“Goodnight, my sweet guys.”
This is the End, bromance, and homophobia
by David Greven
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, This is the End (2013) fuses the elements of the beta male comedy, in which the losers prevail over the alpha males, and the bromance. Its metafictional elements make it significant as a commentary on these male-centered comedy sub-genres that came into prominence in the ‘00s. The film’s stars play themselves and play off their publicized real-life relationships. A box-office hit, the movie continues to have a recognizable pop-culture life: for example, in 2015, it was announced that This is the End 3D would be the fifth maze coming to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. [open endnotes in new window]
This apocalypse-comedy indexes the tropes and troubles associated with post-millennial cinematic masculinities. It incorporates the beta male comedy’s anxieties over the future of young men, specifically white young men, who demonstrate little interest in moving forward with their lives, much less with pursuing corporate success. The sociologist Michael Kimmel has characterized this demographic as “Guyland.” At the same time, This is the End uneasily prefigures disruptions in the male status quo, particularly in terms of race, sexuality, and male group identity, on visible display at present. In many ways, This is the End ponders what happens when conventional masculinity is “replaced” by alternative identities. And the movie corresponds in this regard to other masculinity-in-crisis comedies such as Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, 2014) and its 2016 sequel, The Change-Up (David Dobkin, 2011), and Crazy, Stupid Love (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, 2011), which thematize male fears of obsolescence.
Several films of the early ‘00s can be described as “beta male” comedies: Todd Philips’ The Hangover (2009),David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express (2008), Nicholas Stoller’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), and especially Judd Apatow’s definitive The Forty Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). These films foreground males who defy leading-man standards, being physically unconventional looking, unemployed, socially inept, adrift, or in other ways nonnormative. The U.S. masculinity-in-crisis myth that has been with us since at least second wave feminism, always taking on new forms, manifests itself in the beta male movie as the disaffected protagonist’s refusal to mature, which typically means getting married and a profitable job. Generally, with some exceptions, the beta male eschews the usual trajectory of masculine success in the capitalist social order.
However, just when beta male comedies were coming into focus, they began to cede ground to the newer and much more widely known subgenre of the bromance. Certainly, considerable overlaps between both exist. The definitive bromance film—also the most resonant and affecting of the male-centered comedies of the ‘00s—John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man (2009) is unmistakably also a beta male comedy in that the hero, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is clearly in the inferior position to the man who becomes his loved friend, Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). His inferiority stems from his inability to make male friendships and his overly feminized masculinity—errors the friendship with Sydney corrects.
Michael De Angelis has edited a remarkable collection of essays, Reading the Bromance, that charts bromance’s ascendance (I hope my assessment will not be invalidated by my admission that I am a contributor to the volume). In an essay in this book, Hilary Radner notes,
“Film fans have become adventurous in their usage of the term… The contemporary bromance makes explicit something that was always implicit in the buddy film, most notably the intensity of the masculine bond, something that was left unsaid at the time but now can be discussed openly.”
Radner does not specifically name homosexuality as the “unsaid” now given voice; instead, she refers to the greater public acceptance of shifting gender roles and “gender complexity.” The bromance’s “contradictory social messages” allow it at once to be “a plea for the legitimation male friendship” and the emotional bond at its core, usually an “unspoken” one, an expression of an attitude toward homosociality steeped in “coy hipness” and the exclusion of women. I will return to the latter point.
In a review of this book and another in the field, Peter C. Kunze notes,
“The term ‘bromance’ has found its most active deployment in discussions of comedies, particularly those directed and/or produced by Judd Apatow… some authors appear to use ‘bromance’ and ‘buddy film’ interchangeably. I would argue this perception is a mistake; the term ‘bromance’ in its very construction queers brotherhood, finding an erotic and emotional complexity that goes beyond normative male friendship. Bromance films are a specific cycle within the genre of buddy film, and their popularity seems linked with the increasing visibility of LGBT communities and culture in the mainstream as well as heated public debates over LGBT rights.”
Kunze is making a more provocative point than he may realize, certainly an arguable one. The bromance may signal a gay/queer sensibility, but in its mainstream uses it designates something quite distinct. Clearly, the central issue in the bromance, why it is so problematic and fascinating, is that it is centered in a passionate emotional relationship between two heterosexual males. And if this is the case, as I argue it is, what are the implications of this emotional bond for heterosexual and queer males alike (and for women, as I will discuss)? Do queer males get siphoned off as the rejected alternative to bromance—bromance gone awry, trespassing into sexual territory—or does the bromance open up a space for male-male intimacy that includes one for queer love, friendship, sexuality, desire?
With some exceptions, the answer to the latter question is a dispiriting “No.” The overlap between beta male comedies and the bromance is a strain of homophobic defensiveness. But this strain does not merely bespeak a defense against homosexual possibilities. Rather, it involves the rampant foregrounding of these possibilities. It involves the seeming tolerance as well as awareness of the existence of gay/queer/trans personae within endlessly generated gags regarding sexual minorities. Homophobia, jokily dangled as bait for a hungry hipster audience, is only seemingly yanked away before the audience can bite.
Homophobia hides in plain sight in the beta male comedy, which ingeniously exculpates itself for this homophobia by consistently emphasizing an atmosphere of politically incorrect, scatological, perversely excessive humor. It becomes harder, but all the more necessary, to challenge these films’ strategies for indulging in the homophobia they put on such rampant display. It’s harder, because the extreme nature of the humor would seem to preclude and render irrelevant questions of “sensitivity” and “tolerance”; necessary, because the homophobia in these films is so insidious.
This is the End tracks the transition from the beta male comedy (which focuses on male group identity) to the bromance (usually organized around a deep, if conflictual, relationship between two men); and a peculiar strategy that makes use of homoeroticized homophobia. This strategy, which I call parodic homophobia, operates on several levels. First, it establishes a comfort level with homosexuality that distinguishes ‘00s males from their predecessors, or is meant to do so. This differentiation involves the “coy hipness” that Radner refers to, a seeming demonstration of homo-tolerance and overall sexual with-it-ness on the part of beta males and bromancers. Second, parodic homophobia deflects any charges of homophilic affinity or gay/queer desire. The danger that beta/bro ardor might trespass the grounds of sexual desire and even activity must be staved off. Thirdly, and most predictably, parodic homophobia allows filmmakers and stars to engage in a commercially savvy homophobia while disavowing that they are doing so. As I will discuss, that this is a strategy deployed, roughly speaking, by the Hollywood left makes it no less troubling than the contemporary displays of homophobia on what has come to be known as the alt-right.
I want to take a moment to remind readers of This is the End’s plot. At a blowout party given by James Franco in Los Angeles, the revelers suddenly confront the biblical Apocalypse. As the world crashes and burns around them, gigantic chasms rip open the Earth. One opens up right outside James Franco’s house, swallowing up celebrities. The end of the world is preceded by the Rapture, in which worthy souls are transported into heaven, leaving the damned to face hellish forces on the ground. These infernal creatures roam the land, killing the unworthy.
Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and, later, Danny McBride all take refuge along with Franco inside his house. Much infighting ensues as the group try to stay alive, with McBride emerging as the common enemy and ousted from the house. Hill is raped and then possessed by a male demon. As they perform an exorcism on Hill, Baruchel and Rogen get into a fight and accidentally knock a candle over, starting a fire in which Franco’s house is destroyed and Hill dies. As a result of the fire, the remaining survivors Rogen, Baruchel, Robinson, and Franco desperately venture into the outside world. Eventually, they encounter McBride in his new guise as an evil cannibal overlord. While Franco fails to do so, Rogen, Baruchel, and Robinson make it to Heaven. Robinson, having been made an angel, greets them at the pearly gates. The film concludes with the angel Robinson granting the men wishes: Rogen gets a Segue, Baruchel an appearance from the Backstreet Boys. They sing a musical number, and the heroes join in.
Two notable aspects of the film that occur pre-Apocalypse are the early scenes between Rogen and Baruchel, depicted as friends who have grown apart given Rogen’s increasing fame and move to L.A., and the party scene itself. The film commences with a sense of bromance gone awry, as Rogen attempts to re-establish his former closeness with Baruchel. Baruchel feels estranged from Rogen, disliking his LA lifestyle and his friends, Jonah Hill especially, but struggles to maintain the friendship as well. (A great deal of the tensions in the relationship appear to stem from the fact that both Rogen and Baruchel are Canadian actors who feel estranged from Hollywood and the United States even as Rogen has found a way to be an A-list U.S. star.) A longing for male companionship informs the movie, and the homosocial enclave that forms at Franco’s house as the Apocalypse rages on seems to fulfill this need.
The pre-apocalypse party scene is chiefly notable for its depiction of Michael Cera as a mean, sexually exploitative lout. Cera, another Canadian actor, is still best known for his shy, gentle, if also deeply neurotic persona in the Fox series Arrested Development (2003-2013) and such films as Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007, written by Diablo Cody) and Superbad. Cera’s dorky but sweet and surprisingly strong-minded character in Juno has sexual relations with Ellen Page’s titular Juno one night, which results in her pregnancy. Cera plays an adolescent male who respects women and rises to his responsibilities, helping Juno raise their child.
In This is the End, however, Cera’s character is associated with misogyny and crude obnoxiousness. In one scene, Baruchel opens the bathroom door and finds Cera being serviced by two women, one giving him oral sex, the other rimming him, a tableau that evokes the iconography of gay male pornography. And Cera, flaunting his capacious tastes, continuously threatens to ravish the guys in his midst sexually. (“Do you need the bathroom, honey?” he asks the embarrassed Baruchel when he opens the bathroom door, feminizing him provocatively.)
Such scenes are played less for transgressive laughs and more for their shock value, which subtly establishes the party scene as morally questionable and a fitting precursor to the Apocalypse, the revelers as sinners on the verge of damnation. Heterosexuality, however, is largely relegated to the sleazy appetites of the Cera character. Whereas most of the victims of the Apocalypse plunge into the huge abyssal craters that split apart the land, Cera is dramatically impaled by a pole that enters him from behind and pierces him through, and in this fashion borne aloft. Dantean torment is suggested: the punishment fits Cera’s sexual crimes, leaving him the penetrated, no longer the pansexual penetrator.
The movie’s apocalyptic imagery and surprisingly wholesale adoption of Christian mythology demands more sustained treatment that I can provide here. Certain elements of it, however, are worth incorporating into a larger understanding of the beta/bro comedy. First, despite the appearance of some notable women characters/stars, the film narrows down to a male homosocial group. Notable female stars present at the party—Rihanna and Mindy Kaling, star and creator of the TV show The Mindy Project—are killed off early on. The erasure of these prominent women of color dovetails with the erasure of most of the non-white personae at Franco’s party during the apocalypse, including Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart. And little fidelity among people of color can be conceived: Robinson directly scorns Hart and refuses to save him, while claiming later to his new, white-male posse that he tried to do so.
Forever associated with her role as the teen sorceress Hermione in the Harry Potter films (a role that the film references), Emma Watson survives the initial mayhem and makes an appearance in the post-apocalyptic sections, literally breaking into Franco’s house. While she initially seems like a dependable and resourceful ally, she ends up breaking out of the house when she overhears goofy discussions of the issue of rape by the men. Rape is not a goofy subject matter, and seems to be brought up here largely to remind the audience that this male group consists of heterosexual males. That Watson flings a knife at Baruchel and, Terminator-like, barrels her way out of the same barricaded door she barreled her way into depict her as an action chick par excellence.
These touches clearly attempt to soften the sting of a rape motif. The rape joke emerges as the punchline to the real joke: McBride observes that Baruchel has brought up the issue of rape (which he does in the context of establishing that the men should reassure “Hermione” that, though having entered a male domain, she will not be raped) because he correctly apprehends that he verges on becoming “the house bitch himself.” This wholly clumsy rape joke expresses a deep discomfort with what the film envisions, a world of male friendship largely devoid of women. This aspect of the movie may explain why it foregrounds apocalyptic consequences, though not entirely.
Jokes about penises and semen abound in beta male and bromance films. These jokes underscore the films’ obsessive gay-baiting. At the same time, a palpable anxiety about race informs the films. As I theorize in my book Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity, an obsession with male bodies runs throughout the films (and television series) of the ‘00s along with a complementary fascination with faces. On the whole, the beta male comedies, in keeping with comedy as a new male body genre, focus on the male body as the site of interest and the source of comedy, as the trials and torments Steve Carell and Ben Stiller undergo in their various comedies attest.
This is the End is significant for a set-piece that synthesizes these tensions and tendencies. Jonah Hill, sleeping alone during the night, is suddenly visited by one of the infernal creatures stalking the Earth and hunting down the unworthy. The film’s representation of this demon is noteworthy. Its skin is jet-black, and it has a hive of tentacles for hair. It is represented first as visage, in a shot of its glowing red eyes in a dark face festooned with those tentacles. In expressionistic form, the demon’s body is depicted in silhouette as it advances on the supine body of the sleeping Jonah Hill. The dark demon is a shadow creature, a new kind of incubus that preys on men. But this shadow creature also sports an enormous, lengthy phallus. The scene that follows clearly indicates that this male demon sodomizes Hill.
This Is the End offers, then, a male-male version of the rape scene in Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) in which the titular heroine, trapped by her posh elderly devil-worshipping Manhattan neighbors, must submit to sexual intercourse with the Devil. In the morning, when Hill awakes, he seems ill and pale, as if he has morning sickness, further evoking Rosemary’s Baby. Eventually, in scenes that explicitly cite The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Hill becomes thoroughly possessed, speaking in a hoarse, deep demonic voice.
Quoting lines from Friedkin’s film, Baruchel and the others attempt to perform an exorcism, strapping Hill to the bed like Linda Blair’s possessed adolescent girl Regan MacNeil. Evoking the young, possessed Regan, Hill taunts and curses his exorcists, and his body supernaturally levitates. The film substitutes the adult male body for that of the adolescent girl, the implication being that now all available gendered and sexual roles will have to be performed and embodied by males.
To return to the demon, the tentacles-for-hair, a Medusan image, suggest nothing less than Rastafarian dreadlocks. The film figures the demonic black male as the Male Medusa, a symbolic figure for sexual disturbances in male subjectivity, here linked to anxieties and phobic attitudes towards non-white race. Despite maintaining a deracinated status quo, beta male comedies evince deep-seated anxiety over raced and ethnic masculinities, frequently resorting to parodic racism.
That we see the demon in black silhouette reifies his typing as the dark-skinned other. Moreover, the enormous penis of the demon has clear racial as well as racist associations. These associations have been alive in U.S. culture since at least the slavery era. If, as Kobena Mercer argues, black males are narrowly confined to two main types in the racist dimensions of the white imagination—the supersexual stud and the delicate, fragile, and exotic “oriental”—the black demon here clearly fits into the former image repertoire. The film, as do beta male comedies generally, fuses preoccupations with and phobic defenses against homoerotic desire. And it conjoins these attitudes with a racial threat, further intensified here by demonic dread.
The representation of non-white race in the beta/bro films can only be described as generally problematic. Non-white actors are almost never cast in significant parts; the parts they do play provide either absurdist comic relief (the Asian obstetrician in Knocked Up and the Asian drug king in Pineapple Express, both played by Ken Jeong, as well as his frenetic villain in The Hangover) or racial caricatures, such as the male mammy figure in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a physically immense Hawaiian man. Initially presented as intimidating, he reveals a warm and maternal character, taking pity on Jason Segel and reassuring him. An analogous figure can be found in Forty Year Old Virgin, the black man as determined mentor, who takes Steve Carrel’s hapless virginal geek under his wing and, along with their other electronics-store male group, properly heterosexualizes him.
One of the hallmarks of the beta male comedy, especially in its relation to Judd Apatow’s auteur role, is a foregrounding of Jewish masculinity, usually centered in Seth Rogen’s star persona. Frequently, in films such as Apatow’s The Forty Year Old Virgin and This is the End, Rogen makes references to his Jewish heritage, such as his mentioning having gone to Hebrew school in the latter. What is the relationship between the foregrounding of Jewish masculinity (as opposed to femininity) in the Apatow films and their ilk and their consistent repertoire of racial caricature?
Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt, in their essay “The Naked and the Dead,” observe that the
“Jewish penis is always shown in situations of humiliation, vulnerability, and death—never sexuality—never potent; always impotent. Even in films…that grant sexual potency to Jewish males, that potency is always separated from the naked body.”
We may posit that This is the End displaces anxieties specific to the representation of Jewish masculinity, especially in terms of representing Jewish male sexuality, onto the racial other. The monstrous potency of the dark demon, a citation from the racist iconography regarding African American masculinities, overwrites these anxieties. This maneuver accounts for the movie’s proliferation of images both racist and homophobic. (As a compensatory measure, it would seem, the African American actor Craig Robinson is then made an angel.)