In the wake of mass murders, the media produces some wild and ludicrous fantasies that usually — and not coincidentally — revolve around the hobby horses of the analysts. The Washington Post offered an excellent example of this over the weekend, when Ann Hornaday argued that the real culprit for Eliot Rodger’s murder spree was … Judd Apatow, James Bond, and a bad Robert Downey flick that probably only Hornaday remembers.
Indeed, as important as it is to understand Rodger’s actions within the context of the mental illness he clearly suffered, it’s just as clear that his delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in. With his florid rhetoric of self-pity, aggression and awkwardly forced “evil laugh,” Rodger resembled a noxious cross between Christian Bale’s slick sociopath in “American Psycho,” the thwarted womanizer in James Toback’s “The Pick-Up Artist” and every Bond villain in the canon.
As Rodger bemoaned his life of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desire” and arrogantly announced that he would now prove his own status as “the true alpha male,” he unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA. For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny). Rodger’s rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.
How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of “sex and fun and pleasure”? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?
There are plenty of grounds to criticize Hollywood for the coarsening of culture and the cheapening of the arts. Apatow can be criticized on those grounds, too. However, watching Hollywood movies does not create acute mental illness and sociopathic tendencies, especially not on an individual basis — and these are clearly the factors in play in the Santa Barbara massacre.
Even Hornaday finally admits that:
Even if 51 percent of our movies were made by women, Elliot Rodger still would have been seriously ill. But it’s worth examining who gets to be represented on screen, and how.
Talk about a non-sequitur. It may well be that representation in the arts is “worth examining,” but Hornaday admits at the end that her entire thesis is a false basis on which to frame that examination. Hornaday wanted an opportunity to gripe about the depiction of women on screen, and seized at the opportunity to exploit the Santa Barbara tragedy to gain some attention for her pet cause. That’s shameful.
Hornaday doesn’t even make sense as an art critic in this case, either. It’s a little ignorant to tie Apatow to the depictions of women in Bond films, American Psycho, and The Pick-Up Artist, which do tend to objectify women in whole or in part. Apatow’s films usually give women a fairly strong voice, to the point where the adolescent nature of the “shlubby” males is usually highlighted, and not really in a good way. For instance, in Knocked Up and in The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the men who have to grow up, usually because of the influence of the women. Apatow films aren’t the same genre as Porky’s or The Sex Drive, or other adolescent coming-of-age films in that sense.
To miss that in order to lump Apatow in with an utterly forgettable and regrettable film like The Pick-Up Artist (forgettable and regrettable on entirely separate artistic grounds) shows just how desperate Hornaday was to find any reason to talk about an imbalance of power in Hollywood, rather than the Santa Barbara massacre in any meaningful and intelligent manner. It’s sheer exploitation, fueled by non-sequiturs and inane equivalencies in a case that clearly is so singular that we rarely if ever see anything of its like.
Seth Rogen isn’t a fan of this column either, and I can’t blame him.