Late last week Amy Schumer’s latest film, I Feel Pretty, premiered with “soft” box office takings and a dismal 34 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating. However, I Feel Pretty had already sealed its fate back in February with a trailer so uniformly despised it damn near outdid the Lady Ghostbusters for online outrage.
I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (How To Be Single, He’s Just Not That Into You, Never Been Kissed), centres on Renee (Schumer), a lowly office drone with low self-esteem who, after a conk on the noggin at a SoulCycle class, imagines herself as supermodel beautiful, and uses her newfound confidence to fenagle a fancy new life for herself.
I balked at the trailer like everyone else, but was intrigued enough to drag my butt to a Sunday night screening of I Feel Pretty. The other cinemagoers in my cosy session – mostly young women – snickered in all the right places, radiating the placation for which we all seek out films like I Feel Pretty. I laughed too, sometimes, but more often than I’d hoped I cringed at the film’s tepid unselfawareness and mixed messaging.
Honestly, I have a hard time with any film that positions itself as some kind of self-love empowerment booster for all women.
I am a woman with an unruly body of my own, and my journey to self-conviction has not been easy. And while I’m not entirely certain there isn’t a little vindictiveness at the heart of I Feel Pretty, I do believe the filmmakers think they were making a film that could bolster legions of self-loathing women.
But do we want this cookie-cutter image positivity, regurgitated from expired Dove ad campaigns, writ large for us by Hollywood’s copy-and-paste application? This, after all, is the exact kind of nonsense Schumer herself has skewered in her solo comedy career.
Schumer, along with many creatives attached to the film, have come out in defence of the film after the outrage ignited by the trailer, and Schumer in particular has rushed to assure audiences that it’s them who are wrong. “There’s a lot of projection,” Schumer told Vulture’s Charles Bramesco, labelling the backlash to the trailer “disappointing”. “Audiences are going to think that way no matter what I do.”
Tsk-tsk! Naughty audiences, reading their own valid interpretations into art and entertainment again.
We are more than our bodies, more than objects, more than the platitudinal comfort of feeling pretty.
Silverstein, the film’s co-director and writer, is also quick to blame the audience’s lack of understanding for the backlash. “It was super frustrating because once you've seen the movie, you know that it could not be further from the truth,” he told MTV, when asked about the suggestion that Schumer’s character would be the butt of all the jokes.
At no point do these creators, beloved though they are, clever though they may be, consider that perhaps this time they’ve got the message wrong. Because despite Schumer, Kohn and Silverstein’s protestations that, because we never see Renee’s altered image of herself, we never know if she sees herself as slim and conventionally “hot”, the film is bursting with jokes at the expense of Schumer’s looks.
As in the film’s now infamous scene where the mind-altered Renee drags her new beau to a bikini competition at a bar, which she enters with a gyrate-and-grind performance Schumer pulls out with a rolled-up top and unbuttoned shorts.
Schumer’s performance is, as ever, committed – but the audience at the bar looks on in horror and humour (as, no doubt, we are supposed to) as her “unruly” body performs moves only a thin person should have liberty to access. The joke here is clear: the idea of an average-looking woman acting with even a smidge of self-confidence is so ludicrous, a gag like this will land on visual suggestion alone.
The first step to our liberation is to separate our success from our aesthetics.
I write a lot about image and the body, but the secret of my power and self-confidence is not a mystical bump on the head that makes me feel like a supermodel, allowing me to blind those around me to my obvious physical flaws. It’s not even projecting the confidence of a woman who is far more attractive than I am in real life, because that’s… well… deranged.
My secret empowering trick is actually not connected to my looks because, in fact, women contain multitudes and the first step to our liberation is to separate our success from our aesthetics – we are not simply objects to be judged, by ourselves or by others. I don’t buy empowerment as a pair of killer heels or a great haircut or a love of one’s own (or one’s wife’s!) curves. Yes, I love the way I look; but it is not the centre of who I am, and it’s far from being the primary indicator of how much power I can wield in this world.
It’s time for all of us, not just those in Hollywood but everyone, to look beyond looks for female empowerment. We are more than our bodies, more than objects, more than the platitudinal comfort of feeling pretty.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @mdixonsmith.