Mary: Amy Schumer has a particular brand of comedy that she’s been developing for a while. She frequently talks about her body and body image in a way that I would venture is self-deprecating, and frames herself as an everywoman. Her newest movie, I Feel Pretty, follows a Schumer character named Renee, who works for the fictional beauty brand Lily St. Claire. Renee longs to be an integral part of the brand, representing it as a secretary in the main office instead of the basement-level computer work she’s previously done for the company. After a fall at SoulCycle convinces Renee she is beautiful (like, model beautiful), she has the confidence to go after her dreams. Nothing really changes about Renee’s appearance, and she still looks the same to the audience as well as her friends. The only change is in her perception of herself. Renee believes she’s beautiful and therefore she is, right?
Not really. Other characters in the film--especially beauty industry folks--talk down to Renee and snidely comment on her looks, surprised that she would be in the main office of a well known brand. Renee ignores all this and continues on her journey, rising to the top of the company and falling in love with sweet-boy Ethan (who I love, but I’ll get to that later). She also alienates her longtime friends in favor of her newer, hotter coworkers.
In her New York Times review of I Feel Pretty, Amanda Hess marks the films as one in a growing category of “beauty standard denialism” texts. She argues that even as women attempt to buck patriarchal standards by denying looks are important, looks remain incredibly important. Hess points to a few plus size professional models (like Ashley Graham) who seem to break the industry mold, yet for every Graham, there are two Kendall Jenners. Ultimately, Hess says that it’s “too painful” to address the reality of beauty standards head on. It might hurt people. Schumer herself has posited that the movie isn’t about weight or beauty, but about confidence, telling Vulture, “In the scene after the head injury, the assumption is that the woman I see when I look in the mirror is skinny, but I’m just seeing my same self and perceiving my body as beautiful.”
But that simply isn’t true. The comedic tension of the film lies in the fact that the world perceives Renee as unattractive for one reason or another. Considering that Renee presents herself well throughout the entire film--with her makeup done, dressed in stylish enough clothes, seemingly clean and put together--the only thing that could be upsetting characters is the stuff that Renee can’t change: her face, her body type, etc.. Amy Schumer has repeatedly said that she isn’t plus size, noting that if she is plus size, what does that mean for young girls who see her, a size 6-8, and think that is fat. I see what Schumer is saying, and I agree that kids (or anyone) should look at Schumer and believe she is fat, or even unattractive, but I also don’t see what the problem is with being labeled plus size. Why is that the worst thing that could happen to a woman? Why does Schumer feel the need to post pictures of herself in her underwear or deny her inclusion in a list of attractive, but not conventionally attractive women?
All this was the context I had going into I Feel Pretty. I’ve followed Schumer’s comedy for a while, watching her sketch comedy show on Comedy Central and seeing some of her stand up, and I don’t really like what I’ve seen. Yes, I’m happy that she’s a badass woman out there doing comedy, but I hate that so much of her humor relies on making fun of her body, or having the audience invest in the belief that she’s not beautiful. I Feel Pretty does a lot of the same, and the humor only works if the audience believes Schumer shouldn’t feel good about her body.
So that is all of my background on how I felt about Schumer going into it, and I’m curious how you feel about it, Emily, since I think you might enjoy Schumer more than me--you’ve seen her live, haven’t you?
Emily: So I first heard about Amy Schumer when someone shared with me her Friday Night Lights sketch parody. I’m a big Friday Night Lights fan, so I found this hilarious and also interesting in the way it calls out rape culture.
From there, I ended up getting really into Inside Amy Schumer because, just like the FNL parody, the best moments of the show were feminist and funny at the same time. My husband and I binged the whole show together, and then, yes, we ended up seeing Amy Schumer in New Orleans on New Years Eve a couple of years back.
So that’s my Amy Schumer background. Still, I realize she’s highly problematic. I definitely agree with all of the points you’ve made above, Mary, but I would also like to add that her self-deprecating humor neglects to recognize ways in which she fits Western beauty ideals as a affluent able-bodied blonde white woman. Her show, in general, is a perfect example of what feminism looks like without intersectionality--that is, pretty selfish. She is concerned about empowering women like her, but neglects to recognize the way that other women are disenfranchised. In fact, we can take this criticism a step further and argue that Schumer does worse than ignore people of color. Many have pointed out that people of color are often the butt of her jokes.
I bring these critiques of her stand-up routines and her sketch comedy show here, because the same issues are still on display in I Feel Pretty. Mary, you mention that Schumer is attractive, but not conventionally attractive. But in a lot of ways Schumer is very conventionally attractive. While Schumer’s Renee is routinely made to feel out of place for not being a size zero or having “undeniably pretty” features, no critique is made of the way Western society has, for centuries, forced white coloring, features, hair texture, pattern of speech, etc, to be the standard not only for beauty but for social acceptability.
All of the main characters in this movie are white. There are two characters of color with speaking roles, but both of them seem impervious to the beauty standards set by Hollywood. They are part of the problem, looking at Renee incredulously as she deigns to call herself beautiful and admit that “modeling is an option for me.” This might seem unintentional, but suggesting that these women do not also struggle with impossible beauty standards suggests, falsely, that we live in a post-racial world where skin color and hair texture do not play a role in how beautiful mainstream society thinks you are.
Overall, I really wanted to enjoy this movie because I feel like when Schumer is on, she gets across a feminist message while also being funny. But this movie missed the mark in both the feminism department and, for the most part, in the funny department as well. This movie had funny moments, but the bulk of the jokes are made at Renee’s expense. We’re supposed to think it’s hilarious that she would actually believe she’s attractive enough to be doing these things. How is this supposed to translate into a feminist message of body positivity (which is what she was going for)? Honestly, I left the movie feeling worse about myself.
The highlight of the movie was Michelle Williams, who is showing off her comedic chops for real in this. I love Michelle Williams, and it’s nice to see her in a movie that doesn’t have me curled up in a ball sobbing at the end of it. (I’m looking at you, Blue Valentine. Goddamn). Also, I really want her puppy/flower print dress. Is that thing real? Who wants to take my money?
ETA: It is real, but it's Dolce & Gabbana, so my dreams are ruined.
Mary: You are absolutely right that Schumer’s brand of comedy often makes POC the butt of the joke, and also that in a lot of ways Schumer is conventionally attractive. One more thing I want to talk about is how fat activists that I follow online have responded to the film, and why I’m highly suspicious. Virgie Tovar, who has written extensively about fat as an intersectional space for women to talk about all manner of identities--from race to gender to varying levels of femininity--has written a review of I Feel Pretty for Ravishly as part of her Take the Cake series. Tovar writes that she enjoyed the film, sort of (with the caveat that a woman should not have to sustain a head injury to feel good about herself), even though it’s part of “a troubling phenomenon in the rapid gentrification of the fat movement.” She also includes the footnote that tickets to an advanced screening were provided to her from the studio making the movie.
This happens all the time with new movies, and I know that. And really, there’s no way for the studio to win in this case. If they don’t invite fat activists and models to the screenings (like Tess Holliday, who appeared at the premiere), they’ll get criticized for not including the women this movie is about. If they do invite them, people like me will feel suspicious that these women are being bought out by a huge corporation. It’s telling to me that the studio felt like they needed fat women to discuss the movie publicly, to be seen watching it. Because we are their demographic. That being said, where is the fat woman in the movie? Tovar talks about how Renee realizes at the end of the film that she did lots of amazing stuff in the fat body she already had, yet Schumer is invested in saying she’s not fat. It’s mind boggling to me.
To switch gears here, I do want to talk about something I think the movie does really well: the supporting cast. Emily, you talked about how it was so nice to see Michelle Williams in a comedy (and I can’t emphasize enough how great she was), and I think the rest of the supporting cast was pulling the film along, both in terms of acting and story.
I felt happy, or maybe relieved, to see Ethan’s story arc in the film. Ethan is one of Renee’s love interests, and the one she ultimately ends up with even though he is just a normal guy. Ethan feels lucky to be with Renee because he sees her as funny and smart and pretty, and he also discusses insecurities about how he looks. I think it’s important for all sorts of men to be depicted on screen because *GASP* there are different sorts of men in the world. I, personally, as you might remember from our conversation about The Upside of Unrequited, feel more attracted to men who are secure enough in their masculinity to do things sometimes deemed feminine. I mean, who cares if Ethan takes a Zumba class, really? Why should that be a marker of masculinity? I want a partner in life, not an emotionless, ripped stereotype of a man. It was refreshing to see Renee think Ethan is very attractive (because hello, he is), and refreshing to see Ethan voice his insecurities and concerns. Because at the end of the day, we’re all human and we all feel that way. Everyone is capable of disliking parts of themselves, men are just conditioned to do it in a different way.
I also want to note that, Queen of my Comedy Heart, Aidy Bryant’s character never engages in the sort of self deprecation that Renee does, even though she is fatter than Renee. It’s possible that Bryant’s inclusion as a confident friend for Renee was meant to emphasize that Renee’s dislike of her body was all in her head, but it made me wonder--Why was Bryant not cast as Renee? There are probably marketing reasons for this--Schumer is a bigger name, maybe?--but it still made me wonder what this movie would have looked like if Aidy Bryant had been the lead role. Then again, I’ve never seen Bryant mock her body for the sake of comedy. Yes, she’s participated in skits for SNL that acknowledge her weight (like the brilliant Aidy B sketch, which works partly on the fact that Aidy is fat, but mostly because she is usually depicted as sweet and kind), but for the most part she just plays characters like anyone else. Bryant has talked about her weight in interviews before, and she’s never argued that she isn’t fat or that she doesn’t think she should be included in the conversation on body acceptance. Hm.
(Also, as a side note, Aidy Bryant and Connor O’Malley are extreme couple goals for me. Two folks, being funny and having careers, but also loving each other and being total dorks.)
I agree that the movie left me feeling worse about myself than when I went in, and that probably wasn’t the writers’ intention at all. That being said, there are some redeemable parts, even if they aren’t the main focus of the story. Mostly, I’m glad we got to see it together so we could talk about it!
Emily: Me too! And that we got to go on a movie date again so we could share a popcorn!