© Copyright 2018 Kimia Rashidisisan, Ryerson University
Most of the time we breathe in air without being conscious of it: like language, it is the very medium
in which we move. But if the air is suddenly thickened or infected we are forced to attend to our breathing
with new vigilance, and the effect of this may be a heightened experience of our bodily life.
– Terry Eagleton
Exposing the Air: An Introduction
The visual field of social life revolves around a culture that contains definitive meanings and ideologies that work on a feedback loop of demand and supply. This visual culture is the norm – it exists, is widely accepted, and it is the air we breathe. But once we begin to view the images we are presented with critically, we notice that the air must be filtered through. This is critique. Visual culture is an avenue through which ideologies thrive on as mass production and distribution of images make ideologies easily accessible and widely circulated. Movies in visual culture are important because they use the representations within them to tell a completely different story than the narratives they contain.
The trailer for the film I Feel Pretty reflects a discrepancy as it appears to send a feel-good message about female empowerment, however, it has a flawed system of representations embedded within it. The film has merely repurposed the ideology of western beauty through its premise. Amy Schumer’s character, Renee, isn’t considered beautiful (because of her non-conforming figure) until she’s concussed. Brain injury gives her the confidence that allows her to start believing she’s beautiful. Renee is a white, blonde character lacking a slim body to adhere to the standards of beauty. Her two out of three score disqualifies her from being “pretty.” Yet, it can be assumed that not every person who watches this film will possess even one of these qualities. Thus, the lack of representation of females of different colours and sizes in the film sells the ideology that only some can and will be considered beautiful. The first section of my critique will address these issues through relevant theories.
The second section of my critique will be focused on critical making and culture jamming as a form of resistance to the social reality of beauty as represented in the film. The movie poster for I Feel Pretty depicts a skinnier version of Renee, which begs the question: if her confidence is all she needs to be beautiful, then why is her body being portrayed in a way that would be considered more appealing? In creating a rupture in identification with the film and its message, I aim to thicken the air by exposing its ideologies, thus allowing the reader to see critically.
The research in this essay explores and exposes the ideologies in a small portion of visual culture which has positioned viewers to understand feminine beauty in a limited way. Further, spectatorship is brought in to analyze how visual culture shapes these ideologies in turn. The ideologies present in the film are worthy of discussion as the discourse may truly change an issue that is disguised as a “lack of confidence” which can coincidentally be cured.
Critique: Ideology, Representation, and Spectatorship
The set of representations exhibited in I Feel Pretty holds that Renee lacks the necessary confidence to live her best life in America. Renee conforms to the principal standard of hegemonic beauty: being white. What she doesn’t possess is a skinny body to complement that, which may be the source of her insecurities. This is exemplified when Renee is told that the store she is shopping in does not carry her size. In this scene, the sales representative conforms to beauty standards as she is white, blonde, and skinny. The two-shot positions the viewer to contrast the two characters with one yielding more space in the world because she could get anything in the store if she wanted to, but Renee, could not. Adorno writes, “each project of the culture industry becomes its own advertisement” (100). Thus, through this short clip, viewers are (re)sold the ideology that holds white and skinny women as the ideal form of existence. Though the movie’s premise is that Renee needs only to achieve confidence to be like the other beautiful women, it is flawed because she puts in no amount of work to love herself and realize her self-worth; her confidence is a mere corollary to a presumed concussion.
Living under the social order of capitalism, consumerism is an encouraged commodity as it directly leads to profits for corporate America. Thus, being “fat” in the modern world has a negativity hinged to it that suggests consumption to an excess (Farrell 49), and it is likely that Renee is a representation of that. With the modern advent of mass production, more human bodies began to reflect the social circumstances of processed foods and more reliable modes of transportation (Farrell 40). It was at this point that “fatness began to be seen as a cultural problem, worthy of public comment and concern” (Farrell 40). This approach to fatness preserves power within social hierarchies. Those who show physical symptoms of consumption (i.e. being “fat”) are punished through cultural expressions such as limited sizing in stores and being forced to believe one is not beautiful due to unrealistic standards denoted by popular culture. Condemning individuals for their lack of self-control shifts blame from external pressures and takes on a neoliberalist approach. This further exploits those who struggle with body image issues derived by the brain washing performed by the culture industry and perpetuated through examples of visual culture such as I Feel Pretty.
It is evident that the movie refuses to acknowledge intersections of race in the main character as she is a white woman, thereby perpetuating the western ideology of feminine beauty. This provokes me to pose the following: who does Renee represent? Is the film made solely for white America? Are non-white consumers supposed to imagine themselves in Renee’s shoes and just think they’re beautiful in order to be perceived that way? Adorno ascertains that order stemming from ideological conformity “claims to lead the perplexed, [and] deludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives” (104). Ergo, buying into the message of the movie precludes the notion that one can be fooled into feeling pretty, as the direct cut between Renee’s concussion and gained confidence depicts. Yet, this message is diluted in the fact that it simply does not represent a myriad of viewers. Thus, not everyone can feel pretty.
Relying on Bourdieu’s work, “cultural capital” alludes to enjoying the “finer” things in life routinely associated with (mostly white) people at the top of the social hierarchy, as that position allows them the leisure to do so. Renee’s “cultural capital” is reflected within the diegesis of the film. Renee’s position in the hierarchy accommodates her (expensive) life in New York City while she attends $36 Soul Cycle classes, has frequent nights out, and takes frivolous plane rides, all of which are afforded to her by whiteness. The separation between classes, through skin colour, is evident in consumption patterns. Thus, “class divisions are continuously reproduced in our own institutions. These boundaries are actively maintained in a variety of subtle ways” (Monaghan and Just 71). Accordingly, Renee’s cultural capital is at stake due to her weight, as represented through her initial lack of belief in her own beauty.
Goodheart argues, “ideology critique exposes the ways in which cultural expressions conceal class and by extension race and gender interests” (15). To examine I Feel Pretty’s lack of racial and class representation in conjunction with its attempt to send a strong message of “empowerment” is to uncover the fact that it perpetuates the insecurities of othered women. Thereby, it attempts to keep them in positions of minority and hinders their empowerment.
McIntosh regards “see[ing] people of my race widely represented” in the media on her list of the daily conditions of white privilege (“Working Paper 189”). This is in accordance with the viewing position that I Feel Pretty creates as representation is only offered to audiences of white women. hooks discusses the notion of “rupture” as a resistance to the ideology of a film (117). Curating spaces to discuss the concerns of media that promotes exclusivity in cultures otherwise deemed inclusive is the site in which rupture is regarded as responsible for dismantling forced ideologies.
This essay and the culture jam to follow are representative of “rupture.” By discussing the movie and the ideologies within it, it becomes evident that the lack of representation in the text implies that the concerns addressed in the film only apply to white women. Thus, other types of women do not deal with the same insecurities. This further provokes whether the unrepresented women should even bother with being or feeling “pretty” because they’ll never be considered “beautiful,” like the new-and-improved Renee. Saguy writes, “white women have more class and racial privilege to lose by being fat, whereas the prospects of women of color of all sizes are limited by racism” (19). I Feel Pretty supports the ideology of white as beautiful through its cast, further expressing that the worth in being pretty should only be acknowledged when it is white (and thin). Consequently, the film is inherently racist because it has embedded within it the notion that white women are the ones with cultural capital. I find the posturing of the text’s message taxing as it implies that it is a feminist piece of work, however, it fails to represent women intersectionally.
There are two other women of colour in the film’s trailer: the instructor at Soul Cycle and another woman that works for what appears to be a fashion magazine. Neither of the women have a developed character or distinct personality, thus, their existence is muted or erased, just as a non-white audience member would be. This gives way to Renee’s (and by extension, any white woman’s) endeavours in being beautiful via acknowledged confidence (and whiteness).
Additionally, the racial objectification of women can be noticed in the wet t-shirt contest scene. The mise-en-scène consists of Renee in front of eight racially ambiguous women. Renee takes precedence in who should be objectified to spectatorship. This extends to the entirety of the film (and reality) as Renee is the one who is deserving of the gaze. hooks notes that in cinema, “the woman to be looked at and desired is white” (118). The racially-inclined objectification of women in spectatorship reinforces the ideology of white as beautiful, white as normal, and white as the ideal. Renee’s representation of women does not include all women, hence failing to send a positive message.
In her essay, hooks discusses the experiences of non-white women who had to erase notions of racism from their minds to enjoy cinema (120). The same can be said for I Feel Pretty, if the message is to be enjoyed on the surface level, one must pretend the air is not infected. However, hooks notes that to fully immerse oneself in the pleasure of unrepresentative cinema one “must imagine herself transformed, turned into the white woman portrayed on the screen,” just as one of her interview subjects had done (121). The subject went on to say that engaging with these types of media “[make] coming home hard” (qtd. hooks 121). Therefore, films such as I Feel Pretty may make one feel worse post-consumption through racialization, as non-white audience members realize they’ll never get to “feel pretty” because of the skin they’re in. Consequently, films lacking representation play a role in spectatorship, whether it be of rupture or utmost distaste for one’s own skin, which may lead to internalized racism. Therefore, I Feel Pretty repurposes “female empowerment” through gained confidence to sell the same ideologies that have been sold countless times: beauty is white and beauty is skinny.
Further, the film perpetuates tolerance towards racism as obesity rates are higher “among the poor, African American women, and Mexican American men and women” (Saguy 19). Therefore, depicting “fatness” as a symptom of ugliness is to place additional obstacles in front of marginalized people. Hence, the “condemnation of people for being fat may offer a socially acceptable way of expressing racism and classism” (Saguy 19). Ergo, by making explicit that Renee is not beautiful because of the fat on her body, the film insinuates that “fat” people are unworthy of attaining higher positions within the social hierarchy, which in turn keeps marginalized people in their respective positions.
Culture Jamming as Critical Making
Critical making refers to theory at the intersection of hands-on making and critical thinking. By marrying the physical and the abstract, an additional lens is offered to theory (Hertz 2). Critical making is valuable to this research project because it allows for innovation in theory that in turn adjusts the space of theory to address the issue of idealized white beauty through consumption. Engaging in these two mediums of critique permits theory to be received on a sensory level followed by an intertextual reading which completes a full cognitive understanding of a topic. Thus, merging making and critique “promotes interrogation of foundational, often material, assumptions” (Jagoda 357). New ways to process the same theories (or updated versions of them) allows for progress to be made in anachronistic worldviews as well as pedagogy by yielding information to a current audience in a current format.
As critique and critical making aim to uncover how ideologies are reinforced by exploring how culture engages with or disrupts a given social reality, culture jamming is inherently a form of critical making because it disturbs the messages of the visual field (i.e. advertisements). Klein defines culture jamming as “the practice of parodying advertisements and their messages. Streets are public spaces, Adbusters argue, and since most residents can’t afford to counter corporate messages by purchasing their own ads, they should have the right to talk back to images they never asked to see” (288). Hence, culture jamming acts to create a rupture in identification with advertisements and their messages through the production of “subvertisements.” Culture jamming holds the premise that just because advertisements buy their way into our lives and are ever-present, does not mean that the ideologies within them should be blindly accepted (Klein 289). To exemplify culture jamming, consider the “Joe Camel” cigarette ads that paint him as a cool entity accessorized with a cigarette. Adbusters, a popular source of culture jamming, critiques these ads by creating their own versions entitled “Joe Chemo” that depict him in various scenarios such as in a hospital bed or in a casket. Creating these culture jams allows Adbusters to depict the reality of smoking by engaging with the original mascot of the popular brand of cigarettes. Thus, culture jamming works as critique to disrupt reflections of social realities and offers a new lens into consumption by offering the first step of critical thinking.
In this project, I disturb the discussed ideologies in I Feel Pretty by jamming its movie poster. Throughout the trailer Schumer’s body and “fat” are put on display to show that because she’s confident, she now has the right to flaunt her “fat” body. However, the movie poster does not display this message at all – she seems to be slimmed down via photoshop. Along with being a white, blonde female, she also appears slim in the poster. That’s three out of three. She now conforms to Western beauty standards. With the tag line “Change Everything Without Changing Anything,” the original poster promotes unachievable standards of beauty for non-white spectators as it is impossible for one to change their race. The new tag line in my culture jam reads “change everything, except what’s actually wrong.” This is more fitting with the real message of the movie and will make people question what may actually be wrong: the firm ideology of beauty. I chose to jam the movie poster with an “improved” form because I wanted to repurpose something that has been intentionally created to promote an ideology, just as the film has repurposed ideologies of beauty disguised as an empowering piece of text. Additionally, the “full package” Schumer is now noted to be “pretty” and know it, simply because she adheres to what it means to be pretty. This culture jam works as a point of entry into theoretical critique because it is a fresh way of garnering the attention of those who may see a problem with the trailer or the movie poster but do not know exactly what’s wrong with it. The visual field in my movie poster positions the viewer to scan the entire image, which can be extended to scanning the entirety of the problems in I Feel Pretty, not limited to insecurities. It is also assumed that the perspective of the viewer will be directly focused straight on Schumer’s “beauty” before anything else. Therefore, my culture jam allows for the primary consumption of an ideology, followed by an active refusal to be interpellated.
In conclusion, by culture jamming the movie poster, I have exposed the ideologies in the film that perpetually interpellate consumers into lived notions of beauty. Though the film seems to promote confidence as the key to beauty, the message is convoluted as it portrays someone who already fits most standards of Western beauty. By including theories on spectatorship in my analysis, the context of the film is sharpened as it is identified as a commodity that produces an effect on consumers. Carducci writes, “in as much as branded goods fail to represent the truth, culture jamming provides feedback, which as certain studies assert, effectively remediates the system of consumption” (125). Thus, with the new movie poster I am remediating predominant ideologies by creating a jam in its process of creation and distribution which may lead to a “heightened experience of our bodily life” in combating the air (ideology) we breathe. Further, the culture jam I have created is not a stand-alone project; just as a project of critical making requires theory to complement its critique. Thus, the visual provided is a stepping stone into critique for the public, placing importance on considering the implications of buying into the message of the film. Areas of interest that my research has not covered are LGBTQ+ critiques; this may be the next direction in analyzing the film.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research or criticism and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education. The culture jam was produced for educational purposes as an assignment for ENG 705 – Studies in Visual Culture. These images are being used under s29.21 “Non-commercial user-generated content” of the Copyright Act. Kimia Rashidisisan © 2018.
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