Cara and Harriet Talk about ‘Trainwreck’

Posted: September 16, 2015 in Cara Blouin, Harriet Calver
Tags: , , , , , ,
trainwreck

I think this is right. –ed

Cara is a humourless man-hating American feminist artist. Harriet is a humorless man-hating British feminist PhD Candidate. Here, they discuss their reactions to Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck.

Harriet:

Yes, ok, so I enjoyed how Amy isn’t “nice” in the way we tend to expect female characters to be “nice”–she has complicated feelings about her aging, bigoted, father, she’s relentlessly mocking of her sister’s family, she pursues her own agenda when it comes to one-night-stands.

Cara:

I think what I really like is that she’s not only “not nice,” she’s also capable of being really nice, as she is to her dad. She takes care to preserve his things and visit him at the home. She loves her sister, even though she’s awful at showing it. She’s conscientious about not stealing the article that her co worker wants to work on.

Harriet:

Yeah, so although she’s not always as generous, or as malleable (struggling to find the right word here) in social/romantic/familial situations as we might expect, we’re still on her side. She escapes without being cast as the bitch (Tilda Swinton fulfills that role, just in case we’d forgotten what it looks like).

Cara

Fair. Let’s not be bitchless.

trainwreck 2

Oh, no, wait. This one. –ed.

Harriet:

One should always guard against bitchlessness… I agree that the moments in which she appears selfish, or hard-hearted, are part and parcel of the disillusionment of what you call Cosmo-girl feminism. But I appreciate it being on the screen nonetheless. What I didn’t really appreciate was how it culminated in her saying “I’m broken,” which to me turned it into just another voyeuristic narrative of the fallen woman.

Cara:

I disagree! I think there’s a big difference between a fallen woman and a found woman. The fallen woman trope punishes a woman because she’s failed to conform to the standard we expect for women. Like, she *thinks* she’s happy making choices and enjoying freedom, but in the end she’s punished with a venereal disease or a dead child or spinsterhood or somesuch.

To me, Amy’s brokenness is very real, very familiar and not imposed on her by anyone else. She’s not broken because the way she is doesn’t work for others, she’s broken because it doesn’t work for her. She’s unhappy from the beginning of the movie. It is that Cosmo thing. She can “do whatever she wants” except nothing she’s getting is something she actually wants. So when she says “I’m broken” it’s acknowledgement that she’s broken on her own terms, not according to someone else’s rubric.

Harriet:

For me, narratives of broken women are never just about women who fail to conform to society’s standards for them, it’s about how they serve society’s prurient desires by doing so. And their trials and tribulations are, I think, not so much a punishment as an enjoyable spectacle for everyone else. I feel over-saturated with women’s pain as amusing diversion. I take your point that this is a kind of push-back against the myth of “have it all,” and that Amy is actively trying to navigate what does and does not work for her. But I’m cynical about the idea that there is any space, yet, for us really to be broken on our own terms. Our distress is already entertainment, is already absorbed by, if not necessary to, the culture that doesn’t work for us… Perhaps I would be more able to look for the nuances of the love-story plot line, if it were more common to see “woman has some casual and/or unfulfilling sex; nothing happens and she feels fine” or “women finds very nice man to be in love with; remains broken”.

Cara:

Sure. But for now I’m taking what I can get, and I still like seeing a woman go through that kind of personal, internal transformation, because it’s familiar. I liked Mad Max fine, but when I’m looking to see myself in reflected in culture, I’m not going to find myself in Furiosa. My challenges, like Amy’s are about dealing with feelings and the icky, awkward work of human interaction. It’s especially important to me that this is a (Bechdel test passing!) conversation that she has with her sister, not with her boyfriend. He’s not a manic pixie dream dude who shows her who she truly is. Trying to be with him shows her that she doesn’t have good tools for any kind of relationships. But that revelation is more important than he is, especially because it repairs her relationship with her sister.

Harriet:

That’s a great point. And alongside her internal, emotional journey, there was an interesting thread to do with physical spectacle, with watching and being watched. At the beginning, Amy has a first person voiceover narration in which she is simultaneously defensive and judgmental about herself. It means that at once she’s the image on the screen and the audience; she’s both in the moment and looking back on it. And, in combination with other moments like the recurring film-within-a-film, there’s this ongoing sense of constant observation, from others and from herself. This really seems to come to a head when you see her trying to discretely adjust her too-short, too-low cut dress at the fancy award ceremony. But her narration, as far as I remember, just drops away towards the end as her romantic relationship solidifies and she turns out to just be jealous of her sister’s married-with-kids life (am I remembering this correctly?)

Cara:

Maybe. I don’t think it’s the married with kids part she’s jealous of. I think she’s jealous that her sister is somehow able to have real, honest loving relationships with people. She is grossed out by her nephew’s earnestness- how he unabashedly loves science class, drinks girly tea and dresses in what he likes without worrying about what other people think. Her life is all about dishonesty, her sister’s is flooded with so much earnestness and care that it hurts.

Harriet:

I was left wondering if we aren’t allowed to self-narrate, or be cynical, when we have steady boyfriends? (If that’s the case, I may be doing relationships wrong). Or perhaps that split-self, self-policing, sensation dissolves as long as you quietly submit to heterosexual monogamy? Who knows…

Cara:

That IS weird. You’re totally right. The framing device of self narration totally disappears at the end. I could say that this might mean that the fact that she’s not narrating herself anymore means that she’s being herself instead of presenting it. But I think that might be giving the movie too much credit.

Harriet:

Speaking of the end, I imagine I was supposed to find her cheerleading grand gesture touching. But honestly I was more with her when she yelled “you’re going to lose us the vote”.

Cara:

Yeah, this one is tricky for me, because I know that cheerleading is one of those female activities that’s actually really difficult, underappreciated and demanding (as the boyfriend character takes care to say.) Also, there’s nothing wrong with femme, and since part of Amy’s character arc is about not defining herself through the judgement of others AND since I hate women pitting themselves against other women, ok, sure cheerleading. But yeah, it’s not, like, my favorite as a symbol of transformation.

Harriet:

Yes, I think the only way in which the cheerleading scene really worked for me was in that it made me take a look at my own work-in-progress feminism, which can tend to veer towards judgmental…  But I still don’t know how to resolve the Amy who is attempting to navigate her own sexuality with full awareness of her own inescapable visibility (nod to the morning-after Titanic moment on the Staten Island Ferry) with the Amy who puts on a cheerleading show to win back her boyfriend.

Cara:

But I do get, and do like the metaphor. If what you want is a real, working relationship, vulnerability is necessary. For this character, looking stupid, trying something new, risking embarrassment is a good visual representation of that. And I have to say, I love how earnest Amy looks as she tries, and fails to present the manufactured sexuality of cheerleading. This isn’t the end of Grease. The point of the stunt isn’t for her to be sexually appealing to him, it’s for her to prove that she’s willing to be vulnerable.

Harriet:

Your point about vulnerability is really important, I think. My problem is the way in which it is weirdly mixed in with her sexuality. I agree that the point is for her to risk embarrassment as part of a personal transformation. But the combination of ineptitude with the performance of sexuality just sits weirdly for me. Especially after Amy’s been so unapologetic and confident in her sexuality throughout. I know that for all her confidence, her past relationships have been unfulfilling. And that of course, we need to see representations of women that are complex like this–sometimes confident, and sometimes clumsy. But… I’d be willing to give the vulnerable-while-sexy trope a rest for a while, even if it’s a reworking/knowing-failure.

Cara:

Fair enough. What about work?

Harriet:

I felt like any conversation that had been started about work earlier in the story failed to come to any particularly interesting conclusion. Throughout, there’s this blurry line between Amy’s paid work and her emotional work. Most explicitly we see it in that sports-doctor-man (I’ve forgotten his name)

Cara:

Dr. Boyfriend!

Harriet:

…is first work, and then relationship, and then some confusion of the two. Eventually he yells at Amy for taking a work-call during his award ceremony, telling her that’s she’s supposed to be there to support him. Yes, I suppose it is mildly ambiguous; perhaps she shouldn’t have had her phone turned on…

Cara:

She absolutely should not have had her phone on! That’s obnoxious! He’s receiving an award, he’s nervous, he’s told her ahead of time how important it is to her. It’s totally selfish of her to have her phone on, let alone take a call. And I don’t think he prioritizes work but expects differently from her, as he stays up all night the night before an important surgery to talk through relationship problems with her.

Harriet:

You’re right. In the emotional arc of the storyline it is obnoxious! But I still think it’s really important that their argument is catalysed by her lack of attention. Especially because her job is, quite literally, to pay attention to and listen to him. I was pleased that that dynamic was brought to crisis point. That scene touched a nerve for me about the simultaneously expected-yet-unrecognised work of attention and support that often falls to your lot as a woman.

Cara:

Fair.

Harriet:

But again I was disappointed with where the tension went. Amy’s finished article is eventually just a means for her to write complimentary things about Dr. Boyfriend as part of quest to win him back, and nothing more is done with that uncomfortable clash between her paid job and her emotional life.

Cara:

The article bit is totally cheesy, but again feels like it’s more about her honesty than his awesomeness. In fact, I kind of love how bland his character is. She’s the one with all the depth and all the complexity and all the change. He’s some nice doctor, and that’s about it. The final article is an exploration of herself, a personal one, the opposite of what she’s been writing for the other magazine, which is nasty dishonest bs.

Harriet:

I found his blandness to be a bit irritating. I want complex female characters with complex love interests!

Cara:

You want everything, Harriet! Complex women AND complex men for them to date? Settle down.

Harriet:

So greedy. Most of the time I couldn’t get emotionally invested in her struggle and change because I could not understand what about this bland doctor was motivating her. Why show all the compromises and difficulties of making a relationship work when one half of that relationship is basically just a cardboard cut-out of A Man Face? But yes, the fact that it really is all about her is kind of great. And unusual.

Cara:

And I feel like the real thing that motivates her to change is the death of her father, whom she’s modeled herself on.

Harriet:

You wanted to say something about race in the movie.

Cara:

Yes! It is so frustrating! This movie has a terrible, weird relationship with race. I cannot wrap my head around this thing in white feminist culture that is totally satisfied to make black people the butt of racist jokes. There are the overtly racist jokes made by Amy’s dad, where racism is supposed to be part of what makes him an asshole, but they were laugh lines, not cringe lines. And the central casting Angry Black Woman on the train with Amy near the end of the movie is just a gag, and the gag is her angry blackness. It’s almost as though Schumer made a special effort to make sure we knew that she’s for women, but not necessarily for black women.

Harriet:

I completely agree. This is so important, and so baffling. The Angry Black Woman on the subway moments adds absolutely nothing to the plot whatsoever. It’s just there to be racist. And that 30 second scene pretty much renders irrelevant any work that’s been done elsewhere to present women as complicated human people.

Cara:

Then there’s the weird use of LeBron James as kind of a prop. Maybe I don’t know enough about LeBron to appreciate the finer points of the humor, but it seemed to me that a lot of the joke was about his blackness, including the “baby momma” stuff on the basketball court.

Harriet:

I don’t claim to know a single thing about LeBron James or basketball either, so I may be missing all kinds of things. But in those scenes in which he is excited to talk about emotions and relationships the joke seemed to be “it’s surprising and funny because we all know men, especially black men, don’t have feelings”. If I were being generous, I’d say that perhaps it was an attempt to depict the emotional side of male friendship, which doesn’t always get a lot of screen time. But it was presented as a joke, and the joke felt nasty to me…

Cara:

The fact that in the first scene between the couple, he asks her to show him pictures of her black friends on her phone, it’s pretty clear that they both think of black people as accessories. It’s just embarrassing. Can’t I go be happy about a complex female character without having to be grossed out by racism? Is that too much to ask?

Harriet:

Cara, you really need to stop trying to have it all.

***********************************************************************************************

ProfileCara Blouin runs the Art Church of West Philadelphia, a gathering space for art and community, and is a freelance director and new-play dramaturg. She is best known in Philadelphia for producing Dan Rottenberg is Thinking about Raping You and The Republican Theater Festival. Other Philadelphia credits include Josh Hitchens’ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Curio Theater,) and the world premiere of Joy Cutler’s Pardon My Invasion. Cara is the facilitator of “The Souls of Black Folk” series for new plays at the Painted Bride Art Center and has served as a teaching artist at Drexel University and the Community College of Philadelphia. She was also the founder of the New York-based Stone Soup Theater Arts, and the Universal Culture School in Hunan, China, which teaches English to Chinese teenagers using an arts curriculum.

anigif_enhanced-11274-1400615407-29Harriet reads books and writes in Philadelphia.  Her other attributes and activities are, and must remain, mysterious.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Dang! I’m afraid to watch it now. And I had such high hopes.

  2. Cara says:

    No! Go see it Patricia! Tell us what you think!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s