On Sunday, shortly removed from the Friday night mass killing in Isla Vista, California, my colleague Ann Hornaday become one of the many voices raising important questions about the role that culture played in shaping Elliot Rodger’s hatred of women and despair at his own college experience. While some writers focused on pick-up artistry and the ideology of the so-called men’s rights movement, Hornaday, the Post’s film critic, looked in another direction.
“For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny),” she wrote. “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like ‘Neighbors’ and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”
I share Hornaday’s distress at the extent to which mass culture is dominated by a certain kind of storyteller, and the frequency with which those storytellers mistake their own particular experiences for the way of the world operates for everyone. I might have chosen different examples. In particular, I would be curious to read Hornaday on the trope of the rapist geek, identified by Arthur Chu in a terrific piece at the Daily Beast, who shows up everywhere from John Hughes movies to “Revenge of the Nerds.” But it was distressing and revealing to see how quickly the part of the cultural conversation that Hornaday was trying to advance devolved.
It cannot be comfortable for Judd Apatow to be singled out for contributing to a troubling sexual culture. But we cannot only claim that culture has an influence on society when the impact is one that we approve of, or that reflects well on creative people we admire.
The director, who seems to be making a habit of heading straight for the least productive response to any tough question or critique, decided to accuse Hornaday of trolling for clickbait. The actor Seth Rogen suggested that Hornaday had blamed him directly for the murders, a misrepresentation of her column, as Hornaday has made clear.
That is a nasty aspersion to cast on another creative person. As Sonny Bunch points out at the Washington Free Beacon, it is also a cheat, absolving Apatow of any responsibility to answer the charges leveled at his work.
It is a particularly stupid cheat because Apatow has two substantive arguments he could have made in his own defense. The first is his role in fighting for “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s deep dive into the female perspective on romantic and sexual dissatisfaction and compulsion. The other is his feature directorial debut, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
That film is not immune from critique. Among other things, it reinforces the idea that virginity stunts a person. But Apatow argues both that there is no hard-and-fast window for having sex for the first time, and that attempts to use women for sex are damaging not just to them, but to the men who fancy themselves sexual adventurers. It turns out to be Andy (Steve Carrell), the titular virgin who holds out for a mutually respectful, emotionally grounded relationship, who has a healthier relationship to sex than his non-virgin friends, who cheat on great partners, lose themselves in drugs and casual sex, and stalk their exes.
Alas, Apatow did not bring up either “Girls” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” choosing ad hominem over continuing down the path of an important conversation.
There are many to be had, with Hornaday’s piece as a starting point. While Chu does effectively battle with the trope of the sexually entitled nerd, I was particularly struck by Hornaday’s observation about the expectations pop culture sets for the college experience, and the gap between the dream and what for many students is the reality.
That mismatch shows up as early in 1927 in Buster Keaton’s brilliant movie “College,” when the director/actor, who plays an anonymous high school brain, gets to university to discover his girlfriend is ditching him for a jock. In a vain effort to impress her, Keaton’s character tries out for and fails to make every team at their college. But when her new boyfriend tries to force her to elope with him, threatening to ruin her reputation, Keaton’s character uses the athletic skills he learned to rescue her.
“College” is an incredibly funny, physically deft movie. It also relies on a fantasy of the patient nerd rescuing a girl who has been misled by her own desires from the consequences of them that curdles into entitlement and assault later in film history.
In the intervening decades, college movies would focus on everything from sports to changing social norms. The Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers,” released in 1932, is a prescient and hilarious statement on the farce that is amateurism in college sports, while “Knute Rockne All American,” which came out in 1940, helped make Notre Dame football and the men who coaches there national legends. “Love Story,” which came out in 1970, became a schmaltz classic with its mashup of cross-class romance and youthful death.
The arc of the college movie bends towards partying, though, and it is hard to think of a movie that more gleefully stomped on the curve than “Animal House,” which blasted onto the scene in 1978. In that film, rooted in the fraternity scene at a thinly fictionalized version of Dartmouth, partying is an act of social and political rebellion against the conformist Dean Wormer (John Vernon) and the fascists of Omega House, whose president eventually becomes a Nixon aide.
The misadventures of the boys of Delta Tau Chi, including an altercation with menacing African-American patrons at an Otis Day and the Knights concert, and a sexual romp with a girl who turns out to be just 13, have not all aged particularly well (though Bluto Blutarsky’s (John Belushi) imitation of a zit will live forever). But the idea of partying as a near-moral act has taken deep hold in film.
It lives in franchises like the “Van Wilder” movies, which began in 2002 with the installment starring Ryan Reynolds as a student with no intention of ever leaving the college where he’s had so much fun. The prequel, “Van Wilder: Freshman Year” suggests that Wilder’s talent for a good time previously helped liberate his school from the quasi-military administration of a previous dean, in the best tradition of Delta Tau Chi. But while the students of “Animal House” were actually rebelling against the impending threats of Vietnam, the draft and the Nixon administration, the enemies in “Van Wilder” are the disciplined Dean and sexual prurience, represented by religious girls. As a vision of male liberation, this is a bit of a comedown.
“Van Wilder” itself, which features a lot of gross-out humor and the decline of actress Tara Reid’s career, also features a trope relevant to this conversation. Kal Penn has a supporting role in the film as Taj, a foreign exchange student who acts as Van Wilder’s personal assistant in the hopes the experience will help him sleep with American girls. In the sequel “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj,” Penn’s character lands what I suppose is meant to be an even more impressive catch: a British hottie.
Even the loss-of-virginity obsessed “American Pie” franchise, which began with high school graduation, ends up in the college partying tradition. In the first movie, the vile Stifler (Seann William Scott) urges a friend to set up a webcam to broadcast his first sexual encounter — without the consent of the girl in question, of course. His punishment for this, and other acts of cruelty towards his virginal fellow students (and really, all of humanity)? Stifler discovers that his mother has deflowered one of his friends.
Subsequent installments of the films, which follow the “American Pie” characters to college and adulthood, and the spin-offs, which feature Stifler’s younger brother getting into various sorts of trouble at college, feature a smorgasbord of strange narratives. Nerds are deflowered by near-supermodels with geek fetishes! Sexually experienced older women constantly seek out younger men! A mysterious book promises to turn geeks into absolute sex gods!
The original “American Pie” movies at least gave us Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), the rare young female character who is in touch with her own sexuality and unashamed of her sexual appetite. But the franchise’s later installments are enough to make a convent look like an awfully appealing alternative to college sexual culture.
Neither the “American Pie” franchise, nor “Van Wilder,” nor Judd Apatow movies made Elliot Rodger kill anyone. That was never Ann Hornaday’s point, and her piece should not prompt anyone to go looking through his manifesto for causal evidence that “World of Warcraft” or “Game of Thrones” turn fans into mass murderers. Instead, we should remember that while Elliot Rodger is dead, the rest of us are alive and have to live in a world shaped by mass culture. And the ways that movies influence our expectations — and what people expect from us — do not have to kill us to matter.