Amy Schumer Has an Amy Schumer Problem
The backlash to I Feel Pretty hit the film before audiences even saw it, but most of the fears audiences had about the story were confirmed by the final product. As detailed in Kristy’s review and the wonderful piece by Roxana, this laughable attempt at female empowerment through body-shaming, lazy cruelty and predictable misogyny simply reinforces old comedic stereotypes and ideas about women’s self-image. Audiences seem to have received it with a warmer approach if early box office numbers are anything to go by. Yet its central problem seems unavoidable. It’s also an issue that its star, Amy Schumer, will have to confront sooner or later.
There are several Amy Schumers in the world, existing simultaneously in the same form: There’s Amy Schumer the person, political activist and apparently lovely person with a good private life and circle of friends; there’s Amy Schumer the bawdy comedienne, the heiress to Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr thanks to her act that combined crude sexuality with the scathing realities of modern womanhood; there’s the eponymous headliner of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, a critical darling of a sketch show which offered hilarious yet surprisingly nuanced takes on feminist issues, from campus rape to internalized misogyny and body image issues; and then there’s Amy Schumer the movie-star, one of the few leading women in Hollywood comedies who tries eagerly to mash all of her selves together into something that will sell to the masses. The reality of being a human is that we contain multitudes and society frequently works overtime to simplify you into a borderline caricature. What is striking about Schumer is how she seems to have come full circle on that front: From easy to categorize funny lady to layered speaker from the soapbox, all the way back to that one-note persona.
As described by Schumer herself, the stand-up’s early act was best described as ‘dumb white girl’. It’s the kind of image that fits in well with the macho comedy club culture, which Schumer toured for a couple of years before making it on NBC’s Last Comic Standing: It’s ‘relatable’ enough while still fitting in with the ‘one of the lads’ styling. A lot of those pre-fame gags are directed at herself, mostly at the idea of her uncontrollable sexual drive. Self-deprecation seems to be a key part of women’s stand-up: Laugh at yourself and the world laughs with you. Joan Rivers was always mocking her appearance and weight, long before she turned that ire onto the world in the most callous ways. With Schumer, the drive to push the persona of an irreverent white chick with no understanding of the world meant she relied heavily on racist quips.
One of the most infamous of these was the line, ‘I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.’ The supposed punchline is clear to all because it’s reliant on a racist assumption that’s helped to ruin lives. People (read: white people) laugh because they know to instantly make that connection in their head. There is a way to play the part of an ignorant white woman whose empathy and understanding never extends past herself, but the jury’s out on whether Schumer pulled it off. She later apologized for that joke and said, now knowing more eyes are on her and that carries a greater weight of responsibility, that she will learn from her past.
Inside Amy Schumer presented a real turning point. As with all sketch comedies, not everything works - there are plenty of duff moments in there that are still heavily reliant on the stylings of Schumer the stand-up and all that entails - but when it worked, it practically sang. The spot-on combination of pop culture pastiche, feminist criticism and crude one-liners gave Schumer not just a brighter spotlight but a platform for her to demonstrate the sheer work of comedy. The potty-mouthed self-deprecation is still there, but now she has better targets and the tools to land the shot. Think of pitch-perfect sketches like Football Town Nights, which offers perhaps the most minutely detailed parody of Friday Night Lights while tearing into the systemic misogyny and rape culture that dominates the world of sports. Last Fuckable Day is almost too accurate with its imagining of the manifestation of Hollywood’s double standards as a literal party. The sheer ambition of her Twelve Angry Men parody, wherein the jury have to decide if she’s hot enough for TV, is a new comedy height.
My favourite sketch from the show is one called one called I’m So Bad. In it, a quartet of friends eat lunch and try to outdo one another on how egregious their meal choices are. The scene escalates into dizzying levels of self-hatred, but underneath the brutality of it is a simple truth that every woman I know is familiar with: We’re forced to hate ourselves for something as necessary as eating. We have to guilt ourselves to ridiculous lengths because we’ve been taught to believe there’s nothing worse than being fat. Our other sins can be denied or excused, but wanting to eat some ice-cream is too far. As noted by Alison Herman on The Ringer, these sketches are the kind of things that mock the lies I Feel Pretty is selling.
Schumer didn’t write her show all by herself. She is responsible for some of its finest moments, but like all comedies on that scale, it was a team effort. Many of those faces in the writers’ room went on to work on acclaimed shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and One Mississippi (and then there’s Kurt Metzger, who mostly got infamous for being awful to people and defending an accused sexual abuser). It feels unfair to diminish Schumer’s own work and claim all the really good stuff on Inside Amy Schumer was someone else’s doing - the achievements of women are consistently denied in pop culture or allotted to men - but it’s also easy to see why audiences are so willing to believe that. There’s seems to be such a disconnect between that Schumer and the other Schumers.
Schumer’s first big movie, Trainwreck, amplified those proclamations of a fresh new comedic voice. With Judd Apatow acting as director an unofficial comedy godfather, Schumer could hone her stage persona for narrative means. Reviews were strong and audiences liked it, although critical appreciation of it has cooled in the interim period. There’s a lot that Trainwreck does very well, and big chunks of it where Apatow is too afraid to be merciless in the editing room and lets scenes wander into nothing. Schumer seems more interested in digging into that persona she’s relied on for so long. Her character is even called ‘Amy’, just in case you didn’t get the message the first time around. She interrogates the coldness and sad notes of the self-hating party girl, one who has swallowed the sexism that taunts her around every corner and can never fully shake the pain. Happiness seems incompatible with her life, so even as it tears her apart to do so, she rejects it.
The first two thirds of Trainwreck make you wish for a third act that truly embraces that darkness, but it seems to chicken out. The way it does so also raised a few eyebrows. It’s another story where the modern libertine woman, free of societal constraints, abandons that life once the right guy comes along. The story never fully commits to dissecting Amy’s complexities because doing so would mean getting rid of a neat ending with a pretty bow tied up on top. Amy is judgmental of herself, and the film cannot help but reflect that judgment back at us, telling us that this life is bad and makes you bad.
Peter Knegt of IndieWire wrote about one scene in the film, which is adapted from her stand-up. Amy attends a wedding shower and finds herself isolated amongst a group of what Bridget Jones would call ‘smug marrieds’, meaning the kind of women with seemingly perfect lives who can’t help but rub it in your face. During a game of secret, wherein everyone confesses to something ‘shocking’, the guests say things like ‘Once, I forgot to let the dog out all day’, as if they’ve confessed to murder. Bored and eager to shake things up, Schumer confesses to letting a cab driver finger her. The moment is framed as crude victory for her: take that, smug marrieds! In Trainwreck, the scene is now a baby shower, and Amy confesses to having to fish a condom out of herself after it got stuck to her cervix. The crudeness is upped to near unbearable levels of discomfort, but there’s no humour to it for Amy. It’s a moment of shame she later apologizes for. Perhaps this is Schumer trying to reconcile those different sides of herself, or find a good middle ground for Hollywood consumption. It could have been a moment of Julia Davis style bleak comedy, or a real confrontation of her crumbling self-esteem. In context, it’s just a bit sad and judgmental.
It may be that Schumer cannot reconcile all these media personas for one easy to consume product. As seen by her follow-up film, Snatched (which she didn’t write), there’s only so much life in them. Audiences change and our awareness of how comedy works goes with it. We’re less amused by the supposed ‘no-holds-barred’ approach, unless it’s done very well, and we’re keenly aware of how different the rules are for women compared to men, and for white women compared to women of colour.
I hesitate to say Schumer faced ‘backlash’ because I’m not sure the criticism she’s faced was part of some oppositional wave. Inside Amy Schumer was not highly rated on Comedy Central, and the sketches that went viral did so over a slower period of time. Critics covered her, the audience slowly followed, and then the wider conversation caught up. This cycle is essentially the norm for pop culture discussions in the modern age, although it is easily amplified and distorted by social media. It was inevitable that Schumer would face those loud voices, especially after being celebrated so prominently for that feminist angle in the most high-profile work of her career.
Schumer seems aware of the weight on her shoulders. She’s been proclaimed a comedy feminist hero, then derided for her racism. Sometimes, she seems eager to lead, but enthusiasm can only take you so far when you don’t have the work in your corner. The stand-up circuit is a dick-swinging bro-zone that prides laughs above all else, damn the consequences or collateral damage, and women who navigate those treacherous waters cannot help but end up playing by the same rules, as evidenced by much of Schumer’s words. Comedians play Us vs. Them to survive, but you can’t keep those rules in place when you want everyone to like you.
I Feel Pretty attempts to position Schumer as an everywoman. Who can’t relate to the girl with no self-esteem who’s been battered by the world to believe she’s hideous? The glaring problem here is that Schumer is not average: She’s clearly very pretty and has the conventionally attractive figure to match. Yes, she is an obvious step away from ‘Hollywood beauty’, whatever that means, but she’s still a cisgender white woman with blonde hair and can’t possibly be above a US size 10. If she’s operating outside of that narrow box of beauty standards, then it’s only by the narrowest of margins. When the butt of the joke is that a woman who looks as pretty as she does is ridiculed as hideous when a brain injury gives her some self-confidence, it merely reinforces the narrowness of that box. Schumer’s better as an everywoman when she has something tangible to fight against, not beg to play in its sandbox.
Generally, I think female audiences are bored of having our pop culture icons be picked from such a narrow pool (look how well it worked with Lena Dunham), and Schumer was one who both benefitted and suffered from getting that pedestal. She doesn’t need our sympathy or hand-holding, and it’s evident that she still has a lot of work to do in dealing with her habit of relying on racist stereotypes to crack a cheap gag. What Schumer needs is a Paul Feig in her life. Imagine if I Feel Pretty had borrowed from Spy and positioned the protagonist’s consistently underestimated skills as the heart of the film and knew that the joke was on the people who couldn’t get over her appearance. Amidst this sea of Schumers, there are shades of each that would work in a complete package: The sharp observational skills, the self-deprecation that doesn’t sink into loathing, the coarseness that loves the laugh as much as the sharp intake of breath, and the willingness to dig deep into the dark.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)
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