Normally, I don’t expect
Superbad opens with a conversation between two male high school seniors, Seth and Evan, about Seth’s decision to join a particular online porn site because of the value it provides and the variety it offers. At this point I’m not holding my breath for a film that challenges the norms of mainstream masculinity.
After two hours of incessant penis jokes, fat jokes and juvenile slapstick gags I was shocked to find that my friends were right. Some of the problems with this film are identical to the issues I have with other teen films but what was more noticeable were the differences.
The issues I have with the movie are the most obvious elements. The liberal use of homophobic language, telling guys they're like girls to put them down, and using words for female genitalia as an insult stood out for me as the most prevalent sexist elements of this film. In one terrible scene, Seth gets a small amount of menstrual blood on his pants after dancing with a woman at a party. This is portrayed as being disgusting enough to make him almost throw up and be ridiculed by male and female party goers alike.
You're probably wondering how any of this could be part of a film with redeeming qualities. As I write this, I am also confused by the layers of meaning this movie presents. In a way, that's what makes it so interesting. The homophobia and misogynist language seem to be used to give a sense of realism rather than as the source of the film's humour. On top of that, it actually portrays some complicated ideas about masculinity and the performance of gender.
What you don't see in the aforementioned trailer is that, ultimately, drunken hook-ups are portrayed as stupid, awkward, and, most importantly, as disrespectful and hurtful. Evan arrives at the movie's climactic party to find Becky, the girl he really likes, totally wasted but aggressively pursuing him. He asks her friend if it would be unethical for him to hook with her while she's so drunk to which her friend replies, "Not if you're both drunk." Evan tries to take this dangerous advice to heart and attempts to drink himself into oblivion. When he's finally upstairs, alone with Becky, he constantly tries to slow things down and convince her that this isn't a positive way to be sexual. While Seth portrays a very clear performance of society's expectations of him as a young man, Becky's character painfully demonstrates a young woman working very hard to be the kind of girl that guys are supposed to want.
I found this scene to be a unique piece of cinema. Evan consistently exhibits a believable but rarely seen male lead character. He regularly talks about respecting Becky and how much he likes her rather than focusing on her physical attributes or his sexual goals.
In the film’s final scene Becky and Evan bump into each other in the mall the day after the party and she thanks him for being a respectful guy which very clearly affirms the powerful, positive role that respect and real consent can have in a relationship.
I found this movie to be significantly less homophobic than most teen comedies and many films directed towards an adult audience. One aspect of the film that really challenged me to rethink my initial scepticism was that in some places I actually found that it challenged some of the homophobic norms that play out in male relationships.
The film is rife with homophobic language and that has to be a concern. But after thinking back on how this language is used I realized that Seth is really the only main character who uses words like fag to insult people. Early in the film you see him being spat on by the stereotypical school jock and he and Evan are insulted using homophobic language. When Seth turns around and uses this language to insult Evan and other characters that are even further down the high school pecking order you get a sense of how this violence is downloaded from social class to social class. The language is not usually used to get a laugh as it is in many other films; its a part of the way some of the characters speak. This could be seen as normalizing this kind of hate speech which I don't support but I think it also gives a sense of realism and helps to create the powerful contrast between Seth and Evan. Evan never uses homophobic language. This contrast really works to give a strong sense of how Seth is performing masculinity to protect himself from the pain of being an outsider.
Superbad vividly illustrates how homophobia is used to keep men from being affectionate and honest about their platonic feelings towards each other. Seth and Evan's love for each other is obvious to everyone but they are unable to express this which results in them insulting and hurting each other. When they finally make up there is a beautiful scene in which they drunkenly express their love for each other, asking "why don't we say that all the time?" and have a great hug. This is not followed by the usual gross out or humorous gag. I noticed some audience members started to laugh, almost expecting something funny to happen or perhaps uncomfortable with seeing this kind of honest male intimacy. The next morning they are awkward as they remember what they expressed while their inhibitions were impaired by alcohol. To me, it felt like these meaningful moments avoided any invocations of homophobia but a realistic portrayal of the discomfort many men feel being honest about their feelings for other men (or anyone for that matter).
Overall I don't think this movie is revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. But, as a male viewer I could watch it without feeling like men were being portrayed as caricatures at the expense of women who were constantly degraded, as so often the case. There is complexity and contradiction and I appreciated that. I think with a well guided discussion this film opens up some amazing opportunities with boys and men to explore issues of gender, consent, friendship, insecurity, bullying, relationships, and homophobia.