Women are funny.
Why this has ever been contested is baffling. Whether or not women can carry comedic roles or hold their own in the stand-up circuit has been proven long before writers/actors/producers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham were steering this new wave of feminist-leaning comedy. The more relevant question to ask is can women reclaim the romantic comedy? And can marketers figure out how to translate that to a broad, multi-gender audience?
One of the most prominent voices in comedy now, male or female, is undoubtedly Amy Schumer. The 34-year-old comedian’s break on the fifth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing has spun into her own show on Comedy Central, Inside Amy Schumer, which has produced some of the most laser-focused, non-preachy commentaries on sexism and womanhood to date–and now she’s translating her brand of humor to film with Trainwreck.
Directed by Judd Apatow and written by Schumer, Trainwreck follows Amy (Schumer), “a modern chick who does what she wants”–which, as it happens, is often drinking, smoking pot, and juggling a tattered Rolodex of men. Amy’s aversion to monogamy no doubt stems from her philandering dad (Colin Quinn), but when her assignment to profile sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) leads to unexpected love, Amy is forced to tread through the foreign and often murky waters of a real relationship. It’s a romantic comedy filtered through Schumer’s lens, with all the bloody tampon jokes, unapologetic sex scenes, and general hot messiness in tact. What’s been expected of romantic comedies of late is turned on its head in Trainwreck: It’s the woman who’s avoiding commitment and the man who’s yearning for stability.
“A lot of people have asked me if I intended to kind of flip the gender roles like I’m playing the guy, and that’s not been my experience at all,” Schumer said in a press conference for the film. “This is how I am and how a lot of girls are where the guy ends up being a little more sensitive and more invested.”
After a dismal slump in the early 2000s for romantic comedies, Trainwreck could be what’s needed for the genre to get back on track–this time, with women controlling the narrative.
Film professor Tamar Jeffers-McDonald defines the romantic comedy as “something where the central agent that drives the film is a quest for love that is generally successful and carried out in a humorous, light-hearted fashion.” But that definition is only the framework of a genre that can be broken down into four major periods along its evolving timeline, as outlined in her book Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre: the screwball comedies of the 1930s that featured role reversals of societal norms; the sex comedies of the 1950s that relied on the “will she or won’t she” tension of pre-marital sex; the radical romantic comedies of the 1960s that abandoned the marriage plot for a more subversive view of relationships; and the neo-traditional comedies of the ’90s to mid 2000s that were basically spruced-up meet-cutes–and it’s here where love seemed to have lost its way.
It wasn’t too long ago that interrogative headlines to the tune of “Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?” “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” and “Have Romantic Comedies Fallen on Hard Times?” dominated the genre’s narrative. Jeffers-McDonald posits that unlike its predecessors, the romantic comedies of this particular period weren’t rooted to any significant social reconstruction, like the Great Depression or the sexual revolution–they fell into a vacuous template that became easier for Hollywood to copy, paste, and market as “chick flicks.”
Worse still, as Jeffers-McDonald points out, the romantic comedy lost its sex drive. “I do love Nora Ephron’s writing but I think her directing might have been not that particularly helpful for the romantic comedy because of her aversion to showing sex in films,” she says. Not so with Trainwreck, which tackles sex with a certain relish and comes at a time when the topic of feminism is dominating public conversation. But to understand what Trainwreck could signal for films to come, it’s important to look at its unlikely romantic comedy predecessor: the bromantic comedy.
From 2005 to 2015, director/writer Judd Apatow carved out a specific genre of male-centered comedy that reshaped concepts of masculinity. The alpha male is stripped away in films like I Love You, Man, Knocked Up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, leaving behind often vulnerable leading men looking for love or re-evaluating the love they have.
“I went to see Superbad with my, at the time, high-school-age daughter and her friends and noticed how much young women were attracted to bromances–that was sort of against conventional marketing thinking,” says John Alberti, director of cinema studies at Northern Kentucky University. “That led me to thinking about what the romantic comedies were saying about changing gender roles and particularly about the obsolescence of traditional ideas of masculinity.”
By almost all measures, Apatow’s films are romantic comedies, but they’re never billed that way. Even though they fall in step with what Jeffers-McDonald refers to as a humorous quest for love, the “romantic” gets dropped, leaving only the broader genre of “comedy.” This isn’t a quibble over semantics–it highlights the harmful delineations that ghettoize female-driven comedies.
“Genres like the romantic comedy are among those that get the least respect,” says Alberti. “In some way they’ve been trivialized because they seem to be about women’s concerns. And yet, in essence, romantic comedies deal with issues of emotional intimacy, sexuality, personal relationships–these are central issues to the human experience.”
Genre categorizations aside, Apatow’s films did pull in audiences of both men and women (to the tune of $170 million in worldwide box office, according to IMDB), sending a much-needed message to Hollywood that a raunchier style of comedy does in fact appeal to women. This idea now extends to the tagline for Trainwreck posters and billboard: “We all know one.” In other words: It’s okay, dudes, this flick’s for you, too. Moreover, Apatow’s bromances were effectively a warm-up act to what’s widely regarded as the first film of the feminist comedy new wave: Bridesmaids.
Directed by Paul Feig and written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids isn’t necessarily a romantic comedy, but it did drive home the idea that women can indeed command comedic roles stuffed with some of the dirtiest jokes imaginable.
“The town just decided we were going to be the test base to see if women can carry a comedy, which is ridiculous,” says Feig who has become sort of an accidental feminist with movies like The Heat, Spy, and the forthcoming, all-female cast remake of Ghostbusters. “Producers would go, ‘Be careful you don’t get labeled as the women’s filmmaker, and it’s like what the fuck does that mean? Did they talk to Scorsese like, ‘Oh, careful there, Marty–you’re making too many good movies with guys in them’?”
The commercial and critical success of Bridesmaids has given other writers and directors like Leslye Headland the opportunity to get their projects off the ground. Headland, who wrote and directed 2012’s Bachelorette, is joining the ranks of the romantic comedy revolution with her upcoming film Sleeping With Other People starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie–or as she refers to it, “When Harry Met Sally for assholes.”
“I don’t think Bridesmaids is the same as Bonnie and Clyde–I get it. But for someone like me, it sort of is,” she says. “It’s like, Oh my god, I’m going to have a career now.”
And it’s that kind of optimism that speaks directly to the one niggling factor behind women reclaiming the romantic comedy: The film industry is still overwhelmingly driven by men. Directors like Feig have done a fantastic job of showcasing the comedic talents of women but even he’s aware of his own limitations.
“I relate to funny women more and I can tell their stories better–I’m not good at telling stories about guys for some weird reason,” he says. “But I deputize anybody around me, especially women, to go ‘No, we wouldn’t say that’ or ‘I don’t like that.’ I’m still a guy–I’m still going to come up with something I think it’s hilarious and they’ll go ‘We’d never do that’ or ‘That’s borderline insulting.’ There are moments where I still feel like a guy telling guy jokes, so it’s about that constant vetting with [women] and letting them use their own voice and letting them improv.”
Of course, no one woman can speak for all women, but voices like Schumer and Headland’s are essential in reconfiguring the romantic comedy into a non-reductive genre that shows women can be funny, sensitive, and grossly imperfect without it being such a surprise–something that’s expertly parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit starring Cecily Strong, and which Feig points to as possibly the greatest unintended political statement.
“This is Hollywood’s problem: They either portray women as terrible or as wonderful so they have no dimensionality to them,” Feig says. “But the women I know are funny and bawdy and sometimes they’re irritating and other times they’re fantastic. Why would you want anybody in your life to be anything other than fully rounded?”
If you’re familiar with Schumer’s stand-up routines, then you already have a sense of what you can expect from Trainwreck. For the uninitiated, there is one scene in the movie that fairly perfectly encapsulates the Schumer world view: Amy’s more conventional sister Kim (Brie Larson) is having a baby shower with her Stepford Wives club of friends. During a simple game of going around the circle and revealing a secret, Amy manages to decimate the party with her recounting a round of particularly zesty sex when a condom got stuck to her cervix and she had to use her finger to fish it out. The scene is a riff off her bit in her special Amy Schumer: Mostly Sex Stuff, which is a riff off her own life.
Her own life serves as the master blueprint for much of her comedic material.
“The scene where I get high and then John [Cena’s] character looks through my phone, and then instead of comforting him I ask if I can leave–that did happen in my real life,” Schumer says in a press conference.
That’s what feels relatable about Trainwreck: Schumer isn’t guessing how her character might act, she knows how she’ll act because she’s been there herself.
“Amy is definitely a person who her stand-up act is built on speaking up and calling bullshit on certain aspects of our culture,” says Barry Mendel, producer of Trainwreck. “She’s somebody who’s going to shine a light on things she thinks are unjust or silly, and I think the movie is an extension of what she’s doing on her show, and her show is an extension of what she’s done in her act–it’s a very consistent throughline.”
It’s a throughline that hits with men and women but, like a flip of Apatow’s bromantic comedies, it’s women, Mendel says, who have had the strongest response.
“We’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and there’s a way in which guys enjoy it and think it’s really funny in a way where where [guys in the audience are] kind of ashamed of [themselves],” he says. “But there’s a look that women get in their eye when they see [Schumer] do her thing, which is more of like a look you see in an Evangelical church where it’s just like, “Yes! Where have you been all my life?” There’s a level of connection women have with her that I think men don’t have.”
That connection Schumer has with women is what the romantic comedy genre needs right now. With films like Trainwreck and Headland’s Sleeping With Other People, the genre is getting a reboot that feels more current and in line with modern relationships. And it’s that personal touch that helps avoid retrofitting a plot to a romantic comedy template that could be the genre’s saving grace. Audiences don’t want a fantasy anymore–they want honesty.
“The reality is the genre does still work–people will always be fucking,” Headland says. “With Sleeping With Other People, the idea was: ‘Why do I not have love in my life,” and the answer is ‘Because you don’t love yourself.’ When I watch the movie now, I watch myself falling back in love with myself. I think most other people just see ‘romantic comedy.’ I really poured a lot of my soul and hopes and fears and dreams into my work. It’s interesting that they end up becoming comedies and they’re judged by that comedy ruler.”