The 2012 remake of TV classic 21 Jump Street has all the makings of terrifically entertaining escapism, undone by one throwaway moment at the 95 minute mark that brings the real world crashing back in. A beat no more than ten seconds of screen time underlines how casually insidious certain ideas of sexual politics are in contemporary society, and how the tropes of popular cinema can normalise the objectification of women. It comes at the start of the climactic car chase, when the viewing brain is in full popcorn-munching, explosion-loving, romp-through-the-streets-with-reckless-abandon mode. Channing Tatum’s gun wielding undercover cop rebuffs a young girl’s out-of-the-blue sexual advance with the line “You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now.” It is a cheap gag; one disposable moment among so many one-liners. But being so easily thrown away in the noise and swirl of a chase scene in an otherwise progressive blockbuster highlights the extent to which problematic sexual politics remain par for the course.
First, some broader context. The film a big screen reboot of the popular if decidedly hokey cop procedural TV show of the 1980s. The original show might have faded into Nash Bridges level obscurity – re-run on European cable stations and late night summer scheduling – were it not the launch pad for Johnny Depp’s surprising leading-man career. The premise sees fresh police academy graduates assigned to go undercover in a high school to track down a drug ring; complications of the legal, romantic, and teenage angst variety ensue. But in the hands of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and an assured supporting cast, it becomes that rare beast – a film based on an existing property that nods to the original while still stamping its own distinct style. The script also it manages to balance a playful self-referentiality and genuine pathos with interesting and largely well-fleshed-out characters with believable motivation.
The main players fit identifiable archetypes while being filled out with qualities that invert expectations. And for a buddy comedy cop film, the lead female role is complex, independent, and given relatively strong agency alongside the save-the-day male leads. Brie Larson gives the role even more depth beyond the nominal romantic interest. It also handles issues of teenage sexuality and the intellectual capacity of high schoolers with surprising deftness, which may be why the casually sexist line in car chase so jarring.
The context of the scene is the inevitable action climax: the heroes have made their breakthrough by unmasking the drug ring leaders (on prom night no less), but things have gone horribly wrong and they are now simultaneously running for their lives and trying to apprehend the perps. Hill and Tatum’s not-so-undercover cops jack a limousine to chase the fleeing drug ring mastermind. In the back of the limo is a drunk girl, waylaid on her way to prom and woken from her stupor by the wild street ride. This is a girl we have seen before fleetingly as one of the group Hill’s character hangs around with at the school. Her character has a name – Lisa – but that she is part of the earlier narrative barely registers, nor does it matter. She is there for the gag, and frankly she could be anyone. As Tatum’s character stands shooting at a car in front through the sunroof, Lisa tries to unzip his fly, repeating that she is ready to party. He slaps at her hands but she keeps going, urging “Just stay where you are!” His response: “I’m not playing! I’m trying to shoot people, will you stop! Just for two seconds! You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now…” And then the grand punchline as Lisa replies “You think I’m hot?!”
As gags go, this one is particularly cheap: girl doesn’t notice life-threatening gunfire because she is too concerned with mythologising prom as the ‘best party ever’ and too vain in the face of a compliment. But there are far more problematic ideas simmering below the surface here. ‘Slutty’ is used as a backhanded compliment, directly aligned with ‘hotness’, as a desirable thing for a young girl to be. I don’t want to suggest in any way, shape, or form that female sexuality should be repressed, but ‘slut’ is a loaded term and in this context is becomes a powerful synonym for the objectification of women – not only as objects to be looked at but objects to be used for sexual pleasure (if only there weren’t pesky gunfights to be had). Lisa’s sexual desire is also not shown as something she wants for herself, but something expected of her – she wants to suck cock because that’s what you do at a prom party. This notion of displaced sexual desire is underlined by the fact that throughout the film Tatum’s character has been shunned by Lisa’s group. Under the logic of earlier scenes, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere near his cock. Here her desire is not her own but a role given to her by society (i.e. the screenwriters). To make matters worse, she is shown as investing disproportionately in how Tatum’s character values her looks (“You think I’m hot?!”), further transforming her sexual desire into something that functions for – or because of – the male character.
I’m sure people would argue that I’m making a mountain out of a blowjob gag. Maybe. I doubt the screenwriters, directors, actors, producers or anyone else involved in the production lost any sleep over whether or not to include this scene, if anyone noticed a problem at all. It’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? Can’t I just take a joke? And no doubt there are cases where people behave in such a way. Kids might not be having gunfights out of the sunroofs of limos, but at prom nights all over the world such sexual encounters are bound to happen. The question remains though, why script it into a multi-billion dollar blockbuster comedy when it adds nothing to the plot? Can’t escapist entertainment also be an escape from the kind of representations of women that casually reduce them to objects? There is already enough of that in the reality we fumble our way through. This is a world in which the governments of Western democracies are still voting against measures to close the pay gap between the sexes. A world in which what women can and can’t wear is still being legislated (mostly by men). A world in which critics of the representation of females in gaming receive death threats. A world in which women I love fight and push and face shit every day to be treated as equal. The limo scene in 21 Jump Street may seem minor, but it speaks of the normalisation of these ways of talking about and representing women. It isn’t a stretch to see a link between countless moments of objectifying, dismissing, labelling, and stereotyping in popular media and the institutionalised and sedimented attitudes that license cultural oppression.
I’m wary of objecting to representations of other people on their behalf, imposing my perspective of what is acceptable or not in representing sexuality, or adopting the role of comedy police. As a white middle class male I need to recognise that not only have I been privileged in the life-path opportunities afforded me, but that moral outrage is precisely one of those opportunities that needs to be carefully measured to not be abused or taken for granted. All that said, it still stands that in the moment of watching 21 Jump Street I found reference to a teenage character as a desirable combination of slutty, hot, and awesome – as though it were the most self-evident thing in the world – arrestingly objectionable.
I have a problem with ‘slutty’ being a measure of a female character’s worth as much as I have a problem with it being used as an insult hurled on city streets. I have a problem with film characters being written in to be punchlines for sexist gags. I have a problem with throwaway lines that demean and objectify women. I have a problem with this kind of offhanded sexism in cinema. It undermines us all on a narrative, cultural, or humanist level. So as a gag, the limo moment adds next to nothing to 21 Jump Street the movie, but it does leave a whole lot of takeaway; namely just how far we still have to go in representing gender on screen.