Judd Apatow’s Uneasy Feminist Awakening


With his recent lashing out at Bill Cosby in the vein of a Depeche Mode lyric with an anti-rape-culture twist, Judd Apatow has further cemented his newfound stance as a feminist.

Or so it would seem. Unfortunately, a few tweets later, we had to retrench: he’s actually a mansplaining male pseudo-feminist.

Debate on the merits of Knocked Up‘s plot aside, Apatow’s really been getting religion on feminism and misogyny lately, from his awkward dressing down of a reporter who asked Lena Dunham about her nudity (“I think it’s nice that Apatow pulled out his ‘This Is What a Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt to defend his colleague, even if his brand of male feminism is typically misguided” wrote Flavorwire’s Tyler Coates at the time) all the way to these recent tweets on Cosby.

Now, not unlike many men who newly don the expansive mantle of feminism, Apatow is happy to use the language of feminism to defend his work. But it doesn’t sit quite as well with him when it’s used to critique his work. Thus, the mansplanation.

As to the substance of his debate with writer Kate Aurthur: Knocked Up failed to be feminist for many reasons that go beyond its cavalier dismissal of abortion as an option for an unplanned pregnancy. The movie is populated by sensitive, goofy man-children who wholeheartedly support the miracle of birth. This stands in opposition to uptight, sterile women characters — including one, the female lead’s mother, who says “get rid of it” to signal her support for an abortion. The female unplanned pregnancy is a vehicle for a man’s character arc. The women don’t get to coax laughs from the audience. And so on and so forth.

It’s a film which would probably not get the glowing reception today that it received over half a decade ago. This makes sense: culture has moved on fast. Obvious Child in many ways provided a direct answer to Knocked Up. So, in its way, did Bridesmaids, which had the Apatow imprimatur but rather than his typical “slacker-striver” male-female dynamic, instead featured a bevy of immature, hilarious female characters who were hardly uptight and got the best laugh lines.

The discussion around women in comedy films, and pregnancy in comedy films, has moved forward quite a bit and stalled out in other ways. Some of that movement is due to the huge conversation inspired by the failings of Knocked Up. The issue now is whether Apatow, feminist or not, can make films in the future that are fair to women characters, and of this time, not that previous one.

Male celebrities jockeying to proclaim themselves feminists is a genuinely awesome development. But to really live up to the moniker, they must accept what that means: listening criticism of their treatment of gender. Even if it hurts their feelings, or disagrees with their definition of the word. Here’s a little secret: part of being feminist is arguing about what feminism means, and accepting that no one answer will reign supreme.