Women’s self-belief and beauty films: positives and negatives of ‘I Feel Pretty’ (2018) and ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ (2019)

This week, I give my thoughts on:

  • How great it is to have films about women finding the confidence to succeed
  • How addicted I am to these films
  • Why ‘loving yourself no matter what you look like’ is not the straight-forward message that it’s often presented as

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I love these films.

I am a total sucker for romance and comedy and films about empowered women, so these basically tick all my boxes.

What I want to do here is draw attention to a worrying trend.

This article contains spoilers for these films, so don’t read on until you’ve seen them (if, indeed, you plan on watching them).

What I mean by women’s self-belief and beauty films

There is a very particular type of film I am talking about here.  Later on, I will talk about other similar films and how they fall into different genres, but for the moment I want to talk about these.

They are often referred to as self-confidence films but I want to narrow that category down to something specific.

Firstly, I mean films aimed at women.  That immediately categorises them as Romance or RomCom.

Secondly, I mean films about women where the female protagonist gets more than 50% of the screen time.

Thirdly, I mean films in which the protagonist learns to believe in herself and love the way she looks, and thereby achieves everything she wanted to.  Particularly, those stories in which confidence was the key to her success all along.

There are definitely men’s self-belief films, too.  Yes Man (2008) starring Jim Carrey springs to mind but what was holding him back was not related to his looks.  Roxanne (1987) starring Steve Martin fulfils the brief but that is even older.  There is a trend of women’s self-belief and beauty films at the moment and I want to explore what that means.

If these are films that are meant for women, starring women, then I think it’s important to dig into exactly what we are going to get from them.  We are supposed to get an hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending and a woman who learns that she can do anything she wants to if she has the confidence and determination to do it.  What we actually get is that hour and a half of entertainment, a happy ending (and this has changed from the getting-her-man of yesteryear to being successful in her career and getting her man), and an over-simplified take on the complexities of self-esteem, confidence, standards of beauty, gender roles and women in business.

The stories

Essentially, these stories are about a woman who is living a life of drudgery and cripplingly low self-esteem, feeling ugly and under-appreciated.  What happens in the film is that she goes through a major transformation and lives a ‘fairytale’ life in which she’s the woman who has it all.  Then, when she is bumped back to reality, she realises that she had the power all along to make her life a fairytale.  She takes all her newly-found confidence and applies it to real life, and ends up living her dream.

It’s a happy ending.  It’s a lovely thought.  I adore films that show women becoming confident and successful and living their best life.

These two films are the best example of this.

I Feel Pretty (2018) starring Amy Schumer

I was not at all convinced I would like this film, mostly because the trailer made it look like the joke of the film was that a chubby girl had the audacity to think she was pretty and we all get to laugh at her for it.  Happily, that was not the case.

The story is about a woman (Amy Schumer) who loves fashion and beauty but doesn’t feel confident enough to pursue her dream of working in that industry.  She ends up working in some kind of administrative role, in a tiny office away from the main building where all the models and executives work.  She feels ugly and has extremely low self-esteem.

Then she gets hit on the head.  It’s a classic movie transformation.  She wakes up believing that she is the most beautiful woman in the world and struts through life completely confident.  You can see why I was wary of it to begin with but, actually, I thought it was well done.  It is obviously over-the-top and a lot of the laughs come from the disproportional confidence that she shows compared to what the world thinks she should show.

She gets the job of her dreams, the man of her dreams and all the confidence she could wish for.  However, she changes with this new confidence and drops her loyal friends, stops being so fastidious in work and gets caught up in her own importance.

What this film does well is it shows how obsessed the main character was with beauty, and her friends call her on that obsession, saying there are more important things for her to focus on and she shouldn’t have let that one area dominate her whole self-perception.

Isn’t It Romantic (2019) starring Rebel Wilson

One of the reasons I enjoyed this film so much is that it was a chance for Rebel Wilson to really act!  And she can, despite the caricatures she usually plays.

In this film, the protagonist is under-appreciated at work and doesn’t think the man she has a secret crush on is interested in her.  She hates all things romantic, particularly Romance films, because she believes they perpetuate an unrealistic ideal.

Then – that old chestnut – she is hit on the head and wakes in an idealised version of her own world.  Her apartment is better, her clothes are better, even her pet is better.  And she finds herself that coveted being: the protagonist in a RomCom.

As such, she stumbles upon a  ‘perfect’ man who is handsome and rich and charming, she is wooed, she is appreciated at work, and she is basically living the fairytale life.  Of course, the film likes to be a bit meta and, whilst all of this is happening, she has the sense that it isn’t right, that it’s too ideal.  And she’s right.  After trying to get back to her own reality by following the script of a RomCom (in the hopes of completing it and waking up at the end), she realises that she didn’t need to fall in love with a man to achieve her happily-ever-after, she needed to fall in love with herself.

With that knowledge, she wakes up again – this time in her own reality – and applies all that self-love to her real job and real relationships.  It is a charming film.

The problem

Both of these films are enjoyable and I applaud what they are doing: creating narratives in which women take responsibility for their own lives and build their confidence until they believe that they are worthy of the love and success they desire.

However, there is a cruel irony.

I believe it’s clear that both these films are designed to show that women who are insecure are holding themselves back by those very insecurities, when they don’t need to feel that way.  The irony is that, for a story which is supposed to empower women to feel confident just the way they are, by blaming the women’s lack of confidence for their less-than-perfect lives, they reinforce the idea that women are keeping themselves down and it’s our fault that we aren’t happier and more successful.

Both of these films also centre on the woman’s ideas of her own beauty.  They show a protagonist who doesn’t conform to the modern standard of beauty and it is that particularly which makes her feel so unloved and unworthy.  By giving the message that all these women needed to do in order to be successful was to believe in themselves and view themselves as beautiful, such films at once overlook the huge social pressure to look a certain way (and the very real repercussions if you don’t) and lay the blame of that lack of confidence firmly with the woman in question.  I am worried that the overall message women are going to take away from such films is that, if the woman had only believed in herself, she wouldn’t have been unhappy in the first place.  Shame on her.

Other similar, recent films

I want to point out some similar films in order to clarify just what type of film exactly I am talking about.  These films have a lot of cross-over with the women’s self-belief films but fall into a slightly different category.

On the surface, they might appear to be similar to the films I am talking about, where a woman needs to find her confidence to live her best life, but they are actually a different genre.

I have also included modern films rather than anything more than a couple of years old, otherwise The Princess Diaries would definitely be in there (mostly because I love it).

Tall Girl (2019) starring Ava Michelle and Dumplin’ (2018) starring Danielle Macdonald

I love both of these films.

They are coming-of-age stories.

With coming-of-age narratives, the protagonist is an incomplete person because they don’t quite know who they are and they must learn that over the course of the story.  Any changes that these protagonists go through is part of them finding their place in the world, working out who they are and having the confidence to live the way they choose.

Even though lack of confidence might be a factor in their story, it is not the main drive and so they can’t be classed as women’s self-belief films.

They’re worth watching, though.

Life of the Party (2018) starring Melissa McCarthy and Book Club (2018) starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen

These are more easily classed as women’s self-belief films but I hesitate to put them in the same category because, in these, it’s not only confidence that the women lack, it’s something else they need to find.

In Life of the Party, the protagonist is a middle-aged woman who didn’t complete her college degree because she married and got pregnant, so she gave it up to raise her child.  When her husband leaves her, she decides to go back to college and get her degree.  The main drive of the story is a woman going after what she wants.

I don’t class it as a woman’s self-belief film because it wasn’t lack of confidence that was holding her back (or not only that), it was life events and apathy.  However, there are huge cross-overs and it’s a surprisingly entertaining film with a good heart.

Book Club is different again.  It follows four women in a book club as they read Fifty Shades of Grey and begin to explore their sexuality and sex-drive, as well as re-defining their relationships and pursuing romantic fulfilment.

What makes this different is that the women aren’t necessarily held back by a lack of confidence, it’s perhaps an assumption that older women can’t do certain things and should behave in a certain way, and we get to watch these four women break those expectations.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story again.  It’s about people finding their place in the world, exploring who they are and what makes them happy, and deciding what they want to do going forward.

Both of these films have similar themes to self-belief films but their lack of confidence isn’t specifically related to their looks.

Conclusion

Women’s self-belief films are great.  The fact that our media is finally representing women and encouraging them to pursue their goals is positive.

Also, I like these films.  They are feel-good and I am here for them.

Women’s self-confidence and beauty films are more problematic.  When the thing holding the woman back is specifically her confidence in the way she looks, there are a huge number of social, cultural and personal factors at work.  Blithely skipping over these to claim that ‘just having confidence in the way she looks is enough to get her what she wants’ is verging on insulting.

Let me know any recommendations for self-belief (and beauty) films

I would love to watch more of these, so let me know any that you can think of.  I am particularly interested in modern ones as they reflect what our society is doing at the moment and what we are striving for.

Let me know what you think!  Do you think these films do more good than harm?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1

See you next week

I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post.

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