To discuss Amy Schumer is to wade into a minefield. The talented comedian, actress, and writer seems to inspire the ire of a certain corner of the internet no matter what she does, no matter the quality of her work. Schumer had climbed the mountain of success, and there were plenty of people willing to try and tear her down at every turn. Inside Amy Schumer and Trainwreck made her a critical darling, but she still had more than her fair share of misogynist trolls. Because of the steady onslaught, some legitimate criticisms — persistent rumors of joke stealing, the lackluster Leather Special — got thrown onto the pile with the unfair hate.
When the trailer for Schumer’s latest film, I Feel Pretty, dropped, many people — women in particular — were a little put off by the apparent message of the film. Schumer plays Renee, a woman who is constantly belittled due to her physical appearance who then hits her head in a SoulCycle class and then believes herself to be “undeniably beautiful” after regaining consciousness. Her newfound extreme self-esteem changes her professional and personal life drastically, and the butt of the joke seemed to be that if Schumer and women like her were confident they had to be delusional. Schumer bristled against that thinking and encouraged people to wait to see the film before casting judgment. However, when the film was released a couple of weeks ago, the criticism only sharpened.
Instead of taking that criticism in stride, Schumer launched her own online Instagram campaign complaining about the film’s reception and dismissing the critics as too white and too male. To her credit, the film criticism field is overly populated with white men, but in this situation, they’re right about I Feel Pretty.
I went into I Feel Pretty wanting to like it. I’m a fan of the romantic comedy genre and have enjoyed most of Schumer’s work. I was the ideal audience for this film, and I hoped that the trailers had just misrepresented the film. They didn’t. As Renee strutted through New York with her newfound ego, the supporting characters and the film itself encourages us to laugh at her. Look at this woman and her absurdly misplaced confidence! Despite the fact that Schumer looks better than most women that you know, we are meant to see this kind of radical confidence as wholly absurd.
What’s disappointing is that I can almost see what the film tried and failed to say. At the beginning of the film, Renee struggles with feeling overlooked and invisible at work, at the bar, and at places where beautiful people flock, like SoulCycle. That displacement and feeling like you really don’t belong is a familiar one, for myself and for many women. I Feel Pretty nails this quiet desperation, but the way that it handles Renee’s mental transformation is where things fall apart.
The universal reaction to Renee’s confidence is varying degrees of horror and confusion, not because Renee increasingly becomes more of an asshole (which she does), but because the film wants us to think that because she’s not a size 2, she’s clearly a schlubby monster. While this may be some kind of commentary on the common sentiment that confidence in one’s self is a brave act, the constant jokes made about the slight jiggle in Renee’s stomach and the fact that she eats carbohydrates grew increasingly unfunny as the film went on. It never felt like we were ever really rooting for our heroine. Instead, we were encouraged to mock her.
Part of Renee’s life upgrade is a more prominent position at the upscale cosmetics company where she works, where she helps spearhead a makeup line for Target aimed at “regular” women. After Renee hits her head a second time, she ends up losing her insane confidence but realizes that she didn’t need a head injury to feel better about herself, and that other “real” women should be confident in themselves as well. Not a bad message, but the whole speech is wrapped up in the fact that these new products are for real women like them. Buy this makeup, use this moisturizer, and you’ll really be your best self. That kind of self-love deeply intertwined with capitalism is one of the more insidious aspects of the commodification of feminism, and to see that message parroted in I Feel Pretty really was the last straw.
There are moments in I Feel Pretty that work. Renee’s casual friendship with Emily Ratajkowski mines some interesting moments of recognition that it’s tough being a woman no matter what you look like, and her romance with Rory Scovel is charming despite the third-act implosion. But Schumer’s prior work has proven that she’s capable of more than I Feel Pretty, and it’s frustrating to see her double down on the idea that people who criticize the film “just don’t get it.” I get it, I’ve lived it, I’m not a fan. The truth of the matter is that Schumer will be fine. She just earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in Meteor Shower and has four films in development. She still has plenty of good work in her, but this kind of hostility to valid criticism isn’t a good look.