The finale for Inside Amy Schumer aired weeks ago, but the comedian’s presence seems to have only increased since. This summer alone she’s been on the covers of Vanity Fair in May, Vogue this month, and Marie Claire’s August issue. She’s also coming out with a book on August 16. There’s no denying that she’s a rising star and a force to be reckoned with.
Countless people across the nation—myself included—laugh to tears when she skewers sexist tropes in her stand-up and sketch comedy. I can’t stop watching her brilliant parodies of ridiculous beauty standards from makeup to clothing size. She sees injustice and hypocrisy about how women are treated in society and wants to do something about it.
But many people, mostly men, "don't like my disgusting feminism," Schumer says. "The feedback that reaches me is so equal in appreciation and outrage that it doesn't feel overwhelming in either direction." But perhaps it's not just that men don't like her feminism because I definitely understand the mixed feedback. Sharing a drink with Schumer and chatting about women's representation in media is a serious fantasy of mine (hey, we could even invite along her pal J. Law). But I also find myself unable to recommend Schumer’s work unequivocally. If you've ever watched an episode of Inside Amy Schumer, there are plenty of opportunities to cringe—I might even say more than to laugh. It has this way of often being both insightful and unnecessarily offensive at the same time. In Schumer's own words, it's "disgusting feminism."
This seems to be the persona that Schumer is cultivating both on and off the stage. Alongside the classy Vogue cover, we also see Schumer posing in some of the most sexually suggestive magazine photo shoots in recent memory. If you flip to the interior pages of Vanity Fair's cover story, you'll find a photo of her wearing only a T-shirt with her lady parts on fire. It's an image that once seen cannot be forgotten (much as I would like to). She also graced the cover of GQ a while back. The least suggestive of those photos showed her scantily clad in a Princess Leia slave costume with the robot C-3PO's finger in her mouth.
Herein lies the problem: Is Amy Schumer against ridiculous standards for women, or is it all for show?
Pushing the proverbial envelope is normal for comedy. The argument is there, of course, that all her sexual and shocking imagery is precisely intended to mock or subvert itself and other imagery like it, but it still makes me cringe a little. When it comes to women's issues, the "if you want to beat 'em, join 'em" approach seems to miss the point. On a social level, feminism tries to lessen the inequality gap between men and women. But on a mass scale, objectifying content of women increases gender inequality. Perhaps this is why when it comes to women’s issues, there are moments when watching Schumer’s comedy I personally can’t help but be very confused.
Let me give you an example.
In her latest season of Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer had a skit in which she was invited to act on the show Game of Thrones (which, for the uninitiated, is known for having very extreme scenes of violence and sex, even for HBO, and often both at the same time). But Game of Thrones is also known for its compelling story line and character sketches, so in the skit, Schumer was ecstatic and agreed. Then on set she was asked to do something she wasn't aware she had to do, which, comically, was simply the act of sitting on a horse. The entire thing made her feel uncomfortable and she ultimately put her foot down, refused the scene, and asked if she could possibly do any other scene. When the director suggested a nude sex scene with her actual brother, she agreed without hesitation.
The skit is clearly a critique both of the show and of when actors feel pushed past their comfort zone filming scenes. The discomfort Dakota Johnson described in interviews about filming scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey comes to mind. Or Jennifer Lawrence's comments about how she needed to get drunk just to get through filming a recent sex scene.
Even if they've agreed to the film and are already on set, just how much is acceptable, and what lines when crossed go too far, are great questions, especially for women.
Another past skit of Schumer's that had me laughing (and befuddled) for days involved Schumer being pitched a role in an animated film alongside Megan Fox and Jessica Alba. When she arrived to the recording studio and saw what her character looked like—an obscene cartoon character that defecated herself, she quickly wanted to back out of the role. Losing dignity wasn't worth it, it seemed. But when her agent told her the percentage of revenue she'd get from all the merchandising that would come out of this role, she quickly agreed.
Both these skits seem to point to an answer to the question: why do women allow themselves to be portrayed in degrading ways in film and television? I guess the obvious answer is money. And not just that but what it represents—job security and career advancement. Not bad motivators, to be sure, but certainly ones that can be abused. And ones that we should be particularly concerned about being used to push women into uncomfortable or exploitative positions. In my opinion, this should concern us when it happens in any workplace—whether Fox News, a Hollywood film set, or a porn set.
This is why when I see Schumer posing in provocative outfits and on magazine covers like that of GQ, I am royally confused. It almost seems as is if she's transmitting distress signals from the trenches of female stardom. "Women in Hollywood experience so many ridiculous pressures to degrade and objectify ourselves in mass media!" her skits seem to say. Then shortly after: "Don't mind me here, just hypersexualizing Star Wars on newsstands!"
In many ways, Schumer is both criticizing and swimming along with the culture's hypersexual current at the same time. Somehow when it comes to women's issues, this brings me greater pause than when other forms of comedy embody what they're making fun of. Because in this case, it risks hurting the social mission it intends to help.
To some extent this played into how Schumer chose her persona as a comedian. “It’s a really disgusting part of comedy," she told Vogue. "You need to do so much work and be so funny, aaaand you also need to understand who you are to people. I didn’t really remember seeing that many women talk about sex in stand-up. Of course they have. Joan was doing it before anyone else on television. But I was like, I’ll be that.”
There's that word "disgusting" again. It's the same term Schumer used to describe her type of feminism that leads to such divisive fan responses. And here she uses the term to refer to the necessary evil of how to make it in comedy.
"By adopting the persona of the girl she was never comfortable being in college, the 'drunk slut' (perhaps most notably in Trainwreck), she has made herself very rich and famous," interviewer Jonathan Van Meter wrote in Vogue.
Hillary Clinton told Schumer in a phone message, "You make me laugh, and you make me think." For me, Schumer's comedy makes me laugh, but it also makes me really confused. I can never tell for sure if she's acting as game changer or apologist for hypersexualized culture. Most likely, to some extent Schumer's just a talented woman trying to make it and using her life experience as material. "Everything is copy," as Nora Ephron said. Here's hoping if Schumer's work is indeed game changing, we can one day have a world where we don't have to play into disgusting societal molds or degrading trends in order to comment on them.
Photo Credit: Comedy Central