Guess Who’s Coming to the Kegger – 22 Jump Street and Contemporary Masculinity

The most surprising moment in the cinema of 2014 occurs on top of a college football goalpost, and signals the decisive conclusion of one chapter in a paradigm shift in the representation of masculinity on screen. The scene involves Channing Tatum – this generation of populist moviegoers’ hunk of choice (and for generation read 16 – 24 months; things change so quickly these days in the world of celebrity that it’s a good thing Tatum is a talented actor as well as inhabiting the kind of body that magazine editors still insist on claiming as one of only two or three kinds that can be considered beautiful. His actorly chops can keep on maturing, long after his age-bound sex appeal has faded.)

The scene takes place inside 22 Jump Street, the satirical sequel to the affectionate take down of the po-faced ‘80s TV show 21 Jump Street; co-written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who earlier this year brought us the joyous LEGO Movie, a shiny corporate product that managed to be both vastly entertaining and bitingly critical of the very hand that fed it, while also offering a replacement to the myth of redemptive violence. It wasn’t fair to expect them to achieve the same heights twice, but 22 Jump Street certainly strives to be hilarious and provocative, poking fun at the sequelitis that demands follow up films differ from their forebears only in terms of faster cars and bigger explosions, and offering another replacement myth: this time for the buddy cop archetype – guys who sorta hate each other, but eventually save each other’s lives, while ensuring that they each have a woman on the side to confirm their heterosexuality and credibility as truly American men.

The replacement myth in 22 Jump Street is nothing less than the queering of the buddy cop movie, and the scene I’ve been referring to is the most explicit reference in that direction. Tatum and his new best friend are sitting atop the goalpost, talking about life, and discovering all the things that they have in common. It’s a scene that has been played dozens of times before, but typically in romantic comedies for the hunk of meat to reveal his sensitive side, and the pretty girl to show her playful or funny cards. This time they’re both hunks of meat, they’re both funny, and they’re both revealing sensitivity, to the extent where I really believed they were going to kiss each other. So far, so unusual – for a mainstream American comedy to be sure.

But what was more interesting than the scene itself was the fact that the audience was almost expecting it; they weren’t laughing nervously as audiences often do when something happens in a movie that might be considered a little too gay for mainstream sensibilities. They were with the characters, enjoying their interplay, smiling at the fact that they were happy. And if they kissed – not bothered at all.

This – to my mind – was a more powerful and socially transformative moment than anything in Ang Lee’s 2004 Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful and aching drama about same-sex love amidst horrendous personal and social pressure, which had to portray gay or bi relationships as doomed because in such contexts they often are. or Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s good faith 1992 attempt at telling a gay story, but whose idea of intimacy between men was a kiss that would not be out of place between a grandmother and her pet puppy, and which again emerged in a context where the only gay story that could be told was a tragic one.

Twenty years later, in 22 Jump Street, same-sex love between men is a given. Whether you call it queer, gay, bi, bromance, or friendship, something happens in this film that has not been seen in mainstream comedy before: the expression of the notion that two guys could love each other in ways that previously would have met with public opprobrium or worse, and not only is it not played for laughs, it is assumed that everyone should be ok with it.

At a climactic moment our heroes respond to a gunpoint threat accompanied by a homophobic slur by hilariously shaming the slur-maker with the postmodern twist on Gandhian nonviolence that is ‘You can’t say that! This is 2014!’ The audience knows this too, but when Channing Tatum says it, it may have far more force than when articulated at a pride parade or on the floor of Congress. Just as when Zach Galifianakis can recruit hundreds of thousands of young people to sign up for health insurance when conventional public service announcements fail, or how Stephen Colbert speaks prophetically about the kind of American Jesus might want to be, it seems that one of the most effective steps toward reducing prejudice this era is not just included in, but is actually the subtext of a summer blockbuster comedy hit. A gentle affirmation of what is just, accompanied by a public shaming, and an invitation to change behavior. This is nothing less than what Walter Wink called ‘Jesus’ Third Way’ between fight and flight.

The journey toward understanding that is represented in 22 Jump Street is not complete–guns are eventually used to ‘save’ the day, and there’s a pretty horrifying transphobic/prison rape joke early on and repeated at the very end of the film, which may indicate some residual fear on the part of the filmmakers that they need to be sure to reinscribe the boundaries of maleness if they’re going to go so far toward endorsing same-sex affection; or just that idiotic writing can sometimes flow from the same pen as wisdom.

It’s easy to make jokes from a place of privilege—and these days it’s undeniable that the T in LGBT* has less privilege than the L, G or even the B. There’s also a troubling scene, played as a joke, wherein Jonah Hill’s character punches a female; the fact that she is portrayed as comedically overweight and cloying aiming to justify his unjustifiable reaction. The message seems to be that if she is fat and a villain, then it can’t be violence against women: because what she really is is a bad guy. In these examples, 22 Jump Street may be trying to have its cake and eat it – it has become safe to advocate for gay rights, and so the film participates; it’s still somewhat culturally ok to make fun of transfolk, so the film jumps on board; and punching the woman may be a way of answering any remaining audience members who fear the queer.

Now, despite what some good folk may think, the very idea of what it means to be a man has been in flux throughout history, and the notion of masculinity equating purely to machismo stereotypes has never been the only resource available to filmmakers telling stories about men. Rebel Without A Cause shouted the angst of post-war male teenage disaffection, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name was subtly compassionate, even Superman had a chemical imbalance that made it hard for him to stay strong in the presence of Kryptonite. But intimacy between male heroes previously always had to stop short of something that looked gay

22 Jump Street stumbles in its widely offensive transphobia and periodic misogyny; but these may be unconscious rather than strategic choices. The overall movement is toward human beings not taking ourselves too seriously, and opening up to the defense of historically marginalized groups. The fantastically interesting thing about 22 Jump Street is that it doesn’t matter if the characters are gay, straight, bi or whatever – because they inhabit a moral universe in which people are judged not by who they want to love, but by the content of their character.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland currently living in the United States. If you enjoy his writing here, you should really check out his two books on cinema an despecially his latest, Cinematic States, in which he travels throughout his adopted homeland considering what makes America America through the lens of its movies.