Superbad and the Depiction of Youth in Mass Media

[Originally written for a Mass Media Critique class September 2013].

Superbad, in my opinion, fits among the John Hughes pantheon of films, in that it has iconic imagery of teen sex and alcohol use for a young viewing audience, while also being able to deliver a surprisingly meaningful message. Throughout the film, we see the two main characters, Seth and Evan, pursue obtaining alcohol for the girls that they both genuinely like, in the hopes that they can get these girls drunk and have sex with them. They are mistakenly convinced this will work because they believe that everyone else is doing this and they feel a societal pressure to play along.

Along their journey, the boys are fraught with humorous peril, such as ending up at a cocaine party where they steal the homeowner’s alcohol. When they later arrive at the party, the boys are held up as heroes for the surrounding teenagers, implying that the events leading up to the party can be justified. The film shows a variety of stereotypes projected on these teenagers, such as their reckless abandon and narcissism, but chief among these stereotypes is their constant desire for alcohol as a delivery means for sex.

I personally rank Superbad as one of my all-time favorite films because it came out when I was a high school freshman. I remember watching it and seeing so much of the way that I talked and related to my friends represented by Seth, Evan, and Fogell. I especially related to Evan, in that he more hesitantly deals with Seth’s peer pressure, while wanting to remain true to his own perspectives on sex and alcohol. This through-line of the movie particularly struck me. Audiences tend to gravitate towards films that they can relate to, and I feel that my love for this film comes from my appreciation for the boys relationship.

The audience for Superbad is consistently shown exaggerated depictions of the boys perceived “need” for alcohol to get sex, such as Seth going so far as to risk stealing alcohol from a grocery store and imagining his own gruesome outcome. This fits in line with other exaggerated depictions, especially Project X, where the movie revolves around having a massive party to both impress women and increase the main character’s popularity.

However, I feel that Evan’s character arc throughout the movie defies many standard media depictions. Evan has a hard time dealing with Seth’s peer pressure and not remaining true to himself. The audience consistently hears Evan say his goal is to “date Becca” and “respect her,” going so far as to later toast, “To people respecting women,” at Jules’s party. In talking with Gaby, Becca’s friend, Evan is persuaded to get drunk so as to circumvent the “ethics” of hooking up with a drunk girl, which Seth has been convincing Evan is the only way to have sex. Seth tells Evan early on in the film that, “When she is shitfaced at the party, you get with her!” When it comes to it, Evan can’t accept Becca’s drunken, forward advances because of how uncomfortable and unethical it makes him feel. I feel that this is a unique depiction within the context of the film, giving it a lot of it’s “heart” that drives the narrative.

Meanwhile, Seth is convinced throughout the film that if he can get Jules drunk, he may actually have a shot with “hooking up or at least making out with her.” When he does later get the chance, Seth kisses Jules and is told that she doesn’t want him to be drunk if they were to do that. When he says that she is drunk and that makes it okay, Jules later replies, “What does me being drunk have anything to do with it?” This challenges Seth’s notion that getting a girl drunk is the only means of getting with her, finally allowing himself to admit that he is insecure about the way he looks.

I feel that the way these two relationships are depicted and the messages that they eventually send to their viewer challenges most media depictions of sex-addicted teenagers. We see in such other films as American Pie and Eurotrip that sex is the ultimate reward for those teenagers who pursue it, despite the wacky antics that stop them along their way. However, I feel that Superbad, like Easy-A a few years later, comes from the subset of films that want to address teen sex and alcohol issues in a more responsible and uniquely modern manner.

This would reflect the findings of two studies evaluating college student social lives. As Laura Sessions Stepp (2007) mentions in her analysis of these studies, college students find that, “Consumption of alcohol in small amounts could be fun, but binge drinking was not. Nor was indiscriminate sex. Such activities were a deliberate escape from the seriousness of college or perhaps a broken heart. They had a purpose – and the potential for tragic consequences” (p. 2). While college students tend to be slightly more mature than their high school counterparts, I would argue that, although the film depicts high school students, college students were the principal audience for Superbad, especially given its R-rating. Given these findings, I feel that college students are more likely to appreciate Superbad’s ending, where Seth and Evan have rekindled their friendship and have begun to see the girls they both wanted to.

However, I do also feel that for most viewers, regardless of whether they are high school students, college students, or older, this message gets buried in the myriad of antics the boys face throughout the movie. Between Fogell’s fairly unrelated subplot and the events at the cocaine party, the message of the film gets lost to other “iconic” scenes, such as the period blood stain and the destruction of the police car. Many movies fall victim to this trap, even the John Hughes films that kicked off the modern “feel-good” teenage movies, especially Weird Science. When I consider my high school memories of the film, I can acknowledge that I have only later been able to appreciate Superbad’s meaningful, underlying message.

Works Cited

Stepp, L.S. (2007, January 3). Good times 101: College students make a study of having fun. Washington Post. Retrieved August 28, 2011, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/02/AR2007010201151.html

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