a look at Amy Schumer’s new movie and what it says about beauty and love.
I wanted to feel prettier after seeing “I Feel Pretty.”
To be fair, that’s a hefty expectation to impose on a movie — to erase decades of conditioning that tells women we are pretty in exact proportion to how much we live up to an impossible ideal.
Oooh, the ideal. It’s so yummy. It’s so deliciously skinny and perfect and glowy that I guess the movie producers figured we’d all enjoy a two-hour swim in a sea of painfully thin and gorgeous models who surround the heroine, Renee. I didn’t care for that aspect because I am mostly incapable of looking at women like that without feeling piteously inadequate by contrast. I also suspect Renee (played wonderfully by Amy Schumer) might have been less insecure if her entire life wasn’t spent around models. But okay, maybe the story needed her to be immersed in that world so we could appreciate the depth of her self-doubt.
But did the story need her confidence to be based on a totally psychotic delusion that she looks like an airbrushed model?
This question nagged me as I walked home with my fifteen-year old niece, whom I brought because I heard the movie had a good message about self-acceptance. (On this front, I think the film somewhat succeeded, and overall, I’m happy anyone even tried to make a commercial movie about what Naomi Wolf named “the beauty myth.” It’s not an easy subject to tackle).
Anyhoo, Renee hits her head so hard, her brain tricks her into thinking she’s gorgeous. Not just any gorgeous — model gorgeous. Renee sees “super toned rock hard abs” in place of her adorably doughy stomach, and she believes she looks just like the nutritionally-challenged models who represent the cosmetics company she works for. As a result, she starts embodying a confidence that is so startling and refreshing and funny, it achieves the same effect as culturally-defined beauty: she gets a job promotion, gets a dude, and gets to eat food without guilt.
I really liked this aspect of the movie; it shows off Schumer at her hilarious best, and it suggests that maybe confidence, humor, and intelligence can work the same magic as looking like a Victoria’s Secret angel.
What worries me is that, inside the logic of the film, the only way an ordinary woman can feel that confident is to literally go insane. Why couldn’t the “spell” compel Renee to like what is actually in the mirror? When she squeezes her belly roll, why can’t she SEE her belly roll, and say “Holy crap? How have people been missing how fucking cute this thing is!” When she joins a bikini contest, why must she be so deluded as to think she actually looks like all the other tan skinnies? Why couldn’t she say to her disbelieving date, “I know this seems cray, but I’m gonna teach these drunk idiots another version of gorgeous!”
Alternately, she could have opted out of the swimsuit contest on the basis that such contests are pathetically sexist and retrograde. (Dare I dream of such a character? And while I’m at it, could Renee have higher aspirations than to be a receptionist? Why doesn’t the movie end with her throwing out her make-up and learning how to code? Instead of being on a soul cycle at the end, why not a soul exploration, like reading Rumi passages aloud on a gal-pal trip to help Syrian refugees… okay, sorry, Hollywood, I’ve gone too far… it could never be…)
But alas, even if the movie wants to be, Renee is not a feminist. She is not only completely down with the objectification of women, she wants IN. I can understand this. The super-beautiful DO seem to inhabit a glamorous world that we mortals will never touch. But that world is just an illusion, and the movie doesn’t reveal that. For example, Renee ditches her real friends in order to go to some exciting, model-filled club, but we the audience never get a peek inside that club. We never find out that it’s probably incredibly douchy and shallow in there, a hollow world in which women are treated like art objects, never knowing why men like them, and always forbidden to eat delicious snacks.
To the film’s credit, Renee is harmed by her increasing shallowness, and loses her best friends. Her friends are not interested in the superficial. Their attitude is: “we’re cool, we like our lives, and we’re looking for dudes who notice that.” They’re not focused on appearance, and that is (still!) a genuinely subversive position for a woman to take. Here, in some tiny way, the film hints at what Irish poet John O’Donahue has noted, that the more emphasis we put on appearance, the more richness we deplete from our “interiority,” the wild, elegant, and imperfect landscape in which true beauty resides. When O’Donahue talks about beauty, he ain’t talking about whoever is on the cover of Maxim magazine.
This raises the question of how we want to approach the idea of beauty. Is the goal to say “I’m beautiful on my own terms,” OR “I’m loveable and I don’t care that I’m not beautiful; fuck that noise.” It’s a difficult question to answer because glamorous beauty has become a stand-in for lovability. Since 99% of our cultural heroines are gorgeous, from Helen of Troy to Hannah Montana, we come to feel that physical perfection is a prerequisite to being loved (not to mention hired, listened to, and noticed as alive). This really sucks if you’re not white and bony, or if you have hair anywhere but your head.
But because our physical appearance is a part of who we are, it doesn’t feel authentic to ask to be loved for only what is on the inside. A person is a complete package. The beauty of the “real you” can’t be completely divorced from your actual physical appearance. It’s psychologically incoherent to think, “I may be physically ugly but I’m really smart so I’m pretty.” We still need a new way to experience and see each other, physically.
Unfortunately, as a culture, we have a very hard time conceiving of “beauty” beyond a shallow, punishing, and racist ideal. That’s why Renee essentially has two choices: delusionally think she is a model, or, embrace the slippery beauty of “self-confidence.”
But that does that mean exactly? What is this hazy, elusive, alternative beauty that exists because of what we feel like on the inside? Does it manifest physically? Do we have to be as spiritually evolved as an Irish mystic poet in order to see it? In our hyper-visual and amazingly superficial culture, are we even capable of a subtle attunement to the glow that comes from within?
Optimistically, Renee’s boyfriend Ethan seems thusly attuned. When he finds her beautiful, he actually means as a human being. He likes for her personality and the way it shines through her face and body, and the way she uses her body. Her appearance is part of her.
The most romantic line of the film is when Ethan says he “really sees” her, and this is, of course, what all women, what all people, long for. To be seen in the fullness of who we are. That is, in fact, what the song “I Feel Pretty” is actually about. Maria, bathed in the sunshine of Tony’s love, feels thusly beautiful. Of course, we suspected Tony’s love also had something to do with how quantifiably stunning Natalie Wood was. With Ethan’s love for Renee, though, our take away is different. Through his eyes, we see that stunning beauty is not required to inspire love, but rather love can inspire the experience of beauty. Many straight women have been viewing men through this generous lens our whole lives, but can we turn that more expansive gaze towards ourselves?
I believe that is what the tepid movie was at least trying to go for, and that’s peachy, though the conclusion felt as thin as a model’s arms. Renee exhorts women to stop feeling so shitty just because someone in the fifth grade might have called us a name… rather than calling out the culture for relentlessly bombarding us with the message that our worth is our beauty, and then making beauty forever out of reach. After two hours pondering make-up and hotness, I needed more than a tacked on message about self-acceptance, (especially when that message was commodified by a cosmetics company).
In reality, order to combat the deluge, we’ll need critical minds as well as more expansive imaginations, and softer hearts. Such a project may take away time from our apparent legal requirement to go to Soul Cycle, but maybe that’s okay. There is another soul to feed.