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Dissecting ‘I Feel Pretty’ and Its Questionable Message of Empowerment

Eisner-nominated comic book writer Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams take a look at Amy Schumer’s latest comedy.

The following conversation about the Amy Schumer romantic-comedy vehicle I Feel Pretty is a veritable battle of like-minded persuasions waged between Eisner-nominated comics writer Alex de Campi (No Mercy, Judge Dredd) and The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams. In the film, Schumer plays Renee Bennett, an insecure office drone who gains renewed self-confidence after she bruises her brain pan by falling off of an exercise bike at SoulCycle.

This is the third monthly conversation in which the pair discusses films (check out the previous installment, a spoiler-filled look at Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, here).

Alex de Campi, Mean Girl: *Trailer Guy Voice* In a world where, for a whole month, a self-obsessed woman doesn’t take a single selfie… (flash to black; loud metallic clanging noise)… in a city that Instagram forgot… (dizzying aerial drone shot of Boston, I mean Manhattan, flash to black, that clang again)… welcome to the cringe-making mess that is I Feel Pretty. (Up on Schumer’s face, tight close-up as she blows a kiss to the camera. She has lipstick on her teeth.)

Look, I have anxiety and depression, and not only did I not laugh once in this film, but the secondhand embarrassment I felt for every character at every moment of its glacial running time stressed me out so hard I wasn’t sure I could function the following day. Can we … can we please stop taking me to chick flicks? I feel like they’re bad for me.

The most frustrating thing of all is that there is a good little film buried inside this weird SoulCycle infomercial, but the filmmakers chose high concept over character writing. The concept is that Schumer — playing Renee Bennett, A Fat Girl Who Is Constantly Picked on Because Fat — knocks herself on the head in an exercise class and wakes up thinking she’s got a supermodel body and face. She thinks she’s no longer fat, so gains confidence. But LOL, she is actually still a fatty! A fatty who doesn’t ever take selfies to immortalize her new supermodel status.

Hey, am I the only one that’s tired of fat being a joke? Women over a size 6 in a feature film are either the villains or the sassy best friend. If they’re the lead or not, the entire story has to be about The Fat. Why can’t we, in the immortal words of Cardi B, let people fat in peace? The film spends two hours going LOL FAT but then attempts to tell us with a straight face that it’s “empowering” because look, every character has insecurities! Even the thin ones! And Renee doesn’t transform! No, I Feel Pretty is not empowering. It’s toxic. And worst of all, it’s not funny.

I can’t see a size 16 watching this film and going, “Oh, Amy Schumer really gets me, this film gets me.” There’s a scene very early on where a skinny store assistant in a high-street store snubs Amy’s character, Renee, because Renee is looking at cut-off jean shorts, but HAHA LOL the store doesn’t carry her size. I mean … women know what stores stock their size. We’re not as dumb as you make us on film. Renee The Real Person would have known — or checked discreetly as soon as she came in on the nearest rack — if the store stocked her size. Renee The Maker of Convenient Choices for Lazy Scriptwriters, though? She’s clueless. Renee is not a real person, she does not make real person choices, she makes stupid comedy-film choices and it’s not good enough anymore.

If the bitchy shop assistant thing sounds like something that’s been done before (Pretty Woman, f’rex), oh, boy. Sit down. Can I also tell you she meets a hot rich guy who falls for her because she’s so adorkable and real (Fifty Shades)? And helps out a snobby fashionista to run her business better (The Devil Wears Prada)? But unfortunately, this takes her on an arc where she almost loses her Nice, Normal Guy (Rory Scovel) and definitely loses her Unglamorous Besties for a bit (Mean Girls) as she loses sight of What Really Matters. Every trope. E V E R Y.

Simon Abrams, Shakes the Clown: The Fat was a major source of irritation for me, too, though I am a film journalist, and am therefore hardly the poster child for a healthy lifestyle. Still, I tried very hard to see the film that Schumer defended in her interviews. She claims that critics’ pans say more about their unexamined prejudices and unrealistic expectations than they do about the film we saw. That self-serving dodge made me wince even more than the film did.

Before we go any further, I want to point out an especially tedious quote in this revealing Vulture interview with Charles Bramesco and compare it to what’s in the actual film. It’s the bit where Schumer addresses I Feel Pretty’s post-head trauma transformation scene. She claims: “[Renee] doesn’t say, ‘I’m so thin!’ She just says that she’s amazed by her jawline, and her boobs, and her ass. If anything, that sounds like a more voluptuous woman to me.” This is mostly a misrepresentation. In the scene, Schumer (as Renee) makes a SoulCycle employee touch her stomach and feel her “rock-hard” abs. The employee even says that Renee’s stomach feels “pretty full.” Schumer’s character also feels up her thighs, as if noticing how toned they are. The joke here isn’t subtle: Renee is proud of her body despite the filmmakers signaling to the audience that she shouldn’t be.

So Schumer’s objection — we are just too easily offended by a film we already had our knives out for — is anti-intellectual horse shit. And while “gaslighting” is a loaded term that I hesitate to use, I do think it applies to the suggestion that we are only imagining a disparity between the filmmakers’ projected reality and the observable behavior exhibited in the actual film. This particular line from Schumer made me sputter: “I heard the comment, ‘Why does she have to think of herself as skinny?’ a lot. But you never see how I see myself!'”

Why does the fact that we never see Renee’s self-image matter given if we can otherwise see how the filmmakers look at their heroine? The slow-motion jiggle of Schumer’s belly fat during Renee’s frenetic bikini-contest performance. The stress and sentence structure of a pseudo-ameliorative line — from Grant LeClaire, Tom Hooper’s hot, kind playboy who is also attracted to Renee’s confidence — that tells Schumer’s character that high-powered women who don’t listen to many people want to listen to “someone like you” (emphasis on “you” since this is the sentence’s last word). The unflattering make-up job that emphasizes the roundness of Schumer’s face. The dopey boyfriend character, who is shocked at the way Renee leaps to her bedroom window without any clothes … but only after she thinks she hears the ice-cream man. The ice cream man! What traits are being emphasized here if not overeating and ugliness?

You could conceivably argue that the joke is on Renee’s insecurities rather than her actual faults in the “We don’t have your size, check online” department store scene. But you cannot tell me that about a film that constantly makes sport of this character for feeling like she is more gorgeous than she appears in the mirrors that her friends, lovers and co-workers — and therefore also the filmmakers — hold up to her.

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