In Defense of Judd Apatow’s Female Characters

I’m not going to lie: I’m pretty excited that Judd Apatow is working on another movie for Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters from Knocked Up. Some might be surprised by this: as I write this piece, I’m listening to a Liz Phair Pandora station, taking a break from writing an all-female sketch show, and preparing for a shoot tonight for a follow-up project to the web series about a feminist magazine I co-created last year. I mean, isn’t Judd Apatow supposed to be sexist?

Here’s the thing: for someone who’s made his name as the poet laureate of twentysomething straight dudes, Apatow actually writes really good parts for women. Don’t get me wrong: Apatow movies are still about men, but, despite the allegations of sexism that have been leveled at him by everyone from Mike White to Katherine Heigl, the women in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People are real people with their own agency — a rare thing in mainstream comedies.

Let’s start with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Though it’s filled with broad jokes (see: the waxing scene), the relationship between Steve Carell’s Andy and Catherine Keener’s Trish is played intelligently. Unlike in, say, every Adam Sandler movie from the 90s, where the love interest seems to be there just to prove his character’s heterosexuality, we get a sense of why Andy and Trish love each other: they’re both smart, considerate, funny people who seem evenly-matched, except for the whole virgin thing. Trish is, to use a word I hate, quirky: she runs a confusingly non-functional storefront dedicated to selling people’s stuff on eBay and she yells at telemarketers with impunity. She’s not, however, a standard issue Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s an adult with kids and a grandkid, for one thing, and, rather than helping Andy loosen his buttoned-up ways, they both seem immediately comfortable and relaxed in each others’ presence. When Trish finally goes to Andy’s apartment and finds a giant box of porn and an anatomical model of a vagina, she is genuinely creeped out — a top-of-the-intelligence move that you don’t find too often. Elsewhere in the movie, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, and Elizabeth Banks all get to make big comedic choices, another movie rarity.

Out of all Apatow’s movies, Knocked Up gets the most flack for sexism. Star Katherine Heigl famously said in a Vanity Fair interview that she thinks the movie is “a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” First: I’m so glad that the star of The Ugly Truth and The Killers is enlightening us on what, exactly, makes a movie sexist. Second: she’s wrong. Knocked Up is on the side of Heigl’s Alison and Leslie Mann’s Debbie without putting them on a pedestal. They’re both real people who, because of a sexist larger world (when Paul Rudd’s Pete is running off to his fantasy baseball league, he’s assuming Debbie can take care of their daughters) have to deal with the mess the movie’s immature dudes are making (sometimes literally, as when Debbi complains that Pete is jerking off into their good towels, which, honestly, is pretty rude). If you think that makes them shrews or bitches, that’s on you. Personally, I think it’s a surprisingly perceptive (and slightly subversive) commentary on traditional gender roles. Obviously, the elephant in the room in Knocked Up is abortion, and the movie would be stronger if it devoted even one line to Alison explaining why she’s keeping the baby.

Knocked Up also gets points for depicting a group of women who almost never show up on film: ladies who find pregnancy creepy. Charlene Yi’s Jodi asks Alison if she gets mad when the baby eats her food and Kristen Wiig’s entertainment executive comments that she’s grossed out whenever she knows somebody’s pregnant because all she can think about is them giving birth.

The interesting thing about Funny People is that the reason the movie doesn’t work is that Apatow wants to feature Leslie Mann too much. The first half of the movie is a dramedy about a lonely stand up facing mortality. The second is a romantic comedy about a dude trying to reunite with the one that got away. Either works on its own, but they don’t go together. Even here, though, the roles for women are interesting. Leslie Mann’s Laura has her own agency — she’s not just there as a plot device for Adam Sandler’s George. As Daisy, Aubrey Plaza is smart and genuinely awkward. There are plenty of male characters like that in movies, but weirdo nerd ladies are few and far between. Most interestingly from a feminist perspective, when Seth Rogen’s Ira slut shames Daisy for sleeping with his roommate, Daisy calls him out on having unreasonable expectations for her, pointing out that although they have a date scheduled in a month, they barely know each other. Though there are plenty of movies about “nice guys” who are actually judgemental assholes (see: 500 Days of Summer), said guys are rarely called out.

While it bums me out that all of the roles I mentioned, which are some of the best I can think of in 2000s comedy, came from a dude, I have to admit that no Apatow movie has irritated or insulted me as a woman the way (female-written) movies like Valentine’s Day and The Ugly Truth have. (It’s worth noting that Apatow is currently producing two female-written projects, Lena Dunham’s series Girls and the Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo-written movie Bridesmaids.) Apatow’s directorial efforts are about men, sure, but he deserves more credit than he gets for his strong female characters.

Leila Cohan-Miccio is a comedy writer in Brooklyn. She blogs here and keeps her work here. She thinks you should definitely make a Liz Phair Pandora station.

In Defense of Judd Apatow’s Female Characters