In 21 Jump Street two cops went undercover in a high school, so of course in the sequel they go undercover in a college. One of the classes that Channing Tatum’s character takes as part of his cover is humanity sexuality, and the class leads him to a moment of personal discovery. Tatum says that he remembers using homophobic slurs when he was in high school (Jonah Hill pipes in that yes, he did, and he used them against Hill) but now he sees that this was wrong. The scene is meant to be setting up a later gunfight in the school’s library which will start after Tatum is called a gay slur, but it actually did something different for me: it gave me a good insight into why bromance movies became a thing.
If you go back and watch 80’s comedies they make a lot of jokes you just can’t make now. There was a lot of weird racism and misogyny in those movies and almost all of them use the word “fag” at some point. In the last ten or twenty years, however, our culture started to evolve and more liberal standards began to take hold. The scene in Teen Wolf where Michael J Fox says “I’m not a fag, I’m a werewolf” just wouldn’t fly today because someone other than the villain is using the f-bomb. (Honestly I sort of can’t believe that scene ever flew, because re-read that sentence. It’s got more problems than mere homophobia.) Tatum’s cop character is right: it might be okay for someone who is gay to call someone else a queer, but that word probably isn’t for straight people to use anymore, so modern movies like 22 Jump Street are only going to be careful how they use it.
I think what happened was that at some point Hollywood backed off a bit from having white dudes make jokes at anyone else’s expense out of fear that their movies would look anti-semitic / homophobic / misogynistc / racist / etc. At the same time, they didn’t want to back off of having white dudes be the leads in movies. That meant that the only jokes that could be made had to be made at other straight white people. Thus the bromance was born: if your comedy only needs characters that can be the butt of the joke and you feel that straight white dudes are the only people you can make fun of then you only cast straight white dudes in your comedies. Women got cut out of the script a little bit because the studios didn’t want to walk into the sort of backlash that greeted Knocked Up, which was openly criticized for having it’s female characters come across as shrews.
Now, getting around that circumstance seems like it would be fairly easy. A middle ground where we have a mixture of diversity on screen but everyone is treated kindly sounds reasonable, but I suspect that’s harder than it looks. Channing Tatum plays a classically dumb guy in 22 Jump Street, but he does so just because dumb guys are good for punchlines. On the other hand Donald Glover’s dumb jock character on Community often felt like it was veering between commenting on stereotypes about black athletes and indulging in some of those same stereotypes for a laugh. Both of those characters have a lot of the same stock attributes, but because Donald Glover is black it reads differently for him. Adding more diversity to a cast doesn’t necessarily add any humor to the proceedings, but it does add more areas where you have to tread lightly.
At the end of the day I’m not really sure how I feel about this theory (if it even is true). On the one hand, the increased emphasis on tolerance is creating a more humanitarian world, which is good. On the other hand, if the extra layers of criticism that artists have been exposed to since the advent of the internet is making it so that they are so self-conscious about what they can and cannot say that they won’t venture out of their comfort zone to try to document or interact with other groups of people – well, that’s going to lead to us having a less open culture as a byproduct, and that’s bad. So where do we go from here?
The ultimate irony of what I’ve written is that I actually thought that 22 Jump Street was a really funny movie, and instead of writing a review that portrays how much fun I had watching it, I’m droning on about cultural questions are are fairly tangential to the movie. In all this time I haven’t mentioned how much I liked the bad drug trip scene, or the octopus attack, or commented on how great the chemistry is between Tatum and Hill. But that’s the world we live in, I guess, where thinking about whether or not we’re “making progress as a people” is suddenly more important to talk about than whether or not “a guy getting an octopus stuck to his face” is funny.