Judd Apatow Defends His Record On Female Characters

Illustration for article titled Judd Apatow Defends His Record On Female Characters

Last night, I happened to cross paths with Judd Apatow, and couldn't help but ask about the ladies — particularly since he's executive-producing a female-centric pilot for HBO. Basically, he thinks the criticisms were cooked up by the Internet.

It was the afterparty for Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture (more on that soon); Apatow and Dunham are currently working together on that HBO pilot, which she's writing and co-starring in.


Apatow, of course, has had occasion to answer for his female characters before. It's not so much that his movies are sexist per se, as much as his point of view is unapologetically limited — as Anna wrote last year, "All his movies are really guilty of is reinforcing the kind of annoying idea that women are more grown-up than men — or that they have to be. And while he says his films 'go pretty hard at having women have as many problems as men,' it would still be nice to see his women get to have some 'male' problems for once."

But then, a major corrective to that myopia is Apatow putting his considerable clout behind talents that are beyond his worldview (or Seth Rogen's), which is what he's doing with Dunham.

Some additional context: I didn't know I was going to interview Judd Apatow, or even attending the party, and he likely didn't expect he was going to be interviewed about this stuff, again. Also, it was obscenely loud in there and we were both shouting.


Can you tell me a little bit about what you're working on for HBO?

It's about a group of women in New York in their mid-twenties, in those years after college when you're not really sure what you're going to do, and you make an enormous amount of mistakes.


We're shooting a pilot this week. [It co-stars Dunham, Jemima Kirke — who's also in Tiny Furniture—and Allison Williams, daughter of Brian.]

What was it about [Dunham's movie] that made you sure that you wanted to try out a TV project with someone so young?


I saw the movie and I didn't know anything about it. I didn't know that the director and the writer was in it, I didn't know that that was her real family, I just saw it cold, someone just slipped me a DVD. I watched it and thought that it was hilarious and really smart and funny and emotional and human the way I like my movies and my stories. I just emailed her and said I thought it was great, and we started talking, and this opportunity came up.

You've gotten some flak from critics about your female characters. Does this play into that at all, working with a woman who starred in and wrote her own movie?


Not really. I mean, I feel like we've had some amazing female characters and performances in all the movies.

So you think that's unfair that you've gotten that criticism?

Oh, I definitely think that it's unfair. But if you look at who's been in the movies and how funny they've been and how great their characters are — Elizabeth Banks, and Jane Lynch, and Leslie [Mann], Catherine Keener and Heigl and Charlyne Yi, it's a lot of people who've broken out from the movies and have done great work. But they definitely are more from the male point of view, because I wrote them, and I'm a man. But that's okay.


Does it feel different to now be producing something from the female point of view that you didn't write? Even the movies you've produced that you haven't written have tended to be from a male point of view.

Any time I'm working with a writer and a director, I try to give them some advice, but help them maintain their point of view. I will say that with Lena she has a very strong idea of what she wants to do. She hasn't worked in the television format, so I have some advice I can give her, but I mainly try to stay out of the way.


Is there a difference for you in terms of producing something that has a female protagonist and a male protagonist?

I'm sure there are a lot of differences and I certainly make the point of just following her lead — she knows what she wants to do. And there are subtleties to it that I will never understand. So I just make sure not to say anything that will take her off her game.


Many of our readers really love your movies but do feel like the female characters are two-dimensional. Katherine Heigl came out and said she thought Knocked Up was sexist. I wonder if you could elaborate on your defense a little bit.

I'm not defensive about it. I feel like my movies are about people making really big mistakes, and in a lot of movies about women, they're the objects of worship. And I find it more interesting to see people at their worst. So I think some people are thrown by that, but I don't think there's that much of a difference between Katherine Heigl picking Seth Rogen up at a bar and Seth Rogen saving his bong before he saves his pregnant girlfriend. They're both equally harsh in terms of how these characters are treated. All of these characters are learning things about how they want to live their lives.


You're not necessarily endorsing that he's doing that, is what you're saying?

All comedies are about people screwing up. And the obstacles to sanity and living your life well. There's nothing funny about people who handle themselves well and treat everybody with respect. And have a good job and a good haircut and are intelligent.


And their relationships are really equal...

Yeah, I mean, people fight and make up and it's hard, and I really wanted to make some movies that show people getting into it a little more than you usually see in movies, see people love and fight in a much stronger way than you usually see....


Generally the movies are more popular with women than men. When we test them, the female scores are always higher than the male scores. Sometimes you have these movies where a few people make a comment and everybody follows that point of view.

I interviewed Manohla Dargis about this last year and she said something about how you had taken over romantic comedies which had been traditionally female-driven things, and you had made them male-driven. She was ambivalent because you had done them better than what was already happening, but it was almost the last thing that women had been at the center of.


Well, I don't agree with that. I really only made a couple of romantic comedies — I don't think I was changing the direction of anything. I think if you look at older romantic comedies, a lot of them are women that are perfect and the guy falling all over himself trying to "get" her. I always found that a lot more offensive than deeply flawed men and women having problems getting together. That to me is much more human and sympathetic and interesting.


But a lot of the women in your movies do have it together and are waiting for the guys to grow up.

I don't think so. I always thought that Katherine Heigl's character was someone who was driven to have a career and getting pregnant screwed up her career path, but she was trying to do the right thing by trying to get to know the guy who got her pregnant, who seems like the wrong guy to get to know and to potentially raise a child with. And that there was nothing perfect about her life, and she was just thrown off of her plans.


So her expectations ended up being wrong about everything, or...?

She was trying to do the right thing, which was to get to know the guy who got me pregnant, or should I instantly disregard any notion that I could like him.


I know you said the movies test higher with women, but do the conversation and the criticism change the way you work, or will work in the future?

I don't hear any of the criticism when I test the movies and talk to thousands of people. I think the people who talk about these things on the Internet are looking to stir things up to make for interesting reading, but when you make movies, thousands of people fill out cards telling you their intimate feelings about the movies, and those criticisms never came up, ever, on any of the movies, so you have to be careful of what to listen to, because it could also take you off your own point of view.


Related: Tiny Furniture [Official Site]


Judd Apatow Talks About Sexism, Seth Rogen
Fuck Them: Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, And Why Romantic Comedies Suck
Judd Apatow Is Finally Feeling The Ladies

Share This Story

Get our newsletter



"It's about a group of women in New York in their mid-twenties, in those years after college when you're not really sure what you're going to do, and you make an enormous amount of mistakes."

That's me! That's me! Please please make it so they have two room mates in live a non-brand-name section of Brooklyn and have mediocre jobs.