Currently, the greatest debate surrounding stand-up comedian Amy Schumer is just how feminist she is. While some accuse her for perpetuating sexist stereotypes in her sketches, others note her criticism of male and female gender tropes. Regardless, Schumer’s comedy relies on gender to be funny, but she is often scrutinized for how she discusses gender.
While this debate may be important, it completely misses the point about Schumer’s strength as a comedian. Amy Schumer does not construct jokes that are inherently feminist. Her humor resides in a more complicated place where a sophisticated perception of societal expectation, norms and constructions are informed by blatant forms of self-deprecation and an overt exaggeration of gender tropes. So much so, in fact, that it becomes the very punch line of her jokes. In her sketch piece, “Compliments” she explores the basis of female relationships as one that feeds of another’s insecurities, to the point where some of these self-deprecating jokes the women make are very vivid. And yet without these, the entire dynamic of female friendships would crumble. So Schumer’s personas are generally people we love to hate, but we laugh because we see so much of ourselves — and so much truth — in her jokes.
For Schumer, a female comedian, gender then becomes a critical inflection point with through which social constructions are solidified. After all, she’s straight, able-bodied, attractive and white — she recognizes these privileges in her sketch, contrasted by her position as a woman in a field dominated by men. This, for her, is the point of departure from which she can express her “underdog-ness” — and we, as an audience, love laughing at tragedy. On one hand, she blatantly portrays the expectations of femininity in pop culture and entertainment, such as in “Focus Group.” In this sketch, she depicts a group of men being asked to judge her show, Inside Amy Schumer, but end up talking about whether or not they “would bang her.” It’s an interesting, overtly stated commentary on being a woman in entertainment as one judged purely on aesthetic ability rather than talent, but this idea is also not directly contested by Schumer. At the end of the sketch, she states, “A couple of them said they would bang me?” with some elation, implying that she is pleased by this news. And so, Schumer’s comedy doesn’t venture out to be a feministic commentary on women fighting The Man. Schumer recognizes how people, men and women alike, embrace these gender expectations, and so the acceptance of these norms, despite their ridiculousness, is what makes her so funny.
Her comedy doesn’t, however, stop at just the social significance of gender. She also has an astute awareness of race and sexuality, among other things. In her stand-up routine “Mostly Sex Stuff,” Schumer mentions a story about getting waxed by an Asian woman, portraying herself as vapid white girl who doesn’t concern herself with the seriousness of these women’s experiences in the “killing fields of Cambodia, or something.” We laugh, here, because we recognize the privilege Schumer has as a white girl relative to a refugee, and yet the triviality of getting waxed underpins this entire exchange. And that, ultimately, hyperbolizes the dynamic between white folks and people of color — yet is deeply ingrained in the truth. Schumer’s privilege comes from being able to only interact with people of color infrequently, so that her life is largely untouched by racism. She knows this, as a white comedian, so her “racism” parodies her own whiteness, expressing the ways in which white people often completely embrace their position of power. And Schumer totally constructs this racist persona — earlier in the same routine, she says, “I went on a date with this guy recently, and he was really hot, so I was pretending to be a good person, you know…I was saying things like ‘I love kids’ and ‘I’m not racist.’”
Schumer completely recognizes how her own white girl identity exists as a terrible trope — both in terms of confirming gender stereotypes and her white privilege. In fact, she parodies these stereotypes in her sketches “The Universe,” where a bunch of white girls claim minor incidents in their lives are destined by “the universe.” And it’s hilarious, because we know that while she’s kidding, these jokes reflect the 100%, honest-to-god truth about the white girl that she is. When we laugh at her jokes, we are laughing at this stereotype that exists in truth — but not always. Sometimes, Schumer crosses the line, and her racist tendencies can be blatant that we have to pause before considering laughter — like her jokes about Latinas at the MTV Movie Awards: “Gone Girl, how good was Gone Girl? Such a good movie. If you didn’t see it, it’s the story of what one crazed white woman, or all Latinas do, if you cheat on them. That’s a fact.”
But then I have to wonder if she is alone in this — why should Schumer be held to a higher standard of morality than her male counterparts, who are often equally racist and sexist? The answer is perhaps too simple — as a woman, Schumer already has high expectations to fulfill, and can get away with much less than male comedians. So instead of staying within those bounds, Schumer’s jokes often flaunt her own limits as a woman — even parody the folks, indifferent of gender, who maintain these limits.
Ultimately, Amy Schumer is a comedian who knows how she’s perceived by her own audience and how, by being a woman in entertainment, she’s held to a higher standard than the men. Despite the very fact that she is a woman in comedy who’s so vocal about her sex life as well as her unfeminine characteristics, she has to further prove her feminism by making obvious female-empowering jokes. And yes, sometimes she is blatantly commenting on the difficulty of being a woman, in entertainment, amongst other women, or in heterosexual relationships. But when she doesn’t empower women as much as she parodies female tropes for the sake of comedy, Schumer is held to a higher scrutiny than her male counterparts. So the conversation surrounding the extent to which Amy Schumer is a feminist undermines her role as a comedian, stating that she has a responsibility to be political merely because she is a woman in comedy. Perhaps when we hold Schumer to the same standards as her male colleagues can we really talk about feminism as a necessary component of comedy. Until then, no one should expect anything from her that isn’t expected from male comedians.