While Sausage Party could very well be a masterwork or, as summertime releases are more often referred to, “a delightful romp,” the premise is more or less the logical endpoint of a career Seth Rogen has put over a decade and a lot of hard work into: telling schlubby white dudes that if they refuse to change their ways long enough, Katherine Heigl will be their girlfriend.
First of all, inspiring!
Second of all, the world might be slowly recovering from the inanity of the manchild archetype (the author types hopefully, submerged in a dunk tank of nth-wave feminist optimism).
The manchild trope has been around for time immemorial, fading in and out of popularity depending on which hyper-masculine Bond-like characters had their vice grips on the public opinion. It’s generated billions of dollars in ticket sales over the course of movie history, and generally fall into two buckets: the ridiculous manchild and the lovable manchild.
The first is all the goofy guys who are socially inept, often parodied caricatures of mental illness, who are there to spout dialogue that will become novelty t-shirts and are designed to be laughed at, not with. Examples include Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Stepbrothers, Will Ferrell in Elf, Adam Sandler in everything except Spanglish and maybe that 9/11 movie, Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, Jeff Daniels in Dumb & Dumber, Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, and countless more. We’ll talk about them another day.
The second is the reason Sausage Party was allowed to happen in the first place, aside from Sony executives wanting to take a bath in ill-gotten horny teenage boy money: the loveable manchild is why Rogen has a career at all.
While he’s certainly not alone in making his way with the lovable manchild wind in his sails—Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, Michael Cera and the Duplass Brothers are just as guilty—Sausage Party just may be what Rogen’s entire career has been building up to. How could his body of work not have led to being paid millions to write an extended animated dick joke with a female protagonist that has a vagina for a mouth?
Pause the piece: behold, vagina mouth.
Beginning with Freaks and Geeks, the partnership between producer Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen has yielded millions in the past fifteen years, and provided a new generation (must I say it? I will say it, millennial, okay now I have to gargle) of men characters that they see themselves in, wrought from videogames, social isolation and a little excess flesh. Rogen, like others before him, manages to make this archetype accessible via a perfect storm of charm, lack of personal progress, and the inevitable ability to make A-list female celebrities fall in love with them in spite of it.
Between 2007 and 2009, Rogen lived out the Renaissance of the manchild, beginning with one-night-stand-turned-Heigl’s-baby-daddy in Knocked Up (2007), would-be porn star Zack in Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), Dale Denton in stoner epic Pineapple Express (2008), chubby mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report (2009), and Ira Wright in Funny People (2009). (He held smaller parts in Superbad and Step Brothers in this period, but let’s focus on titles where he’s the box office draw.) Each and every one of these films feature Rogen in the underdog role, the sweatpants-clad Peter Pan whose smoking habit is neutralized by the fact that the character is packaged, written and directed by a man with a similar habit. Collectively, these films made nearly half a billion dollars in two years.
The manchild can be an effective and funny character, and I’ll be the first to admit that I watched Pineapple Express in a group of college freshmen I was trying to fit in with more than once. What really defines these manchild characters, as it undoubtedly will in Sausage Party, is how the women around them react to them in the arc of the story, a tactic that has drawn ire from the women playing these roles themselves, particularly in the case of Heigl and Knocked Up. Heigl was quoted in a 2008 Vanity Fair interview criticizing the movie as “a little sexist” and depicting “the women as shrews” and “men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” (It should be noted that it was Apatow who wrote Knocked Up, not Rogen.)
At the time, Rogen responded, saying “I gotta say, it’s not like we’re the only people she said some batshit crazy things about.” Apatow was more reserved but said of her movie at the time, The Ugly Truth, “I hear there’s a scene where she’s wearing underwear with a vibrator in it, so I’d have to see if that was uplifting for women.”
Oh boy. Seven years and a smidge of progress later, Rogen now says he is “sympathetic” to Heigl’s criticism, while Heigl backpedaled on the comments after an acting dry spell.
The manchild boom started to slow down around 2010, with Paul Feig’s female-helmed juggernauts like Bridesmaids and Spy taking off. For a moment Rogen moved on, as did the world. While Todd Phillips’ The Hangover capitalized on the cultural moment jumpstarted by Apatow and Rogen and became the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all in 2009, the 2010s saw the stream of derivative manchildren characters mixing with an ever-increasing presence of female-driven movies and unusual comedies. Bridesmaids only trailed The Hangover II as the top-grossing comedy of 2011, The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy made far more than The Hangover III in America in 2013, and both top-grossing films last year were female-driven with Pitch Perfect 2 and Spy with Melissa McCarthytopping the list. Melissa McCarthy has been the most dependable comedy draw in Hollywood over the last five years. This year the sexually ambiguous superhero comedy Deadpool is the current box office frontrunner among comedies—perhaps the furthest thing from a late-’00s Rogen character.
During this time Rogen appeared in a few animated films and prestige parts, as so many comedians who wanted lots of money and an Oscar nomination had before him. He established himself as a director with This Is The End (2013), which riffed on the public personas of him and his manchildren friends, and The Interview (2014), both of which he starred in. He didn’t entirely retire his stock character, but it wasn’t nearly as present as it was the last half of the last decade.
Let’s be clear: the manchildren, and Rogen’s penchant for them, aren’t going away, because they can still make a lot of money. For every Spy there is a Ted. For every Pitch Perfect there is a Neighbors, where poor Rose Byrne is relegated to the Katherine Heigl role opposite Rogen with an expert “that’s my husband!” shake of the head. (Why all the manchild movies, Rose? Adult Beginners? You were on Damages with Glenn Close—have some integrity!) Sausage Party, a movie written by a high millionaire, is going to make a lot of money. The difference is, there are finally alternatives.
Possibly the only characters that subvert the manchild in an effective way are the women children in Broad City, a show centered around slackers Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer that’s been received to nothing short of critical orgasm. Broad City isn’t anything approaching a Rogen joint, though—while its stoners are the heart of the show, it pivots on exploring friendship dynamics, relationships and every conceivable kind of weed, where its males counterpoints tend to lean harder in tricking women into liking them, Jackass style stunts and, yes, okay, every conceivable kind of weed.
It’s completely possible that the Broad City model will grow stale with time as well, but for the moment Abbi and Ilana offer a new interpretation of a stock character that’s anything but lazy in its execution. In a TV landscape littered with manchild premises including Workaholics and Trailer Park Boys, there are plenty of alternatives for a female audience, though it should be noted that shows about women with ambition tend to fare far better (look no further than the bitch lawyer trope).
Ironically, a lot of the options now available, such as HBO’s Girls, are due to the producing savvy of Judd Apatow, effectively correcting a problem he himself introduced. The manchild isn’t dead yet, but he’s limping because of all the vagina mouths that finally have women-centric alternatives.
Still, at the end of the day, Seth Rogen is Canadian, and we should deport him. We’re gonna have to get creative with Jason Segel and Vince Vaughn.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer who has started a Change.org petition for all women to apologize to Seth Rogen. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.