched approximately three hours of VH1nothing more.

So why are the movie’s principal female characters left out of the loop? In one scene, Rogan asks Heigl what she would do if Doc Brown flew down in the De Lorean and offered to take her back to a time when she hadn’t yet slept with him. They’re both agitated: Heigl’s just hinted that she wishes she hadn’t gotten pregnant. But that doesn’t explain Heigl’s complete incomprehension. She doesn’t know who Doc Brown is. She’s never heard of the De Lorean. “Do you know what he’s talking about?” she asks her sister, who confirms that she, too, is baffled by this insanely obvious piece of trivia. What exactly were they doing while Back to the Future was becoming a monster '80s hit? Brushing their hair?

Back before I got all betrothed, my roommate and I used to spend a lot of time bitching about the “You know a lot about music for a girl” boys. These guys were everywhere, and they were deeply confused about the depth of female pop culture knowledge. This meant that they were easy to impress: Express interest in anything other than Laguna Beach, and they’d think you were some kind of savant. But it also made it difficult to have a conversation with them, since nobody wants to play Rain Man to some guy’s Tom Cruise (“You know that trick where you express an opinion about the Batman franchise? Can you do that again for my friend?”) What was so confusing about these guys is that all of us, male and female, have been marinating in cultural references since birth. It’s the easiest kind of knowledge to acquire, regardless of gender. Which makes the expectation that women won’t have itwell, kind of totally sexist.

That’s not to say that I don’t love Judd Apatow, or that I thought Knocked Up was in any way a misogynistic movie. It’s just that if you’re watching it for retrograde values, forget the abortion stuff: What’s really conservative about it is the expectation that women don’t know anything about the most obvious stuff there is to know.

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