By Marc Jampole
With “22 Jump Street” one of the most popular movies of the summer, it is instructive to remember how the two bros of this cop bromance met in “21 Jump Street,” the first of the Jump movies.
The Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum characters knew each other in high school, but only as acquaintances. Seven years later at the police academy, Channing—a handsome and tall stud who dominates the physical training—notices that klutzy Jonah earned a 100% on a written exam which Channing flunked. The two become best buds—Jonah’s character helping Channing’s to raise his written test scores to a “C,” while under Channing’s tutelage, Jonah improves his conditioning enough to pass the physical exams, even though he still is more uncoordinated than you would ever want a police officer to be.
Once again in a mass entertainment, a highly intelligent character is presented as physically inferior—out of shape, weak, poorly coordinated, slow.
But it gets worse. We also learn that Jonah’s character is also socially inept: the girl he wants to take to the prom rejects him.
So yes, once again mass entertainment creates the myth that if you’re smart, you are likely unattractive to the opposite sex. We get this myth big-banged into us in television shows, movies, cartoons and commercials. It seems as if only the superhuman freaks like Ironman can be smart and sexy.
Of course, real life is different. While there are some smart people who flat line after doing one sit-up or sit shyly and stiffly in a corner at parties, there are many others who play competitive athletics and have an active social life. When I see the highly intelligent portrayed as social pariahs or weaklings, I think of the top 25 chess players at the national chess tournaments in my son’s grade when he was playing youth chess. Among the top 4-6 players, there were kids who looked as pale as a white sheet and were either soft and blubbery or very thin—these were the kids who studied chess three or more hours a day, every day. But most of the top-ranked boys (since mostly boys played chess back then) in the country were like my son: muscled and always moving with an athletic grace. And why not—these extremely intelligent kids were usually involved in one or more sports. Another example would be astronauts: these men and women have very high intelligences and are athletically gifted; no one has reported that an astronaut ever had a hard time getting a date.
Since it’s mostly very smart people who write, direct and produce movies and TV shows, why do they insist on insulting themselves by telling what amounts to a big lie? My own theory is that the makers of our mass entertainments reflect the views of the people who pay the piper—the very wealthy, who rightfully sense that a true meritocracy would result in their losing their money and position. They also see that computerization has dramatically decreased the number of good jobs around; by denigrating the intelligent, they may hope to discourage the poor from striving in school, thus reducing competition for their offspring. Both today and in the past, religious figures have denigrated intelligence as inferior to unquestioning faith. The application of intelligence generally involves questioning, and one thing that the sellers of goods and services don’t want is for us to ask questions in the marketplace. Thus, in many ways, promoting intelligence and scholarly activity as a social value upsets the status quo of American consumerism.
Interestingly enough, the Jump movies manifest not only the traditional disdain of intellectuals in American society, but also represent an alarming social trend: the infantilization of adults. More and more adults are maintaining their entertainment habits of childhood, playing with My Little Pony dolls or Legos, reading comic books and Harry Potter novels and spending vacations at theme parks. Many movies in recent years have glorified the life of adults—especially adult men—who remain children and teenagers.
Add the Jump series to entertainment in which men behave as boys. The cops are adults who go undercover in a high school and pretend to be average teenagers. In other words, they have formal permission from authorities to behave as children, despite being adults. Their job is to be “not grown up.” The Jump movies therefore show another way for adults to remain kids and retain the predilections and habits of their teen years.