While most studio filmmaking is geared towards young men, it’s hard to deny that comedy in particular is overflowing with testosterone. Marketing materials for comedies will say “From The Guys Who Brought You…” indicating a bro-level familiarity and understanding with the audience. “We’re just a bunch of regular dudes,” these movies say. “We’re just like you, bro.” Unfortunately, “bro culture” is overrun with misogyny and homophobia, and that bigotry too often seeps into comedy. It’s not a new phenomenon, and this certainly isn’t a new complaint. Even as American culture ostensibly moves in a more tolerant direction, our mainstream moviemaking largely fails to reflect that shift. Why is begin gay still a joke to Hollywood, a place which is so often pegged as a bastion for liberals? More to the point, what does a Hollywood bro-comedy without homophobia even look like?
As of last weekend, we have an answer to the latter question. 22 Jump Street, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, can easily be mistaken for a typical, homophobia-riddled studio comedy. The central joke (aside from a cheekily meta running gag about the nature of sequels) comes from the way it paints the relationship between Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) with romantic tropes and not “bromantic” ones. At first glance, it looks like homosexuality is the target of ridicule here; after all, isn’t it using the “absurdity” of two men being in love as the basis of its humor? It’s an easy way to view the film, but it’s also an unfair one. 22 Jump Street succeeds not as a “bromance” film but as a stealth takedown of that entire genre.
The key to the film’s intentions comes fairly late in the film, when Schmidt and Jenko find the bad guys having a secret meeting. After being discovered, one of the bad guys refers to Schmidt and Jenko using a gay slur, and Jenko gets really upset. Keep in mind that, as per the first film, Jenko is supposed to appear to represent every jock/bully cliché from high school (and now college) films. In this scene, he’s literally decked out in all his football gear. And he’s upset that someone called him a gay slur. But he’s not upset that someone thinks of him as gay, he’s upset at the insensitivity of the word. And even though the danger and urgency of the situation don’t call for it, he angrily shames the bad guy for using such cruel language.
It’s an important scene, and not just for driving that message home in no uncertain terms. The film up to this point has been about the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko being tested by Jenko’s newfound friendship with Zook (Wyatt Russell), a similarly meat-headed frat-boy jock. The friendship between Jenko and Zook isn’t subtle in its resemblance to a romance. Their first encounter is referred to as a “meet-cute” through a hilariously forced pun, for example. But the film embraces homoeroticism in this regard rather than rejecting it. The symbolism of hearing the two men grunt and pant while working out is played for laughs, but the joke is based in the innuendo itself and not the gay subtext. That might sound like a stretch when taken out of context, but the film maintains this stance pretty consistently. It becomes progressive in its refusal to mask its gay subtext. And why should it? To do so would be to say that being gay is something to be ashamed of. Schmidt and Zook are never shamed for their relationship, either within the movie or on a meta-level.
Schmidt’s jealousy also draws directly from romantic comedy tropes, and it’s one of the few things in the movie that follows directly from the first film’s character development. In 21 Jump Street, Schmidt and Jenko’s relationship was filtered through a bully/nerd lens, and the reversal of those roles led to Jenko getting left behind by the newly-popular Schmidt. 22 Jump Street re-reverses those roles, and it only works because of the new rom-com context. The bully/nerd relationship morphs into a relationship between exes, and it fits surprisingly well. It’s reflective of the first movie, which painted a nerd desperate for popularity as desperate and entitled and a jock who lost that status as open and willing to find a place in other groups. In both films, everything comes down to the fact that meaningful bonds are more important than social status (in 21) or trivial pleasure (in 22).
Plenty of people are skeptical of the film’s attitude towards homosexuality, and their argument isn’t without merit.* However, I would argue that anyone laughing at this film because they think the joke is on gay people isn’t doing so because the film is telling them to. The film strongly discourages homophobia, as mentioned above, so I think it can be given the benefit of the doubt in this particular area. Even so, the film never mocks Schmidt and Jenko’s relationship; rather, it celebrates it. Their intimacy is never shown in a negative light, and it’s the key to their ability to solve crimes. Most significantly, it never walks back their relationship from the precipice of romance. The film is a metaphor for a gay relationship, but it’s a good-natured one. It’s as if the movie is a message to bros everywhere, saying loud and clear, “There is nothing wrong with loving another man.” Hollywood seems intent on selling homophobia to young men in disguise as comedy. 22 Jump Street sells tolerance to young men in disguise as homophobia. Much like Lord and Miller’s other film from this year, The Lego Movie, it’s a complex and seemingly contradictory message. Lord and Miller might be the most sneakily subversive mainstream filmmakers working today, in that they are able to undermine Hollywood tropes on a macro and micro level.
*An indefensibly transphobic scene in the middle of the movie could conceivably undercut this entire thesis.