Amy Schumer's 'I Feel Pretty' Is Making Us Feel Pretty Apprehensive
The trailer for Amy Schumer’s new movie I Feel Pretty has already faced a ton of backlash online. I’m not angry, just disappointed. (OK, maybe a little bit angry too.)
Here’s the thing. This could be a good movie. It could be a fun and uplifting story about a woman who rejects society’s narrow beauty ideals, overcomes crushing body dysmorphia, finally feels happy in her own skin and reaps the rewards of her new-found confidence. But it also seems to be a movie that makes fun of her size, and plays pre and post-transformation Renee for cheap laughs, even though she’s barely outside those narrow beauty ideals that the movie invites us to question in the first place.
The big questions I have are: who are we meant to laugh at, and who are we meant to laugh with? Part of the trailer seems to encourage us to laugh at Renee: at her happy ‘delusion’ that she looks like a supermodel, and at her body. The reaction shots from other characters seal this for us. Here’s the gym instructor with a ‘really?’ face after Renee announces that she’s beautiful.
And here are Naomi Campbell and Michelle Williams, with their ‘yeah right’ faces after Renee declares that she could be a model.
So are we laughing at an industry where body confidence doesn’t sell? Where high-end fashion, beauty products and gym memberships often rely on ‘you suck, but spend lots of money and we will fix you’ narratives? Are we criticising Shallow Hal mentalities on dating websites, and shops that only sell the smallest sizes?
Are we meant to laugh at Sad Renee, who is apparently so unfortunate looking that a baby literally cries at her face?
Are we meant to be laughing at her confidence? Are the reaction shots above the ones we’re meant to engage with? To me, these reactions suggest that her confidence is perceived as arrogance, and an arrogance that must be critiqued, ridiculed and punished; it is the inevitable emotional backlash against a person who doesn’t need your compliments or your attention to feel good about themselves. You know, that 180 degree whiplash shift from ‘you’re pretty’ to ‘who the hell do you think you are?’; that gross assumption that confidence must only come from flattery granted by others, flattery that must be gratefully and modestly received, or you are just ‘full of yourself’, and those compliments are hastily revoked. In the world of I Feel Pretty, the humour must tread a fine line between finding the entertaining angle and not presenting confidence and happiness as inherently ridiculous. The trailer does not do a reassuring job with this.
However her confidence is framed in terms of comedy, it is certainly transformative. She might be personally critiqued via side-eye, but post-concussion Renee is on the up. She gets a promotion and a new boyfriend. I will give the movie credit for not falling into a couple of the normal traps: the fat suit, and the glasses off/hair down makeover. Renee’s transformation is psychological in the first instance, as the movie’s tagline insists: ‘Change Everything, Without Changing Anything’. And so the biggest difference is her attitude. Instead of hiding, she walks tall. She struts. This is a good thing. But that’s not all it is; her wardrobe changes too. This is partly evidence of this new confidence; booty shorts and mini-skirts can require some gumption, after all. But it’s a makeover nonetheless. She is wearing more flattering and more fashionable outfits. She’s styled her hair in a more flattering way. ‘Change Everything, Without Changing Much, But Admittedly Changing a Little’ wasn’t quite as catchy, but it might be more accurate. Movie makeovers are fine — they can be fun, and they can be epic (I’m looking at you, The Long Kiss Goodnight). This is not a Miss Congeniality makeover, requiring a team of people, an airport hangar and a slow-motion strut to Mustang Sally, but it’s still a makeover.
It doesn’t take much to make Renee look good because it doesn’t take much to make Amy Schumer look good. Is this the point? That your beauty and awesomeness is right there — you had your mojo all along, Austin! — or does this undermine the potentially earnest message of the movie? How’s this for an elevator pitch: white, blonde woman who is probably US size 8/UK size 12 realizes that she’s not some sort of grotesque monster who makes babies cry with just her face, and that she’s actually pretty (who’d have thought it?). Is this a gobsmacking ‘check your privilege’ moment? Or is it a note that insecurity knows no privilege? If so, this needs a bit more diversity to land as a message. Comparative insecurity gets a mention in the trailer, but Amy Schumer is to many ‘normal people’ as Emily Ratajkowski’s character is to Renee. And we’d need a spectrum that covers a bit more ground than the trailer’s range of ‘able-bodied skinny white woman to able-bodied slim white woman’…
I wish that everyone had the body confidence of Renee 2.0. I wish that that wasn’t a hilarious idea. I also wish that it didn’t take a magical concussion to make that happen. The message of the movie is really going to come down to the long-term effects of Renee’s concussion: is her confidence a comic delusion (which is how the trailer sells it) or is it a psychological reset, a much-needed awakening? Is it the loss of that little voice in your head that says ‘you can’t wear that’ or ‘you are fat and gross’? Or is it the addition of a personal cheerleader in your head, who winks at you and says, ‘go get ‘em, tiger’? I want insecurity and low self-esteem to be the delusions, not a sudden burst of confidence. And deeply-rooted insecurity can’t be fixed with a bump to the head. Where is this story going?
Getting the message right is particularly important with a movie about the intersection between female appearances and female minds. Consider the difference in message between The Devil Wears Prada and Legally Blonde. In the former, Andy’s journey to ‘looking good’ is presented as coming at the expense of her seriousness and her inner goodness. Being fashionable means becoming self-centred, anti-intellectual, and ruthless. She must shed Fashion to become a Good Friend, Good Girlfriend and a Writer of Substance. In Legally Blonde, Elle feels she has to dial down the pink a notch to be taken seriously, and is constantly underestimated because she is pretty and interested in fashion. She reclaims her signature colour and style at the same point that she is finally taken seriously as a Smart Person. Her goodness never wavers; this movie says that you can be fashionable, be nice and be smart, all at the same time. A much better message, no?
So what’s the message of I Feel Pretty? Schumer wants us to know that it is a positive message for women:
In her interview with Ellen, she added that “it’s a really funny, sweet movie that I think will make us all feel better.” If that’s the case, then the trailer is doing the movie a disservice. Trailers can be misleading, as Kristy has been assuring us with Peter Rabbit (it’s not a trap, folks). So it might be that the cheap LOLs at Renee’s body as she twerks at a bikini contest are not really indicative of the tone of the movie. But how many people will give it the benefit of the doubt?
To put it another way: if you wish you looked this good in booty shorts, would you want to risk being the butt of the joke?