The plot of I Feel Pretty is straightforward: Renee Barrett (Amy Schumer) is an average New York woman whose deeply-ingrained insecurities about her appearance have thus far prevented her from really reaching for the stars in her career, and her love life. After suffering a head injury during a particularly vigorous SoulCycle class, she starts believing that she's somehow been transformed into a supermodel, a delusion (you can see her best friends' startled reaction to her new attitude in the exclusive clip above) that gives her the confidence she needs to live her life to the fullest. Of course, this is all in her head. On the outside, Renee is the same old Renee she's ever been — just more self-assured, and comfortable in her own skin — proving that it's really what's on the inside that counts.
It's a message that seeks to be empowering to women who are constantly being bombarded with criticism and messaging that they're not hot enough, not thin enough, not fit enough, not blonde enough, not cool enough, not rich enough, not Kardashian enough... the list goes on, and on. And yet, almost immediately after the initial trailer dropped in February, the internet was flooded with backlash against a perceived attack on body positivity.
Comedian Sofia Hagen took to Twitter to question the movie's intent, asking: "Who is this supposed to resonate with? Before we can enjoy the premise, surely we have to buy into the fact that she is not pretty. How many of us are bigger than her? Are we supposed to accept that THIS is ugly when it's all we've been taught that we should aim for?"
Hagen's criticism of the trailer, echoed by countless other comments online, pointed to the fact that Schumer actually looks like what society says a pretty woman should. "Amy Schumer is blonde, white, able-bodied, femme and yes, thin," she continued in a thread. "She IS society's beauty ideal. So they give her a ponytail and remove her make-up and suddenly she's ugly? Why not just give her glasses or a fatsuit? What is wrong with this world?"
Pop culture is littered with beautiful women framed as unattractive for the purposes of the story. Cinderella, the OG of ugly duckling transformations, gave way to Never Been Kissed, She's All That, Miss Congeniality, Clueless, etc. But this script, written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Busy Philipps' husband), who also directed the film, is not that.
The difference in this case, is that Schumer's character isn't considered ugly, or a problem to be fixed, by anyone around her. All of that messaging is coming from her own, internalised anxieties. The whole point of I Feel Pretty is that she, like so many women, feels bad about herself because since childhood, she has been bombarded with information telling her that no one, least of all her, is ever perfect. That idea is driven home in a scene where Emily Ratajkowski, of all people, reveals that she's been struggling with self-esteem issues. If she's not swaggering around like she owns the world, then what chance do the rest of us have? The movie isn't saying you shouldn't aspire to look like Schumer, or co-stars Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps. Ultimately, its goal is to inspire women to celebrate themselves as they are, and indict a world that prevents us from doing so.
I understand that urge to push back. Yes, Schumer is white, and privileged, and has the luxury of focusing on the fact that she doesn't look like a Victoria's Secret model. There are more complex layers at work when it comes to body issues than this movie is equipped or even meant to address. Still, the fact is that we live in a world where Bryce Dallas Howard has to buy red carpet dresses at Neiman Marcus because designers won't dress her as a size 6. Is she plus size? No. Is it normal that this happens? Of course not. But knowing that rationally doesn't minimise the pain that women experience when they're made to feel that they're somehow not worthy because of their appearance.
What's more, Schumer, along with co-stars Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant, has been vocal about body positivity in the past. They're not clueless about this stuff. They've experienced it firsthand. In 2016, Schumer called out Glamour for putting her in their plus-size special edition.
"I think there's nothing wrong with being plus size," the comedian wrote on Instagram at the time. "Beautiful healthy women. Plus size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and an 8. @glamourmag put me in their plus size only issue without asking or letting me know and it doesn't feel right to me. Young girls seeing my body type thinking that is plus size? What are your thoughts? Mine are not cool glamour not glamourous."
In November 2017, Philipps posted about an encounter she had at a Rite Aid, during which a fan took it upon herself to comment on her body. "You know how when you’re a woman, sometimes people feel like they should be able to comment about your body all the time or make laws about your body?” she wrote. “Well when you’re an actress, or any female in the public eye, everyone feels that they can comment on your body all the fucking time. Always.”
As for the backlash itself, Bryant has responded to it publicly, urging commenters to see the movie before forming an opinion. “I hear what you’re saying. I encourage you to see the film. I think you’ll find that’s not the case,” Bryant wrote in response to an Instagram comment criticising the film. “I’m very proud to be in a movie tells the story of someone who believes confidence is directly tied to looks but learns that confidence comes from within. It’s a movie I wish I could have seen when I was 14. Through my short time in this industry I have been sent all kinds of demeaning scripts where my body is the punchline. I choose my projects carefully with exactly these things in mind. Change cannot happen over night and this movie is a step in the right direction.”
The fact that we've moved to a point where a film like this one is getting such a visceral reaction is actually a sign of progress. 20 years ago, would we even be having this conversation? I Feel Pretty is no Shallow Hal. But neither is it meant to solve all of society's ills with one magical spell. Apparently, only a really bad fall at SoulCycle can do that.
I Feel Pretty opens in the UK on 4th May.
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