On the quiet evening after Thanksgiving, I had been idly alternating between procrastinating on final papers and online shopping when my best friend calls me in a panic. I was worried he gotten into some trouble.
“Do you like Amy Schumer?” He asked with breathless urgency.
“Uhm, not really. Why?”
At that point, I saw that there was clearly no emergency. My second thought was that maybe he had gotten into a heated debate about Amy Schumer and wanted to hear my opinion of her.
That night he convinced me to go see Amy Schumer live at Allstate Area. Now, I have never had a particular liking to Amy Schumer’s comedy. I’ve seen some clips of her stand-up on YouTube (I didn’t think she was that funny), and I never felt inclined to go see her movie Trainwreck. However, I do think that her show Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central is a well-executed example of thought-provoking humor aimed at critiquing sexist and misogynistic cultural norms. Before that night, I didn’t dislike her comedy, but my opinion of her was just a tepid shrug off the shoulder. So I thought, what the heck, let’s give her a chance. I thought that maybe her comedy had evolved beyond the monotonous reel of sex jokes, for which I vaguely remembered her, since she had gained more popularity.
Unfortunately, Amy Schumer was not funny. And from my observation sitting in an audience that was—by my scientific estimates—98.99% white, I would say that most of my neighbors did not think she was funny either. Overall, I would characterize my experience listening to Amy Schumer as a #thatmomentwhen I’m trying to spend quality time with my best friend, but that person we both kinda sorta know interrupts our conversation to talk only about herself. For 2 hours.
Overall, almost nothing about her or her stand-up routine resonates with me as a woman of color. While I could relate to and nodded along with all her jokes about pussies, sex, and ridiculous beauty standards, they just did not connect with me at an intimate level. Of course, there were the frequent cheers from drunk white girls when Schumer would talk about pussies (which constituted a lot of stage time). I believe the novelty that is so appealing about Schumer is her crass confidence with regards to conversations about sex and sexism. Her candidness is refreshing, but unfortunately a tinge superficial.
A particular point about her humor is that she came off as disingenuous and pretentious. Just to earn a few laughs, she called one of her noisy audience members a “cunt” for disturbing the people around her. While I understand audience etiquette is important, to call one of your enthusiastic, paying fans a “cunt” for being occasionally annoying was a poor way to handle an unpleasant audience member. Despite her attempts at self-deprecating humor throughout the show, using this opportunity to belittle someone else—making them the butt of your jokes—to make yourself seem funny shows that Schumer is anything but humble.
And my biggest beef with her show is the treatment of race and the further oppression of minorities through her jokes. The show opener was an awkwardly funny white male comedian. I could have stomached his jokes about gay men and picking up women… That is if he had not pulled out the “PC card.” The PC card is played whenever a (conservative) person wants to blame proponents of progressive social change for infringing on others’ rights to hate speech and their right to basically reinforce their own privilege (whole other issue). Then he proceeds to tell a joke that perpetuates the stereotype of black criminality. He prefaces it by saying that he enjoys stealing because it gives him a rush. In his story about going to the grocery store with his black friend, he shows his friend the candy bar he stole. In response, his friend calls him out for being a beneficiary of white privilege because the store security had been following him, the black friend, around but not the white comedian. The punchline: “Yeah, that’s called a diversion. Why do you think I brought you along?” Mortified moans erupted from the audience, and I shook my head.
On the other hand, Schumer attempts to shrug off the inappropriateness of her next joke with a disclaimer that people have called her racist. Uhm, I’m not sure where Schumer got the idea that acknowledging her racism gives her permission to say racist things, but that seemed to be the premise of her disclaimer. In an interjection that was nothing short of appalling, she said, “Not like it matters here. You’re all white.” Two things wrong with this: she implied that 1) white people don’t need to confront the issue of racism and prejudice and 2) being explicitly racist in a white space wouldn’t warrant any social consequences. This brief aside revealed her attitudes about race in a matter of seconds. She didn’t even need to crack a racist joke to make it clear that she has no intention of acknowledging or reflecting on her white privilege. Race, to her, is just another joke. It was disturbing, but not unprecedented, to hear this from a woman whose fame has been built on demanding equality. Hearing these words to comfort her fair-skinned audience—reminding them that race is a conversation that does not and should not come up for them—exposes the unpleasant assumption I had all night. That when Schumer talks about social liberation for women, she really just means white women.
So Schumer’s racist joke was about Native Americans. While performing at an Indian casino, she told her Native American audience that white people are “very sorry” for stealing their land. But, of course, not sorry enough to give it back, she said. Then this happened during her show at the casino: a Native American man rushes to the stage and accuses her of insulting his Mohican tribe. Her joke did not even seem to have a punchline, but she elicited laughs with this unoriginal and racist remark at this anecdotal Native American man: “Whoa, what is your tribal name? Jumps To Conclusions?” Unbeknownst to Schumer, her joke not only replicates insincere white guilt but furthers the othering of Native Americans as violent, vengeance-seeking “foreigners” in their own home. On their own land.
What really pushed me from annoyance to anger was the topic that was never given any attention: black lives. Schumer expressed her condolences for the recent surge of gun violence in Chicago, but then uses our city’s tragedies—one that disproportionately affects black people—to transition into a story about the death of two white women who were killed while going out to watch her movie Trainwreck in a Louisiana theater. Of the thousands of people lost to gun violence, the names that she decides to remember are the names of two white women. Who didn’t even live in Chicago. In her narrative, white lives took precedence over any of the thousands of black lives that outnumber them in homicide statistics. Even if white women are the least likely of all groups to be victims of gun violence, it is their stories that led her to become an advocate of gun control—not the tragic stories of Kajuan Raye, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. While this story bears personal significance to Schumer, it shouldn’t be the only story that stirs her moral conscience. My anger does not mean I think anything less of those women’s lives, but Schumer’s words were an upsetting reminder of society’s opinion of black lives. That black lives alone are not enough to demand change. Even though she made a poignant joke about the “terror gap,” which is a loophole in federal law that allows people on the FBI terrorist watch list to purchase firearms, it’s clear that the issue of racialized violence isn’t even on Schumer’s radar.
The jokes weren’t the only sign of Schumer’s ignorance of racial issues either (but they were definitely the most obvious sign of the show’s theme of whiteness). If her fans are an indication of anything, it is that Schumer’s humor does not attract a diverse audience for the reason that her content does not resonate with most people of color. Not that she’s not a relatable person—but I question if she would be able to relate to me. For me, her humor was just another reminder that white people have the privilege to say whatever they want. That people like me have to police what others say (white or non-white) because white people aren’t going to do it themselves. Schumer never claimed to represent all women, and her experiences aren’t invalid just because she can’t relate to people like me. But it’s the fact that she never acknowledges her white privilege or extends power to minorities—in fact she furthers their oppression—that her “feminism” is questionable. Her focus on white feminist issues actively creates this illusion that Schumer’s presence in Hollywood is a sign of progress for all women, regardless of their gender/sexual orientation/etc., making women of intersecting identities a nonissue. The primary message of Schumer’s comedy is that women should not allow their worth to be determined by antediluvian social standards. While she may be empowering women with the assertion that they don’t need to live up to unrealistic beauty standards, personally I am more concerned with issues sexual harassment, rape culture, and society’s decision to treat one race as more desirable than others. And quite frankly I’m just waiting for someone who looks like me to even appear in magazines and television. Making her comedy more inclusive wouldn’t marginalize Schumer’s white audience either. But I’m not relying on her to be my (s)hero. Schumer can’t be a (s)hero to a community she doesn’t identify with, but the least she can do is start being an ally.