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Men in Drag: Armisen Charms, Sandler’s a Miss

Posted on Mar 6, 2012

Adam Sandler, left, suits up as Jill as director Dennis Dugan works the camera on the set of “Jack and Jill.”

By Mark O'Connell

During its theatrical run last fall, the response to Adam Sandler’s cross-dressing comedy “Jack and Jill,” which made its DVD debut on Tuesday, was an overwhelming thumbs down: The film’s approval ratings on the website Rotten Tomatoes were 43 percent from audiences and an abysmal 3 percent from critics. The focus has mainly been on Sandler’s portrayal of a woman—in fact, his record-breaking sweep of Razzie nominations includes the distinction of Worst Actress—and upon the film’s recent U.K. release, The Guardian’s Steve Rose went so far as to write that his performance may represent “the death of the cross-dressing movie.”

Why does Sandler’s shtick fail to elicit laughter—or anything but a furrowed brow—and what might be the significance of his profound unfunniness for broader issues of gender and media?

In order for the humor in a film like this to take flight, the “ridiculous character” (aka, the guy who looks awkward in drag) needs to be played truthfully. As fellow thespian John C. Reilly says, it is the actor’s job “to tell the truth as much as you can,” and this honest commitment to exaggerated circumstances is what makes a scene funny.

But in “Jack and Jill,” Sandler seems too uncomfortable to play Jill’s truth and instead defensively scrambles to make derisive jokes about her. He emphasizes her rough and crass masculinity, rather than committing to revealing her (and his) true feminine qualities. One wonders why he would choose this material in the first place, if only to grab some laughs at the expense of unattractive women. The Guardian’s Rose suggests that perhaps underneath on-screen drag performances like Sandler’s “lie the unrequited yearnings of our fading comics to really get in touch with their big, fat feminine sides. It’s a shame none of them seems to have the balls.”

The fear of identifying with a person who is female or feminine is an oft-unspoken reality in Hollywood. The greatest actress of her generation, Meryl Streep, says heterosexual male actors and audiences have always been resistant to “assum[ing] a persona if that persona is a she.” But if this insidious fear—or “Femme Phobia,” as memoirist Julia Serano calls it—is the root cause of “Jack and Jill’s” bombastic failure, then the film industry has a real problem on its hands. Breaking the silence on this issue is crucial to averting flops like this in the future, as well as to uncovering the myriad ways in which Femme Phobia is harmful.

To begin with, what exactly is so terrifying to men about femininity? Numerous social scientific studies conclude that, for most men, there is a fear that presenting as too sensitive, too soft or too feminine may read as “gayness.” In simple terms, all things feminine in male behavior are considered to be “gay,” and all things “gay” are considered to be undesirable and bad and the worst possible thing for a man to be.

Perpetuating these attitudes on screen certainly exacerbates problems for LGBT communities, especially young people too often memorialized in a relentless news stream of bullying and harassment to the point of suicide or murder. But infrequently discussed in such news reports is the fact that such violence usually occurs due to people’s perceived sexuality based on gender presentation (i.e., men who are effeminate) as opposed to their stated sexuality (men openly identifying as gay).

What is talked about even less is the impact these attitudes have on straight men. In a 2010 piece for The Christian Science Monitor titled “Homophobia hurts straight men, too,” Jonathan Zimmerman emphasized how this contagious fear creates harmful limitations for straight men, like keeping them from having intimate, long-standing friendships with one another. This toxic fear seems to keep certain male actors, like Sandler, from maximizing their obvious creative potential. By widening the margins of their own gender expression, male actors would make room for more honest, effective and funnier work.

Not all straight male actors are so constrained, however, as evidenced by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen’s performance in IFC’s “Portlandia.” This sketch comedy series, which mocks hipster culture on the West/Left Coast, features Armisen in various roles, including several as women. Armisen’s performances are the polar opposite of Sandler’s: He fully embodies his female characters, honestly exposing his sensitive and feminine qualities—often to extremes—resulting in hilarity without mean-spiritedness, misogyny, homophobia or self-hatred. Armisen is authentically funny, and critics and audiences have embraced the show.

If more male actors allowed themselves to play a wider spectrum of gendered behaviors as Armisen does, the benefits would be subtle but substantial. This could reduce an epidemic male fear of seeming sensitive, feminine or gay. It might even contribute to a reduction in violence against all women and men, particularly those in the LGBT communities, as so often we behave, enact and are what we watch.

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By Stupid Git, March 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment

Let’s just remember Sandler for the Hanukkah song and forget about everything

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By EmileZ, March 12, 2012 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

Sandler is a butthole.

Notice I used the “macho” last name thingy.

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By EmileZ, March 12, 2012 at 4:12 am Link to this comment

If Hollywood could just get it right…

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By kazy, March 8, 2012 at 9:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gulam, what’s your problem? It’s a discussion about femme phobia and an unfunny comedian who goes for the adolescent humor which Hollywood seems to make tons of movies about. You think there are too many Jewish comedians? Is that your gripe? Or there’s too many bad Jewish comedians? I don’t understand your tongue in cheek remark about Sandler being Jewish.

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By ikallicrates, March 8, 2012 at 8:52 am Link to this comment

The problem is not Hollywood. The problem is Adam Sandler. He’s a second-rate comedian who makes third-rate ‘vanity project’ films whose plots are ripped off from films that star other, better comedians. Remember Dustin Hoffman in ‘Tootsie’? Sandler was hoping we wouldn’t remember Hoffman, because his perfomance in drag was funny but at the same time intelligent and pro-feminist. Sandler’s performance was meanspirited and stupid, but it looked even worse when compared with Hoffman’s.

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By proletariatprincess, March 8, 2012 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

Adam Sandler is a talentless git.  He is one of several talentless gits of the same age out there who’s humor may appeal to a 13 year old boy on a silly day. 
Any actor will tell you that comedy is hard…harder than drama.  A comedic actor can always do drama but the reverse is not true. 
I remember watching Sandler as Opera Man on SNL and thinking that it was mildly amusing.  Nothing he has ever done since has been as entertaining and most of his work is just unwatchable, in my opinion.

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By Oh that Bob!, March 8, 2012 at 8:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Somebody had to say it: Adam Sandler is an A$$-whole.

Also, I will consider, “But if this insidious fear—or
“Femme Phobia,” as memoirist Julia Serano calls it—is
the root cause of “Jack and Jill’s” bombastic failure,
then the film industry (and American society) has a
real problem on its hands.”

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By mrfreeze, March 7, 2012 at 10:05 pm Link to this comment

Sandler has about as much charisma as a pregnant guppy.

I have no idea how Sandler and the concept of talent ever collided.

If one truly wants to truly waste one’s vital life energy, spend it watching any of his work…........

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By Carol Clark, March 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My experience of working with men along the full economic spectrum?  Covert to overt sexism and any male who doesn’t conform to the covert form of sexism is quickly “brought around” to “the right way”.  I don’t think it’s about gay vs. straight.  Yes, that’s in there, but the lower you go down the economic ladder, the more blatant it becomes - the lowest common denominator (the “thug mind”) enforces the male supremacy line.  And make no mistake - sexism is still always present.

Case in point:  I have a law degree, practiced in various areas, got a job as a trust officer in a reputable regional bank.  I was hired as a trust officer.  Those with a bachelors degree in finance were hired on as vice presidents, were all male (all trust officers save one were female.  The “investment officers/VPs” were given a one page set of choices of investments that they had to adhere to with perhaps, at best, 5 choices within the preferred sectors from which to choose.  One particular guy was a great schmoozer, too gutless to be truthful to the clients he served and was destined to go far in the department.  He and I and the floor manager had to make a conference call to HQ and who was designated the secretary?  Me.  They couldn’t answer some questions HQ put to them and everyone, including the guy at HQ, was startled when I came up with the answers on the spot…dead silence.  And I didn’t take notes.

When you go down further along the economic spectrum, the sexism gets more overt and menacing and the guys really stick together.  If sisterhood were as strong as the brotherhood of the great white dick, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem.  And it is the most Neanderthal member of the brotherhood to bring any guy into line.  Deal with guys individually and you get respect.  Deal with them in a group?  Watch your back because they will come together as a group to enforce the male supremacy line mandated by the brotherhood of the great white dick.  And I put it down to not only embedded societal misogyny but to a male written and edited Bible with a male gendered specific deity - two original female human beings created and the first is sent beyond the pale because, like Adam, she was created from the dust of the earth and was therefore his equal.  Adam, whining because she wasn’t subservient enough, wanted another so we get Eve born from his rib.  And anything that goes wrong?  The woman’s fault.

Another example.  I worked as a newspaper carrier.  A woman was hired as Publisher and she hired a man as Circulation Manager.  A new way of labaling bundles was set up that was more expensive, took longer to produce and took longer to supply the carriers.  One of the male carriers complained that it had to be the Publisher’s fault.  Um…I expect the new Publisher was far too busy to come up with the new production and circulation setup but hey…ain’t it always the woman’s fault?

A last example.  I have two degrees from Syracuse University.  In the Bernie Fine ugliness, some of the commenters on the Syracuse comments boards blamed…Bernie’s wife.  Uh…I believe it was Bernie’s hands on the victims penises, was it not?

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By MeHere, March 7, 2012 at 11:18 am Link to this comment


I understand the point you’re making and the premise of the article. Yes, we still have a huge problem with gender expression in our culture. And Hollywood makes products based on what their market studies say that culture will buy. (This doesn’t guarantee that everything they do brings in big box office profits. There are movies that are bad even by Hollywood standards.) But don’t look at the Hollywood crowd for leadership in the gender wars in terms of the work they produce as an industry. They are all in it even when some participate in fund raising events for one cause or another.

Great performers and filmmakers with artistic integrity will tackle any project they feel well-suited for, but they need audiences to support their work. Adam Sandler is not in that category. How many film viewers in the US are acquainted with the work of John Hurt, the phenomenal British actor, portraying a homosexual in two separate productions: “The Naked Civil Servant “(a TV film) and “Love and Death on Long Island” (a regular feature)?

If we want to promote justice, we must support quality creative work instead of wasting time with Hollywood merchandise which at times may even include films “with a message” -these being the worst of all because they often lack authenticity. A good piece of art doesn’t come with a “message,” as in Sunday school. It is rather an expression of conflict and a search for resolution.

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By gerard, March 6, 2012 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment

MeHere: I just took off on the last couple sentences:
  “If more male actors allowed themselves to play a wider spectrum of gendered behaviors as Armisen does, the benefits would be subtle but substantial. This could reduce an epidemic male fear of seeming sensitive, feminine or gay. It might even contribute to a reduction in violence against all women and men, particularly those in the LGBT communities, as so often we behave, enact and are what we watch.” 

... to get into a particular aspect of the “gender wars” which I think is very important, awareness of which I think is worth discussing,and consideration long overdue.

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By MeHere, March 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment

I suspect that the problem with “Jack and Jill” is not related to problems with gender portrayal.  It is a bad film with Adam Sandler who is a very mediocre actor.

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By politicky, March 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment

I’m sorry, I’m not surprised that Sandler would take this type of
role.  I don’t care how popular he is, I’ve NEVER liked him.

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By Gulam, March 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment

I thought that it was considered anti-Semitic to say anything at all negative about
clowns like this. Are we not all supposed to bow down and ask how loud they want
us to clap?

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By gerard, March 6, 2012 at 11:44 am Link to this comment

Freeing the “femimine side” in men may be the most important venture in the world today. Up to now, constant warring has actually robbed men of part of themselves, forcing them to mimic a narrow, stereo- typical “masculine” image thought by the “masters of war” to be “suitable” for appearing physically strong and hence unconquerable.
  Because of the insistent frequency of wars, the dominating warlike image may have unconsciously become habituated. The psychical effort required to suppress feminine aspects could have been so insistent that, through centuries, perhaps, men were gradually convinced (unconsciously) that “being a man” necessarily required very obviously “not being a woman.”  Mercy, sentiment, empathy and nurturing were eventually confined to narrowly restricted situations because, if not masked, such traits were mimiced and scorned as “weak”.
  The same pressures might also have been exerted against women with “masculine” traits, perhaps to help prevent mothers from having to participate in battle at the expense of the lives of their offspring and ultimate tribal extinction.
  This sort of theorizing has been sparse at best, and (perhaps inevitably) inconclusive. Whatever can be learned, it is crucial that we know it, if for no other reason than to throw a new light on the psychology of violence (against men in war, and against women everywhere anytime as exhibited in the standardized “macho” requirements for “being manly”
and the constant undercurrent of sexual insecurities reverberating throughout all modern societies).  Ambiguities, fears, required suppression, bullying, sex in the military, “outing”—all evidences of supression and semi-conscious attempts toward release, openness and freedom.
  (I think of the dangerous ignorance of our present stereotoypical attitudes now, particularly in connection with Manning and Assange, both of whom represent, both in appearance and in their heroic self-sacrifice, the characteristics of men with both masculine and feminine impulses, for which androgeny they may be both subtly (and not so subtly) scorned, even persecuted.(viz. the malicious, thorouthly
chilling “prison-bride” comment of the Stratfor VP last week.)

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