THE BLOG
09/30/2015 02:20 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Why Films Like 'Trainwreck' Are Essential to Feminist Activism

Alessio Botticelli via Getty Images

Sometimes I feel wise. Sometimes I never get past wondering how this world could possibly be this way, how I could feel every bit as smart as a man and still be treated as less than.

For a long time I put my faith in the Bechdel test -- surely films with intelligent, strong female characters with passions and problems unrelated to romance would increase men's collective empathy quotient toward women. This is a long-term goal, but in the short term it is important that we find films which inspire women to change the world themselves.

The Hunting Ground, a documentary about the women who used Title IX to force universities to address sexual assault on campus, is an obvious example of a film meant to provoke activism. It identifies the root of the problem: that a woman's testimony is treated with suspicion, and so universities to ignore an epidemic of crimes against their female student body.

As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her essay "Men Explain Things to Me," women across the globe are being told "they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives."

As I watched a dozen women share similar experiences of being dismissed and silenced, the primary emotion I felt viewing The Hunting Ground was sorrow -- and this sorrow did not empower me. It crippled me. For months.

But it was not long afterward that Mad Max: Fury Road picked me up again. I was emboldened by rage. What sets Furiosa apart from other action heroines was her male counterparts' faith in her abilities. Max never reminded Furiosa that she was "just a woman" or asked, "Have you ever been mistaken for a man?" She was allowed to be a woman, strong and believed, all at the same time.

If Furiosa had the brass to outrun a warlord in a high-speed desert chase, then I could unapologetically tell my rapist to FUCK OFF when he tried to "friend me" on Facebook. Harnessing that rage is the first step on an activist's path, but continuing the journey requires something else.

Joy.

I did not think it was possible to make a film which allowed me to experience joy in relation to the distress I regularly feel as a survivor. It's like playing a game of whack-a-mole. You think you've hammered your trauma into submission, and when it reappears you try a new strategy. I tried pretending it didn't happen. I tried pursuing justice (too late, without witnesses). I tried accepting it as part of a worldwide phenomenon. I tried forgiving myself and telling myself there's nothing to forgive.

I find myself on second dates playing a game with myself, trying to see if I can get out of a sexual encounter without exercising the nuclear option and launching my survivorship in self-defense. (Yes, you are allowed to laugh.)

I took being assaulted as a key turning point in my story, when I found out that I was not the kind of woman I thought I was. And then I saw Trainwreck, and for the first time, I laughed at my trauma.

Amy Schumer may not have set out to write a comedy for sexual assault survivors, but I think she's succeeded at the impossible. Like Furiosa in Mad Max, Amy's character is a force, and her reliability as a witness to her own life is never questioned. A booze-swilling serial-dater terrified of emotional intimacy, Amy may not be carrying the same wounds I do, but hers result in behavior similar to mine -- and Trainwreck invited me to laugh at it.

Seeing the right films at the right time can turn a moviegoer into an activist -- but you need perspective on the issue, you need to feel empowered by rage and allowed to feel joy. You need The Hunting Ground, Mad Max and Trainwreck.

Films are most effective at fostering an activism of daily life. I recently engaged in the kindergarten version of bystander training with my five-year-old son, whom I've told should not be afraid to say "Hey, that's not cool," when his friends are being unkind or disrespectful to someone else. Activism can be as simple as that. I had the knowledge and the rage, but without the joy that took my damaged ego out of my activism, I would not be able to fully believe that world change could start with me, without it being all about me and my story.

My gratitude demands I conclude this essay with my first fan-letter in 10 years.

Dear Amy,

Before I saw Trainwreck, I had been wondering if someone would ever have the courage to write a sexual-assault comedy, the way Dear White People cleverly critiqued university race politics. I couldn't imagine what this would look like, or how it could possibly create humor without offending those it was designed to help, but we needed it. Badly.

But you have already succeeded at this, first with your "Football Town Nights" sketch, and now with Trainwreck. Though your film may not be about a survivor, I identify with your character's determination to protect herself from further harm. After being sexually assaulted, my entire sense of self was shaken. Physical intimacy alternately numbs and terrifies me, resulting in a random pattern of reckless promiscuity and literally running away from dates who seem too coercive. I was ashamed of still being a "trainwreck." Even after nine years of therapy, I was still useless to myself and to the cause.

But you have given me permission to laugh and experience joy while recovering from this trauma, and I am filled with a new confidence that this world can change for the better. Despite my many shortcomings and missteps, I have rediscovered the courage I thought I'd lost, and I intend to put it to good use.

Thank you for your incredible film. I look forward to many more.

Sincerely,
Johanna

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.