Maybe it was the ridiculously detailed penis doodles that hooked me.
There's a scene in Superbad in which Seth (Jonah Hill, in his breakout role) admits to his best friend Evan (Michael Cera) that when he was younger, he had an obsessive habit of drawing penises everywhere. In flashback, a classmate discovers one of those pictures and tells the principal — and Seth is forced to see a therapist, forbidden from eating phallic-shaped foods.
"You know how many foods are shaped like [expletive]?" Seth asks. "The best kinds."
Or it could have been the uber-nerdy Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) showing off his fake ID card, and a flabbergasted Seth and Evan dissing his choice to go by the singular name McLovin. "What, are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?" Evan groans.
Whatever it was, after I saw Superbad in the summer of 2007, when I was 19, it promptly became a favourite of mine. I bought the two-disc "unrated" special edition DVD. I quoted the movie in casual conversation. ("Samesies!" "I'm going to be there, for sure. Full throttle. 'Charlie's Angels 2.' ") At a time when Facebook was little more than a bulletin board on which to declaratively pin the facets of your personality through the groups you joined and the pages you liked, "Superbad" earned its place on my profile.
Every now and then I would return to the movie, and it would be (mostly) like old times. At some point I was troubled by the casual, unchecked homophobia peppered throughout the dialogue, an unfortunately all-too-common side effect of revisiting the things you loved in your more oblivious youth.
During a more recent rewatch a couple of years ago — it might have been around the dawn of the #MeToo era — I was hyper-aware of the inherent bro-iness of the film: The piggish jokes the police officers, played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, make about Hader's character's wife (and ex-wife), whom we never see on screen. Seth's horndog remarks about women's body parts that suggest both fixation and revulsion. ("Have you ever seen a vagina by itself? Not for me.") The woman Seth dances with at a house party, credited as Period Blood Girl. The flatness of Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac), who exist solely as the objects of Seth's and Evan's affections.
Yet Superbad was far from ruined for me. It's still fun, and what I probably appreciate the most now is the film's surprisingly progressive (for its time) view that taking sexual advantage of drunk women is really not OK. But as I've gotten older, I've also re examined why I was drawn to certain things when I was younger. When it came to Superbad, it was all about optics.
At some point as a kid, I unconsciously inherited the belief that to be a girl was to be less than and thus undesirable. Classmates mocked throwing/kicking/running "like a girl" in gym class. The boys and men in the movies and TV shows I consumed were usually the protagonists, the ones the audience is supposed to identify with from beginning to end. Girls and women were often outnumbered and peripheral, siloed as the love interest. For every Never Been Kissed or Love and Basketball, there's a seemingly infinite supply of American Pie.
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And so I attempted to identify with the male heroes of these stories, perhaps to the point of over correction. I couldn't feign even a passing interest in ESPN, but when I became obsessed with all things movie-related around middle school, it was easy enough to channel my own version of the "cool girl" (as Gillian Flynn so astutely defined women who assume the identity of a demeaning male fantasy in Gone Girl) into film nerd-dom.
When you're an impressionable teen entering that vast world, you'll look to devour the canons and seek out the so-called authoritative voices on film. The "definitive" lists of the "best" and "must-see" movies. You might date guys who insist Wes Anderson is God and Quentin Tarantino's gender and race politics aren't up for debate. Your film history class may only devote one session to female filmmakers for the entire semester.
And if you're a woman or a person of colour, you may not immediately notice that hardly any of the movies or filmmakers in these collections speak directly to your existence because the erasure is so deeply woven into the fabric of pop culture that it seems unremarkable. You're just revelling in your obsession.
I saw — and still do, to some extent — one's movie preferences as a deliberate form of sartorial display. As much as I enjoyed Superbad, there was also a bit of performance to my enjoyment. It was a way for me to both conform and stand out as a black girl who could love a raunchy, cartoonishly violent buddy comedy relying heavily on penis jokes. Putting, say, Mean Girls on my dating profile when I was in my early 20s was to be expected. (Based on its cross-cultural popularity in the mid-'00s, Anchorman was also predictable.) Superbad was a "cool" and edgy choice; it showed men that I was chill. Or so my regrettable thinking went.
I look back on that version of myself now and cringe. Earlier this summer, I caught up with Booksmart, Olivia Wilde's directing debut about two overachieving high school girls determined to break out of their self-imposed social segregation and party with their classmates (and maybe hook up with their crushes) before graduation. As critics have noted, it shares much of its DNA with Superbad — Jonah Hill's younger sister Beanie Feldstein even plays one of the leads.
I couldn't help but feel sad that I didn't have more films like Booksmart when I was actually a teenager, movies that centred girls' perspectives and friendships but still had that spike of raunchiness and subversion. Superbad was surrounded by cohorts — all of the Frat Pack films, Napoleon Dynamite. Yet even in 2019, Booksmart feels like an outlier in the same way Bridesmaids did in 2011 and Girls Trip did just a couple of years ago. The number of women with leading roles in major film releases remains abysmal, and were I younger now, I might still buy into the lie that women's stories just aren't that important. I don't blame my younger self, though. I've grown wiser now — Hollywood could stand to catch up.
Written by: Aisha Harris
Photographs by: Tony Cenicola
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES