[Enjoy this guest post by Molly Brenner. – Ed.]
“I’m just a sexual girl. I’m totally in control,” sarcastically narrates Amy Schumer’s character, Amy, in the beginning of the romantic comedy Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow and written by Schumer. Amy works for the men’s magazine S’Nuff and gets assigned to write a profile of Dr. Aaron Conners, a sports doctor with whom she ends up falling in love. By the end of the film, Amy takes “control” over her happiness, but to do so, she has to tone down the “sexual” part.
Not Just a Cool Girl
Trainwreck‘s opening is in line with feminist themes in Schumer’s comedy. We see Amy in multiple facets of her life—with her family, working, having sex and dating—which can’t be said for a lot of women characters. We first meet her as a child, getting lectured by her father about how monogamy is a lie. He is divorcing her mother, having cheated on her with other women. Amy and her sister, Kim, chant with him, “Monogamy isn’t realistic!” Yay, a woman protagonist who has a back-story!
We first meet grown-up Amy when she is drunkenly hooking up with a man. He undresses, and she says, “That’s your dick?…Have you ever fucked someone before? Where is she buried?” She then receives oral sex and immediately feigns being asleep. Yay, a woman protagonist asking for what she wants and getting laughs!
At a pitch meeting at S’nuff, Amy gets assigned to write the piece about Aaron. She responds with disdain, saying, “I just think that sports are stupid, and anyone who likes them is just a lesser person and has a small intellect.” Yay, a woman protagonist who isn’t a Cool Girl!
One of Apatow’s Men
Trainwreck derives much of its humor, emotion and conflict from a reversal of gender roles. Amy is a commitment-phobe, and the men are romance-hungry.
In many ways, Amy’s character aligns herself with men. S’Nuff, the magazine for which she works, teaches the “strong-willed man how to dress, drink and fuck.” Article concepts include “You Call Those Tits?” and “You’re Not Gay, She’s Boring.” She has a dude job!
Amy is the female version of her father. When Amy and Kim are cleaning out their father’s house after he has moved to a nursing home, they find an old picture of their mother. Amy says, “Mom was so fuckable back then. She had such great tits.” Kim says, “Dad was such a dick back then,” to which Amy responds, “I don’t see it that way.” Amy defends her father and observes her mother like an ogling man would. She has a dude view on women!
Amy smokes weed and drinks a lot. She brings wine to a movie, to the dismay of her date, Steven, played by pro-wrestler John Cena. She leaves in the middle to smoke weed. She’s a stoner dude!
There is a sadness to Amy’s masculine characteristics. She is embarrassed of the work she has produced for S’Nuff. She knows her dad is flawed, and she’s conflicted about her love for him. She knows her drinking and smoking habits are unhealthy. She IS the S’Nuff man: she drinks and fucks like a man, but it doesn’t make her happy.
Is Amy just a woman playing a classic Apatow male protagonist? She shares traits with Ben from Knocked Up, a slacker and stoner who reforms and settles into a monogamous relationship. What is unique about putting a woman in a role often occupied by a man? To be happy, Ben has to stop smoking and get a job, which are pretty inarguably healthy things. For Amy to be happy, she has to stop sleeping around, which carries a sex-negative and anti-feminist weight.
Men Sure Make Admirable Women
Conversely, the men in the film are all soft romantics. Early in the film, Amy and Steven break up when he finds out she has been sleeping with other men. He shares that he had planned to propose and describes the family and future he had fantasized about for the two of them. Similarly, Aaron’s good friend LeBron James expresses his love of Downton Abbey, and Aaron cutely tries to spoon with Amy after sex, much to her disgust.
When men are the romantics, they get the moral high ground. Aaron is a volunteer doctor with Doctors Without Borders, and James is an active defender of Aaron’s heart, asking Amy, “What are your intentions with Aaron?” Steven even says to Amy directly, “You are not nice” as he breaks up with her.
Why is it so funny to see men being relationship-centric? Perhaps these gender stereotypes are still so entrenched in Hollywood, that it’s funny when they’re broken. A man who goes down on his girlfriend? A woman with an active sex life? Hilarious! What’s not funny in the film? Amy’s monogamous younger sister, Kim, who gets few laughs. Her doofy, committed husband, played by Mike Birbiglia, though? Hilarious!
Speaking of guest stars, why are Lebron James, John Cena and Amar’e Stoudemire even in this movie? Their inclusion is likely to help this romantic comedy appeal to male audiences. Amy states her hatred of sports at the beginning of the film, but with beloved athletes in the movie, she can’t really hate sports. We leave the film loving the sweet characters played by athletes, which robs some power from sports-hating Amy.
From Sex-Positive to Slut-Shaming
Ultimately, Trainwreck is a romantic comedy that sticks to its genre mechanics. After Amy and Aaron get in a fight and break up, Amy says to her sister, “I’m broken.” Then, the film endorses this self-judgment when we see her reform herself, including throwing out all of her alcohol. In the big finale, she performs in a private cheerleading routine with the New York Knicks dancers, wearing their costume and dancing for Aaron. Granted, she’s really bad at it, and it’s funny. She wins him back.
Does this romantic comedy ending mean that the men in the film were right, that being a monogamous, sensitive romantic (like most of the men in the film) is the key to happiness? It certainly feels that way: Amy is “broken” when she’s single, and she’s happy when she chooses monogamy.
Imagining a Slightly Different Trainwreck
All the things that are awesome about Trainwreck are still awesome: it stars a woman, was written by a woman, and that woman gets laughs. She often asks for what she wants and gets it. There are lots of fun moments, including a surprisingly funny vomit scene.
Next time a mainstream comedy stars a woman, though, I would love to see it:
- Not rely on gender-bending behavior for laughter.
- Not require the protagonist tone down her sexuality in order to end up happy.
- Not employ athletes or other manly elements to pander to male audiences.
What might this look like in Trainwreck? Maybe it means the male leads in the film have unique flaws of their own, rather than being romantic angels. Maybe it means Amy and Aaron decide to just be friends, and Amy keeps having casual sex. Maybe it means Aaron has a different job outside of the sports world, and we just go on good faith that men will still show up at the theater even though LeBron James doesn’t have a cameo.
While these may not seem like huge changes, their absence from Trainwreck is instructive. When you combine genre mechanics and familiar gender roles (even in reverse) with box office performance anxiety, it’s hard for a woman protagonist to really be “in control.”
Molly Brenner is based in Boston, MA.
Interestingly, I find myself agreeing with all the things you value but reading the movie exceptionally differently.
I did enjoy the movie’s sex positivity, its refreshing agency of Amy and her sister (who, incidentally, is more “right” than most in this movie). Also it was hilarious.
However, I didn’t (and, after some reflection, still don’t) share your interpretation that Amy was “gender bent”, specifically a dude. For one, drinking boxed wine and smoking weed are either more “feminine” or at least gender neutral activities. Nor do I think writing or editing advice columns for men is a particularly masculine role. Certainly, the character of Diana indicates that analysis might be off, as well as popular conceptions of the magazine business, which, in many cases, feature women offering advice to men. That’s a whole other can of worms, but I guess I just didn’t read things in that way.
I will, however, concede that Amy strongly identifies with her father, but not because of his masculinity. Similarly, I can understand drawing a comparison to Ben from Knocked up, but I believe that both comparisons lend themselves to deeper interpretations that more closely identify with what I took to be the theme of the movie: Removing Facades, Being able to fail, “believing in yourself”, in short, dispensing with your own bullshit so you can have the agency to be with another person.
In many ways, Amy’s job at the magazine, and her lack of belief in her work encapsulates this: Earlier in the movie, she offers to show him her “real” work. During the second act, he criticizes her and her magazine from sniping people at a distance because if you don’t try you can’t fail, and then finally, the third act’s inciting incident is the inclusion of her new article on Aaron (featuring a fairly prominent on-screen rewrite) in a more reputable magazine (Vanity Fair) featuring, instead of a snarky take down, a humble and self depricating reflection on their relationship.
The final scene, touching on Amy’s hostility and jealousy towards the Knicks cheerleaders from earlier in the movie was brilliant. It so easily could have been a very “OK, look I’m feminine now, I’m hanging out with cheerleaders” as the arc. “I’m ready to conform to your expectations”. But instead it was “I’m going to try” or more pointedly, “I’m going to try, and fail a bunch and not be great at things, but I’m going to be me.” So many visual gags reinforced this, and indeed, they even pulled off the impressive feat of explaining the joke to enhance the joke with Amy and Aaron’s final discussion of “I get the metaphor.”
There’s a lot more to this movie, but as a basic thrust, I think this is a good place to start.
With that being said, thank you for writing this article. I do think its great to wrestle with these sorts of ideas, and I think it’s a great angle to challenge a movie.
How about an ending where they compromise and have an open relationship? Let the guy work on his jealousy issues and the woman have a relationship suited to her needs. It would be much more romantic to see them work towards each other’s happiness rather than just change one of them to get the “proper” ending.
I’v been reading a lot of articles about Trainwreck and whether or not it is a ‘feminist’ movie. This article, like many of those, seem to be disappointed not that Trainwreck isn’t feminist, but that romantic comedies as a genre aren’t.
The thing is, if you consider the concept of turning the protagonists sexuality down ( or focusing on one person, since clearly she and the love interest will still be having sex, I imagine), then you’re right, romcoms aren’t feminist. Because the one thread that ties almost 100% percent of all romcoms together is the message: ‘monogamy is good.’ Because the basic truth is, if a romcom can’t get its audience to hope for the union of the two main characters despite whatever obstacles the movie presents to their emotional bond, then it’s just a bad romantic comedy ( no matter what message its trying to send). You could argue that there’s still room to add in nuances vis a vis the person’s sexual expression and the gender roles of each party. But all of these things are tangential to the underlying goal of all romcoms which is to watch two people fall in love. To watch them declare to each other at the end the movie that “when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
This specific movie is also a particularly bad example of a romantic comedy to look for feminism in. A lot of people are looking for it, and seeing it or not seeing it, because it’s supposed to be an Amy Schumer movie. But it’s much more a Judd Apatow movie that is being used to launch Schumer’s career to the next level ( mainstream popularity beyond the sketch and web comedy aficionados). And Judd Apatow is one of the most conservative filmmakers today. I don’t mean that necessarily in the electoral politics sense of liberal vs. conservative (though I think that argument could be made) but in the sense that Apatow in no way tries to push or change a formula that’s almost a hundred years old. Apatow’s genius (and it is a kind of genius) has been to be able to plug in new and modernized characters types (within the world of upper-middle class white people, mostly) into the old formula. Apatow replaces a tabloid journalist for a stoner and an heiress for successful career woman,a road trip into a baby and he turns It Happened One Night into Knocked Up. Trainwreck is just another attempt to find new variables to plug into the formula. Hell, they even make Amy the slightly irreputable but redeemable journalist that screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s loved so much. The fact that the non-comitter in this movie is a woman should be seen not so much as a failure of the movies feminist cred, but rather just another way to rearrange the romcom formula’s pieces to make them seem fresh bur non-threatening.
To be fair, I think a lot of this criticism comes from the fact that this movie fails as a romcom, but succeeds as an Amy Schumer vehicle. Schumer is funny, watchable, relatable, and root-for-able, all traits that are essential for a romcom lead. People want to like this movie, because we like Amy (both character and actress/writer to succeed). But, a ultimately romcom lives or dies by the chemistry and tension between the two leads. And unfortunately, this movie never makes me hope for the transcendent connection of love or fear the emotional wreckage of heartbreak. The two possibilities that this relationship presents are: an understanding committed relationship between two people with slightly un-aligned priorities ( great in real life, boring as hell in a movie) or a sexually satisfying, but ultimately emotionally disappointing short lived relationship. Who the hell is gonna root for either of these? the protagonist of the movie doesn’t actually seem to care, either, which doesn’t help.
So, as critics, we try to find in its inversion of the romcom norm ( which frankly, I think might not be the actual norm, but rather an agreed upon and unquestioned fallacy) cause for celebration.
In many ways, the critics’ relationship with the movie is much like the relationship between the Sports Doctor to Amy. Here’s this funny, charming, pretty girl who’s kind of an asshole, but clearly means well. We go to bed with her, have a good time, and realize we’d like to spend a lot more time with her. But once we start really thinking about it, aren’t we just in love with the idea of this girl? Sure, she’d be great if she were a little better of a person, if she cared more about other people’s feelings ( especially her poor nephew) but is it really our right to ask that of her? Do I really have the right to be disappointed in her when she doesn’t show up to a very important moment in my life, even though she’s proven she’s uncomfortable with our level of emotional commitment? Should we really be disappointed if a movie that’s blatantly and honestly about a woman’s journey to self-control and self-fulfillment through romantic monogamy fails to tackle the patriarchal discourse of Hollywood within the confines of genre conventions?
And finally, kind of as an addendum, I really do think that much of the sense of ‘slut-shaming’ the movie gets credit for is actually a side-effect of not great writing. Amy is presented as a ‘flawed’ character, who needs to be fixed by the end. But what, exactly, her flaw is, is so muddled that people focus on the biggest change at the end, her turn from many sexual partners to one ( the priority given to and number of sex jokes doesn’t help). I would argue that at its core what the movie wanted her ‘flaw’ to be is that she is unable or unwilling to consider other people’s feelings and desires. Monogamy, in her mind, is equated with having to consider other people all the time. The problem is that the movie doesn’t do a great job of not constantly burying that lead. Her ‘slutty’ behavior, I think, was supposed to be a sign of her unwillingness to consider her partner’s desires. She basically breaks John Cena’s heart. It’s even more evident in how she deals with her sister. She refuses to even pretend to be happy that her sister is happy. She makes fun of her own nephew. The emotional crux of the scene where Amy and Sports Doctor get into the ‘big fight’ isn’t that she slept with a bunch of guys, it’s that she missed his speech. Like a lot of other stuff in the movie, though it ends up unclear and problematic, because her walking out has o do with her career. The fact that it devolves into the talk about ‘the number,’ just sinks it beyond hope. The viewer doesn’t remember a scene where two people try to navigate how much of themselves they are willing to give to each other while maintaining careers, it remembers a man being scared and angry about his girlfriend having had many sexual partners ( a scene, by the way that’s been done in a much fuller if not more enlightened way in Four Weddings and a Funeral). And this emotionally important point is basically sunk for the benefit of one not very good joke.
There’s tons of examples like this, where the moment where amy learns to be less selfish and more aware of other people’s emotions are buried by things that make the movie feel judgy. The fact that what really wins Sports Doctor back, and shows Amy’s growth as a character, is the article in Vanity Fair and not the cheerleader routine, is another good example.