by Alexa Fitzpatrick
When did being a strong woman become synonymous with acting like a man? Not even like all men, but like the stereotype of commitment-phobic, misogynistic men who have sex with women and then move on with no consideration for their feelings.
I just watched the movie Trainwreck and, while it technically passes the Bechdel test, to call it a pro-women film feels like a huge stretch to me. It is a story about a woman who has sex like men (though some might say, “boys”) and does what she wants and makes no apologies for herself. I just don’t think any of that makes it a feminist anthem.
I’m a fan of sex. Even more than that, I’m a fan of women having the right to have sex how and with whom they please and without any judgment. Be that with other women, with multiple men, with strangers, or with one husband to whom they are happy to be committed.
In the film, Amy, the main character, is the one who does most of the judging of sexual choices. She judges her sister for being married and for loving her awkward stepson. She judges the women at the bridal party as being members of the cult Heaven’s Gate. Most offensively, she judges the cheerleaders for how they look, complaining, “The pole isn’t always greased right.” And, “You’re going to lose us the right to vote.”
She even judges her boyfriend (Steven, played by John Cena) as being gay because of what he says while fighting with another guy in a movie theater. Later, her character defends the gay population, by reminding us that they are “people,” as one of the women at the bridal shower complains, “Two girls kissing, I haven’t even explained to them what gay people are!” There seems to be no point to any of the gay jokes/references other than cheap humor. It might be an uncomfortable attempt to show us growth, but it feels more like an inconsistent and insensitive character choice.
Back to the sleeping around, while some of the guys in the beginning were maybe poor matches for Amy, none of them were shown to be inherently bad people. Anyone, of either gender, who has been on the receiving end of being used for one night of sex when they were hoping for more, can agree that it’s not the kindest way to approach someone else’s feelings. It’s not about the sex, it’s about being a kind person, which the character clearly isn’t and never really becomes. Spoiler alert: she stops drinking, she stops doing drugs, she stops sleeping around, but she never stops putting what she wants (even though it’s eventually Aaron) above everyone else. That’s not being a feminist; it’s being a narcissist.
For the record, I would totally put on a cheerleading uniform if it meant that I got to make out with Bill Hader, but I try to look at cheerleaders and loving and embracing your body as empowering rather than demeaning. Let’s stop judging other women for their clothing choices.
So, if mirroring male traits doesn’t make you a strong woman, what does?
How about knowing yourself and staying true to it?
Everything the main character does is in reaction to the men in her life. Her personality is formed in the beginning by her father’s rant against monogamy. Aaron is the one who decides that they belong in a relationship and she just goes along with it even though it goes against every bit of her established character: the woman who always has one foot out the door. Even the decision to go after Aaron in the end is motivated by the comments and insight of her awkward ten year-old nephew.
Nobody’s perfect and women have a tendency to over-apologize…have you seen the pantene video on apologies? It’s great, and it makes some very valid points, but not apologizing for who you are is very different from not apologizing for poor behavior. When Amy deserts Aaron as he gets an award for being a good person, it’s a point of pride with her that she doesn’t apologize. She has her phone on during his speech, makes fun of him for carrying the award (“You don’t have to carry it around like Anne Hathaway at an Oscar party”), and then basically walks away when he tells her he’s angry and disappointed by her behavior. I think we'd all want an apology after that.
From the outside, this is a story about a trainwreck who finally gets it together when she meets the right guy. I was prepared for that. It’s standard romantic comedy fare. Girl meets boy. Girl falls for boy. Girl puts on cheerleading outfit, the ultimate symbol of the adolescent male fantasy, and dances around to win boy over.
What I wasn’t prepared for was seeing so much of myself in the main character’s approach to relationships, and it was an ugly but real reflection. So many times I’ve looked at men and thought exactly what Amy says to Aaron, “What’s wrong with you that you want to be with me?” Like Amy, I’ve never learned how to fight. When I’ve been in a relationship and things got tough, even just recently, my instinct was more to run than it was to work it out. If you’re mad at me, and listing my faults, I assume you’re preparing to leave and I shut down. Before you start to worry about me, I’m also different from Amy in many ways, but I found their break up scene very raw and real and well done.
The movie gave us a great character window, I just wish it had gone on to pay off the growth of a potentially strong female character by letting her learn how to stand up for herself kindly and respectfully to make the relationship work. Jumping off a trampoline isn’t as interesting as getting clear on and communicating what’s in your heart.
I also wish the movie either addressed race responsibly or left it alone. It’s impossible to consider something pro-women unless it is pro-all women (of every color). A few examples:
I’m glad I saw the movie, and I mostly enjoyed it, but the distinction between technically passing the Bechdel Test and passing in spirit is an important one because it was never created to be a test. Still, if art mirrors life and life mirrors art, it would be nice if we could be more conscious about what’s going on in our romantic comedies and how we are characterizing women’s roles and responsibilities in relationships. Especially when we put something forth as representing strong women, we have to be careful of how we define strong women and the messages that we hope to send.
On a technical note, kudos to Amy Schumer for writing and staring in a film where 18 out of 55 credited characters are female. Having a third of your characters be woman is a huge jump for Hollywood, but still a far cry from reflecting our society which is much closer to half.
The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.