Universal Pictures

The 40-Year-Old Virgin was released 10 years ago today. And, to cut to the chase: It holds up. It may even have gotten better with age.

That’s likely because The 40-Year-Old Virgin wasn’t simply, then or now, a “sex comedy,” as Wikipedia delightfully puts it. It was also the film that put Judd Apatow, who’d won a small, devoted fan base with the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, on the mainstream map. It was the film that launched (almost) a thousand bromantic comedies. It was the film that established Apatow not just as a Hollywood king (and, much more interestingly, queen)-maker, but also as a kind of cultural critic.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin also heralded a cultural moment, one preoccupied with a question that will be implied, if not explicitly asked, by a film about a middle-aged virgin: What does it mean, actually, to grow up? How does one really—at this moment, in this context, in this culture—become an adult?

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It’s often said that Apatow’s films are fundamentally conservative, or at least driven, fundamentally, by conservative values—in their celebration of harmonious coupledom (Trainwreck, Bridesmaids), in their insistence on the fulfillments of having children (Knocked Up, This Is 40), and in their denigration of casual sex (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). And also, you could add, in their parochialism (so many bros, a-bro-in’!) and their sexism (Katherine Heigl’s very valid criticism of Knocked Up as painting its women “as shrews, as humorless and uptight,” and its men “as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys”). Whether their emphasis is bromance or romance or a combination of the two, they often adopt the rom-com’s culturally conciliatory view: that individual fulfillment comes through a kind of self-abnegation, through surrender to something greater than oneself—a couple, a family, a collective.

And the films have made that case both despite and with the help of their plots’ occasional reliance on poop and pot and penises. “By marrying raunch and moralism,” the conservative columnist Ross Douthat noted in 2009, “Apatow’s movies have done the near impossible: They’ve made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.”

It’s a fair observation. And it’s not at all, necessarily, a bad thing.

But it is not, however, the whole thing. Because when it comes to Apatovian atavism, there’s another way—a bigger way— in which The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the genre that it helped to spawn are conservative. And it has less to do with cultural conservatism and more to do with something even more basic: the way we think about adulthood. The way we distinguish between children and—another movie of the genre—grown-ups.

What makes someone an adult? Turning 21? Graduating from high school? Trading in a Craigslisted IKEA coffee table for a brand-new IKEA coffee table? The benchmarks vary, tantalizingly and frustratingly. What is clear, though—and what The 40-Year-Old Virgin makes especially clear—is that whatever makes an adult now, it isn’t, in general, the thing that has defined adulthood for so much of human history: the having of sex. Nor is it the simple attainment of a certain age, be it 18 or 21 or 40. Andy, a 40-year-old who collects action figures and rides a bike to work, is a grown man who isn’t fully an adult—who is trapped, by circumstance and by choice, within a kind of self-imposed arrested development.

The other characters, too, are stunted. There’s Jay (Romany Malco), who, despite having a girlfriend, treats women as conquests, immature-man-style. There’s David (Paul Rudd), who adopts most of the character conceits—crying, obsession, longing—of a teenage girl. There’s his ex, Amy (Mindy Kaling), who adopts the conceits of a teenage boy. They’re all trying—and, largely, failing—to navigate what “growing up” means in an age that finds adulthood to be an extremely nebulous proposition. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “sex comedy” aside, isn’t (just) about sex. It’s about the loss of the cultural infrastructures that sex used to symbolize: the tidy divisions of youth from all that comes after it. The rituals and habits and assumptions that used to make adulthood a nearly foregone conclusion.

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It’s a common complaint, in cultural criticism, that adulthood has—in some figurative way, and maybe even totally literally—died. The Puer Aeternus. The Bobo. The Grup. As A.O. Scott claimed last year, “Nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.” Which is proximate to another argument, one that was made many times before Judd Apatow came along: that adulthood hasn’t so much passed away as it’s been flattened and dispersed and Peter Panned. Young people—via a hypersexualized media culture, via the varying pressures toward economic and social and academic achievement—have been forced to grow up prematurely. Adulthood, meanwhile, has been youth-enized by people in their 20s and 30s choosing work/friends/Netflix/financial self-sufficiency over traditional markers of grown-up-ness: marriage, kids, home-ownership, etc.

Generations, these arguments generally go, are bleeding into one another. The generation gap—the habits and preferences that used to distinguish kids from teenagers from adults from seniors—is slipping away. Paul Rudd—creepily, charmingly, blithely ageless Paul Rudd—is all of us.

That idea is most often rendered not as an argument so much as an anxiety—one that lurks in lamentations about adults reading YA, and in anthropological examinations of teenage sexting habits, and in exegeses about young men—single men!, men who have not yet procreated!—sporting dadbods. It makes itself known, whisperingly, in articles about the delay and the decline of marriage, about the rise of egg-freezing, about the romantic failings of Tinder. It’s a kind of widespread lament that the rituals we used to take for granted, across religions and countries and cultures—bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, weddings, the loss of virginity—have been denuded of practical meaning, leaving everyone in a state of perpetual youth. The end of endings, it turns out, is not merely affecting life on the Internet; it is also affecting our sense of life’s phases. And our sense, with it, of the social order of things.

That is, on the one hand, liberating. The dismantling of traditional conceptions of adulthood is the result not just of lamentable economic conditions— widespread unemployment, the rise of the gig economy, a general mistrust in the government’s ability to support the middle class—but also of positive social changes. Feminism. Egalitarianism. The general dissolution of the intricate infrastructures created by the cultural primacy of middle-aged, suit-wearing white men.  

But it also means that we turn instead to commercial answers not just for re-instating generational definition, but also for reconciling the biological and the cultural: for marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. We measure out our lives in coffee spoons, and also in furniture and fashion and cooking tools. “Are You an Adult?” Buzzfeed asks its readers, the answer it spits out based on, among other things, the number of towels the quiz-taker owns, the type of coffee the quiz-taker orders at Starbucks, and the taker’s emotional reaction to a HORMEL GATHERINGS® Party Tray. Slate argued that cuspers—the now-early-30-somethings who fall between Gen Xers and Millennials—should be dubbed “Generation Catalano,” in the process making the case that generational affinity is more a function of shared consumer experiences than anything else. The first suggestion on WikiHow’s extremely detailed “How to Act Like an Adult” tip sheet is to buy one’s way into adulthood through the purchase of “clothing that makes you feel like a grown up.”

The 40-Year-Old Virgin, on top of everything else, purposely rejects that implicitly commercialized view of youth, adulthood, and generational divide. Its ending, if you don’t mind the 10-years-on spoiler, is a happy one: Andy’s waiting pays off. He commits to his girlfriend, Trish. He sells his dolls—perfect symbols of commercialized immaturity—and uses a chunk of the money he gets in return to pay for that most traditional of coming-of-age rituals: a wedding.

And then: He and Trish have sex. It is awesome. Everyone is thrilled. Order is restored.

But the message here is not about the sex, per se: It’s about what the sex, yes, represents. Andy’s final step into adulthood is a choice rather than something that is imposed on him. And, significantly, it is not a commercial choice, but an emotional one—a social one. Andy has always been, on some very basic level, a practicing adult: The first scenes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin show him dutifully exercising (using, among other pieces of equipment, a Thigh-Master) and teeth-brushing and making himself a breakfast so balanced it looks like it was stolen from a Jimmy Dean ad. And Andy has also always had, for the most part, the basic stuff of adulthood: a job, a nice apartment, a karaoke machine. What Andy had been missing, though, was the stuff that is not, in the end, about stuff at all: love, the ability to open up to another person, the sense that his life is about something greater than himself and his own needs. That kind of willful selflessness, the movie suggests, is ultimately what makes an adult. Growing up, Apatow is arguing, has a lot to do—for worse but often for better—with giving in.

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