It’s not far into the new movie Trainwreck that audiences understand just how well the lead character lives up to the film’s title. Protagonist Amy, played by comedian Amy Schumer, is a women’s magazine writer who drinks a little too much, has sex that’s a little too casual, says the wrong things just a little too often–and too loudly, at that. But she doesn’t care! That’s because she lives to push the boundaries of how society tells a woman she “should” behave, and what she should want, even if the end result isn’t always pretty. She acts like a man–or at least she thinks she does. She feels powerful–or at least she thinks she does.
In reality, however, Amy is not happy, and she’s not empowered. She’s just a mess. Voilá: Perfect comic fodder.
Which is why on the surface, Trainwreck might seem like just another romantic comedy vehicle for a rising star, pushing the requisite hot buttons, generating the expected buzz, with enough cringe-worthy scenes and bawdy jokes to give critics something to write about. And indeed, there is that. Schumer, after all, has made her name using comedy, some of it raunchy–nearly all of it attention grabbing–to generate some mostly positive notice for herself.
But Schumer also uses her comedy to subvert the Hollywood status quo, and quite effectively. She gives off the cuff, slightly dirty public speeches and creates sketches that call out Hollywood’s treatment of women of a certain age. She uses her newfound fame to make legitimate points. In recent days, that has run the gamut from Instagramming herself in a human pyramid with Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence to speaking out about gun control legislation at a press conference with her second cousin, New York senator Chuck Schumer. Her meteoric rise might have been through certain provocation, but there’s no arguing that, well, it’s worked. Message received.
And so it goes with her new movie. While Trainwreck is blatantly crass–and, in many ways, predictable–it’s also a sharp, clever take on post-feminism and our blanket acceptance of it. What the train wreck of Amy’s life serves to illustrate is that the postfeminist manifesto that Amy believes she’s acting out, the gender equality she thinks she embodies–it’s all really just an illusion. Women have not achieved true equality. The work isn’t done.
This is why, although Trainwreck and its female lead might seem to be meant for a solidly Millennial audience, it has found fans among an older generation that has seen first wave feminism be replaced by a postfeminist fear of the word itself. In reaction to what many considered feminism’s more rigid circumscriptions, post-feminism told women that they could wear lipstick and high heels without feeling conflicted, because no, they weren’t doing it for men. They were doing it for themselves!
Schumer questions whether that’s really true. In both Trainwreck and her TV show, she points out the holes in the idea (that many Millennials have) that the work of feminism has been done, that drinking or having sex or working “like a man” makes women equal, that the casual, commitment-free sex they’re having is really their choice. She questions the notion that women act the way they act because they choose to.
What Schumer knows–and what Amy, the character, comes to find out over the course of the film–is that this isn’t the case. Women still apologize for everything. They’re still undervalued after the age of 35.They’re still bitches to one another at work and in their personal lives. The empowered life women think they’re living–it’s not entirely real. And that maybe the sex they’re having and the heels they’re wearing and the fellow women they’re shoving aside at work are putting women in positions that are no different from the ones first wave feminists worked so hard to get out from under. Older feminists nod their heads as if to say yes, exactly.
Trainwreck is predictable in part because it’s Hollywood, but if you peel away the layers, it sends a message that is not at all untrue. Even–spoiler alert–Amy learns about her own double standards: She initially condemns cheerleaders for being just pretty and pleasing but then in the big finish enlists their help in doing a routine. She realizes that she was using some of her hardness as a cover to protect herself. She realizes that she wasn’t so empowered after all–and that there is no one way that feminism looks, or acts. But most of all, she realizes–and hopes to encourage audiences to realize, too–that indeed, the work is far from over.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com