‘Ted,’ ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin,’ ‘Knocked Up,’ and Class in Slacker-Dude Movies

I went to see Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s movie about a man, his talking teddy bear, and the long-suffering woman who usually loves them both, on Friday night, not quite sure what to expect. I’m not an enormous MacFarlane fan—he’s always been someone who doesn’t have a precise or necessarily interesting sense of the distinction between how his characters see themselves and their often-abhorrent behavior and how his shows see them. But I found Ted surprisingly thought-provoking, mostly because of how it illuminates what seems to be a significant and under-acknowledged factor in the slacker-dude movies of the last seven or eight years: class.

John Bennett, the mid-30s rental car slinger Mark Wahlberg plays in Ted is in many ways a stereotypical Bostonian, possessed of the exaggerated bray lots of filmmakers think is inherently hilarious and a wardrobe full of Red Sox garments in a proportion that would be unfathomable to people from outside the region. He’s also a man with what the movie suggests is a limited understanding of race and racial nuance—Ted begins with a made-up Boston tradition of Christian kids gathering to beat up neighborhood Jews on Christmas eve, and John is the kind of man who orders his girlfriend Lori (MacFarlane regular Mila Junis) Cristal at their anniversary dinner because “all those rich black people can’t be wrong.” These are the kinds of exaggerated traits that are a MacFarlane hallmark, whether in the person of Family Guy‘s blinkered patriarch Peter Griffin, or here. But John’s accent and his racial attitudes are class signifiers, as much as his job at a rental car company or the extent to which John feels threatened by Lori’s boss Rex (an unctuous Joel McHale), who thinks that he, not John, can care for Lori properly.

Ted never really has the guts (or the stuffing) to explore that tension. There are hints at it—after John tells Ted he has to move out, Ted works as a checkout clerk at a supermarket, where he meets a woman named Tami-Lynn, and take her on a deeply awkward double date with John and Lori, ruined by Tami’s breach of etiquette. But the movie abandons the question of whether John will be promoted into management at his rental car office or pursue a new, higher-status career in favor of a silly caper plot, and casts Rex as such a villain that there’s no sense that Lori is facing a real or difficult choice between the two men. It’s too bad, because Ted might have been a sharper (and not coincidentally more Bostonian) movie if it had the nerve or the attention span to explore the tension between working-class white communities and the highly educated professional, academic, and creative classes in the region.

But in keeping class in the background, Ted‘s of a piece with other slacker-dude movies which have elided questions of class and status with questions of gender and maturity. The 40 Year Old Virgin, which kicked off the genre, was set in a world Judd Apatow seems to have left firmly behind: the employees of a big box electronics store. Much of that movie’s humor came from the indignities and boredom of selling rich people big televisions and expensive stereoes. And when Andy (Steve Carrell) begins dating with the help of his friends, part of what attracts him to Trish (Catherine Kenner) is that she owns her own business, a storefront where she helps other people sell their valuables on eBay. The bright lure of the idea that Andy could open his own store as well is part of what draws the couple together—Trish helps Andy sell his valuable collection of action figures with the promise that financial and professional independence, as well as a solid adult relationship, lie at the end of the project. The movie backs away from that idea, however, with a single line in the closing sequence about how Andy used the money to pay for his wedding to Trish.

Similarly, in Knocked Up, the differences between slacker Ben (Seth Rogen) and TV entertainment reporter Alison (Katherine Heigl), the woman he unintentionally impregnates, are credited more as due to maturity than to class, and to a certain extent, that’s true. Ben is happily living in a pigsty of a group house off the money he received in a settlement after being hit by a postal truck, while Alison is aggressively and excitedly pursuing her career when they two of them meet at a club. But their expectations, for themselves and each other, are shaped by class, too. Ben may have his settlement, but he’s living a decidedly modest life off his dwindling nest egg, without much in the way of parental support, either financial or emotional. Alison, by contrast, lives in the guest house of her financially comfortable sister and brother in law. While she has fun hanging out at Ben’s flophouse for a while, when an earthquake reveals what a mess it is (and when Ben rushes to save his bong), she’s disgusted both that he isn’t living a more grown-up life, and by the gap between what she’s come to expect and what she’s been accepting.

Those differences are, once again, dealt with in a single exchange at the end of the movie, after Ben and Alison reunite and plan to raise their daughter together. Driving to the home Ben has found for them, Alison asks if it will be big enough to accomodate all three of them. “Oh it definitely is. That’s why I got one in East LA,” he explains. “It’s HUGE. The only thing is we have to decide if we’re gonna be Crips or Bloods before we get there.” It’s a funny ending, but an uneasy one. Are we meant to think that Alison is choosing slightly downward mobility to keep her family together, or in service of Ben’s maturity? Is that meant to be a compromise? Or at an act encouraging Ben in his entrepreneurial drive towards maturity?

None of this is to say that conflating class and male maturing processes is wrong, precisely. Whether they’re accurate or comprehensive or not, the rise of books and articles about women outcompeting men suggest some real anxieties about shifts in the balance of power in heterosexual relationships and women taking on the responsiblities of breadwinning for their families. But it might be nice to see some of these movies acknowledge that the rise into the middle class or the slide into the working class are, for men, dependent on more than will and the right girl to serve as inspiration.