I Feel Pretty – Your Practical Ethics Movie Review

By Neil Levy

Last week, I found myself seeing a film I hadn’t planned to. The film I wanted to see (The Death of Stalin) was sold out, so rather than miss my weekly fix, I picked the Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty. I don’t mind a chick flick and I enjoyed Trainwreck, but the reviews of I Feel Pretty were pretty bad, so I was going to give it a miss. Actually, I Feel Pretty was a better film than the reviews suggested (it was in fact better than the much better reviewed film The Party, which I saw the previous week). It was quite funny, after a slow beginning, and that’s about all one can reasonably ask from these entertainments. From an ethical perspective, however, it is rather troubling.

In I Feel Pretty, Schumer plays a young single, working in a low-level job in IT for the high end fashion label Lily LeClaire. Her life isn’t awful, by any means – she’s got good friends – but she longs to be beautiful. She thinks all her life problems would vanish if she were. After an accident, she comes to believe that her wish has been granted: when she looks in the mirror, her reflection is beautiful. In fact, she hasn’t changed at all. Much of the humor comes from this mismatch between how she actually looks and how she perceives herself.

Schurmer has been widely criticised on the grounds that she has no right to portray herself as slighted by unrealistic beauty myths: she’s not far from the ideal herself (she’s white, blond, young and her body shape is normal). I don’t think that criticism is fair. In fact, it might miss the point: even someone whose body shape is normal is routinely dismissed as fat (go and check the comments on her YouTube videos if you like – though you can find plenty of this kind of thing in magazines and newspapers). The problems with I Feel Pretty lie elsewhere.

The overt message of I Feel Pretty is that beauty comes from within. If women just stopped allowing others to set standards for them, they could embrace their inner beauty. Schumer’s character achieves success because of her confidence, not because of how she looks, and we could all do the same (or, at any rate, not be held back by unrealistic expectations) if we were equally confident. The message is trite, but more importantly it is simply false.

We are social animals. We are constitutively social: we live in cultures which make us the beings we are. We can’t ignore social expectations: they form us. Multiple branches of enquiry converge in recognizing this fact, from Adam Smith’s remark that a basic degree of self-respect requires that one wear the clothes that are socially expected, to the central place that recognition has in post-Hegelian philosophy, all the way through to recent work in cultural evolution. These currents of thought all recognize that as deeply social animals, we cannot choose the norms that apply to us. Of course, we are also agents, and we can push back against these norms. They are continually negotiated and renegotiated, and they continually evolve. But we can’t step outside them. It’s a fantasy to think we can substitute confidence for recognition.

In fact, it is probably itself a deeply social fantasy. Individualistic narratives are products of particular cultures at particular times, and have their fascination only for members of these cultures. It is very tempting to see these narratives as ideological. They proliferate because they have certain functions. They deflect attention from systematic sources of disadvantage and place the onus on the person to improve their own lives. If only you worked harder! Were more confident! Went to the gym more! Bought the right make up! Then you’d be happy.

Of course, there is a great deal we can and should do for ourselves. But effective action requires a clear-eyed view of the situation in which we act. Promoting fantasies is good entertainment, but to the extent to which we think its ‘message’ is anything more than a commercial for lipstick and eyeshadow, it’s more dangerous than empowering. Be as confident as you like; you’ll still get judged on how you look (even by people who are themselves struggling to reject the norms they apply). We can’t solve social problems by placing the onus on individuals: that just leaves them blaming themselves and being blamed by others for problems whose genesis lies elsewhere.

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