Does how we see ourselves matter as much as how others see us? Is the culture of online dating too superficial and focused on looks? Where does confidence really come from? The new movie I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein and starring Amy Schumer, asks these important questions. (The film is in theaters Friday.)
You’ve probably seen the trailer by now. Our perfectly-normal sized heroine Renee–played by perfectly-normal sized Amy–wishes on a fountain to be undeniably gorgeous. The next day, after an inspiring speech by a fitness instructor, Renee falls off her SoulCycle and when she comes to, she believes she is off-the-charts hot, leading to extreme confidence. She takes control of her personal life, by initiating a conversation with Ethan, a man at the dry cleaner and giving him her phone number. And she “transforms” her professional life, from running the online presence for a beauty company from a Chinatown basement to working the reception desk at the chic, Fifth Avenue corporate office. To ambitious women, this might seem like a downgrade, and that’s because it is. But to Renee, acquiring the reception job means that she is attractive enough to be the face of the company. She’s happy to leave her old life, with its pesky brain-tasking assignments, and focus instead on smiling and offering people pressed juices.
The disconnect between how empowered Renee feels and how everyone else (including the audience) sees her is supposed to bring the comedy. Renee grabs her belly and says she’s gorgeous. We see her slight tummy bulge and we’re supposed to laugh. She walks confidently in a super-short skirt. We see her upper legs nearly exposed and we’re supposed to laugh. She dances her way through a bikini contest with confidence. And we’re supposed to laugh, or, as Ethan does initially, cringe. The crowd becomes delighted by Renee’s personality, confidence and dance moves–Schumer is a good dancer, no matter how the film positions her–and Ethan’s hesitation turns to the awe usually reserved for manic pixie dream girls. This adoration is a shade different, because the leading lady who captures the man’s heart with her wild and whimsical ways isn’t a size 0.
The real gift of Renee’s wish “coming true” is not that other people have stopped judging her: It’s that she is oblivious to how others see and judge her. Only while turned off from the constant assault of real and self-generated judgment about what she looks like could she emerge confidently.
It’s notable that her “newly hot” self tried to get her friends (great if too-brief performances from Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant) to change too, but they’re happy the way they are. Renee ditches them to hang out with models and company CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) who likes Renee because she’s straightforward and understands the audience for their new budget makeup line (they call it “diffusion”).
When the fantasy comes to an end, however, Renee (eventually) realizes that the magic was in her the whole time, and that her friends were part of that. Her change is internal, a fantasy only she experienced: She tries several times to explain it to her friends and boyfriend, but they all shake their heads. They don’t understand what she was seeing. Which leads me to my other point: By the end of the film, Renee has been almost impaled on a SoulCycle and experienced two concussions. She should probably seek some medical assistance. (I’m a little worried about her.)
The movie is fine. It’s not as amazing as I’d hoped, but not as horrifying (see Shallow Hal) as I’d feared. I’d even say it’s probably a better movie than it was a trailer; the trailers show you all of the cringeworthy moments with no investment in the characters or storyline. And critics of the trailer/film might call this a fat-shaming film, but I didn’t see it that way. Instead I see it as a mirror: This is the way our society makes women feel about their bodies, regardless of what size we are.
I don’t know who could make a movie about body image that would get it 100 percent right. Self-image is instilled over decades, through messaging from channels both remote (magazines, tv and film) and nearby (parental admonishment, social alienation etc). The weight loss industry–from diets to liposuction, from exercise to cryofreezing–is mammoth, and the drive to change the shape of our bodies is something that almost every woman has felt pressure to do at one time or another, or for some, every waking minute of the day. If gaining unwavering self-confidence and joy in one’s body were attained as easily as getting knocked on the head, I guarantee you someone would try to replicate those circumstances. (And that someone might even be me.)
I’m an Amy Schumer fan. I’m awed by her bravery as a comedian and her insight as a social commentator. She consistently pushes boundaries, challenges ideas of body image and beauty (see video below), calls out harassment, parodies the patriarchy and is often a voice for empowerment. I loved Trainwrecked a lot (and Snatched a little). I saw her live in Los Angeles on the Trainwrecked tour and on HBO in The Leather Special (which I didn’t love as much, but it was “something Amy Schumer,” which is better than “no Amy Schumer”). So I’m thrilled to have Amy back: her moments with model Emily Ratajkowski–playing a model who effortlessly gets attention for her looks–are gems. Philipps, Bryant, Williams and Rory Scovel as Renee’s love interest are all very appealing, and I’d love to hang out with all of them (Amy’s invited, too). But when I’m asked to look at Amy Schumer and say, “isn’t it ridiculous that she would think she’s beautiful?”, that’s where my sense of reality kicks in. When I look at Amy, I see the weight loss and fitness goals for so many people: their movie would have them falling off a SoulCycle and waking up confident because they’re in Amy Schumer’s body.
We can try to reset our own brains and rewire the messages about who we are and what we look like. But the more challenging task is to reshape how society defines beauty (and therefore worth). Maybe we will all walk away with the film’s message that confidence can transform us. Now all we need is for society to get a traumatic brain injury so that together, we can see ourselves as the most beautiful–and, it’s implied, most worthy–versions of ourselves.