2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
“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.)
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).
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.
[2. Michael S. Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, 1st ed. (New York: Harper, 2008).
3. Michael DeAngelis, Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television, Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014).
4. Hilary Radner, “Grumpy Old Men: “bros before hos,” Reading the Bromance, 52-78; cited, 51-4.
5. Kunze, “Masculinity in the Contemporary Romantic Comedy: Gender as Genre by John Alberti, and: Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television ed. by Michael DeAngelis (review),” Studies In American Humor no. 1 (2015): 118-121, cited passage 119.
6. Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, 2011) contains an unsettling male prison rape riff in the scene in which Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) argue over which is of them would be the most “rapeable” one. More parodic homophobia.
7. Greven, Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity, SUNY Series, Horizons of Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016).
8. See, for example, Carell’s full-body-waxing scene in The Forty Year Old Virgin and Ben Stiller’s penis-testicles-in-a-zipper-twist in There's Something About Mary The emphasis in each movie is placed on the excruciating physical pain that the male protagonist must undergo while being under the scrutiny of other men, his electronics store buddies, determined to see him through the loss of his virginity, in Carell’s case, the inquisitorial gaze of his potential father-in-law (played by Keith David) in Stiller’s.
9. As Marjorie Garber writes in an essay on the gender indeterminacy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Male Medusa, “the foliate head or leaf mask which gained enormous popularity in England and throughout western Europe during the Romanesque and medieval periods ... with leaves sprouting from [its face] … [is] often sinister and frightening …. [This] Green Man… embodies a warning against the dark side of man’s nature, the devil within.” Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers : Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York : Methuen, 1987), 101-03.
10. Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle (New York: Routledge, 1994), 133.
11. The foregrounding of Jewish masculinity in Apatow’s films demands a discrete analysis, particularly given the often outlandish racist caricatures in his and other beta male films. In an interview with Jewish Journal, Apatow was asked, “There’s lots of Jewish stuff in Knocked Up, and even in the trailer for Superbad there’s a Jewish joke. Your main character is Jewish. Any particular reason you chose to go that way with him?” Apatow responded,
“I didn’t make a conscious effort to make him Jewish, although on an unconscious level, I’m sure I was working with some people who I think can portray my feelings or experiences. I did realize that the majority of the male characters were Jewish, and that they all kept referencing it in their improvisation. And I kept writing jokes and references in the script. And it really made me laugh. At some point, I thought, well, this is something you don’t see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, and all of them are Jewish. And they’re proud of it and hilarious about it. It’s just not done.”
See Mark Schiff, “Q&A with writer-director Judd Apatow,” Jewish Journal, August 17, 2007. http://jewishjournal.com/culture/arts/15240/
A key tension exists, then, within the progressive desire to represent an underrepresented Jewish identity on the U.S. screen and the tendency toward both racial and sexual caricature, and the frequent depiction of women as often sexless shrews.
12. Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt. “The Naked and the Dead: The Jewish Male Body and Masculinity in Sunshine and Enemy at the Gates,” The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Daniel Bernardi, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 157-164; cited, 160.
13. G.J. Barker-Benfeld’s concept of “spermatic economy” posits that men of the nineteenth century were socialized to regulate the amount of semen emitted from their bodies lest dire consequences result. Once controversial, this critic’s findings are now considered standard; they have a new relevance for the contemporary masculinities onscreen. See Barker-Benfeld, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes towards Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York:Routledge, 1999).
14. For more on this subject, see Caleb Crain, “Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels,” American Literature 66, no. 1 (1994): 25–53.
15. “Am I original? Am I the only one? Am I sexual?”: these are some of the suggestive questions raised in the song. The song’s lyrics catalogue the issues that beset U.S. masculinity over the decades: narcissism, emotional loyalty and betrayal, and the disturbances of sexuality.
16. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960).
17. John Alberti, “‘I Love You, Man’: Bromances, the Construction of Masculinity, and the Continuing Evolution of the Romantic Comedy,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 30, no. 2 (2013): 159–172; cited, 165.
18. I outline my theory of this kind of pairing in chapter three, “The Hollywood man date: split masculinity and the double-protagonist film,” of my book Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2009).
19. Amanda D. Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 187.
20. For more on this subject, see Elwood Watson, Jennifer Mitchell, and Marc E. Shaw, HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015), particularly Elwood Watson’s own essay “Lena Dunham: the awkward/ambiguous politics of white millennial feminism.”