’22 Jump Street’ is That Awkward Moment When You Want to be Progressive and Don’t Know How

Written by Katherine Murray.

22 Jump Street alternately endorses and makes fun of the idea that we should be sensitive, tolerant people, but it isn’t mean-spirited or offensive – it’s just sort of harmlessly dumb.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill hold hands in 22 Jump Street The Whole Movie in One Screenshot[/caption]

The premise of 22 Jump Street is that the characters from 21 Jump Street two undercover cops played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill – have to do the exact same thing they did in the first movie, but with a bigger budget, and in a slightly different setting. I’m not being sarcastic – that’s actually the brief they get from their Captain at the start of the movie, because 22 Jump Street is one long, self-referential joke about making a half-assed sequel.

In this particular case, the cops, who went undercover as high school students in 21 Jump Street, are now undercover as college students. There are jokes about college, jokes about movies, and jokes about how the characters look really old, but the dominant theme in the movie is that it, and its characters, try really hard to be not homophobic, not sexist, not racist… and don’t always figure out how.

The most obvious example of this, and the one that’s been discussed the most often in reviews, is that the friendship between Tatum and Hill’s characters – Jenko and Schmidt – plays out as if it’s a romance. Jenko becomes friends with a football player, making Schmidt jealous, and leading them to fight about whether they should split up and “investigate different people.” There’s a sad musical montage while they think about how much they miss each other, before they agree to team up again as “a one-time thing.” When they reconcile, in the end, Jenko’s football player friend looks on with a mixture of joy and regret, declaring, “That’s who he should be with!”

Despite their cover story being that they’re brothers, and the fact that Schmidt starts dating a woman, other people mistake them for a couple, too. A school counselor makes them hold hands and attend couple’s therapy; some drug dealers think they’re having oral sex during a bust.

The movie is trying hard to be not homophobic – there’s even a part where Jenko, who’s forced to take a seminar on human sexuality, explains why you can’t use gay slurs – but, when you boil it down, the joke is still, “They seem gay, but they’re not!”

After a long period of time where movies couldn’t allude to homosexuality at all, and a shorter period of time where they could only do it in a derogatory or pejorative way, we’re now in a place where mainstream movies are totally cool with joking that their leading men are gay… as long as it’s clear that they don’t have gay sex. It’s a step forward, for sure, and you can argue that 22 Jump Street is just making fun of the homoerotic subtext that’s already present in buddy cop movies, but the joke is still based on the idea that actually being gay is a bridge that can never be crossed.

This kind of humor has gotten more and more prevalent as public acceptance toward the LGBT community has increased. Homosexuality is no longer something so taboo that we can’t even talk about it – and it’s no longer a career killer for heterosexual actors to play a gay character, or to joke about their masculinity. “They seem gay, but they’re not!” has shown up in R-rated comedies, and most of the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations – including the Robert Downey Jr. movies, House, and, most notably, BBC’s Sherlock – and the punch line is always the same: “Ha ha ha. This looks gay, and we’re fine with looking gay – and doesn’t it reflect well on us, that we’re not afraid to look gay – but, just so you know, we’re not gay.”

If you were watching a movie or TV show about a man and woman who really, really acted like a couple, and people mistook them for a couple, and there were constantly jokes introducing the idea that they should be a couple, chances are they’d end up as a couple. Usually, the point of making those sorts of observations in the early part of a movie or series is to plant the idea in the audience’s mind that the characters should get together, and introduce tension about whether or not they will. It’s the same principle as We’re the Millers, where Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis pretend to be married as part of con, but end up falling in love. Or the second season of Orange is the New Black, where Larry and Polly are mistaken for a couple, and it makes them realize that they should be one. Or even the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy and her mortal enemy, Spike, fall under a spell that makes them act like they’re in love, which leads to them actually falling in love.

With 22 Jump Street and its contemporaries, we’re under no illusion that the story will resolve itself that way. In fact, part of the point of the joke is that we take for granted that it won’t. That’s what makes it a “safe” joke to tell. That doesn’t offend me, and I understand that joking about things in a non-judgemental way can be a step toward acceptance. The movie just isn’t as progressive as it seems to want to be.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Jonah Hill and Jillian Bell have fistfight in 22 Jump Street Most Awkward Fistfight Ever[/caption]

Speaking of things that aren’t as progressive as they seem to want to be, 22 Jump Street, intentionally or not, dramatizes the same type of struggle in Schmidt. While the movie is awkwardly trying to avoid homophobia without being sure what to do, Schmidt awkwardly tries to avoid being sexist or racist, with mixed and confusing results.

There’s a running joke in the film where he tries to suck up to the Captain (played by Ice Cube) by saying what he clearly thinks are appropriately sensitive things about race. When the Captain flips out and starts yelling for the waiter in a restaurant, Schmidt defends him by saying, “He’s black! He’s been through a lot!” When the case is initially explained to him – that a black woman died after taking drugs sold to her by a white man – Schmidt comments that’s it’s refreshing to have a black victim, and that the fact that she’s black makes him care so much more. Jenko corrects him that he means to say he cares equally, but Schmidt’s adamant that he cares more.

In both cases, everyone else in the scene is confused or annoyed by his comments, and the joke seems to be that he’s trying too hard to seem sensitive without knowing how to go about it. (In the second case, the joke might also be that people who criticize casting decisions in movies are similarly misguided about it).

Schmidt’s also confused about how to relate to women. One of the antagonists in the movie is his girlfriend’s roommate, Mercedes (played by Jillian Bell). Her idea of conversation is to crack deadpan jokes about his age, even when they’re in life or death situations (which is funny), and, at one point, they get into a fistfight, where he’s not sure if it’s okay to hit her. She yells at him that, if he saw her as a person, he’d punch her in the face, and he does it, but he feels really awkward and uncomfortable. (There’s also an improvised moment where they become confused about whether they’re going to kiss during the fight.)

The fistfight scene stands out as one that captures Schmidt and 22 Jump Street’s dilemma pretty clearly – as a reasonably progressive straight, white guy, he wants to do the right thing and not be racist, sexist, or homophobic, but he has no idea what he is and isn’t supposed to do and say. The absurdity of a situation where, in order to be feminist, you have to punch a woman in the face sums up the conflict pretty clearly – in this brave new world we live in, well-meaning people still get confused about how they’re supposed to behave.

The film also has less thoughtful sequences. Schmidt hooks up with a woman named Maya, and we’re supposed to laugh at the idea that he wants to have a relationship while she’s looking for a one night stand (because women are supposed to want relationships, and men are supposed to want one night stands, get it?). He does the walk of shame in the morning, where it appears that he’s the only man among a group of women, and a later scene in the movie follows this up by showing us that Schmidt is now on a first name basis with the same women (implicitly because he’s done this so often that they’ve all gotten to know each other).

The joke “Schmidt makes friends with the other people doing the walk of shame, because he does it all the time” is funny in itself, but Jonah Hill, for some reason, adopts a more effeminate posture and delivery during those scenes, making the joke more like, “Schmidt’s become one of the girls!” Which is funny because… it’s emasculating? Like being gay?

I honestly don’t know.

22 Jump Street exists in a sort of no-man’s-land where we don’t want to be bigoted or hateful, but where even the least homophobic person in the world can reach for a gay slur in anger, and where, even a movie that’s trying to be progressive can reach for jokes that tacitly confirm the same stereotypes it’s opposing. It’s a snapshot of where mainstream culture is, now, where we want to be better, and thoughtful, and kind, but we haven’t dismantled the language that came before. We’re in a transitional stage between the generations that would find this movie offensively tolerant, and those that will find it offensively backward.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="374"]Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum wave their guns around in 22 Jump Street You’re Welcome[/caption]

Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies and TV on her blog.