Amy Schumer has become the latest entertainer to be burdened with the hopes and dreams of progressive pop culture fans. The reaction to “Trainwreck,” the romantic comedy she wrote and that Judd Apatow directed, suggest just how heavy that weight can be.
“Trainwreck” follows Amy (Schumer), a hard-living magazine writer who conducts her sexual life according to the hound-dogging doctrine laid down by her father Gordon (Colin Quinn). She’s sleeping her way through New York City with a voracity to match that of “Sex and the City”’s Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) until she meets Aaron (Bill Hader), a charming, commitment-oriented sports doctor. This being a romantic comedy, they fight, they break up and Amy wins Aaron via a hilarious cheerleading routine.
“Trainwreck” does a better-than-average job of fleshing out Amy’s personality and relationships, but watching Schumer surrender to even a modified version of a marriage plot has left some of her fans discomfited. It’s a reaction that highlights just how much we ask from female entertainers. We want them to be perfect revolutionaries, even if we’re not exactly storming the barricades in our own lives.
“Amy Schumer seems like a milkmaid in a Mel Brooks movie or on Benny Hill. So whenever she goes to churn butter, she’ll always do it as though she’s actually making something else,” wrote Wesley Morris, Grantland’s movie critic, in his review of “Trainwreck.” “It’s not just sexism and self-hate that Schumer wants to bring down, it’s cute, half-a–– romantic fantasies. But ‘Trainwreck’ turns out to be too much of that kind of fantasy. The milkmaid isn’t that filthy after all. She actually is just making butter.”
And here at The Washington Post, my colleague Lisa Bonos, who writes our terrific blog about living single, mourned Schumer’s on-screen and fictional graduation from the singleton sisterhood. “In the rom-com polishing of Schumer’s shtick, we lose that slutty, crazy friend we were just getting to know and love,” Bonos lamented. “In the process of cleaning up her act – throwing out the bottles of booze, chucking the weed and learning to be monogamous – Schumer loses her edge. She begins to look more like the woman who’s about to plan a wedding. And we’ve fallen for the one who obsessively plans breakups.”
It’s absolutely true that the Amy of “Trainwreck” is more conflicted about her wildness than some of Schumer’s stand-up anecdotes or the characters in her sketches on “Inside Amy Schumer.” But even on her Comedy Central show, Schumer’s characters – including a woman from the first season who hosts an orgy in the name of feminism only to be unnerved by the men who respond to her advertisement for it – often feel a gap between what they’re supposed to want and what they actually do.
In “Trainwreck,” that gap is defined less by what Amy actually takes pleasure in and what her hookups think she should want (in fact “Trainwreck” exists in a gender-flipped world, where all of Amy’s one-night stands seem to want to commit to her) than by her father Gordon who, sensing Amy’s happiness with Aaron, begins to rag on him. “He’s got about a month left before you give him the boot,” Gordon tells his daughter. “Your pattern is my pattern.” That’s an interesting and specific dynamic; Amy’s relationship with Gordon was one of the best things about “Trainwreck,” and one that makes it difficult to fit the film neatly or completely into an ideological narrative.
That doesn’t mean that “Trainwreck” doesn’t have politics, of course. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen analyzed the movie in the context of postfeminism. She defines that school of thinking as the idea that “now that the ‘work’ of feminism has been achieved we can all focus on having fun … And as manifest in ‘Pretty Woman,’ ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ and dozens of other pop culture artifacts of the time, postfeminism suggested that empowerment was best achieved through self-objectification, shopping, and sublimating anything that resembling engaged feminist politics.”
Petersen places “Trainwreck” in a category with shows like “The Mindy Project” and “Girls,” arguing that these stories are “Unflattering mirrors, in part because they make visible the ideologies that have become so natural as to simply feel like ‘the way that it is.’ Guys don’t treat you like a human being worthy of respect? That’s just the ‘new dating.’ Sex without pleasure? The way we have sex now. A work environment characterized by low-grade sexual harassment? The price of advancement. Making money by reproducing sexist rhetoric? Just playing by the rules.”
But she argues that the movie isn’t as retrograde as the people who were disappointed in it imply. “It’s not as if Amy disposes of wry intelligence or eviscerating insight to win the man. She doesn’t lose weight, or buy a new wardrobe, or express anything like self-hatred. She just disposes with the behaviors she did out of fear,” Petersen writes. “In this way, ‘Trainwreck’ suggests that neither romance, children, sex, shopping, jobs, sick apartments, nor even friendship with LeBron James can provide a shortcut to happiness.”
As I’ve thought about “Trainwreck” in the weeks since I’ve watched it, I think my feelings about the movie lie somewhere between the excellent case Petersen makes for it and the wounded rage of a writer like IndieWire’s Peter Knegt, who lamented that “For me, Amy Schumer has felt like this icon for people who – for whatever reason – have not found themselves representing societal norms by their thirties … There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being in a stable relationship, or wanting one. But the problem with ‘Trainwreck’ is its suggestion that it’s the only (expletive) way.”
Amy’s grand gesture and her reunion with Aaron at the end of “Trainwreck” feel disappointing to some viewers because these were conventional story beats. But I also think that they complicate the film’s politics in ways that make “Trainwreck” both more human and more uncomfortable. The heart of the plot is Amy’s decision to pursue a monogamous relationship that’s a step away from the postfeminist push for women to be more sexually available to men. But what does it mean that she’s doing so by making a gesture that feels right out of the postfeminist playbook: dressing up in a cheerleading outfit and dancing for Aaron’s entertainment?
But I love the cheerleading scene, in all its contradictory glory. Amy starts the routine in step with the Knicks dancers, but as it progresses, she falls further and further behind them. And while her face is initially locked into the giddy, accommodating rictus that cheerleaders wear as part of their uniform, Amy’s expression changes, and so does the scene. Her smile becomes hopeful and nervous and real. She can’t break off the routine to talk to Aaron, but the pleading expression in Amy’s eyes communicates everything she’d say with words if she had the breath left for them. Amy’s not offering herself up as a cupcake. She’s doing something ridiculous, and unlike the executors of grand gestures almost everywhere else in pop culture, she knows it.
In the struggle
In this scene, Schumer’s not the political thesis she so often embodies on her Comedy Central show. She’s a woman, and an extremely appealing one. And instead of providing us with a road map, as Schumer does so frequently on her sketch comedy show, Amy’s right there in the struggle with us.
“Trainwreck” ends on an ambiguous note: it doesn’t clarify whether Amy and Aaron end up with a picket fence and kids, or whether he starts smoking pot with her, or whether they wind up in some kind of open relationship. Leaving us with the euphoria of their reunion is delightful movie-making. But I can completely understand why someone would watch that scene and think “We fought the revolution for this?” It’s exhausting to tear down an ideology like post-feminism and to end up back where we started, with what seems to be the same stark choice between domesticity and wildness.
Schumer isn’t the first female artist to walk the loop of this circle. Writing about “Sex and the City” in the New Yorker in 2013, Emily Nussbaum pondered that series’ ending, which like “Trainwreck,” united its anti-heroes, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mr. Big (Chris Noth), in a grand gesture, this one in Paris. “What would the show look like without that finale?” she wondered, raising some of the same issues that have vexed the critics of “Trainwreck” who feel that Schumer’s sold her comedic power short. “What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her thirties, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged, finally, surrounded by her friends? Who would Carrie be then? It’s an interesting question … We’ll just have to wait for another show to answer it.”
The show or romantic comedy that does provide that answer will do a courageous thing, one that resists the gravitational pull of a century of movies and centuries of literature before that. One of the best things about “Spy,” Paul Feig’s very funny parody of the espionage genre, was the way it ended with newly-minted super-agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) turning down dinner with her long-term crush Bradley Fine (Jude Law) in favor of a girls’ night with her handler, Nancy B. Artingstall (the divine Miranda Hart). That evening did end with Susan in bed with arrogant spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), but that didn’t mean that she’d chosen romantic love over the bonds of friendship – just Susan was enjoying herself immensely in all areas of her life.
Feig made “Spy” after giving us “Bridesmaids,” a movie that pulled its heroine out of a sour sinkhole of depression and envy and re-awakened her to the possibility of love and ambition. Maybe now that Schumer’s given us “Trainwreck,” a movie that pushes back against the still-persistent idea that drinking and having had a lot of sex renders a woman unlovable, the box office success of this first effort will give her the space to make a movie about a genuinely happy libertine who doesn’t want or need love and relationships at all.
I want to believe we’ll get that great leap for womankind. It might just take some wobbly, half-drunk steps on our stiletto-blistered feet to achieve liftoff.