Homophobia in Superbad. It's not just a comedy.
They’re hyperemotional, passive aggressive, flirtatious and ceaselessly self-critical. Thought this was a description a teenage girl? You’re only half wrong.
What people fail to see is that men, particularly teenage boys, are some of the most complicated and sensitive creatures the earth has ever seen. They posses all the impenetrable insecurities women have. To protect themselves they revert to perpetuating hegemonic masculinity. In Greg Mottola’s 2007 raunchy coming of age comedy, Superbad, best friends Seth and Evan fiercely attempt to maintain the equilibrium of masculinity. Just shy of high school graduation, they are facing the harsh reality that they will soon encounter a test of manhood – losing their virginities. This test, and acing it, is the sole focus for the young adults. They embark anxiously, but nevertheless persistently, on a journey in order to prepare for the sexual jungle they believe to be college. After Seth is asked by the beautiful and popular Jules to come to her party, he enlists the help from his best friend Evan and reluctantly from his geeky friend Fogell to make an alcohol run.
The liquor store trip doesn’t go as planned and serves as a catalyst for a series of unfortunate events. The boys’ desire to supply alcohol for the party where “fucking is an actual possibility” is not repressed in the slightest despite encountering policemen, wooly drug dealers and finding themselves in threatening fistfights. They attempt in supplying the party with alcohol in hopes of scratching their sticky "unpopular" status and as sociologist Erving Goffman describes, save their “faces”. Their hope is that they will appear as worthy and desirable enough that Jules and Becca will take care of their virginity problem. Seth and Evan’s fundamental fear is that they will not appear masculine enough. In the midst of this fear, any potential threat to their manly hood is combated with overly crude judgments about women and the sexual things they would do to them. In examining the boys’ sexual innuendo through a hegemonic masculine lens, the characters’ fundamental search for identity and acceptance becomes apparent. Their desire to appear masculine is so intense that it prevents them from displaying respect and affection to one another as friends out of fear that it breaks heterosexual norms. At the heart of the boys’ over sexualized behavior lies the fear of not appearing masculine enough as well as the social reproductions that they believe will follow.
The film did well – very well. It was the top grossing high school comedy film in its day prior to the film’s now successor, 21 Jump Street. Everyone knows and loves this classic comedy. However, most audiences would not watch this film and recognize the deeper, and arguably dark, reasoning behind the characters’ over sexualization. It is most clearly seen in Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Seth. Seth is overweight with an unfortunate hairstyle and not popular by any stretch of the imagination. His self-consciousness and self-doubt are compensated with hypersexual statements about women and his intentions with them. His attempts to come across as a man, and all he believes that entails, are met with his slim figured and soft spoken friend Evan. Serving as a balance with Seth and his vulgar statements, Evan appears to be more comfortable with his relatively poor social status and sexuality. The two friends create a clear-cut juxtaposition, emphasizing the intense desire Seth has to parallel classmates similar to Matt Stone as he admits, “he’s the sweetest guy ever! Have you ever stared into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles”. Seth sees the acceptance his peers receive. He attributes this acceptance to the fact that people respect and view them as popular because they are socially accepted to possess all the components of a straight and masculine man. His constant internal comparison to others’ masculinity drives him to attempt saving his own reputation. Erving Goffman’s interpretation of self-presentation is that a person’s “face” is how they hope others will see them, and their “line” are the verbal and non-verbal expressions the person uses to express themselves and their opinions. This face he provides is his defense mechanism against the sheerest sign of femininity. Seth’s use of crude language and sexual gestures help to provide a face to his peers that he is the purest form of heterosexuality.
Examining Seth’s obstacle course of a day, verifies to the audience that he would go to the ends of the earth in order to score not only alcohol for the party, but also to score the acceptance of Jules. While Jules is the object of his affection and driving cause for the dangerous situations he puts himself in, he treats women and the act of sex with complete disrespect. This backwards display of affection is a difficult idea to wrap one’s head around; however, it is evident that his reactions to femininity are just in attempt to save his face. He talks in a way that one would think he is very experienced and wrote the book on sex, when in reality he is quite the opposite. For Seth, sex, or any of the “bases”, are milestones and figures of heterosexuality. As Seth complains how he hasn’t seen a woman’s breasts in a year and a half and Evan reminds him how he got two-dozen hand jobs. Seth’s is instantaneous in his response, “and three quarters of a blowjob. It was the peak of my ass getting career, and it happened way, way, way too early” in order to reaffirm himself and his friend that he is capable of attracting females and stealing the bases. The rapidness and precision in counting how far he sexually advanced with the girl attests to the fact that this is something that he constantly worries and is passionate about. Psychologically he is not passionate about the literal sexual experience; he is passionate about being accepted as a result of it. Acceptance is an emotional fulfillment and Seth firmly believes that sex can achieve this for him.
Seth is shaping his own sexuality and identity around what he believes is standard and expected of real men, respectable men. Authors Victoria Cann and Erica Horton discuss this idea that “the comic business of these movies is derived from the discrepancy between the adult behavior the teens wish to engage in, and the restrictions placed upon them by their age and authority figures”. As the authors explained, sexual activeness is something that the boys associate with manhood and maturity. They are aware of their status in high school, but Seth in particular does not accept it. He full heartedly believes that losing his virginity and practicing sex is an indisputable way to gain respect and manufacture up a masculine reputation. In mimicking the glorified standard of hegemonic masculinity, Seth is failing himself in finding his own identity. The authors continue with mentioning how “masculinities are both constructed in discourse and used in discourse.” Masculinity is not created alone. It is the ideas of what masculinity is and how it should be carried out, that are discussed between people that creates, or “constructs” their views. (Cann and Horton) Furthermore, there are many more ways than one to embody an anatomically determined male body. The same goes for sexual orientation. There is no rubric or standard for “masculinity” or “manhood”; however, society has created one and its people propel it. As the fear of violating the standard based on social repercussions forces people like Seth and Evan to react in an exceedingly heterosexual manner, the construction and rigid definition of masculinity is progressed. The boys progress this social construction in practicing high levels of heterosexual activity and calling one another out should they not be up to masculine standards.
This idea of ridiculing one another for not being masculine enough is best analyzed in author and professor of psychology at University of Oregon C.J. Pascoe’s book Dude, You’re a Fag. In this ethnographic research study, she examines homophobia and the use of the word “fag” and how “to call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying that you’re nothing”. Most of the time boys are not calling each other a fag in the literal context of the word, but rather in attempt to counter threats to their own masculinity. (Pascoe) In Superbad Seth is constantly calling people out for not being masculine enough; however, he uses the word “pussy” to call people out, rather than the word fag as Pascoe studied. Sociologists Robert C. Bulman and Nicole S. McCants of Saint Mary’s College of California explain how while the term might be “politically correct in attempt to avoid insulting homosexuals, insulting women, apparently, is still culturally permitted. Masculinity is superior to femininity and anyone can be a pussy if they are not heterosexual enough.” In Seth’s use of the word he is not attempting to literally call anyone a pussy, nor is it his intention to disrespect women. The main intention of these words is for Seth’s personal reassurance. Again, this idea is somewhat twisted; however, the logic makes sense - in attacking his peers with the offensive language and attitude he is confirming to the world audience that he is superior. His superiority lies in the fact that he is heterosexual. Though Evan and Fogell are not as vulgar in their word choice, the homophobic shaming is like a hot potato. Whoever is in possession of it feels the urgent need to pass it on to someone else in attempt to save his or her own face. These words undoubtedly contribute to a movie renowned by many as comedic gold, however they reveal a cycle of fear that persists in society.
Seth and Evan fail to escape this cycle. In continually striving to prove their masculinity to themselves and others they are failing to find their own identities. Whether the vulgar dialogue and actions were used purely for comedic purposes or not, Superbad sheds light on a social phenomenon that many can relate to. Everyone wants to feel accepted, important, and to an extent, superior – it’s human nature. They are utterly afraid of being labeled as the alternative to the only socially acceptable they think a man can be - heterosexual and masculine. People who understand the variety of sexualities and gender equality might be prone to disregard the struggles of Seth and Evan. However, they must realize that for these young adults, amidst all of the challenges that come with this age – leaving home, puberty, adulthood on the horizon - acceptance is one of the only things that can make sense of. Even though the boys are not accepted socially, they still understand the concept and hold the indescribable human craving of wanting to belong. This intangible possession can make or break a person struggling to reach adulthood. Being oneself, for Seth especially is not a probable solution because his own self is not socially accepted. Some can get by, comfortably, aware of their outside status on the basis of an inside definition, where as Seth cannot. Despite a progressive society, heterosexuality is subconsciously seen by many as “normal,” or superior. In order to enjoy acceptance, they must prove their hegemonic masculinity by taking part in the hypersexual activities and sexist commentary or risk their greatest fear– neglection due to rejected acceptance.
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