I saw Step Brothers earlier this week, and laughed a lot. It’s a film about two forty-year-olds (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilley) who act as if they are thirteen and bond over shared interests such as velociraptors and Cops. It’s a very funny, highly enjoyable film; but it’s also a very familiar film. How many of these R-rated “guys stuck in adolescence” films have we seen in the last ten years? Call it the “frat pack” or whatever you will, but the trend is hard to miss: films about guys hanging out with other guys and getting into all sorts of immature mischief.
The list of films is very long, and includes such hits as Wedding Crashers, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Dodgeball, and Superbad. These are films celebrating the R-rated, testosterone-fueled hijinks of man-boys who refuse to grow up.They are films that are immensely popular with mainly male audiences, but why? What is it about watching pathetic grown men acting like infants that we find so fun and appealing? (And I laugh too… certainly).
I suspect it has something to do with the larger trend of demasculization in culture that has taken place in the last few decades. After the first couple waves of feminism, the divorce boom in the 70s and 80s, and the pushing of all sorts of sexual boundaries in the 90s, gender has become a very confusing issue. Men have come out of this time the most damaged, it seems, with fewer and fewer father figures and role models to show them the right way to express adult masculinity. It’s only natural that film and television would express this confused identity in comedic form—historically the site of much of our collective working-out of contradiction and paradox.
I suppose the films of Adam McKay and Judd Apatow are popular not only because they are full of hilarious actors, but because they are giving voice to a large population of American males who feel stuck between an adulthood they aren’t prepared for and an adolescence that’s never felt completely comfortable. We don’t know quite what to think about masculine identity anymore, so the logical thing to do is just parody and laugh at it.