I am unsure exactly what I expected from Judd Apatow’s (“Trainwreck”) “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” but I reflect on the viewing experience with regret. Until this week, I hadn’t seen the 2005 comedic classic. The film feels much older, largely due to the offensive humor and fashion — though my only memories from 2005 are the inside of a kindergarten classroom, so I guess I would not recall what was considered socially acceptable racism, sexism, homophobia or whale-tails. The world has changed drastically in 14 years. Now, you may be thinking, “But there’s no sex in that movie!” You’d be technically correct. Despite a lack of on-screen intercourse, the film is the perfect springboard from which to launch into a conversation about sexuality and misogyny in the mid 2000s.
The title is self-explanatory. Steve Carell (“The Office”) plays Andy, the 40-year-old virgin. When his coworkers and “friends” learn of this tragic circumstance, they take it upon themselves to more or less force Andy into a cherry-popping encounter. Fortunately for Andy, the big first time happens of his own volition with a woman he loves. Though, less fortunately for the viewer, it takes place on his wedding night, reinforcing the belief that sex is sacred and one should keep themselves chaste until marriage. This is the last in a long string of misogynistic claims supporting the well-known double standard: Men who don’t have sex are unmasculine, and women who do have sex are wild sluts.
As an aside, I’d like to make a brief clarification: I cast no judgment on those who choose celibacy. Rather, I caution against the repetition of heteronormative and culturally narrow-minded perspectives to the point where those perspectives are portrayed as objectively superior. Films like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” that perpetuate unhealthy attitudes toward sex and gender are complicit in the pain and division we experience today.
Cal (Seth Rogen, “Neighbors”), David (Paul Rudd, “The Hangover”) and Jay (Romany Malco, “Weeds”) are the so-called friends in the film who give Andy a lot of bad advice, and there’s one piece of particularly bad advice worth discussing. In their first attempt to get Andy laid, his friends invite him to a club. Jay, the painfully stereotypical, womanizing Black friend, tells Andy to hit on the drunkest girls he can find. “Vomit-in-the-hair” was one of the descriptors Jay used in telling Andy what to look for. I hope the problem here is clear, but I’ll spell it out anyway: Jay is telling Andy to lose his virginity by way of raping young women.
It’s safe to say the film does not stand the test of time, though this problematic approach to sex says a lot about pre-#MeToo cinema. Sexual objectification and misogyny are noteworthy attitudes to address when exploring sex in film. By reinforcing stereotypes and cultural structures, popular movies reflect these structures as they exist in our society. Sex in film is not isolated from society, confined to a reel. Film, as an art form, is created and consumed by social animals and often mirrors creator and consumer. It is this reflection which gives film its artistic power, and the thing that makes problematic film so problematic. We need to be aware of the structures at play when we laugh at Jay’s advice, or at Cal and David going back and forth, asking “You know how I know you’re gay?” or at Mooj (Gerry Bednob, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) making self-referential jokes about al-Qaeda and bestiality.
“The 40 Year Old Virgin” has issues, and I haven’t even begun to discuss the kink-shaming of Beth (Elizabeth Banks, “The Hunger Games”) or the overarching theme of male sexual conquest. It is my personal belief that it’s OK to laugh at this film, as long as you’re laughing at and not with the jokes written by Apatow and Carell. Sex isn’t merely physical, especially when represented in art. For all its faults, “The 40 Year Old Virgin” illustrates the cultural component of sex without ever showing actual intercourse. If this were purely a review, I’d put the film in the same category as “The Aftermath”: avoid. But, for the purpose of understanding how Hollywood (or at least Judd Apatow in 2005) thinks about sex, the film is exemplary. Watch at your own peril, and please, laugh thoughtfully.