On the Apotovian

Aaron Bady points me toward a review of Awkwardness by Subashini. It is both the most thorough and interesting review of Awkwardness that I’ve seen so far, and the most critical. The core of her critique is centered on my chapter on Judd Apatow films, which is where she believes I begin to go off the rails by essentially endorsing the Apatovian worldview and thereby excluding women from the utopia of awkwardness. One symptom of this endorsement is the fact that I don’t adequately probe the reasons why women are not as often presented as awkward characters, and her discussion of that question is very much worth reading and will definitely serve as a starting point if I pursue the awkwardness theme further in a more systematic way.

Where I find Subashini’s critique challenging stems from my initial reaction to it: of course I don’t advocate the Apatovian worldview! The view of women as the policing agents of the social order is deluded, and the inherent misogyny and homophobia of the male friendships portrayed is not redemptive. I’m just trying to isolate that moment of a freely-chosen awkward bond, on my way from the defensive strategies seen in The Office and the open embrace of awkwardness in the restaurant scene in Curb. Setting up the Curb scene was in fact my entire reason for writing the book (video NSFW):

Yet it does appear that my superficial treatment of the problem of whether women are awkward, together with my muted criticism of the Apatovian universe, obscured my intention and ultimately undermined the final point I was trying to make — so that, for Subashini, Awkwardness becomes a book that she wanted to embrace but ultimately, awkwardly cannot.

I am conscious that the normal response of a man, even (especially?) a pro-feminist man as I think of myself, to feminist criticism is defensiveness. I am trying to restrain that instinct, but I may not be doing a good job (for instance, my previous paragraph could be read as implying that Subashini failed to understand me because of the obstacle posed by my treatment of women, an obstacle that in principle she should’ve been able to overcome — which is not my intention).

What I do want to do, however, hopefully as the beginning of a continuing conversation with Subashini, is to put forth my understanding of the task and limits of being a pro-feminist man. I understand that task to be acting as an internal critic of male culture (inspired by Spivak’s attraction to Derrida over other more overtly “political” figures due to his stance as being solely an internal critic of Western thought). In my Apatow chapter, I may have been more internal than critic — that is something I need to think over more and I’m grateful to Subashini for raising the question. And I do think that ending the Apatow chapter with the counterpoint of Spaced (as opposed to my last-minute addition on the shitty film Funny People that I felt obligated to include out of thoroughness) would’ve been an awesome idea that I wish I had thought of.

At the same time, I think that attempting to deal with women’s experience more directly as a man might’ve opened me to many more, and more severe, criticisms. Does she really want to hear a man’s meditations on the experience of menstruation, for instance? The danger is of course getting into a “protest too much” dynamic that I’m not, in the typical male fashion, grossed out by it, as in this Kids in the Hall sketch:

This worry itself may betoken the defensiveness that I’m trying not to indulge. After all, I wrote this book in intense dialogue with The Girlfriend, and she could’ve held me accountable in any discussions of women’s experience.

In any case, there’s a lot to think about here. An answer I’d definitely like to get from Subashini, though, is how much of a difference it would’ve made if I’d ended the Apatow chapter with the awkward cross-sex relationship portrayed on Spaced rather than with the “bromance” between Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, because on my first reading of her post, it seems like something like that would’ve gone a long way, even in the absence of a more satisfying account of the relative lack of awkward women in entertainment.

9 thoughts on “On the Apotovian

  1. Subashini also suggests that awkwardness may have more serious consequences for women than the awkwardness you discuss in the book, which is an interesting question. You do mention specifically that Larry David’s comfortable situation and the corresponding low stakes of what happens in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it’s probably also true (I think; I’ve haven’t seen many Apatow films) that the stakes are pretty low in Apatow films, and also in The Office(despite the connection between awkwardness and precarious employment; I don’t think it’s often the case that we see someone’s job at risk as a result of awkwardness). Is it just chance (or a contingent feature of American TV and films) that leads to the low stakes of awkwardness in your examples, or is this intrinsic to the concept?

  2. David Brent gets fired for his awkwardness. Other than that, though, you’re right that it’s generally low-stakes. I don’t know if that’s by chance, based on my examples, or if it’s a product of my more male-centric field of inquiry (i.e., they can afford to be awkward because the downgrading of male privilege hasn’t amounted to THAT big of a change).

    (I do find her critique to be genuinely challenging and something I wish I had heard before submitting my final draft.)

  3. That CYE scene references a joke in which an elderly Jewish man wins the lottery and among other extravagant acts erects a gold statue of Hitler on his lawn, “because he gave me the numbers”.

  4. Hello. I would have left my comment here, but it’s really long. And it somehow feels rude to plop an essay-length comment on someone else’s blog! So I’ve responded to your comment in my blog’s comment thread.

  5. I mention it, but at the time only the first season was available in the US — so not only did I not have much to work with, but the US audience likely wouldn’t know it. Basically, I was trying to do something that would play in both the US and UK markets.

  6. I’ll also note that Spaced is a primary example in my recent Guardian article on awkwardness. I did so primarily out of a desire to focus more on British shows, but the way I used it does, in retrospect, anticipate the way Subashini wishes I would’ve used it in the book.

  7. This is probably less thought-through than more of the comments here, so I apologize in advance. After reading the review, I would say that there are some examples of female awkwardness in American pop culture. Bella Swan in the Twilight films seems to have totally internalized awkwardness, while Elaine from Seinfeld is just as awkward as her male counterparts. I also think that female awkwardness, in my personal experience, is often translated or perceived as ‘ditziness’, though I can’t think of any examples at the moment or maybe that is in a league of its own. (On another personal note, some instances of my own female awkwardness have indeed resulted in some awkward performance reviews.)

  8. Am trying to repost my original comment — since the first time I tried (with wrong email) probably did not go through.

    Apologies if this is double posting, but I wanted to post with correct email.

    This is copy of response I tried to post over at Adam’s blog (I could not figure out how to reply to his comment here), so I’m posting here as well (I think I put in the wrong email address there as well). So let’s try again!

    * * *

    A friend linked to Subashini’s blog, and I saw the discussion you all were having there, but could not figure out how to reply over there (I’m coming from LiveJournal/Dreamwidth which I find much more conducive to actual conversations), but I was struck by a couple of your points and wanted to toss in my two cents. I’ll also post this comment over there.

    You talk about how “to put forth my understanding of the task and limits of being a pro-feminist man. I understand that task to be acting as an internal critic of male culture” and note the problem of “attempting to deal with women’s experience more directly as a man might’ve opened me to many more, and more severe, criticisms.”

    Between the Scylla of reinforcing the “universality” of humanity through a focus on the (straight white mostly middle class cis) male (I have never seen and will never see an Aptow film, even the previews bore me to tears) and the Charybdis of “attempting to deal with women’s experience,” it seems there’s an obvious way I haven’t seen anybody mention yet–i.e. analyze the masculinities created in the films as specific masculinities rather than in any way universal (given the quotes that S. gave about the changing socio-historical situations of men and women, the methodology seems not to be universalist anyway, or at least not intentioanlly so).

    S. mentioned the lack of men of color–and I would guess that there’s also a lack of working class men, gay men, bisexual men, transgender men, etc. in the films? in your analysis?

    My own scholarship was originally feminist and speculative fiction, morphing in recent years to intersectional theories (critical race, gender and queer) applied to fan studies (in the areas of fandom that are primarily dominated by women, including slash fiction).

    I regularly teach a graduate seminar on Texts and Genders (last fall most recently, all through sf/f) and am struck by how many of my students, despite my careful lecture about differences between feminisms and feminist theories and gender theories still think that someone one can only analyze “gender” by focusing on the female characters. (Only one male student took it last fall, and that was 100% more than took it the previous time I taught it, so these are female students).

    I also agree with Jamie: whatever women do that might be “awkward” will probably be called something different solely because it’s women doing it–I’m thinking of Lucille Ball as the major example (head or co-head of DesiLu portraying a total airhead who couldn’t break into film in her television show). I’m also thinking of how women doing stand-up comedy in the 1960s and 70s (I’m in my fifties so remember cringing in horrendous embarrassment and unable to watch them) had to present themselves as total klutzes of some sort: Phyllis Diller is the primary example.

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