The first time Youtube auto suggested the original “Pitch Perfect” riff-off to me, I stared slack jawed at the screen as a crew of coolly dressed college students danced and sang their hearts out with style.
The niche of musical comedy had been filled in a hilariously relatable way like it never had before with a cohesive, well-balanced ensemble cast. To this day, I know the words of that a capella battle in a drained pool by heart, in addition to the spellbindingly fun “Cups” song.
As a young tween in love with musical comedy amid the “Glee” era, “Pitch Perfect” was a revelation. The movie is fast paced and packed full of aca-incredible stars, including Anna Kendrick, Elizabeth Banks, Ben Platt and more, who all have stunned in two sequels and independent endeavors (and now a new spinoff for Adam Devine’s character Bumper, “Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin”).
Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) were my lovable, laughable favorite characters. Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and Aubrey (Anna Camp) kind of freaked me out, but they were undeniably important members of the Bella family — despite the eating of fetuses in the womb and unfortunately repetitive projectile vomiting incidents.
But after rewatching the movie as a twentysomething now in college, it’s harder to sit through the drama without some heavy cringing. Sure, some of it was meant to be funnily awkward; the shower scene where Beca (Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) sing Sia’s “Titanium” starts off-beat but hits to this day. The brand of problematically ironic 2010s humor, however, doesn’t quite sit right today, and also could never be reproduced in modern Hollywood.
For instance, Dean has my continual thoughts and prayers for how her character’s sexuality is expressed. Cynthia Rose is always caught on camera sneaking a peak at this cast member’s butt or that singer’s chest. In a couple of scenes, her behavior could even be considered predatory.
This sort of characterization of the only queer and Black character to be given a name in the film is not just subtly pointed to, it’s entirely intentional. Characters call Cynthia Rose “Black beauty” in the movie, and in “Pitch Perfect’s” promotional materials she is dubbed “The Butch Bass.”
“Pitch Perfect” relies on many other stereotypes. East Asian character Lilly is branded as “The Quiet One” and is almost entirely voiceless in the film, leaning into the idea that Asian women are silent and submissive people (when they’re not whispering creepy one-liners).
Despite Fat Amy being loud and proud of who she is, her weight clearly separates her from the rest of the white, “bikini-ready” members of the Bellas. If the film had framed these minority members of the Bellas in a more respectful way, there would not be nearly as many race- or appearance-based punchlines.
Toxic masculinity is played on by Bumper, who is womanizing and disloyal to his a capella mates when he has the chance at a solo career. A capella commentator John Smith (John Michael Higgins) also has a never ending stream of lewd and inappropriate comments pointed at both female performers and his co-announcer Gail (Banks).
For many reasons, “Pitch Perfect” is not a movie that would be produced today. The whole subgenre of low-budget comedy movies — including “Pitch Perfect,” “Easy A,” “Sleeping with Other People” and countless other rom coms — are unlikely to be seen on screens ever again. The decline of movie theaters has meant that only big, flashy films produced by heavy hitting production companies with massive marketing budgets are guaranteed to land on their feet in the box office.
Truly, the circumstances of Hollywood mean the death of a certain kind of movie that brings a comforting and comedic feel of nostalgia; that’s an undeniable tragedy. It also means that a certain brand of comedy is also dead — that of playing on tired, insensitive stereotyping.
The same effect can be seen in the diversification of standup comics — people want to hear from enterprising comedians who are bringing something new to the table, like Hasan Minhaj, Bo Burnham or Joel Kim Booster. Alpha males like Dane Cook and insensitive comics like Dave Chapelle are on the outs, as they have failed to adapt to the times.
At the same time, “Pitch Perfect” is a separate kind of comedy with its own set of issues. Some of the harsh comedy of the original was ameliorated in “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Pitch Perfect 3;” characters of color were added, some of the marginalized characters got more well-developed back stories and although the sequel was aggressively German, it was also aggressively funny.
Even with its issues, you have to aca-believe me when I say I still love the series. I will forever sing and dance to the original riff-off in the shower and will never forget the musical romance between Jesse (Skylar Astin) and Beca.
“Pitch Perfect” is ten years old and it has been loved, and will continue to be loved, for many years to come. But, the fact remains that it’s important to be aware of why something is funny and reckon with what is and is not appropriate messaging to broadcast in our entertainment.