Review: ‘I Feel Pretty’ — No, It’s Not Fat Phobic
There is probably no other woman in entertainment today as outspoken as Amy Schumer when it comes to the unfair, damaging ways women and girls are taught to judge their looks and worth. Whether it’s in her stand-up comedy, in interviews, on the red carpet, or onstage at awards shows, Schumer never hesitates to employ her dual-pronged strategy of tearing down gender stereotypes and unrealistic beauty standards while lifting up women and encouraging them to love and define themselves for themselves. Her move to TV (Inside Amy Schumer) and film (Trainwreck) has provided her with a platform much larger than the one she had when she was just doing stand-up, and she clearly wants to make the most of it. Her fame has made her a role model to thousands of women and girls, and she not only accepts that responsibility, she embraces it.
In light of this, Schumer’s character in I Feel Pretty seems like something she could have written for herself. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s a character Schumer might wish had been around when she was a teenager to push back against a society that constantly badgers girls into believing that they can never be good or pretty enough. Watch the trailer for I Feel Pretty below.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, an IT employee for Lily LeClaire cosmetics who dreams of working in the company’s glistening Manhattan skyscraper instead of an offsite basement server room. But despite having two fun and supportive friends (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), Renee is stuck in a rut of insecurity and drooping self-esteem because she lacks the rail-thin, fashion model looks of the women who populate Lily LeClaire as well as Renee’s spinning class. But after a blow to the head, Renee wakes convinced that her mind has magically jumped into the body of a supermodel, even though everyone else sees the same Renee (and the filmmakers wisely never show the audience how she sees her “new” self). But with the belief that she is now “undeniably pretty”, Renee begins living her life with commensurate confidence, applying for and getting a job at Lily LeClaire HQ that she had previously thought she was too unattractive for, imagining that every man in New York is hitting on her (landing a boyfriend [Rory Scovel] in the process), and generally feeling like the world is her oyster, even if it means shunning her less glamorous besties. The film’s main plot involves Renee becoming the point person for Lily LeClaire’s launch of a new line of affordable makeup aimed at a customer executive Avery (an unusually funny Michelle Williams) can’t comprehend.
I Feel Pretty is a take on the kinds of ugly duckling/makeover movies that have been around for decades and are largely aimed at teenage girls. In these films, a makeover (often involving a new hairstyle, better clothes, and the abandonment of glasses) allows an outcast to experience a higher-status world they had previously been shut out from, eventually realizing that beauty and popularity aren’t all they’re cracked up to be while learning lessons about true friendship and the importance of authenticity. Movies like Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), She’s All That (1991), The Princess Diaries (2001), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006) are a few examples that spring to mind. In that sense, those saying that I Feel Pretty isn’t original aren’t wrong.
However, this comparison ignores what makes I Feel Pretty different, and that difference helps the film avoid the damaging message of traditional ugly duckling films that any female is capable of achieving society’s unrealistic standards of physical beauty if they just get the right hairdo, wardrobe, and makeup. Not coincidentally, this is also the main message of the hair, fashion, and makeup industries, which essentially say that if you don’t look “beautiful” it’s your own fault for not buying their products. The flip side of that message is that if you do buy and use all of those products but still don’t look like Emily Ratajkowski — the model/actress with a small role in I Feel Pretty as Renee’s embodiment of beauty — then you must be a lost cause, while the reality is that professional models are simply winners of a genetic lottery.
The fact that Renee’s “transformation” is entirely mental — and all of the good things that happen to her after her accident are a result of that — refutes the idea that a physical transformation is necessary to improve one’s life. It’s true that reversing decades of low self-esteem would probably take years and thousands of dollars in therapy, but the fact that Renee’s concussion allows her to overcome it in an instant is what makes the movie fun and is the basis for much of its humor. Changing one’s self-perception and mindset is a difficult but totally attainable goal, whereas changing your size, dimensions, and bone structure to look like a model can only be achieved using drastic cosmetic and gastric surgery. The change in the way Renee perceives herself physically lets her see herself as attractive, worthy of love, and gives her permission to pursue her goals, and the message that those things are available to all women regardless of their looks is exactly the kind of message Schumer has been championing for years and would particularly want young girls to believe in.
Naturally, the internet’s perpetual outrage engine took issue with this when the trailer for I Feel Pretty was released, claiming that the message of the film must surely be that women who look like Schumer are ugly and are supposed to hate themselves — an idiotic assumption considering Schumer’s history of promoting positive body image for women of all shapes. Others claimed the premise that anyone (including Renee) would see Renee as anything but beautiful proves that the film was inherently regressive, a throwback to a time when society wasn’t as accepting of women of all shapes like we are now. To me, this sounds more like people trying to prove how enlightened they think they are, and it has no more bearing on reality than those who would claim that racism no longer exists. As Schumer has said, she is considered “very fat” by Hollywood standards, and watching virtually any TV show, commercial, or movie proves that conventional beauty standards for women are still being powerfully enforced, which highlights how rare it is to find someone who looks like Schumer in a leading role and romantic lead. Teenage girls are still being bullied because of their looks, are still developing eating disorders, and still suffer from low self-esteem because of their perceived physical flaws. The rise of social media like Instagram has made the pressure and desire for girls to look perfect as intense as it has ever been, something I wish I Feel Pretty had addressed (2017 indie Ingrid Goes West does a great job of this).
I Feel Pretty is currently getting slammed on Rotten Tomatoes, including (maybe especially?) from female critics, which makes me wonder if there’s something I’m missing or if the expectations for this film were too high or misplaced. I Feel Pretty is definitely no Trainwreck — the film Schumer wrote and starred in that launched her movie career — but I don’t think it’s trying to be, nor do I think it’s aimed at the same audience. While I enjoyed I Feel Pretty, I think its target audience is teenage girls and young women, who are the ones most at risk of having their personalities and sense of self-worth shaped and distorted by what media, culture, entertainment, and the fashion/beauty industry tells them they should look like. The film definitely has its flaws, but I ultimately think they are outweighed by Schumer’s charisma, comedic talent, an excellent supporting cast, and the importance of the message the film delivers.