Postfeminist ideology “takes feminism into account” by framing liberal feminist principles as already achieved, thus preempting a more radical feminist politics that it constructs as both unpleasant and irrelevant. In a corresponding mode, postfeminist cultural objects derive their power in part by preempting feminist critique with irony. It is precisely this ideological double bind that the comedian Amy Schumer confronts. This essay analyzes how Schumer develops a feminist critique of the knotty problems of postfeminist ideology. Postfeminism casts feminism as abject, as the “repulsive and disgusting” monster that perpetually endangers the “empowered” postfeminist woman of today. But Schumer inverts this construction: in her show's sketches, postfeminism as an ideological formation materializes in an array of comic abjections to which Schumer's persona is subject. In short, the condition of postfeminism is one of abjection. The comic hyperbole of Schumer's character's abjections, combined with her uncritical complicity, invokes for the viewer feminist solutions.
Within the field of popular culture, this becomes dominant, women must be young women… . To make a point like this takes us right back in time to early and rather crude feminism, which reflected on what was required for women to be taken seriously. It is as though every feature of media and contemporary popular culture as it engages with femininity somehow reverses and displaces those arguments made by feminists in the early 1970s.
The feminist perspective I present here is alert to the dangers which arise when a selection of feminist values and ideals appear to be inscribed within a more profound and determined attempt, undertaken by an array of political and cultural forces, to re-shape notions of womanhood so that they fit with new or emerging (neo-liberalised) social and economic arrangements… . It's not so much turning the clock back, as turning it forward to secure a postfeminist gender settlement, a new sexual contract.—ANGELA MCROBBIE, THE AFTERMATH OF FEMINISM, 20091
My juxtaposition of quotations from Angela McRobbie's intervention in the culturally potent ideology of postfeminism is intended to point to a temporal bidirectionality in postfeminism's operation. As the first quote suggests, postfeminism reaches backward to recover cultural constructions of femininity to which earlier feminisms responded—a repetition or resurrection that may feel uncanny to the feminist who has experienced the earlier moment of critique. At the same time, as indicated in the second quote, postfeminism points toward a future “gender settlement” that the individual woman may secure by rejecting a feminist collective politics and receiving in exchange “a notional form of equality, concretized in education and employment, and through participation in consumer culture and civil society.”2
Lending affective weight to this description of postfeminism's ideological work in the book's opening salvo, McRobbie turns to generic conventions of horror to suggest how postfeminism casts feminism not simply as dead, but as frightening in its potential to become undead: postfeminist culture “makes feminism quite unpalatable to young women (the words repulsive and disgusting are often used). A kind of hideous spectre of what feminism once was is conjured up, a monstrous ugliness which would send shudders of horror down the spines of young women today, as a kind of deterrent.”3 Adapting Barbara Creed's notion of the “monstrous-feminine,” what we might here term “monstrous-feminism” is rendered abject, constructed as that which must be excluded in the development of a postfeminist subjectivity and a social and economic “gender settlement.”4 As Julia Kristeva writes, however, abjection creates a border but does not insulate the “subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.”5 For McRobbie, tropes of the conventionally masculine horror genre help to describe the “perpetual danger” that an abjected feminism poses to postfeminist ideology, and her analysis of the conventionally feminine genres of romantic comedy and melodrama demonstrates one significant arena in which the cultural work of warding off this danger is performed.
Throughout her book, McRobbie describes the “double movement” of postfeminist ideology: the potential for feminist political allegiances across lines of race, class, and sexuality is displaced, replaced by a gender retrenchment couched in the language of “choice” and “empowerment” that allows for individual economic and educational advancement while leaving fundamental patriarchal structures intact. Culturally, patriarchal power is sustained not through coercion but by securing the consent and participation of young women in a “new gender regime” constructed by the fashion and beauty industries, commercialized wedding culture, rejuvenated men's magazines, aggressive “mainstreaming of pornography,” and so on.6 Contemporary romantic comedies like Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) model a postfeminist subjectivity for which feminism has only a “ghostly existence.”7 Past feminism accounts for Bridget's career and independent lifestyle, but at the same time it has implicitly barred her and other women from their rightful pleasures of “romance, gossip, and obsessive concerns about how to catch a husband.”8 This erasure of feminism in the enormously successful Bridget Jones series (including Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason  and Bridget Jones's Baby ) is consistent with the construction of professional female protagonists in postfeminist media for whom career success exists at the expense of romance, marriage, and motherhood—experiences which, as Linda Mizejewski explains, postfeminism retrenches as the ideal sites of adult female subjectivity.9 For the protagonists of contemporary romantic comedies like The Ugly Truth (2009) and Friends with Benefits (2011), professional autonomy (enabled by feminism) is taken for granted, but true happiness comes only through heterosexual coupling.
Many scholars have addressed the construction and expression of postfeminist ideology across contemporary media and popular culture: women's (and men's) magazines; fashion and makeover programs as well as other reality television genres like the Housewives franchise; narrative television shows from Ally McBeal (Fox, 1997–2002) and Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004) in the 1990s to current shows like New Girl (Fox, 2011–ongoing) and 2 Broke Girls (CBS, 2011–ongoing); romantic comedies from Pretty Woman (1990) to more recent films including those mentioned above, 13 Going on 30 (2004), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), and so on; social media and practices of “self-branding”; and the rise of Internet pornography and a broader mainstreaming of “porn culture.” Postfeminist culture expresses the idea that feminist goals of social equality have generally been achieved, but that pleasures of conventional femininity have been lost in the process. Postfeminism derives from the economic and social principles of neoliberalism its emphasis on choice and individual agency within a global “free market” and consumer culture.10 Recently, women working within popular culture such as Lena Dunham, Gillian Robespierre, and the subject of this essay, Amy Schumer, have begun to mount feminist interventions in this postfeminist cultural field.
Postfeminist ideology “takes feminism into account” by framing liberal, broadly acceptable feminist principles as already achieved, thus preempting a more radical feminist politics that it constructs as both unpleasant and irrelevant. In a corresponding mode of displacement, postfeminist cultural objects derive their power in part by preempting feminist critique with irony. Television advertising consistently takes this approach, exemplified by the notorious Super Bowl commercials for products such as Miller Lite, Carl's Jr., and GoDaddy. In these ads, sexist imagery is deployed in a hyperbolic fashion intended to demonstrate a reflexive awareness of its own absurdity and offensiveness, all the while using female bodies to sell beer, hamburgers, and Internet services. The challenge such objects pose to the feminist critic is their mobilization of humor and an address to a knowing and savvy viewer in order to suggest that sexist representations and cultural practices can be acceptable and pleasurable (for both men and women) once their very sexism is self-consciously acknowledged. Within these terms, the problem is not sexism itself, but rather the repressive political correctness of a feminism that denies pleasure and fails to understand irony.
It is precisely this ideological double bind that the comedian Amy Schumer confronts in her work, which includes stand-up comedy, the successful Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer (2013–ongoing), and the recent film Trainwreck (2015), written by and starring Schumer. Like Tina Fey—an influence on Schumer who appears in one of Schumer's best-known sketches, “Last Fuckable Day”—Schumer negotiates the broad cultural perception that feminism and funniness are mutually exclusive terms.11 As Mizejewski argues, Fey's show 30 Rock (NBC, 2006–13) seemingly cast its likable protagonist Liz Lemon as the feminist corrective to the postfeminist excesses of her counterpart Jenna Maroney; the show complicated this picture, however, by not only satirizing postfeminism but also comically depicting Liz's feminism as flawed, inconsistent, and sometimes self-serving.12
Where 30 Rock used the sitcom format and well-developed characters to “expose and trouble the contradictions of feminism and postfeminism,”13 Inside Amy Schumer functions more as a broadside against a range of problems and contradictions in postfeminist ideology. Postfeminism casts feminism as abject, as the “repulsive and disgusting” monster that perpetually endangers the “empowered” postfeminist woman of today. But Schumer inverts this construction: in the show's sketches, postfeminism as an ideological formation materializes in an array of comic abjections to which Schumer's persona (whom I will call Amy) is subject. In short, the condition of postfeminism is one of abjection. The comic hyperbole of Amy's abjections combined with her uncritical complicity invokes for the viewer feminist solutions that remain inconceivable to the character.
Schumer's sketches stage the failure of the temporal bidirectionality I have identified in postfeminist ideology. Where postfeminism promises the “can-do” girl a secure future of career and marriage, Schumer recasts postfeminism as a debilitating perpetual present. Amy negotiates an array of postfeminist situations that produce the “ugly feelings” that Sianne Ngai describes as linked to moments of suspended agency and a diminishment of one's power to act.14 If postfeminism promises a (delimited) form of agency and futurity, Schumer suggests that it produces instead a static condition of dysphoria and illegibility. By attributing such ugly feelings to postfeminist subjectivity, Schumer's sketches perform a critical diagnosis of postfeminism that points to a feminist alternative. As Ngai writes, “The unsuitability of these weakly intentional feelings for forceful or unambiguous action is precisely what amplifies their power to diagnose situations, and situations marked by blocked or thwarted action in particular.”15 Inside Amy Schumer counters postfeminism's attempt to preempt feminist critique through irony by showing the manifold ways in which postfeminist culture in fact fails to take feminism into account, and in doing so produces conditions of selfhood marked by forms of abjection more surprising and disturbing than those attributed by postfeminism to the “monstrous ugliness” of feminism itself.
In the second part of the essay, I examine how Schumer's feminist critique is negotiated by the conventions and constraints of romantic comedy—the film genre that scholars have most strongly identified with postfeminist ideology. In Trainwreck, Schumer maintains her television show's critical argument that for all its rhetoric of empowerment, postfeminism is not in fact feminism but an expression of patriarchy. But the narrative renders this point in individualistic and almost overly literal terms: the protagonist's postfeminist ideology is transmitted quite directly from her father. In Trainwreck's version of genre film's conventional imaginary resolution, postfeminism is an individual rather than a social-structural problem, and can be mitigated by changes in personal values and habits. The film's circumscribed message is that women themselves should stop being consenting participants in the promulgation of postfeminist culture.
ASSHOLE RESHAPING: BERGSON ACCORDING TO SCHUMER
Inside Amy Schumer is comprised of three different types of segment: excerpts from live stand-up (à la the opening bits in Seinfeld [NBC, 1989–98] and Louie [FX, 2010–ongoing]), short comic sketches that often feature established comedians and actors in supporting roles, and interviews conducted by Schumer—either person-on-the-street in the manner of late-night talk shows, or more intimate sit-down interviews. The interview segments—often linked thematically to the stand-up and sketches—perform a documentary role, reminding the viewer of the larger social world within which people negotiate the issues being satirized. The show does sustain a distinction between Schumer as a stand-up comic and interviewer, and the Amy persona of the sketches: the former tends to offer a critical perspective on the latter. But it is not a strict demarcation. Particularly in sketches that satirize the entertainment industry and her own success, the character draws closer to Schumer than in the more absurdist sketches. By doing so, Schumer demonstrates that she cannot hold herself above the field of postfeminist culture that is her object of critique, and implies that the viewer should also not adopt a position of distance and superiority when laughing at Amy's abjections. The show targets a broad range of topics relevant to a critical understanding of postfeminist culture: one-night stands and dating, sexting, female friendships, makeovers, pornography, eating disorders, child beauty pageants, princess culture, and the television industry itself.
“Sexting,” a sketch from the second episode of season 1, targets a pervasive “porn culture” in which women are “asked to concur with a definition of sex as light-hearted pleasure, recreational activity, hedonism, sport, reward, and status.”16 The sketch opens with a scene of spectatorship: a shot–reverse shot juxtaposes a television screen showing lovers in a classical Hollywood melodrama with an image of Amy on the couch, wearing cat pajamas and nursing a gin and tonic while eating fistfuls of plain spaghetti directly from a colander. She receives a flirtatious text from a crush, and excitedly calls a girlfriend for advice. The sound of the film's dialogue drops out during the phone call, but symphonic music begins to play when Amy proceeds to respond to the man's texts (fig. 1). The music evokes the classical scores of films like the one Amy is watching, but its source is deliberately ambiguous. It evokes the music from the film on Amy's television, but its sudden entrance and prominence in the mix align it with conventions of the classical score. That is, the music seems to score the movie of Amy sexting her crush, rather than the movie on Amy's television. The mise-en-scène establishes a pointed contrast between old and new media, which might initially appear to valorize the older cinematic form as representative of a more “authentic” and private female desire for romance and companionship. But the sketch collapses the opposition between classical melodrama and sext—media forms that precede and follow the major period of second wave feminism, respectively. The scene's formal confluence of these media suggests their affective alignment in the elision of feminism and the abjection of the postfeminist subject.
Amy deletes an initial draft whose language evokes the dialogue of the weepie, openly conveying her loneliness. She then shifts gears and makes awkward attempts to meet the expectation of “talking dirty.” In response to a text asking “whaddya want me to do to you?” Amy drafts and deletes a series of responses that take account of her own desires rather than his: “hold me,” “tell me I'm safe in my apartment,” and finally (in a humorous peripeteia), “tell me what all my remotes do?” The exchange is cut short when the man sends her a photo that Amy misidentifies as the cute face of a pug dog, only to be corrected by the response: “That's my crank. I just finished on your hair and head.” Amy only smiles and reassures him of her constant availability, and the sketch ends with a shot–reverse shot that parallels its opening: Amy stuffs her mouth with a huge bite of spaghetti, and, on-screen, the lovers embrace. Underscored by the resolution of the romantic music, the image fades to a title card announcing “The End.”
The sketch seems to stage an essentialist view of female emotional authenticity expressed through spectatorship of women's genres, in which Amy's needs are displaced by the labor of technologically mediated, commitment-free sex. But the scene's formal alignment of old and new media points to a more complex critique reflective of the quotation from McRobbie with which I began this essay. To the feminist critic, postfeminist culture not only constructs regressive versions of femininity, but in doing so it demands regression and repetition on the critic's part: “To make a point like this takes us right back in time to early and rather crude feminism… . It is as though every feature of media and contemporary popular culture as it engages with femininity somehow reverses and displaces those arguments made by feminists in the early 1970s.”17 In other words, the Amy character in this sketch embodies the cultural conditions that solicit this return to “early and rather crude feminism.” She is simultaneously the young woman whose consensual participation in “raunch culture” is a concern for contemporary feminism, as well as the oppressed female spectator of Molly Haskell's scathing 1974 broadside against the woman's film, spending “wet, wasted afternoons” on “soft-core emotional porn for the frustrated housewife” whose ultimate purpose is to condition women to “accept, rather than reject, their lot.”18 “Sexting” makes a case for the contemporary relevance of Haskell's “rather crude” critique of spectatorial abjection as coterminous with the conditions of contemporary postfeminist media culture. Postfeminism's ability to “reverse and displace” a generation's worth of feminist film and cultural theory seems to bring the feminist critic back to square one.19
Where “Sexting” depicts the confluence of past and present media in the abjection of the postfeminist subject, “Sex Prep,” a sketch from season 2, satirizes the regulation of time by the fashion and beauty industries. Amy receives a text in the morning from a man looking for casual sex that night, and throws herself frantically into a daylong full-body makeover. On-screen titles track the time of day as Amy subjects herself to a series of degrading and painful procedures (fig. 2). By visualizing the ticking clock, the sketch simultaneously parodies the conventional cinematic suspense of the narrative deadline and gestures toward the makeover as an expression of a disciplinary and gendered temporality “re-defined according to the rhythms largely invented by the fashion and beauty system to manage and oversee other disruptions” created by reproductive choice and career opportunities for women.20
A standard narrative convention of romantic comedies and melodramas, the makeover's temporalized depiction of self-improvement participates in the broader “double movement” of postfeminist ideology and its promise of a secure future of marriage and career.21 Brenda Weber points to a postfeminist logic underlying the cultural prominence of the makeover, particularly in reality television. She explains how the makeover as a broad cultural ideal is linked to professional success in a technologized and globalized marketplace where personal appearance is increasingly important, as well as to younger women's perception of their feminist predecessors as having achieved social progress at the expense of heterosexual desirability.22 Makeover television is a perfect synecdoche for postfeminism, exemplifying its paradoxical logics of empowerment through capitulation. In makeover television, individuation is achieved via construction of normative appearance, and the right to “a state of privacy where ugliness does not code as transgressive” is earned by public exposure of the shame of the ugly body on national television.23
Weber describes how the makeover's transformational structure of “before” and “after” positions the “before” subject as both physically and emotionally abject. In the makeover's neoliberal logics, “excessive negative emotionalism” must be overcome along with physical ugliness to attain the “ability to be an effective corporate citizen”; the “abject alienation” and “emotional abjection” of “before” can be dispelled through the disciplinary mechanisms of transformation.24 Part of Schumer's satirical intervention into the makeover ideology is to relocate abjection in the makeover process itself, rather than in the “before” state. Amy seems just fine at the start of the “Sex Prep” sketch, dressed in comfortable clothes and enjoying a meal and a glass of wine at a restaurant. The makeover itself, however, is comprised of beautifying and bodily reconstruction that follows women's magazine directives like “Hair down there? Kill yourself,” and escalates into salon procedures such as “asshole reshaping” (slightly more expensive than the standard bleaching).
Pointedly, she quits her job when she cannot get time off to continue her makeover regime—signaling an opposition rather than complementarity of professional time and the regulated temporalities of fashion and beauty. Although the makeover's telos is ostensibly a casual sexual encounter, the beauty regime espoused by the women's magazines that guide Amy posit “holding onto a man” as the ultimate goal. But despite everything to which she subjects herself, the makeover causes Amy's abject failure in both work and romance. When the doorbell finally rings in the evening, her mounting anxiety throughout the day comes to a head, and she cowers under her bed in fear of not living up to the expectations for an “after” condition. Abjection is produced rather than solved by the makeover. Amy remains mired in rather than motivated by the generalized condition of anxiety produced by the fashion-beauty complex, stuck in a dysphoric present rather than conveyed toward a successful future.
In a related sketch from season 1, “Makeover,” Schumer takes on makeover television directly.25 She plays a makeover show contestant who is visited by the producers months after her triumphant transformation from ugly duckling to swan. Upon entering her house, the crew finds her in a state of abject dishevelment: her hair a huge tangle of knots, makeup smeared across her face, her once-glamorous clothes filthy and torn, and having failed to bathe since the show (fig. 3). The joke here is that Amy fundamentally misunderstands the temporal logic of the makeover as perpetual labor of the self: as Weber puts it, the “point here is not change for change's sake, but modification along a teleology of improvement, a continuum along the horizon of perfection that anxiously approaches but can never fully achieve its goal.”26 Amy takes literally the idea that the “after” is an achieved state of perfection that requires no further work. Without full participation in the ongoing labor of the postfeminist self, she devolves to a state even more abject than “before.”
The Amy persona in this and most other sketches is characterized by a fundamental cluelessness about social expectations, positioning her as a comic figure in Bergsonian terms. Henri Bergson writes that “the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society.”27 Comic figures are often characterized by their “unsociability”—their cluelessness to the world around them and, especially, to how others see them. Bergson argues that laughter contains “an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbor.”28 Inside Amy Schumer's feminist critique consistently proceeds from the central character's apparent need for correction, but the nature of the correction is different at the diegetic and extra-diegetic levels.
In other words, in the logic of the skits themselves, Amy needs to learn to be a better, more adept postfeminist subject. But through its manifold comic abjections of postfeminism itself, the show suggests that what all of these characters actually need is a critical feminist perspective. To repurpose the terms of the satirical beautification procedure in “Sex Prep,” the characters are “assholes” whose perspective needs “reshaping.” The word “feminism” is never spoken in the dialogue, but feminist arguments about contemporary culture subtend every sketch. Where postfeminism seeks to supersede an abjected and “monstrous” feminism, Inside Amy Schumer constructs a world of postfeminist abjection and leaves the door open for viewers to discover the feminist way out.
In the movie Trainwreck, Schumer also presents a protagonist who lacks “adaptability to society,” but it turns out that this diegetic society is no longer the postfeminist dystopia of the television show. Working within the formulae of romantic comedy, Schumer confronts postfeminism using a different strategy rooted in the imaginary resolutions of genre film.
TRAINWRECK: (YOU CAN'T) LOOK AWAY FROM IT
Given that Trainwreck is not only Schumer's first foray into feature film but also a collaboration with the director Judd Apatow, legitimate questions arise as to how she might sustain the feminist politics of her stand-up comedy and television show. It would be commercially challenging (albeit artistically interesting) to create a feature film around the abjected postfeminist Amy character from the sketches, due to mainstream narrative film's imperative for viewer identification with a protagonist's arc of personal growth. Schumer opts instead for an approach closer to Fey's in 30 Rock: writing and performing a flawed but likable comic protagonist whose personal and professional struggles speak to the “contradictions of feminism and postfeminism.” But where Fey's perspectives on these issues could unfold over seven network television seasons, Schumer is constrained by the narrative economy of feature film and the genre conventions of romantic comedy. Moreover, her collaborator's work has in many respects participated in the logics of postfeminist culture that Inside Amy Schumer satirizes.
“Apatovian” now describes not only the director's own films but a range of contemporary film and television that blends romantic comedy with elements of “gross-out” or “animal comedy.”29 Apatow's films and those that bear his influence are associated with stories of male characters struggling to come to terms with the expectations of adulthood and heterosexual coupling. The films often depict close homosocial relationships within the ostensibly heterosexual context of romantic comedy, and thus have also given rise to the term “bromance.”30 For Andy of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin (2005), an attachment to asexual childhood prevents his transition even to the adolescent stage of sexual and social subjectivity embodied by his circle of male slacker friends. Ben, the protagonist of Knocked Up (2007), is stuck in the adolescent phase that Andy eventually skips over in his leap to adult sexuality. The crisis in Knocked Up is not how to get sex, but how to contend with its consequences in the form of an unintended pregnancy. Some critics have viewed this film cycle as largely conservative, sexist, and homophobic.31 Peter Forster, for example, argues that the bromance adopts an ironic and knowing stance toward homophobia that reinforces heterosexism while implying that it has been superseded (not unlike the postfeminist attitude toward sexism that I have discussed).32 By contrast, John Alberti argues that the bromance and Apatovian comedy in general represent a more complex and ambivalent engagement with changing codes of gender and sexuality.33
When Apatow produced Bridesmaids (2011) for his former collaborator Paul Feig, many critics suggested that by allowing its women characters the sort of raunchy verbal and bodily humor mostly exclusive to men in his previous films, Apatow was countering stereotypes that his own films had perpetuated. The film does acknowledge the distinctly gendered dimensions of economic and social inequalities. Where the men of Knocked Up and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin experience the homosocial pleasures of extended adolescence, Bridesmaids protagonist Annie's version of arrested development is rendered as an increasingly painful experience of economic precarity and social shaming in which she loses both her earning power and her female friends. But the film's neoliberal resolution compels Annie to take individual responsibility for her abjections and improve herself via entrepreneurship and heterosexual monogamy. Bridesmaids equivocates on whether it is Annie's failure to navigate postfeminist subjectivity that accounts for her abjection, or the sociocultural expectations of postfeminism itself (embodied in the film by Annie's antagonist, Helen). Trainwreck reproduces this conventional Apatovian device of a protagonist stalled outside of normative adulthood, as well an individualistic solution to this problem. But this solution does not demand that its protagonist accept postfeminism as an unavoidable social status quo (as in Bridesmaids).
Slavoj Žižek would appreciate the characterization of Amy in Trainwreck. In an opening flashback that establishes the central problem for the narrative to solve, we meet the obscene or perverse father, the underside of the prohibitive father of symbolic law. The Name of the Father as agent of symbolic law depends upon the myth of the primal father, “The illusion was that there was at least one father able to enjoy fully, to possess all women; as such, the Father of Enjoyment is nothing but a neurotic fantasy that overlooks the fact that the father has been dead from the beginning.”34 At the traumatic moment of her parents' divorce, Amy's father instills in her the injunction to enjoy, demanding that she and her sister repeat back his perverse version (or père-version) of law: “Monogamy is unrealistic!” (fig. 4). Through an extended comic metaphor in which he asks his daughters to acknowledge the loss of pleasure that would attend playing with only one doll for the rest of their lives, the father of Amy's memory shows himself to be the primal father who enjoys fully and possesses all women. Adult Amy has commitment-free sex; this is her defining character trait and problem, her way of upholding her father's injunction to enjoy. Her sex life reproduces itself as drive, in a perpetual and circular path to and from its object wherein enjoyment is derived not from the object but from the repetitive motion itself.35
Of course, Amy's belief in this version of the father is definitively shown to be a “neurotic fantasy.” This father of enjoyment has been dead from the start, and what remains for the narrative is to kill off Amy's now-aged and ill father—not in order to bring enjoyment within reach, but to show that enjoyment was always only fantasy. The death of the father permits, of course, Amy's long-delayed entry into the symbolic, manifested in professional success and commitment to a monogamous and affectionate relationship. Amy's ideal romantic partner, Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), is more than happy to commit to her; no narrative tension attends either his suitability or his attainability (as it would in a more conventional romantic comedy). It is only Amy's own anxiety that prevents their full union. As Žižek explains, “Anxiety occurs not when the object-cause of desire is lacking, but in the danger of our getting too close and thus losing the lack itself.”36
Trainwreck places this psychodrama in the service of its effort to undermine the sociocultural potency of postfeminism. A central question for film genre theory has been whether and how the ritual and ideological functions of genre films uphold and/or subvert dominant social beliefs and systems (the “status quo,” according to 1970s genre theory).37 Fredric Jameson's analysis of genre film argued that it manages social and political anxieties by tapping into utopian longings that contain, however faintly, criticism of the social order that gives rise to mass culture itself. These utopian elements often express desire for a social collectivity that resists or breaks out of the capitalist instrumentalization of human activity. But genre film consistently reifies its own limited depictions of class antagonism or economic injustice, for example by recasting such issues in individualistic rather than social-structural terms.38 Trainwreck inverts Jameson's alignment of the collective with utopia and reification with the individual: the wish-fulfilling impulse in Trainwreck is the hypothesis that postfeminist culture is just a function of the individual protagonist's psychodrama, an inheritance from the perverse father of enjoyment sustained primarily by the protagonist herself. Both Inside Amy Schumer and Trainwreck make the point that postfeminism is patriarchal; Trainwreck literalizes the argument by framing it as an individual daughter's burden, one that she herself has the power to change. The film thereby presents a limited critique: at the very least, let women stop being consenting participants in postfeminism.
Another structural binary in film genre theory can help to explain Trainwreck's individuation of the problem of postfeminism. Thomas Schatz draws a distinction between “determinate space” and “indeterminate space” genres. In the genre of determinate space (such as Western, gangster, and detective films), an individual or collective hero enters an iconographic arena and acts upon it. The action takes place in a cultural realm in which fundamental values are in a state of sustained conflict. The musical, romantic or screwball comedy, and melodrama exemplify the genre of indeterminate space. In these films, the struggle arises not for control over the environment, but for the principal characters to bring their values in line with one another and with the larger community. The comedies conventionally rely upon the couple's progression from romantic antagonism to eventual embrace, which signals their integration into the social order.39 Studies of romantic comedy have demonstrated how different historical cycles and subgenres have reflected different ideologies of gender, and varying degrees of conservatism in upholding the central formula of an initially antagonistic man and woman whose eventual coupling is linked to their social integration.40 Trainwreck fits squarely into Schatz's category of indeterminate space genres, but it places the problem of romantic antagonism and the need for a change of values entirely with the female character. The male love interest, Aaron, is already fully integrated to the social order from which Amy is alienated, and he serves as the point of entry for Amy's integration.
The plot proceeds by establishing Amy's vague dissatisfaction with her initial boyfriend (on whom she sleeps around) and her job writing sexist puff pieces for a Maxim-like men's magazine (titled—in a good joke on postfeminist culture—S'nuff). Maintaining a close relationship with her seriously ill father who now resides in a nursing home, she continues to follow his injunction to “enjoy!” by studiously avoiding attachments. Amy's cultivation of personal distance applies not only to the prospect of a long-term romantic partner but also to friends, to her job (in true postfeminist fashion, she knows the magazine's values are bad but approaches work with an ironic distance and reaps the benefits of career advancement), and even to her sister, with whom she has a decent relationship but whose chosen family life Amy finds stifling (and whose husband and stepson she disdainfully regards as insufferable nerds). Amy's sui generis ability to wreck a good thing accounts entirely for the conventional narrative tension over the when and how of the couple's inevitable union (with the implicit message that she doesn't feel she deserves it).
Finally, of course, Amy comes around to appreciating what has been waiting for her all along—not only with Aaron but in all other parts of her life. Epitomizing the genre of indeterminate space, in Trainwreck nothing really changes except for Amy herself. Trainwreck's plot essentially depicts an extended personal attitude adjustment. Earlier, I argued that Inside Amy Schumer responds to postfeminism's use of irony to preempt feminist critique by demonstrating how postfeminist culture in fact fails to take feminism “into account.” Where postfeminist culture suggests that an ironic and knowing embrace of sexism offers pleasure and empowerment, Schumer's sketches position the postfeminist subject as duped rather than savvy, ignorant of her own abjections and requiring correction in the form of feminist critique. Schumer directly incorporates this criticism of postfeminist irony to a moment of dramatic tension in Trainwreck: upset that she keeps pulling away from him, Aaron castigates Amy for her constant pose of ironic superiority. The film bears out Aaron's point that Amy's irony conceals rather than reveals: letting go of the imperative to enjoy in tandem with the loss of her father, Amy is reconciled to a world she has only half-known. A series of short scenes demonstrate how the curtain falls away—for example, her brother-in-law is truly good for her sister, his son is actually a smart and loving boy, and she realizes that she takes pleasure and comfort in their company.
The social integration conventional to the happy ending of romantic comedy thus offers Amy the prizes of career advancement and a loving relationship, without her needing to acquiesce to postfeminism's “gender settlement” that necessarily excludes feminism. Although the couple's final reconciliation is dramatized through Amy's performance for Aaron of a choreographed routine with the New York Knicks dancers, this act is framed not as the character's need to make herself a conventional object of the male gaze, but rather as an apologetic gesture demonstrating that she no longer holds herself above things that make other people happy (earlier in the film, Amy conveys to Aaron her disdain for cheerleaders and for professional sports culture in general; Aaron, a sports doctor with the Knicks, counters with liberal idealism about sports bringing people together and creating community). Of course, feminism itself makes no contribution in the film's plot to creating this happy ending. Trainwreck appropriates contemporary romantic comedy conventions to expand Inside Amy Schumer's critique of postfeminism by offering the wish fulfillment of a happy ending that is never available to the characters in the sketches. Both show and film aim to reveal the patriarchal logics of postfeminism: the show through its comic abjections and debunking of postfeminist futurity, the film by infusing the desire for a less-powerful postfeminism into the imaginary resolutions of romantic comedy.
I began this essay by pointing to Angela McRobbie's reliance on horror film imagery to describe the “monstrous ugliness” postfeminism attributes to feminism, the abject image that sends “shudders of horror down the spines of young women” to keep them away from its politics. Nowhere is Schumer's reversal of this projection more apparent than in the sketch “Cool with It,” from season 3.41 The sketch satirizes the postfeminist valuation of women who perform identification with and participation in male homosocial spaces of “raunch culture.” Repeatedly affirming that she is “cool with it!” Amy accompanies her male coworkers to a strip club for evening drinks, taking great pains to ensure that her presence does not threaten their pleasure. Following a series of darkly comic escalations that suggest the gendered violence subtending her desperate need to affirm her consensual participation in the homosocial continuum of work and leisure, Amy becomes something of a monster herself. When one of her coworkers “accidentally” murders a stripper during rough sex, Amy acts as ringleader while they dispose of the body—even whacking the stripper in the head with a shovel when she threatens to revive.
As in many sketches on Inside Amy Schumer, the cringe comedy of “Cool with It” produces the effect associated with a metaphorical “trainwreck”: it is the ugly spectacle from which you just can't look away.42 These are situational trainwrecks, hyperbolic renditions of postfeminist cultural contradictions. In the film, however, Amy herself is the titular trainwreck, and this shift makes for a less cringeworthy experience. If Schumer's work reflects back upon postfeminism the “monstrous ugliness” it attributes to feminism itself, then the postfeminism of Trainwreck is one of those monsters that is less threatening than it appears—the kind that will disappear if you choose not to believe in it. Don't feed the postfeminist beast, the film argues, just look away from it.
Trainwreck ends like a dream, and “Cool with It,” like a comic nightmare, but they contribute in different ways to a larger claim: faced with a postfeminist cultural field that seems to take feminism into account and preempts criticism with irony, satire must make room for feminist politics by deconstructing the logics of postfeminism that position it as anything other than patriarchal ideology. With the striking success she has achieved across media platforms, Schumer now seems ready to state this case even more directly. Just as “Cool with It” seems to be ending, Amy breaks the fourth wall and turns to address the camera as Amy Schumer. She delivers a brief but sharp message about the wage gap, reminding the viewer of the economic inequality and precarity that drove her character's need to act “cool with it,” and suggests that viewers consider involvement with the cause of wage equality. Schumer's cultural intervention across different but interconnected media modes and platforms reveals a feminism that is far from “crude” in its methodology, one that makes an urgent appeal to derail the “postfeminist gender settlement.”