Nadia Ahmed | June 4, 2018
Addressing the lives of women, particularly white, heterosexual, cisgender, American women, is the film I Feel Pretty, which came out last month. What struck me upon watching this film was that the main character’s sense of self compares so closely to the narcissistic woman described in Simone de Beauvoir’s work The Second Sex (1949). This article is concerned with drawing parallels between I Feel Pretty and The Second Sex in order to question the transcendence of the protagonist, Renee (played by Amy Schumer), who, bored and unsatisfied with her life, inculcates herself into a state of self-obsession.
At the beginning of the film, Renee tries to follow a complicated YouTube hair-do tutorial in her apartment. She is frustrated – unable to successfully replicate the hair-do with her own hair. De Beauvoir states that “women confined to the feminine sphere have magnified its importance”, thus making hairdressing, make-up application and housekeeping into “difficult arts” (815). The more difficult and unattainable hair-do and make-up applications are, the more exiled to those responsibilities women will be. De Beauvoir sees why women choose to take part in these difficult arts, as people “do not distinguish her from her appearance: she is judged, respected, or desired in relation to how she looks” (816). Renee gazes at her reflection in the mirror many times throughout the film. Her well-being is based on whether or not she likes what she sees looking back at her. The obsession with one’s appearance is troubling to de Beauvoir, who states that “it concretizes feminine narcissism” (648). De Beauvoir’s narcissistic woman perceives a new lipstick or hair-do as re-creating herself, precisely because she is alienated from her actual self . She becomes nothing more to herself than an erotic object, organized and cultivated to please and ultimately uninterested in what lies beyond her own reflection.
At multiple points within the film, Renee conveys a preference to be treated like a young girl. We see this in her childish, wide-eyed beam when being seduced by her boss’s handsome brother, who touches her pig-tailed hair and tells her that she’s cute. We are also confronted with this preference for her childhood when Renee gives an impromptu speech at a work event. She starts the speech by stating, “When we’re little girls, we have all the confidence in the world”. De Beauvoir writes that by idealizing her childhood, a woman “tries to find this dead child in her deepest self. The words ‘little girl’ move her” (759). Renee then asks the audience, “What if we never lost that little girl confidence?”, a move predicted by de Beauvoir, who foresees that the narcissistic woman “is not satisfied with marvelling from afar at this precious childhood: she tries to revive it in her” (759). The result of this revival is the perception of a once dead originality and autonomy being resurrected within her. As de Beauvoir states, “She tries to convince herself that her tastes, ideas, and feelings have kept their exceptional freshness” (760). Renee’s attempts to resurrect her originality however, are in vain, for she is isolated from her actual self. Her eye is simply too fixated on her appearance.
By the end of the film, it is implied that Renee’s narcissistic fantasy will continue. After she has supposedly learned all of her lessons, Renee still uses her boyfriend, Ethan, as a vehicle for self-discovery and self-actualization. When reconciling with Ethan, Renee tells him that the couple’s momentary break-up had “nothing to do with how [she] fe[lt] about [him], and everything to do with [her] feelings about [herself]”. Ethan validates Renee’s destructive, narcissistic actions with the ending line, “Renee, I’ve always seen you”. These words not only solidify that Renee’s relationship with her appearance (both physical and performative) is the most important relationship to Renee, but it also implies that Renee’s relationship with her appearance is the most important relationship to Ethan, leaving both of their gazes focused on Renee, or Renee viewing Renee, in this ending scene. Unable to forget herself, Renee is thus rendered unable to go “beyond herself” at the end of the film (835). As de Beauvoir states, “[M]any women are incapable of real love, precisely because they never forget themselves” (764).
We see, through the scrutiny and alienation from society, how and why Renee is both a victim of and an accomplice in her own narcissism. As illustrated through de Beauvoir’s work, this position is nothing new. Perhaps Renee’s circumstance is a vestige of a more de Beauvoirian time, but I think that the prevalence of girls with self-esteem issues and selfie-obsessed social media addictions prove that girls and women, relegated to their second-class citizenship, are still shifting their attention from the outside world to themselves. Unless narcissistic women are like Renee and work for a company that feeds into their narcissism, their abilities to thrive in anything beyond themselves can be limited. Uninterested in giving themselves to their careers, narcissistic women are generally neither as determined nor as skilled as their male peers, which ultimately works to solidify their second-rate position in society. The question then is what kind of social conditions need to be created for women like Renee to depart from a state of self-objectification and self-obsession. This question, however, produces an equally complex follow-up issue about the form of female transcendence that this would take.
Nadia Ahmed is currently obtaining her master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her focus is on intersectional feminism in fiction, academic writing, and critical theory. Previously, she worked as the Media Designer for New York Writers Workshop.
Beauvoir, Simone de, et al. The Second Sex. New edition / translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier ; with an introduction by Sheila Rowbotham.. ed., 2015.
Kohn, Abby and Marc Silverstein, directors. I Feel Pretty. STX Entertainment, 2018.
Edited by June L. Laurenson and Vivek Santayana