Pop Culture

5 Reasons the Manchild in Movies Needs to Go

I’d like to expand on something my buddy Chris Lane said recently about movie stereotypes that should be eradicated. One of those that he mentioned is the bumbling manchild character, usually played by Adam Sandler, who arrestedly develops throughout the movie into becoming a real person.

Lane’s objection to the tropes he mentioned was mostly that they are artistically tired after decades of use. And he’s right. It Follows is a much better horror commentary on promiscuity than yet another version of Jason Voorhees slicing his way through buxom camp counselors (but not as good as Angela Baker from the Sleepaway Camp sequels because nothing is better than Angela Baker). I’d like to go deeper into the rabbit hole on the manchild trope, though, and how it’s not only tired but messing up society.

Note to readers: If you’re one of the people convinced that the media we consume has no effect on your life, feel free to color while the adults are talking.

5. They Trivialize Entire Art Mediums
I could illustrate this entire article from Pixels, but at this point it feels like tripping a kid on crutches, so instead I’ll use what is probably the strongest manchild film from an artistic standpoint, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There’s this big scene in which Steve Carrell puts away his action figure collection and video games to get ready for a date. You’ll find this in countless other movies. The immature nature of the character is expressed in a love of gaming, comics, anime, etc.

This sort of thing is not only terribly outdated but continues to hold back multiple media forms as inferior art expressions at the expense of a cheap joke. These things are for kids, and by proxy, everyone who likes them as an adult who needs to grow up.

Which is ridiculously insulting to art forms that have made great strides in the past three decades. Anyone who seriously thinks comics can’t beat novels has never read The Twelve or Fables: The Last Castle or Bitch Planet. As for video games, has Christopher Nolan ever honestly done something that Bioshock Infinite didn’t do better? The best movie about World War II ever made isn’t live action; it’s Grave of the Fireflies. Hell, Up is one of the deepest, most mature films ever made, but it’s still considered kids’ stuff. I blame this partly for these mediums being the go-to interest of manchild characters.

4. They Also Trivialize Occupations
Another hallmark of the manchild is that he always holds what’s considered a menial job. Sandler in Big Daddy is a toll taker despite having a law degree and being a legal genius. They’re waiters, or they work in a big-box store, or in the case of Office Space, they may have what’s considered skilled employment but we’re shown that their work is essentially without meaning.

In most cases, these characters show their development by leaving these jobs behind. Peter Gibbons rejects his cubicle monkey work to build houses in Office Space. Dean in Waiting goes back to school instead of taking an assistant manager'a position. And so on.

I truly hate this trope because it furthers the idea that there are kid jobs and real jobs, which makes it all the more easy for the bosses of the world to pay workers below a living wage for certain work. Don’t believe me? Look at any comment section of any story regarding the minimum wage and you’ll find tons of people happy to tell you that running a counter at Best Buy isn’t supposed to be enough to live on even though that’s exactly what the minimum wage was designed to do. What’s even weirder is that these employers in the films are often populated by a very mixed-age cast of workers who serve as both humorous ensemble and a subtle threat that you don’t want to be weird like that guy still waiting tables at 40. Never mind the fact that maybe some 40-year-old is waiting tables at night to save up enough to go back to school and get a nurse license, or some single mom works nights because she has no day care and no other skills.

3. They Tell You Women Are the Answer to All Your Problems
This one is particularly dangerous. In most cases, our beloved manchild is a free-swinging bachelor. Not always, and again Carrell in 40-Year-Old Virgin is a great example from a good film. That’s where a pretty but capable woman is supposed to show up and illustrate both how he’s wrong and what the reward is for being right (it’s boobs).

Two problems with this. One, it nearly always kind of creepily casts the romantic interest in a weird mother-figure sort of way. This woman is supposed to teach our hero how to be an adult or judge his progress, and once he’s safely evolved out of childhood, they can bone. This is why every Adam Sandler movie is sort of like reading a news story in which a female teacher was found sleeping with a male student. (Author's Note: Annnnnnnnnd I was just informed that is an actual thing that happened in an Adam Sandler movie I thankfully haven't seen). 

Second, it broadcasts this stupid, dangerous idea that what you need to become a better person is someone to love you. The fact that someone loves and accepts you means you’re a better person now. That’s just nonsense, and it leads to a whole new level of misogyny when it doesn’t turn out that way in real life. You are never going to grow up by trying to win a woman’s heart. You win a woman’s heart by already being a grown-up, and being a grown-up involves knowing that women are people with agency, not trophies. Sex is not a reward for your personal journey, no matter how many times you see it on the screen.

2. They Imply It’s a Normal Phase
The main problem with the manchild is that he is everywhere, both on screen and in the people he calls to as a hero. Where once this sort of character was a bizarre anomaly seen only in the pages of A Confederacy of Dunces, you’re almost expected to include the manchild, if not as a hero then at least as a beloved sidekick.

If you ask me, it’s what happens when the teens who were appropriately disillusioned in the ‘90s grew older and started to make art. Everything seems to harken back to the glory days when you could sit on a couch covered in cigarette burns in a roach nest apartment in Montrose playing Resident Evil and still feeling as if you’re part of a culturally relevant rebuttal of yuppie consumerism and ambition left over from the Reagan years. That those glory days existed largely because we were basking in an economic boom that no longer exists is washed away in nostalgic blindness. We don’t have time for the manchild to wait until he’s 30 and meets the right girl to morph into a productive member of society, and there’s no reason why we should.

1. It’s Sooooooooo Privileged
I don’t want to pick on Adam Sandler. He seems like a legitimately nice guy and I can’t in good conscience fault Sandler for keeping on making the kinds of films Hollywood rewards him for making.

That said, you know what I’ve never seen in an Adam Sandler flick? Him struggling to make the rent. Or how about this, him even facing anti-Semitism. Even in Eight Crazy Nights, he owns his own, albeit small, trailer home and the whole town is so Jew-friendly it has Hanukkah decorations at official events. His struggle is always against his own tendency not to evolve and never against outside forces beyond his control.

It’s just so classist and boring. Is there anything more privileged than the quest to find yourself? Yes, I’ve read Siddhartha, and Buddha was a prince who could have gone back to being a prince whenever he damn well pleased, just as Sandler in Big Daddy could have taken up law again whenever he wanted to.

Look, I like an existential quest as much as the next guy, but why is this the most prevalent narrative in male-led comedy? It has its place, and I live in hope of a Less Than Zero remake in a time when you could do that book properly, but in this day and age, could we maybe switch the focus of art away from white guys who aren’t worried about money to literally anything else? Is there no laughter available in struggles that don’t involve someone reluctantly growing up? I guess that’s the most annoying thing about the manchild; he makes all the movies now and they are all about him. 

Jef has a new story about robot sharks out now in Lurking in the Deep. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner