Amy Schumer and the Promise of the Ladyjerk

The most progressive thing about Trainwreck isn’t the sex stuff. It’s the fact that its central character is lovable and awful at the same time.

Universal Pictures

“Jerk,” as an epithet, is generally understood to describe guys. As are—apologies for the language, but it’s part of the point—“asshole” and “douchebag” and “dick” and “prick.” While these insults may often owe their etymologies to the features of the male undercarriage, their histories are, at this point, almost irrelevant: Their value, as we use them today, is their elegant ability to consider the deeper, bigger question of human goodness. Is he nice, or not? A decent guy, or no?

Their value, as well, is that their subtle variations suggest the nuances that lurk within the storied spectrum of human not-niceness. There’s aggressive entitlement (“asshole”), sure, but also more comical entitlement (“assclown”) and also blithe privilege (“douchebag”) and mean smugness (“prick”) and general self-absorption (“dick”). There’s failure both personal and social. As Aaron James, a philosophy professor and the author of Assholes: A Theory, summed it up: “The asshole is the guy who systematically helps himself to special advantages in cooperative life, out [of] an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

It’s notable that women, save for an occasional, ironically feminized “dick,” don’t enjoy such epithetic taxonomies. While there are plenty of highly specific adjectives that will assist you in insulting a female human, should you choose, whether the source of your consternation be her sexual behavior (“slutty,” “frigid,” etc.), her performance of commercialized femininity (“basic”), or her general sanity (“crazy”), there is pretty much only one word that contemporary English speakers have settled on to be-noun a lady who is, all things considered, not-nice: “bitch.”

I mention the Blanket “Bitch” because of Amy Schumer and the feature film she has written and starred in: Trainwreck. The Amy of the movie is, like the Amy of standup and sketch, confident and insecure and knowing and confused and hilarious and sweet and vulgar and singular and symbolic and sorry and not sorry. But she is also, maybe even more meaningfully, kind of a jerk. And not in a general way, but in very specific kinds of ways. She sneaks out on guys post-sex and pre-sleep, mostly to avoid cuddling. She cheats on the boyfriend (John Cena) who was planning to propose to her. She makes fun of Allister, her sister’s sweet, sensitive stepson, to his face. When her new love interest Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports doctor, asks her whether she likes sports (she does not), her impulse is to lie about it. When he asks her whether she has any black friends (no again, apparently), she indulges the same impulse.

The Amy of the movie is played, of course, by the Amy Schumer of real life, which means that movie-Amy is extremely funny in both her foulness and her flaws. But she is not, by any stretch, nice. As a person rather than a simple sketch, movie-Amy is selfish, and she is scared. She alienates the people who love her, predictably and unapologetically. She does that thing that so many jerks will do, impulsively: She trusts that her charm will get her by.

This is all, in its way, productive, and only in part because a rom-com plot will almost always require that its protagonist be part of some kind of ritualized conversion experience. Amy, in clichéd rom-comian tautology, has to be a jerk so she can stop being a jerk. But in a movie that has been rightly touted for the progressivism of its sexual politics—here are the tired tropes of the rom-com and the bromance, inverted by way of a commitment-phobic girl and a needy, patient guy—the most progressive thing about Trainwreck might well be not just, as Amy’s standup puts it, the sex stuff. It might also be the other stuff: Amy’s aggressive, and character-defining, assholery.  The movie is, by way of its star and its plot, giving a woman permission to do something that many a movie-dude has done before, by default: be a jerk, and be loved anyway.

Which brings us back to the Blanket “Bitch,” whose existence stems in part from an assumption made in both rom-coms and the culture at large: that niceness, for women, is a kind of default state—one so deeply assumed, and so thoroughly diffused into expectations of femininity, that the only thing remarkable about it would be its violation. Women range when it comes to intelligence and attractiveness and funniness and every other quality that makes a human a human. When it comes to niceness, however, we have—in language, and in life—assumed a kind of ontological grandeur: Either she is nice, or she is not. Either she is a bitch, or she is not.

Not so movie-Amy, who varies, widely, in her jerkiness. Who is an occasionally unpalatable but always interesting combination of blind entitlement and aggressive self-absorption, of casual insults and significant moral lapses. Of assholery and dickishness and bitchiness.

That is, as Schumer herself might say, kind of a big deal. The prevailing ethic of the rom-com has insisted that its stars must be, above all, likable. That they must be, on top of being sassy or scared or ambitious or love-lorn or whatever else, nice—and that the niceness is, ultimately, what makes them deserving of love. It’s literature’s much-derided cult of likability, transferred to the screen.

And here, through Trainwreck, is a lady who is proudly adopting the epithetic territory of jerky masculinity—and claiming it as her own. Here is Amy, unapologetic ladyjerk. Her story—the wounds she inflicts on other people as she makes her way, fitfully, through the world—may not be particularly endearing. She herself might not be particularly likable. But that is not the point. And the not-the-point-ness itself is, in turn, a very good thing. It puts the Schumer of the big screen in league with the Mindy of The Mindy Project and the Liz of 30 Rock and the Annie of Bridesmaids. It claims that niceness is, like any other quality in the complex tangle of things that make a woman and a person, a contingency. It insists that assholery is, for better or for worse, an equal-opportunity affair.