When fall movie previews come out, they tell us this: fun’s over. Forget superheroes. Get serious. Bestselling literary adaptations. Intimate dramas. Political thrillers. Oscar-bait biopics. That’s serious fall film fare.
Yet two mainstream comedies this summer got pretty serious about sexism. Spy‘s smack down will leave me giggling during the next Bond film. And unlike most contemporary romantic comedies, Trainwreck was anything but.
In Spy, mousy agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) sits stuck in the CIA’s basement. She studies surveillance footage to keep debonair Bond stand-in Bradley Fine (Jude Law) safe in the field.
Because of Susan, Fine knows where to go, who to beat up, and so gets the glory. She only gets to commiserate with best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart). The woman behind the man is not mythical here. She’s real and invisible.
This lack of visibility, however, becomes her advantage. When femme fatale Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) kills Fine, Rayna reveals that she knows all the CIA’s other active agents and their covers. Now, only a nobody like Susan can save the day.
Some of the funniest and oddly touching scenes in the film ensue between Susan and Rayna. Their connection opposes the antics of frustrated uber-macho agent, Rick Ford (action film star Jason Statham, playing it straight). He does the most damage because he’s hell-bent on doing Susan’s job. Susan also fights off the sexual advances of womanizing fellow agent Sergio (Bobby Cannavale). Unlike in Jurassic World, say, these two men need managing, not the female lead.
It’s poignant that Susan, despite her skills, is only considered for the job when there’s no one else available. Sure, she has her own doubts, but Spy criticizes the forces that keep Susan stuck in a bat-addled basement — a truly literal antipode to the “glass ceiling.” She can’t just lean in to shine. That she does shine is the film’s triumph as much as her own.
At first, Trainwreck looks pretty different. A romantic comedy’s endgame is achieving marriage, not thwarting terrorism.
Our hero Amy (Amy Schumer), however, rejects marriage. The film opens with her curmudgeonly dad (Colin Quinn) admonishing nine year-old Amy and little sister Kim (later played by Brie Larson) that monogamy isn’t realistic.
Flash-forward 23 years. Amy took that advice to heart, judging from her many lovers. Enter geeky prince charming, sports doctor to the stars Aaron (an affable Bill Hader). Will they make it? Should they?
Amy Schumer’s feminist humour is central to her comedic appeal. Check out her Bill Cosby skit for proof. Trainwreck avoids genre pitfalls largely because Schumer wrote and performs it. She’s not always likeable, and lashes out in confusion. She’s completely confounded by nice-guy Aaron, given most men in her world. Yet she deftly counters the bland assumption that all women really want is to ditch their careers for traditional marriage.
Amy struggles because she wants something she defines for herself. She doesn’t want to just emulate her more conventional sister, inherit her dad’s cynicism, or spoon her boyfriend. Even at the end, when she pretends to be a Knicks cheerleader to win Aaron back, both the film and Amy, through Schumer’s performance, make sure we see that she doesn’t blend in. She never fully embodies the fantasy, and so the film reminds us it is that – a fantasy.
Like Spy, Trainwreck also shows us a woman trying to make it in a sexist workplace. Here, it’s the glittering, raunchier-than-thou world of men’s magazines. S’Nuff magazine’s boss-editor Dianna (a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) makes The Devil Wears Prada’s Meryl Streep look like a fluffy kitten.
The film slams sexism in the magazine — upheld by women and men — as emblematic of a larger culture dynamic that keeps us all trapped in gendered caricatures. Amy can only advance if she maintains the caricature, which gets harder to do. No matter the superior outfits and outlandish events, Amy herself is almost more invisible than Susan down in the basement.
In both films, however, Susan and Amy are plucky. They build a way out of their traps. It is Hollywood, after all, and genre films like happy endings. That’s part of their appeal — that it may be possible, like Amy and Susan, to self-define.
Mad Max got a lot of press as the summer’s most feminist film. Yet Spy and Trainwreck use comedy to reveal the many roadblocks thrown in front of women, especially at work. Winsome, smart and funny, these two comedians challenge the limits they labour under and against. In so doing, both films reveal sexism in action, structuring our world and thoughts. So they were summer films that were fun and serious, too.