Beta male comedies like This is the End relentlessly exude their odd comfort level with explicit homoeroticism and male-male sexual situations, but they do so only to allow themselves the opportunity to indulge in an even more intense and sustained barrage of homophobic jokes, effects, and outcomes. That it is the rotund, almost child-like figure of Jonah Hill who is raped by the male demon fits in with the strict gender typing here—Hill’s comparatively soft, pliable body makes him the more feminine, the more penetrable, target.
The film adheres to the logic established by Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), a film based on the James Dickey novel (he also wrote the screenplay) about four businessmen on a weekend canoe trip who are overtaken by evil hillbillies who capture the male group (played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty). While all of the members of the victimized male group are violated by their oppressors, it is the overweight male character played by Ned Beatty who is sodomized by the hillbillies, told to “Squeal like a pig” as it occurs. The Rogen star persona is founded in his “average” looks, Hill’s persona even more so.
Nevertheless, Hill describes himself here as “America’s sweetheart,” attesting to a perceived winsomeness, a sweetheart quality, in his persona. Raped and then demonically possessed, the Hill character stands in for the gay male victim of a homophobic violence that is forever threatened yet confined to the heterosexual-homosocial realm, thereby for all intents and purposes obviating the reality of the threat. The soft male is the penetrable male; some vent must be found for the threat of violence. But the violence when it does occur must be inflicted on a figure who seems to invite the violence, like the overweight, soft male figures of Deliverance and This is the End, lest the sanctity of the heterosexual male screen subject be violated, a gender decorum sustained rigidly even in this seemingly brazen, anarchic film.
Beta male comedies frequently contain images of penises under siege and frequent references to (and sometimes images of) masturbation, semen, and related effluvia. This trope is a carryover from the late 1990s teen-raunch comedies, such as American Pie (Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, 1999), and also the adult-skewed There’s Something About Mary (Bobby Farrelly, 1998). In I, Love You, Man, Sydney Fife carefully explains his masturbation rituals to Peter Klaven, and in The Change-Up, one man teaches another man—who inhabits his body—to shave his balls before a date, not only pedagogically but also by performing the service himself. (Using a line of dialogue from this body-switching comedy, I call this the “kissing my own dick” scene.) This rampant penis/semen imagery, which keeps the heterosexual status of screen males intact but at knife edge, achieves something of an apotheosis in This is the End.
The relentless semen, masturbation, and penis imagery in these films attest less to a curious, unsettling fascination with homosexuality—though that is certainly there—than it does to an overall disposition toward the male body rooted in disgust and paranoia. (See the scene, for example, of Seth Rogen’s visible disgust at coming into proximity with Paul Rudd’s genitals in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) What makes beta male comedies and bromances inescapably homophobic is not that they fail to offer positive, loving, affirming images of queerness, but that they incorporate anti-queer attitudes into a general program of transgressive anti-political correctness.
Evoking the extended, graphic, bloody brawl that Franco and Rogen have with McBride Pineapple Express, This is the End portrays his meaty, mustachioed rogue as the force of dissension in the homosocial enclave of Franco’s house, as if he still bears a grudge from the earlier film. Franco, speaking to the video-camera that is recording his reflections during the Apocalypse, reveals that he did not invite McBride to his party because he dislikes him. For his part, McBride makes fun of all of the members of the surviving group of friends, but reserves his most homophobic attack for Franco, whom he accuses of “sucking dick,” a reference to the consistent fascination with homosexuality exhibited throughout Franco’s star career. As the outlier and the disruptive presence, McBride must be jettisoned from the group, but not without difficulty.
At one point, Franco, cleaning up around the house, yells, from an upper floor balcony, at McBride as he and Rogen, metal visors on, drill a hole inside the ground floor so they can access bottles of water in the basement. Franco fulminates against McBride for having ejaculated all over Franco’s porn magazine (it looks like an issue of Penthouse) and, more generally, his tendency to do so all over the house. A litany of jokes about masturbation and the emission of semen follows, culminating in both Franco and McBride threatening to ejaculate, violently, on one another.
This scene is another citation from the archive of gay pornographic narrative—one could easily imagine just such a conversation leading to the sex scene between two ostensibly straight male characters in gay porn. The dialogue elucidates these possibilities:
James Franco: “I will fuckin’ cum right on you! I will cum like a fuckin’ madman all over you, McBride!”
Danny McBride: “Ooh! I fuckin’ wish you'd cum on me right now! I fuckin’ dare you to cum on me!”
The scene features much more dialogue to this effect. Later, in a duplicitous gesture, McBride reveals that he feels despondently guilty over his bad behavior right before he announces that he will be leaving the group, who have themselves been attempting to oust him. McBride explains that his errant ejaculate were cries of pain—“tears from the tip of my penis.” This is as close as any to a platform statement regarding the new spermatic economy of contemporary film—the preservation and expenditure of semen represents shifting levels of male emotional stability (an idea so stable it can even be used as a ruse for emotional authenticity, as in McBride’s confessional and penitent speech here). [open endnotes in new window]
McBride further reveals, as he appears to be leaving, that he has been faking his apology. He then turns on the group, who manage to get him out of the house. Later, when the guys, minus the possessed Jonah Hill, attempt to make their way to some kind of safety in the outside world—eventually discovering that if they repent truthfully they will be transported, by an electric blue energy beam, up to Heaven courtesy of the Rapture—they encounter McBride, now a blood-splattered cannibal demigod, with a posse of Mad Max-style anarchic followers. Parodic homophobia gets another opportunity when McBride reveals, being dragged around by a collar and crawling on all fours, his personal sex slave, Channing Tatum, whom he refers to as “Channing Tate-Yum.” “I love him,” Tatum meekly announces. The joke is that the massively chiseled Tatum has been reduced to obedient sex slave to another male.
Because Franco sacrifices himself to save Rogen and Baruchel, he suddenly finds himself being Raptured up. But his snarky taunts to McBride while experiencing the Rapture disrupt his celestial blue transportation beam, and Franco plummets to the ground. McBride then devours Franco, biting off his nose in gory close-up, instigating a ravenous attack on Franco’s body by the cannibal king’s horde. As if the filmmakers had been reading postcolonial and gender studies theory, the film links cannibalism to fantasies of savage otherness, envisioning white savagism in McBride’s cannibal god. And it links cannibalism to homosexuality, the practice of eating human flesh giving men an allegorical (and here a completely literal) “out” for homosexual desire.
Eventually, Craig Robinson experiences the Rapture and speeds up ecstatically to Heaven, and then Baruchel undergoes the experience as well. Rogen, holding on to Baruchel’s hand as he rockets up to Heaven, seems to be on the verge of being left behind. A skyscraper-tall, smoldering demon attempts to annihilate Rogen—and, in keeping with this film’s sensibility, this volcanic demon is shown to be wielding an enormous, lava-spewing penis. Rogen then offers to sacrifice himself so that he won’t impede Baruchel’s ascent, in the process restoring their friendship. These sacrificial good intentions and warm feelings save Rogen as he plummets to the earth, sending him catapulting up to the heavens. As he and Baruchel triumphantly soar upwards, Rogen’s blue Rapture beam slices off the towering demon’s protuberant penis, and Whitney Houston’s song “I Will Always Love You” (her cover of the Dolly Parton original) blares on the soundtrack.
As if all of this weren’t bromantic enough, Baruchel and Rogen both find Robinson at the entrance to the pearly gates, where they bond anew as the angelic Robinson leads them into Heaven. The Backstreet Boys, in glittering heavenly form, appear and sing a triumphant version of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”—a former boy band singing as men, in an appropriate christening of this all-male Heaven.
The image of Paradise in this film, while it features female bodies, is largely that of an all-male enclave of reunited friends. The gyrating female bodies are decorative, examples of the plenitude of Heaven’s all-you-can-eat shopping aisles, offered like coupons. (One nice thing about the images of cavorting but curiously blank, sexual but non-sexualized, women is that they are not exclusively white women.)
When Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, in all-white clothing, see the pearly gates open before them and Craig Robinson, with a halo, greets them, they jubilantly shriek, “Craig!” and race towards him. “Welcome to Heaven, motherfuckers!” Craig buoyantly greets them. He “corrects” their appearance by giving them each halos, which they homoerotically scrape against one another. The halos make a metal-on-metal scraping sound as they clash, sparks flying, which has the effect of emphasizing their masculine material hardness even within the whitewashed, anodyne, soft, blurry expanse of this celestial sphere.
Once inside Heaven, Seth Rogen notices that the bounteous array of pleasures includes the pot that Craig Robinson is smoking. “No way, they got weed in heaven?” Rogen exclaims. “You tell me,” Robinson the wish-granting angel says, as weed appears in Rogen’s mouth and he begins smoking it, further exclaiming, “That’s insane, man!” to which Robinson responds: “No, no, no, no—that’s heaven. Anything you can think of, it’s yours.” (Robinson thoroughly occupies here the flip-side of Kobena Mercer’s dichotomy of African American masculinity, the “oriental” male, at least in terms of his role here: the djinn who grants wishes, a figure that underlies Robinson’s manifest role of angel. The djinn, popularized as the genie, emerges from Islamic and Arabic folklore.) What Baruchel can think of is the Backstreet Boys, and as they perform “Everybody,” Rogen, Robinson, and Baruchel join the gyrating line.
The all-male heaven, presided over by a male singing group, represents something of a logical fulfillment for the bromance in particular. If the problems besetting contemporary masculinity have generated the anti-heroic attitudes of the beta-male (who usually emerges, however haplessly, as the hero), and if the newfound emotionalism of a post-feminist, post-queer masculinity has generated the bromance (which ultimately remains heterosexually secure), This is the End suggests the potential for apocalyptic outcomes in these new forms of male being and imagines a celestial realm in which male authority and companionship freed from the taint of homoerotic desire can be enjoyed with impunity.
The chief ruse of these films is to present an assault on queerness as one facet of a larger assault on pious liberalism, which is then associated with women, feminism, and the longstanding image of the disciplinary schoolmarm. Huck Finn’s stern Aunt Polly looms large over fantasies of male escape, as Leslie Fiedler theorized were rife in nineteenth-century U.S. American literature. Moreover, the films’ even more confused attitudes toward race, non-whiteness, otherness, get lumped into its gleefully offensive foregrounding of homosexual panic. Seemingly lampooned, homophobia, racism, and misogyny lie at the heart of these films. But then what are we to make of the ardent male love—the homoaffectionalism, the desire for male intimacy—also on display? This affect is a key aspect of what would appear to be the films’ deroutinization of masculinity. Hugging his male comrades as they sleep on either side of him during the apocalypse, Jonah Hill, like a male Marmee from Little Women, coos, “Goodnight, my sweet guys.”
This is the End stems from the short film, just under nine minutes, Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse (2007), directed by Jason Stone and starring Rogen and Baruchel. The differences in tone and imagery between the short and the mainstream movie are telling. In the short, the tensions between the actors, ostensibly eking out a desperate existence after a nuclear war, is devoid of ardent emotionalism; they bicker and snub one another in an unsentimental manner.
The mise-en-scène here evokes The Day After, a television film directed by the science-fiction auteur Nicholas Meyer that aired on the ABC network in 1983. The realist aesthetic takes the form of frequent shots of cockroaches scavenging the men’s small, closed-off apartment, a visual hallmark of the apocalyptic drama. This is the End jettisons realism for a baroque religious fantasia. And with this surreal imagery comes a much more sentimentalized affect, the theme of wounded and triumphantly healed male friendship. I would argue that the transition from the short film to This is the End evinces the shift from the beta male movie, and its depiction of male group relations gone sour, and the bromance, with its emphasis on ardent male bonds.
This shift signals suspect trends rather than a more positive making of amends. The image-machinery that supports the reconciliation of male friendship in This is the End suggests levels of phobic as well as befuddled response to those outside of the male friendship-circle, the unincorporated left to their own futile devices. Women, racial minorities save for the tokenized, and queers cannot get into the all-male heaven that awaits the bromancers.
As John Alberti writes,
“In the Apatow cycle of bromance movies, we see male characters wrestling with the personal inadequacy and social anachronism of the Alpha male… The bromance approaches the challenge of the Alpha male from the unlikely direction of the buddy movie, the counter feminist reassertion of Alpha male supremacy that emerged in the eighties and that was most archetypally expressed in the Lethal Weapon series.”
“From a conventional patriarchal perspective, women are indeed regarded by the male characters in these movies as the mysterious Other, and the men endlessly, graphically, and, most important, anxiously discuss women’s sexuality and anatomy. Their efforts at sexual boasting and claims of sexual mastery are subjected to endless ridicule, both from their other male friends and situationally from the plot situations they find themselves in. In a key sense, male sexuality is the real mysterious Other for these characters, a source of inexplicable desire and humiliation and an aspect of identity that renders them almost useless as functioning members of society.”
A broader study is required of the tensions within U.S. cinema’s ongoing fascination with male pairs, either friends or foes, evolving from the “Road” pictures of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (seven in total) and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedies to the buddy film cycle of the 1970s and ‘80s and well into the ‘90s. I have called the male-centered movies of the period from the early 90s to the early ‘00s the “double-protagonist film.” Bromances fit into this classification as well, but what was implicit or quasi-explicit in the “Bush to Bush” era currently finds greater levels of explication.
It is possible that television masculinities on the whole eschew some of the more pernicious strains in cinematic ones. Amanda Lotz, in her notable study of “male-centered serials” on television, Cable Guys, observes that these works, evincing the influence of second-wave feminism, eschew “contention between men and women” and avoid placing the blame on women, reflecting the “changing structures of gender that have empowered” the female characters in these series. One would have to include Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (2012-2017), for which Judd Apatow was one of the executive producers, in any larger analysis of the questions raised by this essay. Certainly, the issue of racism and the lack of diversity that bedevils beta/bro works has been an issue repeatedly raised regarding Girls.
While Girls contains at least two important gay male characters, the protagonist Hannah’s father, who comes out later in life, and ex-boyfriend from college who lives with her in her New York City apartment in the later seasons, Apatow’s female-centered film Trainwreck, a box-office hit (140.8 million USD) starring and written by Amy Schumer, contains no gay characters and very little in the way of homophobic jokes. Perhaps the fact that Schumer wrote the screenplay accounts for this. The film, a romantic comedy co-starring Bill Hader, contains several elements that link it to the beta/bro canon. Schumer’s heroine, Amy, works for a scandalmongering magazine and is assigned a profile piece of a sports physician, Aaron (Hader), whose basketball team clients include LeBron James. Amy, who boasts about her sexual exploits, is presented as a rowdy, hard-drinking, sexually ravenous female Neanderthal softened by love with a sweet, quirky, affectionate man, the distaff version of many male-centered comedies.
For the purposes of our discussion, one scene in Trainwreck particularly stands out. Having had a bad fight with Aaron, Amy goes out dancing and drinking with her crew of noxious fellow scribes, including the young oddball Donald (Ezra Miller, who starred in the brilliant We Need to Talk About Kevin, also featuring Tilda Swinton, who plays the scandal-sheet boss here). Amy goes back home, on the rebound, with Donald, and their sexual encounter is an index in shifting cultural attitudes toward male sexuality. It is possible to read Donald as gay, and closeted, and performing heterosexual masculinity (suggestions reinforced by the casting of Miller, an out queer actor). But the depiction of his character defies such typing even as he cannot be read as conventionally heterosexual.
Astride the drunken Amy, Donald commands her to “grab my tits!” Remarking that “I think I’m the one who has the tits in this equation, but okay,” Amy complies. He then forces her to suck on his nipple, a most unusual act for a woman to perform on a male character in a conventional movie. (The only time I remember seeing it done onscreen is in Oliver Stone’s 1989 Born on the Fourth of July, when the prostitutes suck the nipples of their clients, male Vietnam War veterans, paralyzed from the waist down and in some cases legless.) “I’m at a bad angle,” Amy comically warns.
The scene culminates with Aaron demanding that Amy hit him in the face, which she finally does with force after he slams her face in demonstration. Moaning because of his black eye, Aaron covers his afflicted eye with his hand, and when his mother bursts into his bedroom, she finds him in this state with Amy on top of him. “He’s sixteen years old!” his mother yells at Amy.
On the one hand, the scene breaks new ground, as the teen comedies of the late 1990s did, exploring contemporary forms of teen masculinity and sexuality more generally and perhaps making them newly visible. One thinks especially of Alyson Hannigan in American Pie, not only allowing the hero played by Jason Biggs to lose his virginity but actively taking the sexual reigns, crying out in command, “Ride me, bitch!” to Biggs.
But the scene in Trainwreck largely signifies the haplessness—and unsuspecting criminality—of the sexual woman and the grotesque oddness of the sexually nonnormative male, whose underage, unbeknownst by Amy, is part of what makes him grotesque. Rather than really breaking new ground in the exploration of contemporary forms of gender and sexuality, the scene self-consciously mires itself in misogyny and sexual freakshowmanship.
Trainwreck clarifies its progressive stance toward gays and sexual minorities in the scene at a miserable baby shower for Amy’s sister (Brie Larson), in which Amy quietly, but pointedly, resists the homophobic rhetoric of one of the female guests ranting about unsavory gays. But the scene between Amy and Donald, while clearly meant to be humorous, more pointedly alerts us to the generally phobic attitude toward sexuality and gender, including especially nonnormative forms of both, in the beta/bro subgenres. That this holds true when the film is female-centered is especially dispiriting.
|and discover the endurance of the freakshow. The scene of Schumer sucking Miller’s nipple at his command is played for grotesque laughs.|