Trainwreck and Talking Bodies: Are Jokes About Periods the New Feminist Film Revolution?
About halfway through Amy Schumer’s breakout debut Trainwreck, her protagonist (also named Amy) explains to her sister that she’s terrified of falling for her romantic lead because, in her experience of dating, something always goes wrong. She hypothesises the following example:
“What if I, like, forget to flush the toilet? And there’s, like, a tampon in there. And not like a cute, like, ooh, it’s the last day, like a real tampon. I’m talking like a crime scene tampon, like, the Red Wedding, Game of Thrones, like a Quentin Tarantino Django, like, a real motherfucker of a tampon.”
If you’re a cis heterosexual male in the Entourage mould (or even if you’re not) this joke might have passed you by (or grossed you out). For 66% of Trainwreck’s opening weekend audience, it might have been a revelation. The workings of women’s bodies, both cis and trans, are hush-hush, swept under the cultural carpet unless it’s a fat joke or the souped-up body horror of Teeth. The default settings for heroines in Hollywood used to be things like Action Girl or Manic Pixie Dream Girl; Action Girl could smash her way through a hundred men and never break a sweat, never put a hair out of place, whilst Manic Pixie Dream Girl sweated stars and farted rainbows. Neither type of woman had any obvious bodily functions; only the myth of the male gaze, that their bodies never did anything unpleasant at all. Comedies (and films in general) don’t talk about periods or female body hair or having fat rolls unless it’s to insult us. What we get is that scene in Superbad.
Perhaps it’s an indication of the funny female revolution that Superbad‘s “Someone perioded on my fucking leg?” in 2007 has turned into Trainwreck‘s Red Wedding tampon in 2015, and all with the same producer at the helm, Judd Apatow. It’s a 180 on the butt of the joke: from woman as nameless, bloody monster to poking fun at how men can’t handle what we deal with all the time. In revenge for centuries of shaming, women filmmakers are examining their bodies in macrocosm, turning everything up to eleven. Just think; huge swathes of Pitch Perfect 2‘s plot centre on the public display of a vagina, where national affront is ramped up to purposefully absurd levels. Pitch Perfect‘s projectile vomiting and Bridesmaids‘ food poisoning scene don’t just put these ‘unfeminine’ functions on display; they shove them right in your face. Pandora’s box is open, and it’s full of bodily-fluid jokes.
This is recognisable humour for women, who rarely get to see their full physical selves on screen. For women, who have their bodies policed before they even start puberty, the personal is always the political; so is this new claim to physical comedy Hollywood feminism in action?
It’s not now, nor ever will be, a simple answer. Starring, written, directed, produced by: however women are making films, there’s no automatic pass to ‘feminist comedy classic’, mostly because it’s too fluid and subjective a thing to measure; much like what’s funny, what’s feminist to you might not feel feminist to this writer or vice versa. Trainwreck forefronts white, heterosexual and affluent feminism and includes questionable jokes about subjects such as race which leave much to be desired and are too often overlooked.
There’s an overwhelming whiteness, cisness and heterosexuality to women’s big blockbuster comedies in general, with the same people popping up again and again (we’re looking at you, Kristen Wiig, even if we still love you). There are still many faces missing from Hollywood’s ever-expanding women-are-funny slate; emerging talents like Issa Rae, whose web series Awkward Black Girl won her an HBO pilot commission, are still waiting on Hollywood’s promises. Trans actors are beginning to make headway on television (with much focus on Laverne Cox and OitNB), yet Hollywood is still completely and counterintuitively passing over them for trans roles, comic or tragic. On top of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Tiny Furniture, Whip It, Girl Most Likely, The Duff and In a World… , we are still waiting for more films like Dear White People and the LGBTQ* comedies that haven’t even been produced yet; the feminist Hollywood revolution doesn’t climax just because an affluent white girl can talk about a tampon.
But it’s a start. You can still love what’s problematic, and quite apart from whether it’s feminist you can hate a comedy because it doesn’t make you laugh. The importance of films like Trainwreck, Whip It and Dear White People, forefronting women’s lives and varied experiences in a way that can give them just that, isn’t in the passing-down of feminist values or teachings from on high; it’s in having the opportunity to laugh at these films, these women, these jokes in the first place. It’s being able to shrug at the latest female-led comedy and walk away, because you know there’ll be another one around the corner.
Around that corner you’ll find Obvious Child, the debut feature from writer-director Gillian Robespierre that makes bodily-fluid jokes of its own. The opening sequence sees protagonist Donna doing her standup routine in a tiny New York bar; and just like Trainwreck, it wastes no time getting to the nitty-gritty:
“I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants. And by the way, what all vaginas do to all underpants, okay, there is no woman who ends her day with like, a clean pair of underpants that look like they’ve never even come from the store, okay?”
Donna goes on to describe her end-of-the-day pants in detail, and signs off with the film’s most important opening line: “But now I’m just, like, whatever, you know – I have a human vagina.” It’s a tacit acknowledgement of how hard it is to walk the walk of feminist talk when, later in the film, Donna removes her end-of-the-day pants from her lover’s sight before he can catch sight of them.
Blood and vomit. Pants and tampons. For all that the two films are at the opposite ends of the scale – one an indie flick, the other an opening-weekend monster – Obvious Child and Trainwreck are coming from the same place, to help us feel the same things, and they bring the promise of so much more. The mythical universe called “women’s lived experience” is finally coming to the screen, whether you find your laughter in Donna’s underpants or in Amy’s; but that’s the beauty of the feminist film revolution, with its bloody, vomiting, bodily-functioning agenda. These comedies aren’t feminist because they teach us; they’re feminist because they talk to us, in ways we never thought possible.