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The Trainwreck Magic Mike Dance-Off

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Two messages about female sexuality at the movies this summer
07/23/2015

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 3

Trainwreck

We're living in an age of unprecedented female talent and, more importantly, widespread recognition for female talent. It is an age in which female protagonists can tell stories from a woman's point of view on TV, Netflix and the "Silver Screen."

These women can be strong, ugly, brash, sexual and downright sassy. Katniss is fighting governmental tyranny in the Hunger Games trilogy, and Olivia is covering it up in Scandal. The female experience is examined with a poetic and dark magnifying glass in Orange is the New Black through careful personal narratives and broader commentary on the criminal justice system. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Zooey Deschanel are reminding us to laugh at ourselves and peel back the layers of femininity while also embracing them.

More than anyone, however, Amy Schumer has been my feminist hero in recent months. Schumer's Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central is an unapologetic affront to sexism and misogyny everywhere--from the media to interpersonal relationships and experience. Each week, her show poignantly tackles how women are portrayed in micro and macro levels in society via humorous vignettes with celebrity guest appearances. Schumer's honesty and no-nonsense wit has gained widespread acclaim among men and women, which is very exciting, given that she appears to have a feminist agenda.

I first saw Schumer live at the YLD Big Event a couple of years ago and I was floored with her performance. Until viewing her stand-up and TV show, I had yet to see a female performer tackle feminist issues in such a self-conscious manner. Schumer is taking society's narrative about what it means to be female and prodding it with her big humorous stick (pun intended).

Schumer somehow has managed to toe the line between sexual humor and female empowerment. She has revealed both her seemingly extensive sexual experience and also her support for a healthy female identity. This is not an easy line to toe, as women are often boxed in (also pun intended) as a "Madonna" or "whore."

Because I've gained so much respect for her, I had been anticipating Schumer's film debut, Trainwreck, for months. So, I was surprised that I came away from the film disappointed--or rather, conflicted. With her film, Schumer managed, in some ways, to stray from what seems to be her mission of building women up.

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 1

Trainwreck

I was pleasantly surprised to find the story had substance beyond her incredibly humorous moments and jokes, but I found it disappointing that the movie teetered on becoming the cookie-cutter romantic comedy we all love/hate and know. Schumer played it safe, and there were times when she also appeared to betray the self-empowered woman I believed her to be. There were many small moments in the film that felt like we, the audience, should wave our fingers and slut shame Amy (the protagonist). The movie is about her journey from a slutty "train wreck" to a tamed and "open-minded" girl in love.

As someone who has been out in the dating world for years, I understood and appreciated her humor around feeling disenchanted and even cynical about dating. But this movie felt like a cautionary tale about a 30-something who just needs to stop drinking and having so much sex.

That said, I really enjoyed Anne Helen Petersen's feature on BuzzFeed.com, "In 'Trainwreck,' Amy Schumer Calls Bullshit On Postfeminism," in which she posits that Schumer's film actually provides real and poignant commentary on post-feminist ideals. Schumer's character, Petersen explains, in the face of misogynistic stereotypes, embodies them, and then learns how to let them go and get out of her own way in order to be happy.

"Trainwreck suggests that neither romance, children, sex, shopping, jobs, sick apartments, nor even friendship with LeBron James can provide a shortcut to happiness," Petersen writes. "Instead, confidence, self-knowledge, and mercilessly rejecting anyone or anything that makes you feel like shit--especially the contradictory demands of postfeminism--that's something like bliss."

Even if Trainwreck is about radical acceptance, I still struggle with it.

Spoilers ahead: Amy's journey closes with her conceding to be more accepting of kindness, stability and sports--all in the name of love. The film ends with her dressed as a cheerleader performing to her love interest, Aaron's (Bill Hader), favorite song, Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," alongside a team of cheerleaders.

This moment was the nail in the coffin for me. Amy plays the cliché cheerleader to indicate to Aaron that she can compromise and truly integrate herself into his life. Earlier in the film she states she doesn't like sports; by the end, falling in love means becoming the weakest personification of herself--and maybe the sports community. She lets her guard down, I suppose …

A week or so before Trainwreck, it so happens that I saw Magic Mike XXL, and with much irony, I must admit it deserves some high marks for encouraging female sexuality. Obviously, a movie about male strippers is going to appeal to a female audience, but the movie consciously promotes and opens the gates for female sexuality.

The Trainwreck/Magic Mike Dance-Off photo 2

Magic Mike XXL

Playing a strip show ringleader, Jada Pinkett Smith offers a window into a modern-day, female-focused brothel/pleasure house for women, in which she preaches self-esteem and the values of female sexuality. Via Pinkett Smith's performance and others' throughout the film, we truly experience the female (sexual) gaze, as many women experience it (or hope to experience it), something Nina Friend reflects on for The Huffintgon Post in "The Female Gaze Is Real In 'Magic Mike XXL.'"

Friend quotes the prominent feminist YouTuber Laci Green:

"In 'Magic Mike XXL,' 'people of all ages and sizes, races and gender expression are free to be sexual on their own terms.' Therein lies the Female Gaze: Women in this movie are given power over their sexual desires--something we rarely, if ever, see on the big screen."

The Magic Mike sequel is silly and very poorly written at times, but it captures a sense of pride and empowerment about sex that Trainwreck truly lacks. There is even a moment in the final act (small spoiler alert) in which one of the strip show montages plays on the marriage fantasy and dually incorporatesracy sexual innuendos and play. This performance encourages women who can want and have it all--the fairytale and the wild sex they might desire.

I also recommend "The Gender Politics of Magic Mike XXL" in The Atlantic, which provides three writers' perspectives on the gender politics of the film, and offers counter points, including one that the film provides a story of "what women want" according to men …The film is surprisingly complex, and I encourage you to review these perspectives outlined as well.

So, stripper or cheerleader: Which do you do choose?

If you've seen either or both of these films, comment below with your thoughts!

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