Social Anxiety in Movies: The 40 Year-Old Virgin

40yroldvirgin

I first saw The 40 Year-Old Virgin when it came out in theaters in 2005— hard to believe it’s already been ten years. I remember laughing a lot and thought it was a funny comedy, but I didn’t think much more of it than that. The thing I remembered most about the movie was probably Steve Carell’s famous chest-waxing scene.

Over the past ten years, I’ve seen The 40 Year-Old Virgin at least another twenty times, though not entirely by choice. I was working for a cable television network, which frequently broadcasted the film, so I basically had to watch The 40 Year-Old Virgin for my job. Normally, I’d get sick of a movie after watching it that many times, but in the case of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, it remained just as funny each time I saw it, if not funnier, as I picked up on lines and subtleties that I had missed before. To me, that’s the true mark of a great film— one that actually gets better the more times you watch it. But even then, I didn’t consider The 40 Year-Old Virgin a “great film”— just a really good comedy. I didn’t think the movie had any greater meaning or insight into the human condition— just a lot of funny sex and weed jokes.

When I started searching the internet for movies featuring characters with social anxiety, The 40 Year-Old Virgin kept popping up on lists. Despite the dozens of times I saw the movie, I never connected it to social anxiety. Sure, I recognized Steve Carrell’s character, Andy Stitzer, was socially awkward, but he didn’t seem to have trouble talking— he just had trouble having sex. In fact, I was kind of insulted by the suggestion that Andy had social anxiety disorder. I’m not quite 40, but I know myself and others with social anxiety disorder are virgins because of our social anxiety disorder. But in the movie, whether or not Andy does or doesn’t have social anxiety disorder, it isn’t the reason he is a 40-year-old virgin. He basically chose to remain a virgin because of a bad sexual experience he had as a teen. Andy is more of an asexual, whereas people like me with social anxiety disorder want to have sex and relationships, but we can’t because of our debilitating social anxiety.

I was fairly convinced Andy Stitzer didn’t have social anxiety disorder, but I decided to re-watch The 40 Year-Old Virgin once again, this time with fresh eyes, from a social anxiety perspective. If nothing else, I could prove once and for all that Steve Carell’s character doesn’t have social anxiety. But then, after viewing the film for the umpteenth time, I was surprised by what I found.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin [2005]

Trailer:

Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full spoilers ahead!)

(Note: Some of the following dialogue quotes come from the original screenplay, which differs from the eventual movie.)

Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) works at a Circuit City-type store, and his co-workers, David (Paul Rudd), Cal (Seth Rogen), and Jay (Romany Malco), invite him out for a poker game, only because they needed an extra person.

CAL

He’s a really nice guy and all, but I’m pretty sure that he is a serial murderer.

That’s like the old saying that I hate so much: “It’s always the quiet ones…” People often joke that shy people are secret serial killers because they don’t know what they’re actually thinking. Andy had worked at the store for years, but apparently never talked to his co-workers, which is a strong sign he might have social anxiety disorder.

* * *

At the poker game, the guys tell dirty sex stories, which is how they find out Andy is still a virgin. At first, they make fun of Andy, and he gets embarrassed about it. The next day, everyone else at work finds out Andy is a virgin. He had quietly worked at the store for years without anybody ever noticing him, and now he’s suddenly thrust under the spotlight.

ANDY

I’m gonna have to quit my job now.

It’s common for people with social anxiety to avoid a situation forever after an initial rejection. Andy wants to do just that, but his co-workers convince him to stick around by embracing him and taking it upon themselves to help him lose his virginity.

Andy is apprehensive at first, however, and doesn’t want his co-workers’ help.

ANDY

You’ve invaded my privacy. This isn’t funny. It’s my life. I’m fine. My life is fine.

Sometimes I’ve tried to convince myself that I’m an introvert and am happier alone and don’t need any friends or relationships. While I do enjoy solitude to read, write, and watch tv and movies, there is more to life. Things that you can only get from interacting with another human being.

* * *

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Andy goes for coffee with David and tells him how he ended up a 40-year-old virgin.

ANDY

When I was young, I tried, and it didn’t happen. And then I got older and I got more and more nervous because it hadn’t happened yet. And I got kind of weirded out about it. Then it really didn’t happen… And then, I don’t know, I just kind of stopped trying.

Substitute talking for sex, and Andy’s story could apply to most people with social anxiety. The longer we stay socially isolated, the worse our social anxiety gets, and the harder it becomes to break free and talk.

ANDY

Maybe it’s too late… Sometimes I feel that it is just too late for me.

DAVID

No, that’s crazy.

ANDY

I wouldn’t know what to do.

DAVID

Look, you gotta take a risk.

Sometimes I’ve felt the same way about my social anxiety. That I missed my chances in high school and college to make friends and form relationships, and it’s too late for me now. While it may be true that the longer you stay stuck in social anxiety, the harder it can be to break out, the truth is it is never too late— to lose your virginity or your social anxiety.

DAVID

You’re not just missing out on sex, you’re missing out on relationships. How often do you even leave your apartment? What about friends and love and taking chances?

Again, this sounds exactly like someone with social anxiety disorder… Staying home alone… Missing out on friends and relationships. I’ve been there, done that.

ANDY

You know, we’ve been working together for three years, and I think this is the first time we’ve ever had a conversation that lasted longer than fifteen seconds.

I’ve gone to school and worked with people for years and never said more than hello or goodbye to them… if that. Occasionally, someone would suddenly start trying to talk to me, and it felt really weird. But unlike Andy, I never had the courage to make the witty observation that he did, even though I was thinking the same thing.

* * *

ANDY

Am I good-looking? Do you think a woman will find me attractive?… This is embarrassing for me. This is hard to talk about.

Andy reveals his low confidence and self-esteem, which is common among people with social anxiety and can often be one of the root causes of the disorder.

* * *

David, Cal, and Jay take Andy out to a bar to try to pick up drunk women, thinking they’d be easy targets for him. The night ends with Andy in the car with a drunk driver who vomits in his mouth while kissing him. The guys realize getting Andy laid will be harder than they thought.

JAY

Now you need to learn how to talk to women.

ANDY

I get nervous and I lock up. I never know what to say.

Andy has just described the basic physical symptoms of social anxiety that I myself have felt countless times.

To help Andy talk to women, the guys give him the advice to be like David Caruso in Jade.

JAY

The key is you don’t say anything. Make them talk.

ANDY

How do you do that?

JAY

Just ask them questions. Girls love talking. Let them.

ANDY

What if they ask me a question?

JAY

Then answer their question with a question.

DAVID

It makes you seem mysterious. You talk too much about yourself, you look needy. Put them on the spot.

Funnily enough, this advice works for Andy, and he gets Beth’s (Elizabeth Banks) phone number.

ANDY

It felt good, not having to talk much.

DAVID

That’s the key. Make them feel weird so you don’t have to.

While this scene is mainly played for a joke in the movie, asking questions can actually be a useful conversational method to help people with social anxiety who never know what to say. It’s like the “yes, and” rule of improv. You shouldn’t take this approach to the extreme like Andy did in the movie, and your goal shouldn’t be to make the other person “feel weird”, but asking questions based on the other person’s last statement is an easy way to help you keep a conversation going.

* * *

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The guys try speed dating, but Andy struggles to talk and connect under the pressure of the timer.

ANDY

Guys. I appreciate you doing this, but I have to admit, I am really scared. I am not good at talking with women. It was hard enough when they were drunk. And that didn’t even turn out well.

DAVID

Come on. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

ANDY

You are right.

David’s advice here is spot on for people with social anxiety disorder. We have a fear of talking to people, but in my experience, the only way to truly get over social anxiety is to feel the fear of talking, and talk anyway. Then, when we talk to people enough, we will gradually start to fear talking to those people less and less. As for speed dating, it may sound terrifying, and I’ve never tried it myself, but it may actually be a good method of exposure therapy for social anxiety.

* * *

ANDY

You know what, I respect women, I love women. I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them.

At work, the guys try to get Andy to help an attractive female customer, Trish (Catherine Keener), but he avoids her by helping an older male customer instead.

CAL

He’s been working that guy for an hour.

DAVID

He’s filibustering so he doesn’t have to talk to a girl.

Andy doesn’t seem to have social anxiety with males like his co-workers and customers, or with older females like his neighbor, or with younger females like Trish’s daughters, or even with lesbians like his boss Paula (Jane Lynch). Andy only seems to experience social anxiety with attractive women around his age who are potential sexual partners. In my case, my social anxiety is probably at its worst with females around my age whom I find attractive, but, unlike Andy, I also have social anxiety with elderly women, children, and men of all ages (a.k.a. everyone). But that’s me. The more I learn about other people’s experience with social anxiety, the more I realize each case is different. Social anxiety can be felt on a sliding scale in different situations by different people. I have no problem doing certain things that may cause severe social anxiety for someone else and vice versa. That doesn’t mean either of us does or doesn’t have a more legitimate form of social anxiety disorder– Andy Stitzer included.

* * *

Trish approaches Andy for help choosing a VCR, then she takes the initiative and asks him out on a date. Andy’s a little awkward with her and misses her signals at first, but they do go out on a date and immediately hit it off. They go back to Trish’s house and almost have sex before her daughter Marla (Kat Dennings) comes home and catches them.

The fact that Trish was the one to ask Andy out is consistent with social anxiety disorder. The only time I’ve ever had any kind of relationships with females is when they took the initiative and approached me. However, the way Andy and Trish’s relationship progressed so quickly isn’t as consistent with social anxiety disorder. Andy didn’t really have an arc to overcome his initial social anxiety and get more comfortable with Trish. He seemed to just magically be comfortable with her in one night, which in my experience never really happens. When you have severe social anxiety, it usually takes time (over several weeks at least) and effort (on both parts) to get comfortable with somebody, especially a member of the opposite sex. But I understand that in a two-hour movie they don’t really have the time to show a slow gradual character development like that.

* * *

The guys go out drinking and stop to urinate on the sidewalk outside.

ANDY

I can’t.

DAVID

Do it.

ANDY

I can’t pee in public.

DAVID

Gotta do it.

ANDY

I’ve got a mental block about it.

DAVID

Come on, do it.

ANDY

I’m shy!

Andy shouts as he urinates on the wall.

ANDY

I peed in public!

I also used to have a fear of peeing in public, like large crowded restrooms at sports stadiums with no barriers between the urinals. This is a good example of Andy feeling the fear and doing it anyway. In this case, the alcohol may have helped him, which I wouldn’t recommend, but Andy did get over his fear of peeing in public by simply peeing in public. The same principle applies to talking in public. When you get down to it, social anxiety is really just a mental block we have, and with practice, all mental blocks can be overcome.

* * *

David, Cal, and Jay take Andy back to the store and lock him in a room with a porno movie playing.

Again, this is played for a joke, but it’s a classic example of exposure therapy, which is used to overcome fears, whether that be a fear of sex, or a fear of talking. This specific instance of exposure wasn’t really done correctly, however, so it didn’t help Andy. Nor would locking someone with social anxiety in a room full of extroverts help either. Exposure needs to be done more carefully and gradually, but it does work. For someone with social anxiety, it might simply start with saying hello to a stranger, then progressing from there.

* * *

Andy tries calling Trish on the telephone to ask her out on another date, but he bails when she answers the phone. Unable to talk to her, he pretends to be a telemarketer.

I have felt severe social anxiety about talking on the telephone, sometimes even more so than speaking in person. Although, in my case, my social anxiety has usually prevented me from making a phone call in the first place, or hanging up, rather than pretending to be someone else.

* * *

Andy and Trish eventually go on their second date, but they decide to hold off on the sex for another twenty dates. Over that time, Andy gets closer to Trish and bonds with her daughter, Marla.

Without the looming threat of sex, Andy becomes completely free and comfortable with Trish. This provides more evidence that Andy’s anxiety about his virginity caused his social anxiety, rather than the other way around.

* * *

After the twenty dates, Trish is ready to have sex with Andy, but he resists and she gets upset, thinking Andy doesn’t find her attractive. Andy’s afraid to tell Trish the truth, so she kicks him out, and he goes to David, Cal, and Jay for help.

ANDY

If she finds out I am a virgin, she won’t like me anymore. She will think I am a loser.

JAY

No she won’t.

ANDY

She will. What kind of man doesn’t have sex for forty years? And I am about to turn forty one. If I turn forty one without having sex, that’s really pathetic… If I am honest, she’ll think I am defective. If I have sex, it will be bad and she won’t want to be with me. I’ll never get a second chance.

Here, Andy displays all the negative thoughts and lack of self-confidence that causes social anxiety. In Andy’s case, the thing he’s ashamed of is his virginity. For you or I, something else may fuel our social anxiety. Regardless of the cause, a lot of the negative thoughts are the same. And most of those negative thoughts are false. Just as Andy’s were. Spoiler alert: When Trish eventually finds out he’s a virgin, she doesn’t think he’s a loser and reject him. She lovingly accepts and embraces him.

* * *

Jay ultimately gives Andy the poor advice to have sex with Beth first so he won’t be an awkward virgin with Trish.

JAY

You don’t want to have sex with someone you like… ’cause they’ll think you’re a weirdo for being so lame at it.

This type of thinking is common for people with social anxiety. We are afraid to talk to someone we like because we think we’ll seem too awkward, so we avoid talking to them.

Andy comes to his senses and leaves before having sex with Beth. At Andy’s apartment, Trish sees David’s giant box of porn, and she mistakes Andy for some kind of a sex pervert.

TRISH

What are you trying to do? What are you buttering me up for? You’re not gonna try and kill me, are you?

Another joke about someone thinking a shy person is a serial killer… Then Andy finally tells Trish the truth: that he’s a virgin.

ANDY

What do you think? Am I defective? Am I abnormal?

Andy vocalizes the same thoughts that many social anxiety sufferers have about themselves. But Trish shows Andy that his negative thoughts are false with her response: she kisses him.

This scene is so key. The root of social anxiety is the negative thoughts we have about ourselves and about what others think about us. But when mired in social anxiety, what we don’t realize is that those negative thoughts are often false, and people aren’t actually thinking what we think they are.

* * *

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At the end of the movie, Andy and Trish get married, and they finally have sex. Andy is nervous, but he does it, and afterward, he realizes it wasn’t so bad. It was actually pretty good. It felt great. And he wants to do it again.

ANDY

I was scared.

TRISH

Why would you be scared?

ANDY

Because… because, I’ve never done it before.

Andy was speaking of sex, but his reasoning can be applied to talking or any social situation we fear. We have social anxiety with people we’ve never talked to before, or social situations we’ve never been in before. That makes us scared because we don’t know what to say or do because we’ve never said or done it before. But if we feel that fear and do it anyway (talk, or in Andy’s case, literally “do it”) then eventually, we won’t fear that person or situation anymore.

For people with social anxiety, simply talking may not bring the same pleasure as sex, but it is never as bad as we fear it to be, and talking often does feel pretty good after we do it. And, like Andy, if we do talk, we’ll start to feel more comfortable, want to talk again, and get better at it.

Reviewing the Reviewers:

IMDb: 7.2/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 85% Critics, 84% Audience

Eric D. Snider: “Andy Stitzer is not dumb, unattractive, or even socially awkward, at least not especially.”

James Berardinelli: “Shy doesn’t even begin to describe Andy – he “respects” women so much that he stays away from them.”

Roger Ebert: “What he doesn’t understand, he avoids, finesses or fakes… Andy would just as soon stay home and play with his action figures… Andy knows right away that he really likes her, but he’s paralyzed by shyness and fear.”

Behind the Scenes:

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In interviews, Judd Apatow and Steve Carell spoke about researching actual real life 40 year old virgins.

Judd: “They all were just normal people, maybe shy, afraid to take a chance.”

That could describe a lot of people suffering from social anxiety disorder.

Steve: “So many of them are just normal people… Not necessarily weird or phobic or having emotional problems, but just people it just never happened to. And at some point they gave up trying. That’’s kind of the crux of this character. He had a few opportunities along the way and it didn’t pan out and at one point he just gave up trying.”

The same can be said of people with social anxiety disorder. Most of us aren’t crazy anti-social emotional wrecks. We’re normal people who found it difficult to talk and socialize, so we stopped trying to.

Carell was asked if his character was “broken-hearted” over his sex life, or lack thereof.

Steve: “No. He’’s just kind of shut down that side of himself, and he’’s just kind of turned inward in a lot of ways. He’’s made a comfortable life for himself within that person, who he’’s become.”

A lot of people with social anxiety do the same exact thing. I know I did.

Also, the way Carell describes Andy in that quote, the character has social anxiety because of his virginity, as opposed to him being a virgin because of his social anxiety. Low self-esteem is a common cause for social anxiety, but in your or my case, our embarrassment may be about something else other than our virginity.

In another interview, Steve Carell revealed that he experienced some social anxiety toward women when he was younger.

“I was really a bad dater and up until eighth grade I went to an all-boys school, so by the time I hit high school I was a bit freaked out about women in general. And the putting on the pedestal part of the aspect of the movie, I definitely did that. I was very wary of women. Especially in high school, as soon as I went from being a friend and started looking at a woman as a potential love interest, I could not even talk to a woman. I was pretty bad.”

The film was apparently even more personal for writer/director Judd Apatow

“What’’s funny about this movie is that even though it’’s about a 40 year old virgin, it’’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written in the sense that it shows how awkward I was when I was dating – and how insecure I felt. I mean, the whole idea about a guy hanging out with a bunch of guys who are constantly hitting on women and this one guy is just terrible at it is my life story. I totally related to every cringe factor emotion that one feels when they watch his journey.”

It sounds like Judd, similar to Andy Stitzer, may not have had full-blown social anxiety disorder, but he definitely felt some social anxiety in his life, especially with women. Judd’s personal experience is what probably helped the character of Andy seem so authentic and relatable.

Finally, in his interview with NPR, Apatow revealed the ultimate message of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

“In a movie like this… I’m trying to say the people you find odd may turn out to be great people if you ever paid attention to them. And I’m also trying to say that it’s worth taking a chance in life. You’re going to miss out on a lot if you’re so insecure that you don’t take some chances and possibly get rejected.”

On the surface, the movie is about virgins and having sex, but Apatow’s message also applies to people with social anxiety and talking.

Judgement:

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After re-watching The 40 Year-Old Virgin, I realized the movie is a lot more related to social anxiety that I previously thought. I would still say Andy Stitzer doesn’t have clinical social anxiety disorder, but he does clearly suffer from some social anxiety in the movie, particularly with women. Andy actually seems more socially anxious in the original script, but I guess due to the fact that Steve Carrell and the other actors in the cast are such great comedic improvisers, they couldn’t help but add more jokes. That definitely made the movie funnier, but it also made the character of Andy a bit uneven and inconsistent as far as his social anxiety. Regardless of whether Steve Carell’s character does or doesn’t have social anxiety, or if the disorder was portrayed accurately or not, I think the film has a greater message that is relevant for people who do have social anxiety disorder. Substitute sex with talk, and virginity with social anxiety, and the advice from the film is the same. Feel the fear and do it anyway… Take a risk… It’s never too late…

The 40 Year-Old Virgin as a film: 9/10

The 40 Year-Old Virgin as a portrayal of social anxiety: 7/10

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3 thoughts on “Social Anxiety in Movies: The 40 Year-Old Virgin

  1. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies | Tim Barry Jr.

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