A recent late-night surf through the cable landscape rendered in me an odd sense of déjà vu–and the vu (or is it the déjà?) was junior high. There's Seth Rogen, cradling his bong after salvaging it from the pile of his belongings, post-earthquake, alongside an expectant Katherine Heigl. A channel away, Adam Sandler is peeing his pants. Oh, hey, it’s naked Will Ferrell, corralled into the sensible ride of his new bride and oblivious that streaking through the streets of a college town might represent a breach of even the most lax protocol of adulthood. Accidentally flipping back, I see Sandler again, this time splashing around in floaties and an innertube. (For the love.) Further down the dial I come upon a forty (FORTY) year-old virgin whose home is furnished with action figures and rockin' video game chair-consoles. Click again: It’s Ferrell and John C. Reilly, both fully grown, asking permission to build bunk beds. Permission from their parents. Over here is the most recent incarnation of the perpetual high-schoolers of the American Pie franchise lamenting the realities of adultiness, and 15 years on, doing things more unspeakable to a cooler than their younger selves did to a pie. And, my god, there’s a fully grown Tom Hanks bouncing on a trampoline.
Oh, wait. That’s Big.
That one literally overgrown child aside, the figurative man-child is everywhere. And though he might appear a loser, the implication is that, deep down, he is only sweet, cuddly, and harmless as a puppy— all he needs is a little love and some house-training.
And the women, you ask? Why, they’re stuck holding the leash and the plastic bag.
The rise of that Apatowian archetype, the man-child, is little more than a reboot of Peter Pan plus X-Box and the blue haze of pot smoke, a caricature who bears a slight—but undeniable—resemblance to the dudes we all know. But a heroine in the form of a stunted, maladjusted lady loser, a grown-ass-woman fiasco? Where is the equally familiar—and ridiculous—female counterpart, and why haven’t we seen her sidekicking with Stiffler or Frank the Tank?
We know her in life. Her checking account overdrawn, her roots overgrown, her whiskey (Bulleit) on the rocks, her hatchback backseat littered with oranging Taco Bell wrappers (and glove compartment rich with a cache of leftover Fire Sauce), her cat’s Instagram account medium-famous.
Yet despite the fact that she lurks among us, on screen, the grown-ass-woman fiasco remains as elusive as Snuffleupagus.
And yet! One such G.A.W.F. arrives today, with the limited theatrical (and video on-demand) release of the hilarious Preggoland. In the film, our heroine Ruth (Canadian writer and actress Sonja Bennett) lives at home with her dad, works as a grocery store clerk in the same job she’s had since high school, parties in parking lots, and favors ratty overalls for nearly all occasions. She rides the bus—when she remembers correct change—and loiters by the river, alone with her thoughts (and her flask).
Oh, and Ruth is 35 years old.
At a baby shower, Ruth drinks from the aforementioned flask, gifts the mommy-to-be a dildo, and whacks another friend’s kid in the face with a bat after sloppily taking a swing at the piñata. (It’s later revealed, surgery will be required.) Days later, her pals summon her to a diner, not for a chatty post-mortem, a la "Sex and the City," but to dump her.
Depressed and hungover, she heads to a baby boutique, buys the most expensive stroller in the place as a mea culpa, and barfs into a bassinet. The woman working assumes she is pregnant, and—lightbulb!—a faux pregnancy begins. Per their wont, hijinks ensue.
Call it an amuse-bouche of female arrested development. Later this summer, the main course will arrive in the form of Judd Apatow's Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer as another G.A.W.F., this time as a good-time girl who’s stayed at the party well past last call and whose heavy partying is trumped only by her steadfast commitment to commitmentphobia (and, perhaps, her willingness to endure the walk of shame in outfits that approach DEFCON five).
While it may seem groundbreaking for a G.A.W.F. to grab leading-lady status, in real life grown-ass women are no more bent on becoming adults than are the boys. Yet the on-screen discrepancy persists, owing at least partially to men making most big-budget movies and, in a wholly unsurprising turn, tending to make those movies about men. The marquee is lousy with Bechdel-flunking scripts and female character shorthand: sexpot, shrew, sidekick; good girl, bad girl, cool girl, manic pixie dream girl. Complications are a non-starter.
But this shorthand is not solely the stuff of Hollywood. The world gives women precious little leeway to thwart expectations, acknowledge complications, indulge extremes. If a woman wants to be likeable, she needs to stay within the lines: too outrageous is off-putting; too smart is intimidating; too sexy is untouchable; too unconventional is too much to deal with. Too much is just too much.
And forget about not having your shit together.
Never mind that being a grown-ass fiasco is an equal-opportunity malaise. In real life, women are every bit as complicated as men and increasingly just as disinclined to join the ranks of full-fledged adults. What we get in films like Trainwreck and Preggoland is the plight of the people who’ve resisted making permanent choices, who’ve been waylaid what psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has dubbed “emerging adulthood.” And finally, in this developmental no man's land, we're getting these people in the form of women.
Fact is, marriage and parenthood are not the givens they once were. And while the trope of the commitmentphobe has long been the province of men, in reality, these days women are every bit as reluctant to pull the trigger. (Look no further than last month’s release of Kate Bolick’s book Spinster and Meghan Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, which tackle opting out of couplehood and parenthood, respectively.)
Still, the hangover of cultural expectations lingers like a cheap-whiskey (/baby shower) bender. Latently we assume that the women will rein in the men’s boyish tendencies and be the nurturing, caretaking voice of reason. That a woman will want to “settle down.”
“The fact that there is no female equivalent for the term ‘man child’ pretty much confirms the massive double standard of the Peter Pan syndrome,” Preggoland’s Bennett told me via email. “It’s important for us to put lady screw-ups on screen because we need to examine why the same adolescent qualities that look cute on a man look pathetic on a woman.”
Rebellion, immaturity, and righteous (or merely ignorant) immunity to the “shoulds” of adulthood are indulged in men. But the woman-child is, as Bennett says, something on the order of pathetic—even dangerous! If women don't want those stabilizing things—marriage, children, homes, minivans—and don't impose that stability by convincing men to sign on, then what? If, as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott once wrote, women no longer represent a check on male freedom, might it all crumble?
There's no surprise why that role has dwindling appeal. As Scott wrote, “traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for [women].” And so, who better to send it up than women?
Voices like those of Schumer, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling, Kristin Wiig, and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of "Broad City" have gone mainstream, proving that women can be funny (and not just to women), and that women’s stories can be entertaining (and not just to women). A gate has been shoved open, allowing not just light, but darkness into the room.
Spotting a grown-ass-woman fiasco on the big-screen once was rarer than a unicorn in the wild. Recent years, though, have delivered some demented damsels: Bachelorette, Bad Teacher, Laggies, and Young Adult gave us women who couldn’t get it together, who were badly behaved, selfish, stunted, alcoholic, assholic, unable—or unwilling—to give up the ghost of their younger selves. Bridesmaids landed in 2011 as a legit watershed (and not simply because, deservedly, it made Melissa McCarthy a household name) that made a quarter-billion dollars worldwide, and proof of concept that an Apatow-produced loser-comedy can be just as funny, resonant, and lucrative with women at the fore.
“[Their success] proves that there is a serious appetite for stories about female fuck-ups who refuse to apologize for not having their shit together,” says Bennett.
Granted, we are talking about fictional entertainment here. Very few of these women constitute what might be called role models. But why should they have to be?
Women are surrounded by plenty of aspirational prompts to be thinner, sexier, greener, younger, less toxiny, more successful, lean in-ier! Our lives and surroundings should be as clean and pretty as a Pinterest board. Is it any wonder that the rise of the G.A.W.F.s feels like progress? They add the smallest weight to the other side of the scale, throwing just the teensiest bit of daylight on the wildness, freedom, subversion, failure, and disaster that makes us—pause for effect—human.
“The world is going to be a better and more interesting place when women are allowed to be as dark, complicated, and selfish as men are, on screen and off,” Bennett says.
As a woman who is plenty dark, complicated, and selfish—and who happens to be wearing overalls—I’ll drink to that.