“The Demise of the Female Slacker”: The subtitle of Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up in Slate confused me. At the end of the piece, O’Rourke bemoaned the paucity of female slackers in cinema. Her main point was that the women in Knocked Up were allowed neither the “luxury of not having to be relentlessly responsible,” nor the playful inner lives of their male slacker counterparts. She sounded as though a long and noble tradition had fallen by the wayside. The review left me asking: What female slacker?
Slackerdom is an attitude more than a given set of actions (or inactions). Take Peter (Ron Livingston) from Office Space; he works nine-to-five, but is an undeniable slacker. He does his job reluctantly and perfunctorily and, when asked what he would do if he had a million dollars and didn’t have to work, he replies, “Nothing. I would relax … I would sit on my ass all day … I would do nothing.” But, when you watch Office Space, you still want to hang out with a slacker like Peter—sometimes even sleep with him—because, when it comes down to it, he seems like an alright guy.
The tradition of slackerdom is a long and varied one. For the nineteenth century, there was Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur, the urban man-about-town who expressed his bohemian values by wandering the streets and waxing poetic and philosophic. The flaneur is the father of all Andrew Bujalski slackers: white, educated, directionless males thinking deep thoughts about life, the arts and themselves. As an unproductive member of society, the flaneur combines the stigmatized or marginalized existence of the beggar with the superior hauteur of the artist.
Also of this era was The Idler (1892-1911), a magazine founded by Robert Barr and co-edited by humorist Jerome K. Jerome, which bespoke the mod (hip, if you will) nature of the idle intellectual reader (who, like most slackers, was necessarily male). Barr’s title referred to his reader. It was inspired by Samuel Johnson’s The Idler (1758-1760), which had introduced writing itself as a form of idleness: something to do if (1) you have nothing better to do or (2) have something better to do but need an activity with which to procrastinate. (Let it also be known that Johnson started The Idler to avoid his more dignified projects.) But I digress … Idleness in early modernity is slacking today.
The flaneuse (“flaneur” in the feminine) appeared only later, when department stores provided an acceptable place for women to do their own aimless walking. The emergence of the flaneuse coincided with the emergence of women as consumers and shopping as a distinctly feminine pastime. Since money is always implied in the consumer equation, the beginning of women’s social and consumer currency was marked by advertising that represented women as cosmopolitans.
The evolution of the flaneuse forked in two different directions: one toward the socialite shopaholics, like the pre-Simple Life Paris Hiltons and the wealthy housewives who do little besides spend daddy’s or hubby’s money, and the other toward successful women, the progenitors of Samantha and Miranda from Sex and the City, who use their purchases to express their power and independence. Of course, the nineteenth-century flaneuse was stigmatized for reasons hardly specific to slackerdom (i.e., vanity, spending too much money, etc.). She did not need to be characterized by aloofness. Just being a woman—out on the town and asserting economic influence—was troubling enough.
There’s hardly a decent, hard-working person among the pilgrims of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but the Wife of Bath may be the female slacker’s oldest English ancestor. She connives her way from one husband to another, collecting property and wealth along the way without ever having to work a job. Chaucer uses the same raunchy sense of humor for the Wife of Bath as he does for all of his characters. And her whole Prologue consists of a defense against the judgment she anticipates from her fellow pilgrims. Lack of acceptance from society is a critical problem that female slackers still face today.
The Wife of Bath also raises the problem of feminine slacker sexuality. She is famous for her sexual licentiousness, or to put it bluntly, being a slut. She epitomizes the female slacker of yesteryear as a vagina on legs. How different is the Wife of Bath from Desperate Housewives’ Gabrielle Solis, whose original M.O. was to kill time until the lawnboy showed up?
The Wife of Bath tells a fable built around the question of what women want, which has two answers. The first is given by the Wife directly during a digression from the story: she says that women want to be secretive. The second is given as the moral of her story: women want to choose their own fates. Consequently, in her everyday life as described in her Prologue, the Wife has to trick her various husbands into thinking that her desires are theirs. And in the Tale, the woman who teaches the knight the answer to the question becomes the most mainstream woman possible: beautiful and well-behaved. Neither the Wife of Bath nor the woman in the story she tells becomes a female slacker accepted and legitimized by her culture.
Chaucer’s male slackers are similarly licentious, but they never have to hide it. Consider that in the same poem that denigrates the Wife’s lasciviousness, “hende Nicholas,” a slacker Oxford student, is the hero of his tale for cuckolding his industrious landlord. Consider also today’s quintessential male slackers: Peter, Ben, The Dude. All get laid and all, except Peter, father children. And it is far from a crisis for any of them.
Contemporary female slackers, like the Wife of Bath, always end up having to give up or cover up their slackerdom in order to be accepted. In all cases, though, the problem of unacceptance twists the purer past-times of male slackers (having fun, writing poetry, starting a web site of naked movie stars) into the contrived schemes female slackers fall into to gain legitimacy, which generally prove too burdensome to maintain for long. The history of the female slacker is a tragic one; at the last second, pure slackerdom is always compromised for those traditional female virtues: domesticity, popularity, the responsibilities of family and/or work. Which is why we’re still looking for the first legitimate female slacker.
Despite their supposedly progressive bent, many of the recent romantic comedies express outdated prejudices about women and humor. In his New York Times review of the Apatow- produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), A.O. Scott identified the prevailing ethos of the genre: “Girls, ideally, should have a sense of humor—mainly so they can laugh at those [men’s] jokes—but for the most part they should look good in a bikini and like sex (though not too much and not anything too weird).” This is a different dimension of the problem for female slackers. What happens when they don’t particularly like sex? If they’re ambivalent, indifferent or outright repulsed?
More schemes are employed to cover up women’s real desire (or lack thereof), like “The Penis Song” from The Sweetest Thing. Three ladies sit down to dinner and ask, “How was he?” Answer: average. Which raises the million-dollar question, “So what did you tell him?” Little by little, they break into song and dance and everyone at the restaurant joins in. With lines like, “You’re too big to fit in here,” this musical number is all about the flattery women deploy when faced with cocks and sex of equally mediocre appeal. Since women are supposed to live up to the ideal Scott describes, they need a lie like this to cover up their real feelings and gain legitimacy and acceptance. But in the biggest cover-up of all, “The Penis Song” was cut from the U.S. theatrical release of the film; apparently, the gross sexual honesty so natural to the mainstream male slacker was not even presentable from the standpoint of his female counterpart.
Indeed, a large part of why The Sweetest Thing tanked in the box office was its bawdy and gross sense of humor, according to reviewers. The movie was seen as a flop, grossing just under $25 million domestic (the budget was $43 million), and was largely panned for being “too raunchy.” Due to Cameron Diaz’s presence, reviewers claimed that Sweetest unsuccessfully recycled the jokes from There’s Something About Mary ($176 million domestic). Regardless of whether anything was ripped off (nothing was), Mary’s gross-out and sexual humor was acceptable because it was told from a straight guy’s perspective. The same kinds of jokes were unsuccessful in Sweetest because they were told by women.
Speaking of, let’s recall another Apatow moment from Superbad. The young Seth (Jonah Hill) intends to hijack some beer from a party, but not before a hot older chick grinds him through a song on the stereo. As he tries to make his exit with the lifted beer, a couple of older guys tease him about a stain on his pants. No, he didn’t spill the beer: Hot Chick was on her period and ground the blood onto poor Seth’s jeans, drawing a good laugh from the teasing guys and audiences alike. What this joke proves is that even feminine fluids are funny … as long as they’re exploited for laughs by men. Unequal access to slacker-comedy is part of the challenge faced by the female slacker.
We’ve only recently encountered characters like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Arrested Development’s Lindsay Bluth Funke (Portia de Rossi). These women begin to set a precedent for a future female slacker, but not the kind that will satisfy O’Rourke or me. Dee and Lindsay are always looking for the easy way out, generally in this week’s get-rich-quick scheme: a staple slacker pastime. But both women are decidedly bad people of the unprincipled, unrelatable sort.
Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) from Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) comes closer, being herself a relatable and sympathetic chararacter. She works a temp job and lives a life so transient that she can hop in her friend’s van on a moment’s notice just to see where it will take her. But she’s also the only character that writes a self-improvement to-do list with points like: drink less. Moreover, she’s the only character in the movie who, in Bujalski’s opinion, needs to improve herself.
Marnie also pines after Alex (Christian Rudder), who is less a character than a collection of hipster clichés. The audience is supposed to believe Alex works a successful job (which we never see him do), yet he dresses and behaves like he’s threadbare, unemployed and going nowhere in life. The penultimate scene of the movie provides the best side-by-side comparison of the two: a self-improved Marnie, almost out of breath from working so hard at her new (permanent) job as a research assistant, happens upon the heroically unchanged Alex. But for some reason, Marnie is played as disheveled and taken aback by calm and carefree Alex. Marnie is denied, by herself, by Alex, and by the audience, the one thing that straight-white-male slackers are automatically granted: acceptance. This is why Marnie’s whole story is pitched as a crisis, breaking with a cardinal rule of slackerdom: slacking is never a crisis, it’s living the dream.
While Sweet Dee, Lindsay and Marnie don’t have what it takes to fill the bill as legitimate female slackers, they are close enough to show us what it might take. Another step closer to acceptance, legitimacy, and access to the brand of humor male slackers take for granted is Taco Bell’s “Bacon Club Chalupa” (2008) commercial. There they are: two attractive young women sitting down at a bar preparing to have a good time. The blonde, unable to believe what she’s smelling, sniffs bacon in the air. Her friend reveals a Bacon Club Chalupa in her purse as well as her plan to use it as man-bait. The blonde may smell bacon, but I smell slacker. An integral part of slackerdom is that there’s never any motivation to work hard, unless it involves a shortcut. The brunette’s looking to pick up a hot guy tonight, but she’s not interested in putting in the work for the pick-up. She doesn’t even have the patience to demurely sit on her slacker-ass and wait for one of them to pick her up (impatience being another common slacker trait). She opts to lure ‘em in with delicious fast food. Again, her blonde friend doesn’t quite believe this scheme will work. But before you can say Taco Supreme, three hot young men appear out of nowhere. If her friend had trouble believing what she was seeing before, she’s a believer now. The licentiousness and scheming are still present, but for the first time they are being used as part of a corporation’s strategy for success—to gain widespread appeal and acceptance … at least for Chalupas.
When O’Rourke says what Knocked Up’s women want is “the luxury of not having to be relentlessly responsible,” she’s putting her finger on a privilege—a luxury—that all underrepresented individuals look for in depictions of themselves. That Apatow’s straight- white-male slackers are lovable and acceptable means people accept that straight white men are individuals whose personalities vary greatly; one male slacker doesn’t doom all men to reputations as slackers. The less privileged the group is, the less slackerdom is permitted. It’s much easier for a depiction of a minority slacker to be seen as a detriment to their group by members and non-members alike (“Stop making us look bad” and “This is why you’re in this position”).
But more is at stake here than cultural privilege; there’s also financial privilege—namely, profit. In using the cute young trickster to sell their new Bacon Club Chalupa, Taco Bell sees the female slacker as a profitable commodity. Of course commodification opens up the potential for exploitation, but that’s not enough to make me want to turn back. I accept, and expect, that there will be bad and exploitative depictions of the female slacker. But these would likely take their cue from the successful ones. That is why even our recent female slacker failures give me some hope for a future when we can get past the oppression of the stereotype, identified by O’Rourke, that the female slacker … slackens.