Does Amy Schumer Really Have A Race Problem? I’m Not Sure.
Amy Schumer, comedienne extraordinaire and pop feminist, can seemingly do no wrong. The third season of “Inside Amy Schumer” on Comedy Central has consistently produced some of the funniest, most pointed takes on the sexism seen in pop culture and in women’s real lives. Each episode has spit out at least one relatable, funny viral clip, from her take on the fuckability of older female stars, to her episode-long takedown of the sexism that runs rampant throughout Hollywood casting sessions in “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer.” With her first movie, “Trainwreck”, out soon, it’s safe to say that we are edging up on peak Amy. This is great! She’s funny. She’s really good at her job, which is making us laugh, heartily and loudly, while ruefully shaking our heads at the truth of it all. But, over the weekend, Monica Heisey at the Guardian called out Schumer for the one thing that maybe most of us have been overlooking – that she’s got a weird thing about race. Hersey writes:
For such a keen observer of social norms and an effective satirist of the ways gender is complicated by them, Schumer has a shockingly large blind spot around race. Her lacklustre stint hosting the MTV Movie awards (a rare misstep) featured lazy jokes about Latina women being “crazy” that left Jennifer Lopez as unimpressed as the online commentariat. While a much-lauded sketch from the show featured an ad for a training centre where old people learn not to be racist, Schumer’s stand-up repeatedly delves into racial territory tactlessly and with no apparent larger point. Her standup special features jokes like “Nothing works 100% of the time, except Mexicans” and much of her character’s dumb slut persona is predicated on the fact that the men she sleeps with are people of colour. “I used to date Latino guys,” she says in an older stand-up routine. “Now I prefer consensual.”
Schumer responded on Twitter, imploring her fans to keep context in mind:
Put down your torches before reading this so you don’t catch on fire. pic.twitter.com/JyRQGvFuX8
— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) June 28, 2015
I remember the first time I saw Amy Schumer do standup. I was on a date at a comedy show, and while the details of her set are fuzzy, I recall laughing out loud — something that I rarely am moved to do by anything, much less standup. Whatever she was saying was real and raw, but also obviously from the point of view of that girl who always thinks she’s saying the right thing, but is usually very, very wrong. This, I’ve discovered as I watched more of her work, is her thing. The character of “Amy” is often intentionally ignorant and comedically tone-deaf. She is, as Jessica Goldstein at ThinkProgress writes, “making fun of the ignorance or discomfort that a specific type of white girl has about people of color.” This is the crux of her comedy. For example:
Here is Schumer, bending over backwards to a ridiculous degree in order to avoid identifying the person that helped her as Black. “Amy” treads very, very delicately around the issue of race while speaking to a Black woman, a woman who simply wants to help her so that she can move on to the next person in line. That face-scrunching knot of discomfort you feel in your stomach as you watch Schumer bumble her way through a conversation that is so clearly ridiculous that it probably wouldn’t happen in real life? That’s part of the joke. On one hand, you could look at this sketch, in the context of the rest of her work, which does, as Heisey points out, include questionable zingers about other races that feel pointed for no reason, and call it racist. But the feeling that I think Schumer intends to invoke is one of discomfort, pity and maybe even a little bit of recognition. That girl nervously fumbling through her wallet in an attempt to avoid identifying someone as Black is, for lack of a better word, an idiot. That’s the whole point. At the end of this sketch, Schumer, specifically the character of “Amy” and all that she represents, is the butt of her joke.
Context matters. Sure, you could say that Schumer’s using the cloak of comedy to express her damaging opinions about race, but for me, that’s a stretch. The argument that the line between Amy Schumer the comedian and Amy Schumer the person is blurry is somewhat valid, but is that necessary for comedy to succeed? No one likes the obvious — it’s the sly and the underhanded shit that actually makes you think. A good joke makes you laugh without announcing itself as a joke. You arrive at the conclusion and you think it’s funny, but you weren’t expecting to find yourself there in the first place. That’s what her comedy does. By placing herself — the awkward, sensitive-but-actually-kind-of-racist white girl — front and center, Schumer plays on her haplessness in order to make you laugh extra hard. We have no way of knowing exactly how she is as a person in real life, because the only thing we can judge is the person that she presents to the public.
Her defense comes off as, well, defensive, because I can imagine that being called out for something that you really don’t think is true about yourself stings. As Goldstein also notes, Schumer throws her feminist shield up, which is a cute move, but not really a relevant or appropriate defense against someone calling you a racist. It also doesn’t explain the weirdly aggressive things she’s said in her past standup about Latina women and Mexican men. Is that all a matter of taste, too? Maybe. There are comedians out there who say things that are just plain offensive across the board. For a very long time, Lisa Lampanelli focused much of her standup on ethnic slurs and racist humor, defending her actions as in the name of comedy. If you find this funny, then yes, that’s what your taste dictates. But, because there is no punchline other than the fact that it’s Lisa Lampanelli, an older white lady using that kind of language, it lacks the subtlety and even some of the sensitivity that Schumer’s comedy has.
Amy Schumer’s brand of comedy might not be for everyone, but that’s okay. She still has time to learn what works and doesn’t work for her, but unlike us, she has to figure this out in the court of public opinion. Don’t put her on the #Problematic list just yet. She still has time to learn and room to grow.