Film Pop Culture

The Summer of Raunch

By Jack Halberstam

Did anyone else notice how comedies, I hesitate to call them “romantic,” let’s say “sex comedies,” have become absolutely pornographic nowadays? And I don’t really mean pornographic in a good way, as in “no holds barred, sexy, fun, overturn a few taboos and have a good laugh” pornographic. I mean teenage boy, obsessive dick humor with fart jokes, erection jokes, shit jokes and period jokes thrown in for good measure. While critics and bloggers are celebrating the new “bra-mances,” the female equivalents to the bro-mances that received a boost this summer with Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, the bra-mances are as low as the bromances when it comes to sexual humor. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not mounting a prudish objection to low, low-w-w-w, humor in general, I was as amused as the next dude by the penis sight gags in Austin Powers, the off-color jokes of Borat (“I want to have a car that attract a woman with shave down below”), even the hair-gel scene in Something about Mary tickled my fancy. But, in the genre of sex comedies, a little bit a raunch goes a long, long way. Nowadays, we have graduated from a few nudge nudge wink winks with a bit of how’s your father to a lot of fingering, blow jobs, cock rubbing and ball licking!

No doubt the Judd Apatow comedies are in part to blame for the new raunch and for the rise of the nerd as sex god. But there was something very sweet (if unbelievable) about 40 Year Old Virgin and at least in Superbad the adolescent humor belonged to adolescents rather than 40 year old men.  But Apatow is definitely to blame for opening the floodgates from subtle sexual innuendo to all out porno-comedy.

The new sex comedies are formulaic in every way (not in and of itself a bad thing) and they build on character archetypes, broad raunchy humor, bad guys and worse guys, bad girls and clueless girls, lots of drugs and alcohol and some kind of far-fetched scenario (guys wake up in Vegas with a tiger in the room; guys try to kill their bosses; girls try to engage in some female bonding; father in law inadvertently take a super-viagra drug etc. etc.) that allows everyone to engage in lots of extra-marital, perverse and often homo-sex before everything returns to normal again.

Every film in this genre has to build to a “laugh until you cry scene” that provides a payoff for the cycle of gross, porno jokes. These scenes have to be way over the top – they consist of envelope pushing scenarios in an extended play format, replete with bodily fluids and long gross-out sequences. Think of the nude wrestling scene from Borat as the quintessential “laugh until you cry” scene. And then look at its counterpart in Bridesmaids, which strove to be the mother of all gross-out scenes and but maybe went over the top at going over the top. In Bridesmaids, the gross-out scene played with the tropes of disordered female embodiment in general, and focused therefore on food, on binging and purging and with a kind of involuntary bulimia – following an ill-advised dinner for their hen night, the bridesmaids head for a dress fitting and in the pristine chamber of virginal white gowns, they, one by one, throw up and shit uncontrollably in the grips of mass food poisoning. While audiences busted a gut at these scenes of digestive mayhem, for me they were beyond grotesque and humiliating to boot. While there was lots to laugh at in Bridesmaids, this scene did not deliver for me on a comic level.

And of course, as some critics have already commented, the bra-mance is not exactly leveling the playing field of hetero-sex comedy. While the bromance is all about the bros being bros with their hos and not with their whiny wives, the bramance is also all about the bros – the ladies all talk about guys, whine about them, bitch about not getting laid, bitch about how they get laid and mostly, they bitch about each other. The bromance allows the guys to snuggle up together while figuring out how to get out of whatever dilemma confronts them. The bramance provides a stage for bride wars, for out and out girl hates girl battles with a few romantic interludes thrown in for good measure. Which is not to say that some of the bramances are not very, very funny; just that the humor continues to come at the expense of women and not men. And of course, as per usual, there is plenty of off-color humor in these films in the form of racial stereotyping (see the Jamie Foxx character in Horrible Bosses or the Asian gay hysteric in The Hangover) all of which adds to a kind of post-political correctness expression of gloves-off white male anger and disappointment.

So, in case you think I am being too easily shocked by the new raunch, here are a few lines from recent sex comedies:

Guy to friend: “you know what the best part about having gay dads is?

Friend: “What?”

Guy: “They are never gonna eat out my ex-girlfriends?”

Friend: “You and your dad are tunnel buddies, huh?”


Woman to Guy she is having sex with: “Your balls are so smooth…!”

Guy to Woman he is having sex with: “Cup my balls…oh yeah!”

Guy to Woman: “I made you this to help sooth your womb” – hands her a CD

Woman: “It’s a mix…Even Flow, Red Red Wine!”

Friend: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

Woman: “You made me…a period mix?”

Friend: “That’s so romantic.”

Woman: “I am gonna suck your dick like I am mad at it!”

Guy: “I am gonna rock your vagina.”

Father in law to son in law: “Focker, there is no way I’m going into an ER room with this thing. Now you need to stick me and you need to stick me now! I’m having a dick attack! Stick me!” (Son in law sticks a needle into his father in law’s erect penis while watched by his 7 year old son who has come to see what is going on!)

It is not just that the material is crude and made for youporn, it is also that these new sex comedies imagine men as the victims of unwanted sexual attention from voracious women. And so, Jennifer Aniston recently played a sexual harasser in Horrible Bosses (“Come on, slap my face with your cock!”). Melissa McCarthy played a butch sexual harasser of men in Bridesmaids (“I’m glad he’s single because I am going to climb that like a tree.”) And when they are not playing sexual harassers, very hot women in sex comedies are begging for sex “with no strings attached” or playing “bad teachers” and begging for sex or being flattered into a quick hook up by guys who feed them outrageously flat lines like: “Are you a model?” It is as if we have gone through the looking glass here from a world where a wardrobe malfunction led to massive national paroxysms of outrage and horror to a world where a wardrobe malfunction will humorously lead to a lots of boob shots, a quick blow job followed by some anal and a few jokes about poop shoots.

These films raise a lot of questions for me: have we gone too far? Are they funny? Do heterosexual people really talk like this on a regular basis (“your balls are so smooth!” really? “I am gonna rock your vagina!” Vagina?? “I’ve made you a period mix…” Awesome)? Is Hollywood, in a last ditch effort to reach the much desired 15-25 year old males group, manning its script writing sessions with 15-25 year old males? While the gays are getting married, singing duets to each other on Glee and other mainstream TV shows, the straights are telling each other about how they want to “hit that,” and dumping marriage for some lost weekends with foul-mouthed sluts. It’s a topsy turvy world and while I am all for some raunch, for lots of raunch even, is it too much to ask something be left to the imagination?

12 replies on “The Summer of Raunch”

Thanks for this wonderful post! I thought that maybe I was going crazy. Sick of low-brow porn disguised as comedy for general public. I’m not prudish, but Mystery has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. I’m wondering why conservatives, especially fundamentalists, aren’t crying out about this and why their little feet aren’t being held to the fire.

Interestingly enough, the “ill-advised dinner” leading to mass food poisoning takes place at an “ethnic” restaurant (this echoes similar sentiments expressed in the Sex and the City movie as well as a wide range of other films). This not only produces a direct correlation between ethnic consumption and the uncontrollable and un-“lady”-like bodily excretion you noted, but also the more general stereotypes of third world/non-white peoples as a threat to white/”American” (in its limited, race and class-based conceptualizations) public health. The disgust we are meant to experience when the ladies of Bridesmaids suddenly find themselves exploding from their orifices has a direct narrative cause-and-effect relation to their consumption of “bad” ethnic foods. While Horrible Bosses and The Hangover may partake in the overt stereotypical representations of minority subjects, Bridesmaids more disturbingly (to me) represents the supposed threat that ethnic consumption poses for mostly white, middle and upper class women and their bodies.

Alex – this is right on. I thought it was supposed to be a “ethnic” restaurant that made the white ladies sick but I couldn’t remember. But of course that makes sense. The film depicts a multi-culti cast of characters – the bride is Black – but takes it’s interest in race no further and then precisely s you say depicts ethnic otherness as toxic to white womanhood. Thanks for the comment j

I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with a Jack Halberstam article in its entirety. The exploitative aspect of the on-screen portrayal of the food poisoning sequence in “The Bridesmades” crosses another boundary I think, and that is a sort of masochistic fetishization of the disordered body. Such phenomena had been circulating around the internet for a long time as pornography (“two girls, one cup” — and good god do not look this up if you don’t want to get sick). When I was in college this was part of guy-lore in a way (and I suspect there was some perverse sexual interest in such material). It is suprising and unsettling to me to see this become material for main stream comedy films.

Different Question: what happens when previously subtextual homoeroticism that Jack alludes to becomes overt? That is, is it a game of “gay chicken” or something more (think of the bonding scene at the end of Superbad).

The bride is ‘black’–or what passes (quite literally)–for it in Hollywood. And this is another way in which these comedies demarcate (in)appropriate racial and gender difference. Maya Rudolph gets to be ‘one of the girls’ (likeable to the white male producers of these films, and the largely-white audience that is the target demographic) precisely because she is ‘black’ without being ‘too black’, and is biracial and light-skinned (i.e. white enough to be comforting, familiar, acceptable–and yet also exotic).

This issue of consumption of the ‘exotic’ is about non-white Others as both acceptable and unacceptable, in ways that are certainly constitutive/productive of normative whiteness and how it (both whiteness and white subjects) is produced in relation to non-white alterity. What is interesting, I think, is the way in which these films are a potential aperture to think about larger practices of social hierarchy/exclusion and white privilege, and the ways in which these films participate in and (re)produce discourses of ‘post-raciality’ and (white) colorblindness while simultaneously interpolating white subjects as white in ways that they both *enjoy* and yet must disavow in order to be good (neo)liberal subjects. (After all, neoliberal individuality–and its constitutive discourses of individual responsibility–reject State/societal responses to structural racism by rejecting racism and racial disparities as structurally produced such that government interventions like affirmative action or anti-discrimination laws should be advocated).

And returning to my use of the term enjoyment in the previous paragraph: once can think of this enjoyment as both a laughing at and a laughing with (these movies are billed as comedies after all). One, literally, gets to laugh at non-whites and non-whiteness. And in ways similar to the way in which Satoshi Kanazawa mocked black women as ugly. Though when Kanazawa served us his hierarchy of racial beauty–a taxonomy quite similar to one held by many viewers of the spotlighted movies, and certainly by the producers of these films (especially in relation to non-colorblind casting in Hollywood)–he was largely criticized. (But at least he was honest about his views, which is more than can be said about many who share this same aesthetic-racial hierarchy.) It is hard for a non-white person like me not to watch these movies and not notice the same racial beauty hierarchy Kanazawa embraced/defended repeated over and over and over again. So one needs to recognize the multiple ways in which these movies produce race/gender/whiteness, and the extent to which even when white women are being mocked and debased in these movies, white women (and white men) are also being (over-)valued. And their is most certainly a certain enjoyment in this, no–however perverse? And so comes the disavowal: because it’s really not acceptable to say that one enjoyed watching such a movie, as a white body, because it was a reminder of one’s position atop racialized beauty hierarchies. So however much these movies (re)produce whiteness and white privilege, it is in ways that must also be disavowed as much as enjoyed. And the inclusion of someone like Maya Rudolph as the ‘black’ bride in many ways produces this kind of ‘post-racial’, we-can’t-be-racist-because-we-have-a-‘black’-friend defense.

So yes, the bride in Bridesmaid is ‘black’, or what passes for it in Hollywood:

Jaundiced eye. I appreciate your critical analysis and completely agree. Unfortunately, I think most people who watch these movies and ‘enjoy them’ are not ready for this lens or even literate enough in critical race and critical whiteness issues (at least here in the USA) to really give this a first, second, or third thought.

I remember when American Pie first came out and I simply could not enjoy it. I immediately saw the privileging of white male suburban kids and how their horny oriented minds to find any vagina to stick their penises in, quite annoying. It was seen as ‘boys will be boys’ (well, [white boys will be white boys]. They had complete entitlement and I guess the audience was supposed to sympathize with the fact that these boys were about to graduate and quite a few still hadn’t ‘lost their virginity.’ I remember thinking how demonized the characters would have been, had it been about young black men in the urban area, who wanted to try to lose their virginity. Their ‘sex-oriented’ minds would be received differently, especially how black men have been historically constructed through the white imaginary gaze as ‘sexually uncontrolled beasts’ and what not.

Would love to hear more from Jack on the most recent comments, especially as read against theories of performance and performativity (as well as Foucaultian jouissance); what do these movies (and the last 3 comments in particular) indicate about how race/whiteness is produced by bodies alone (and not ‘performance’ per se) such that race cannot be ‘(out)performed’ in ways that gender might be? Bodies that don’t matter–via their absence–in relation to bodies that matter, and gender trouble, as it were? (And bodies that don’t matter–via their absence–as the substrate upon which bodies that do matter are produced/catalyzed.)

(What would Judith Butler say, one wonders… )

Hmm, not sure what you mean by “as read against theories of performativity (as well as Foucaultian jouissance).” You mean that blackness, in these films, remains what Fanon would call a “fact” while whiteness remains mobile and unfixed. I think that is right and I also see how anxious these films are about both representing race in any kind of specific way at all and feeding into racist stereotyping. So, the films like Bridesmaids go out of their way to simply leave Black bodies unmarked and non-specific. These films pretend to be race-blind and all inclusive. The bride is black but she has a white best friend and is marrying a white man. All of this is left unremarked upon by the film and while I think there is some nod to the father of the bride being interested in Jazz, the final number that brings all the ladies together is the white girl band Wilson Philips “Hold On.” Anyway, given the film’s attention to class dynamics and shifting economic modes of security and insecurity (the lead’s business has failed in the economic downturn) and given the castin go Maya Rudolph, it is just plain weird that the film has nothing to say about race whatsoever…Jack

@bullybloggers. Not sure if it is ‘weird’ that the film says nothing about race since. I am assuming that the intended audience are “post-racial” white (probably middle class) folk. It’s strategic and on purpose that it’s elided, in my opinion.

It is hard for me not to read the previous comment without thinking/feeling the folllowing, that I am being de facto censored for–literally–talking/writing too much about white supremacy, white privilege, and anti-black racism (as it is (re)produced by Hollywood movies, and especially the ‘sex comedies’ of this post): “Even today, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for African-Americans to talk honestly with white people about race and racism — because, put simply, most white people can’t handle the truth.”

My posts cannot be made ‘choppier’: precisely because I wrote what I did to point careful and specific attention to the ways in which whiteness and white privilege function and yet are rarely discussed such that most (white) people don’t even see them functioning, even in the same moment that they may otherwise be critiquing race (and whiteness). My comment cannot be made ‘choppier’ because it is a sustained argument: and this is the entire point of what I wrote, and why it is “very very long”.

This is supposed to be the queer bully pulpit one never dreamed of, right? Shouldn’t people be able to handle what I wrote, critically reflect upon it? Isn’t that the point here?: to challenge people to think–to think radically–and beyond the bounds of status quo convention(s), including those of everyone else’s short/choppy comments.

And this comment is not intended to be ‘impolite’: just honest. After all, I know that one of the easiest ways to censor a black person for speaking too frankly about race and whiteness is to say that they were ‘too angry’ and not ‘respectful’ and ‘polite’: “The use of mental illness as a weapon has been a direct contributor to the rise of the tone argument used against people of color and nonwhite people; you can be angry, as long as you are nice about it.”

It seems to me that I have been censored for the content of my comment, not its length. After all, in the time that it took to post a response, I imagine that my previous two comments could have been posted to the site.

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