Trainwreck Revisited

Reconsidering my take on a mostly-forgettable movie from 2015 that is still depressingly relevant

After Trainwreck — the movie written by Amy Schumer, directed by Judd Apatow, and released in 2015 — was released, I wrote an overlong defense of it on this blog. I’m reluctant to link to it, partly because so many of the images and links are now broken.1Especially since the studios are now insisting on removing so much of their content from the internet. But mostly because reading old posts on here often has me thinking, “Who the hell is this asshole?” My last post was mostly responding to two reviews of the movie that I feel completely missed the point, and I was needlessly hostile and argumentative.

But I still agree with the points I was trying to make, even though I don’t like the post itself. Similarly, although I thought the movie itself was middling-to-forgettable, the ideas in it were more nuanced and mature than most people gave it credit for. And since it was released during the Obama administration, and we’re still suffering from the ultra-right-wing backlash to that, I think it deserves a revisit.

My interpretation of Trainwreck is that it’s a rejection of any form of feminism or progressivism that’s more prescriptive than inclusive. It’s presented as a gender-swapped twist on romantic comedy cliches, where this time it’s the woman who’s the slutty one! Can you even imagine?! But the more meaningful twist is how it flips the notion of conforming to society’s expectations.

It sets up the story with two sisters listening to their father go on an anti-monogamy tirade while telling them that he and their mother are getting a divorce. He has them repeat: “monogamy isn’t realistic.” Years later, one of them has taken that to heart and done everything expected of her: she drinks and parties as much as she wants, she has sex whenever and with whomever she wants, she refuses to be tied down to a committed relationship, and she still has a successful career. The other sister Kim is the “bad sheep,” in that she’s chosen to have a quiet life in the suburbs, married and expecting a baby.

When the movie was released, Schumer went onto Twitter and said explicitly what it was about: “I hope you see it. It’s a love letter to my little sister.”

Because it takes the format of a conventional romantic comedy, which implies a level of earnestness and taking everything at face value, it’s easy to see why so many audiences interpreted it as conservative. By the time you get to the end, it might seem like the message is, “Women need to reject single life, stop drinking, stop sleeping around, and devote themselves to a life of Traditional Heterosexual Monogamy to truly find happiness. Victory Through Conformity!”

But the movie isn’t a celebration of monogamy, or conservatism, or heterosexuality, but instead a celebration of self-determinism and mutual respect.

One of the reviewers that completely missed the point was Peter Knegt, writing for IndieWire in an essay called “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming, Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck.” I’m bringing it up not (just) to pick on it some more, but because it’s such a prime example of exactly the phenomenon the movie is about.

Knegt asserts that he was a huge fan of Amy Schumer and treated Trainwreck as an event movie, but then he and his friends felt betrayed to see a movie that was so judgmental against them. And I concede that that’s not entirely off base, but not for the reason he thinks. The movie does indeed judge the character of Amy (and presumably her real-life counterpart), but not for being unabashedly slutty. It judges her for being such a self-righteous jerk about it.

One of the key scenes in Trainwreck is based on a joke in Schumer’s stand-up routine. She’s miserable at a friend’s party, surrounded by stereotypically boring, prudish, and judgmental women. They start a game in which they confess something scandalous to each other. All the admissions are extremely mundane until it gets to Amy, who tells them all how she got fingered by a cab driver. They’re shocked and horrified, her friend says “Amy, that’s not how you play the game,” and Amy says “Really? Because I feel like I won.”

Good gag for a stand-up routine, terrible for a character-based movie. The joke still exists in Trainwreck, but it’s been changed and expanded on. Now the scene is a baby shower for Amy’s sister. Amy’s story is more drawn out, to show how she’s enjoying making the other women uncomfortable. The women don’t react in shocked surprise, but uncomfortable silence. And Schumer took away the punchline from her own character and gave it instead to a character played by her friend Bridget Everett. She breaks the silence by saying, “I let Tim and his brothers tag team me on Christmas morning. And you know what? It was wonderful.”

The original joke was all about sticking it to those judgmental prudes, blowing their narrow minds with a too-real tale of sexual liberation. The scene in the movie looks back at the joke and asks, who was the one being judgmental? As far as I can remember, the other women weren’t really doing anything wrong, apart from being too boring for Amy’s standards. And her assumptions about their prudishness weren’t entirely correct, because at least one of them was sexually adventurous, even if she didn’t wear it like a badge of honor.

Amy (the character, but we can assume also the writer and actor) at the beginning of the movie is a snob. Years being on the defensive against people judging her for her life choices gradually turned into preemptive contempt for people who seemed boring and conservative. Because you’re allowed to be as mean and judgmental as you want, as long as you can spin it into a case of “punching up.”

I think the distinction of “who’s judging whom?” is critically important, but it can be easy to miss in the middle of a broad romantic comedy. Knegt insists that the movie was criticizing Amy for being a slut, while I say it was criticizing her for being a snob, but that could just be a difference of opinion.2But I’ve got more evidence that my opinion is right, so there. But it quickly turns toxic when Knegt tries to suss out who’s responsible for Amy Schumer’s sudden betrayal of feminism. I don’t want to single Knegt out, by the way; the same sentiment was expressed by Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice, and I’m sure several others.

They lament that Schumer’s once-edgy and transgressive voice had been silenced by Judd Apatow’s conservative influence. That’s why the movie feels like two parts: the familiar Slut Icon Amy Schumer that we all love at the beginning, and the rug-pull of Conservative Heteronormative Moralizing at the end. (Apparently, despite being professional movie reviewers, it didn’t occur to them that the character changes over the course of the movie because good characters have arcs. I guess their ideal version of Trainwreck would be to have Amy at the end of the movie looking into the camera and saying, “I sure am glad I learned nothing about myself from that whole experience!”)

The whole idea is so regressive and just plain wrong-headed that I’m starting to remember why my last post was so hostile. It assumes that Schumer was either powerless or too weak-willed to do anything about Apatow’s influence, even though she was the writer and star of a semi-autobiographical story. And even though the movie was coming after a long career in stand-up and several seasons of a successful TV series named after her. It would rather believe that a successful woman was defenseless against the patriarchal influence of a powerful man, than to believe that a successful woman would want to revisit and expand on ideas she’d expressed in the past.

On top of that, it wants Schumer to keep telling the same jokes she was telling for years, even after her TV series had been all about taking familiar premises and turning them on their heads, or adding new layers of depth to them. And it wants feminist romantic comedies to still be fighting against villains like Dabney Coleman’s character in 9 to 5, ignoring how much has changed in 40+ years. We’ve seen plenty of feminist comedies about women rejecting societal pressure to conform to the life of a housewife or a secretary, when that’s not what she wants. But it’s taboo to present a story about a woman rejecting pressure to conform from the opposite direction, to insist that she keep drinking and partying and refusing commitment, regardless of whether that’s the life she really wants.

There was nothing new to Trainwreck in the idea that Schumer wanted to reconsider her onstage persona and make fun of it. And it had nothing to do with Judd Apatow, unless he was somehow also pulling the strings of Inside Amy Schumer. One of my favorite jokes from that series was in a sketch in which Amy stumbles into a meeting with all of her comedy heroes. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss says, “oh, you’re that woman who talks about her pussy all the time!” Amy looks delighted and says, “Yes, thank you!” She was already getting tired of being known for having not much to say beyond being scandalously naughty.

Knegt concedes “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being in a stable relationship,” but you can tell his heart’s not in it, because he goes on to say that Trainwreck insists that a stable relationship is the only worthwhile goal. That’s objectively false. In addition to Everett’s character being happily tag-teamed on Christmas morning, there’s Vanessa Bayer’s character — the horny, almost-sociopathic sidekick that would be played by somebody like Seth Rogen in a male version of this movie — who remains uncommitted and unfazed, and even receives a promotion at Amy’s expense.

It’s worth pointing out that the movie is called Trainwreck, and that Amy Townsend the character isn’t a happy, unbothered, and thriving independent woman who’s punished for being a slut. She explicitly says she feels “broken,” she wants a relationship with a guy but is so desperately afraid of commitment that she repeatedly tries to sabotage it, and she’s punished for almost sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy. The movie doesn’t say that a hard-drinking, promiscuous lifestyle is bad; it says that the lifestyle is bad for her.

It’s bad enough when a movie has so few female characters that the only woman has to represent all women. But in Trainwreck, Amy Townsend has to represent not just all women, but everyone who’s single, sexually active, and even queer? Seems like a lot of pressure to conform to expectations.

The other most important scene in Trainwreck is at the end of the movie, with a big choreographed dance with the New York Knicks cheerleaders. It is extremely cheesy, in the same vein as other unbelievably elaborate “I want you back” gestures in the most cliched romantic comedies, and the only reason it works at all is because the people involved are so talented. (There are plenty of genuinely funny moments of physical comedy in there).

But it is cringe-worthingly corny, which is of course the whole point. It is something that the Amy Townsend at the beginning of the movie wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. A bunch of women dancing around in short skirts? How demeaning and degrading!

For such a broad scene, there’s a lot going on that’s left mercifully implicit. To start with: including the professional cheerleaders. If you’re inclined to dismiss the whole scene as demeaning or degrading, you’re being dismissive of them. Even if you don’t value what they do, they’re professional dancers and athletes, and it’s hard work. Schumer frequently put herself against conventionally beautiful women (Chrissy Teigen most memorably, before she’d established that she had a sense of humor), partly to make fun of herself, but also to celebrate them.

More important than that is Bill Hader’s character saying “you don’t have to do this.” It sounds like a throwaway line, but it’s what makes the ending a victory. She doesn’t have to do it to win him over; she’s choosing to do it because he’s important to her. Even if she looks silly, even if it’s overly sentimental and corny, even if she’s accused of being anti-feminist, even if she’s accused of being heteronormative, even if she’s unfairly compared to the other women, even if single people will think she’s boring or a sell-out, even if she disappoints all the people who look up to her as a “slut icon.” She’s doing it because she wants to, not because she has to.

  • 1
    Especially since the studios are now insisting on removing so much of their content from the internet.
  • 2
    But I’ve got more evidence that my opinion is right, so there.

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