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Amy Schumer proves there’s more than one way to be a feminist

Her provocative feminism can still be integral to the movement.


Marcie Bianco

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 23, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 7:27 am CDT

Just as there’s not one way to be a woman, Amy Schumer is reminding us there’s not one way to be a feminist. And that’s making people very uncomfortable.

In a recent editorial for the Guardian, columnist Jessica Valenti called Schumer “disappointing” after the comedian sucked C-3PO’s finger on the cover of the latest GQ: “The cover is a reminder that no matter how far a woman comes—even if she’s a successful, unabashed feminist—there’s always someone waiting to put her back in her place,” Valenti concluded, “with a finger in her mouth.” 

According to Valenti, Schumer—willfully or not—is a vehicle for patriarchy and sexism simply because she fellated a robot’s metal digit. No matter what Schumer wanted and no matter if she demanded to fellate all phallic-shaped Star Wars items (and characters) on set, it had to be a matter of male domination. 

Schumer, of course, is cognizant of how being positioned as a “feminist role model” or “feminist icon” by the media automatically sets her up for criticism, failure, and “disappointment.” She told GQ in the aforementioned cover story, “I think people only want women to speak for so long. They build you up, and then they’re just ready to tear you down.”

The tearing down of icons is nothing new, yet it’s disappointingly prevalent among women. Perhaps it’s because, to allude to a recent essay by feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, women historically have had a problem with power, such that feminism in 2015 seems very much like self-empowerment (“freeing” nipples, wearing a feminist t-shirt, taking selfies of your bleeding vagina), rather than empowering a diverse community, which we seem less certain about. 

As I wrote earlier this year in a piece about how the women of Mad Men are not feminist even though the show is: “Feeling empowered is not the equivalent of empowering women.”

Schumer, to be clear, is in no way logically responsible for this failure to inhabit a mythical position she never claimed in the first place. She did not set the expectations and has she never aspired to be the perfect feminist role model—or a role model, period. 

Schumer reiterated this in an interview for Glamour’s August 2015 issue, noting, “I have no interest in trying to be the perfect feminist, but I do believe feminists are in good hands with me.”

“[T]he trouble with becoming a feminist icon,” columnist Eva Wiseman observed in a piece at the Guardian, “as we’ve seen with heroes such as Lena Dunham, whose fearlessness became too much for her critics to handle, is that the higher we hold them, the further they fall. In our culture, when we find a feminist star we love, we hype them all the way to an inevitable backlash.”

Here’s the thing: Amy Schumer is a comedian. A comedian’s endgame is to be a comedian and to create an art of transgression. A comedian is by definition not a spokesperson. A comedian is not a politician. A comedian has no essential social good or moral design in mind when creating and performing her art. Comedy cracks open cultural taboos and contentious topics of discussion, primarily as satire; it never offers a solution for them, neither is it capable of doing so.

Comedy by definition, writes Mick Hume in an excerpt of his new book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, “is always controversial, pushing as it must at the limits of what passes for taste and decency in any era. That is why there have long been attempts to control what is deemed ‘acceptable’ humor and to censor what is not.” 

The liberal push for a politics in every ounce of art—especially art produced by women—stifles and jeopardizes their creative potential. “The attempt to impose codes of conduct on comedy reflects the idea that you can somehow apply a political and moral judgment to humor,” Hume continued. “Good luck with that.” 

This threat to women’s creativity is something Schumer knows intimately, hence her virulent response to critics of her comedy on Twitter last month: “I will joke about things you aren’t comfortable with. And that’s OK.” But instead of it being OK for women to create the art as they see fit, women instead have to justify every damn thing they do. 

David Sims further elaborated upon Schumer’s comic method in a smart piece at the Atlantic:

Like Sarah Silverman before her, Schumer roots her act in a simple subversion, playing off the thrill audiences get from seeing a woman speak frankly and outrageously on stage, especially about sexuality. Schumer’s ‘character’ is often that of an ignorant, middle-class white woman whose comic sentiments underline her own stupidity and unacknowledged privilege. It’s an act that sometimes falls short—just like all stand-up acts often do.

The disconnect that Schumer—as well as other comedians—experiences in contemporary culture is that we demand that comedy function as politics. If her work doesn’t promote an acceptable political, feminist agenda, then it is deemed a failure—or racist, misogynist, and insensitive. If there is no tenable political endgame, Schumer is taken to task, like in Nathan Robinson’s baseless critique at Salon that Schumer’s “casual racism” is exhibited by Trainwreck’s race jokes, which in his estimation “lead nowhere.”

But if it’s not explicitly political, Schumer’s approach to comedy, for the most part, successfully interrogates the social codes and norms that dictate how women act in the world and how they are treated, notably in sketches like “Football Town Nights” and “Last Fuckable Day.” Both works are feminist in content, given the discussion of issues like body image and rape, which are examined and satirized almost effortlessly. 

Take also “Compliments,” a sketch from the show’s first season in which a group of female friends shun the one friend who gratefully accepts a compliment without self-effacement:

The commentary here is akin to Anne Helen Petersen’s observation at BuzzFeed, in a piece about Schumer’s Trainwreck and the lingering effects of “post-feminism” in 2015: “Men don’t even have to subjugate women anymore, because women have so thoroughly internalized [sexist] ideologies that we do it to ourselves.” 

From misogynistic football culture to gaming culture and beyond, as the Atlantic’s Megan Garber notes, Schumer’s sketches make audiences consider “the often flawed way we think about ourselves as a collective.” Now, as Garber highlights, comedians have somehow morphed into our present-day public intellectuals, even if that’s not who they intend to be.

Audiences seem to love Schumer the most when her sketches challenge social norms around gender and sexuality. For examples, look no further than the media response to “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” or the litany of listicles that chronicle her “most feminist” sketches. The group that’s most subject to her satire-infused analysis is, thus, predominantly white, heterosexual men.

Schumer, to quote Garber, makes “us squirm” when the collective or subject of the sketch is less apparent, and especially when the subject is the ditzy, unceremoniously racist white woman. 

“Urban Fitters,” the sketch in which Schumer’s character is unable to tell any of a clothing store’s associates apart because they are all black, speaks to this squirming. Some critics, such as the Guardian’s Monica Heisey, conveniently conflate the differences between Schumer the comedian and Schumer the character in order to contend that she has a “blind spot around race.” But in actuality, the skit posits her character—who is representative of aforementioned subtly racist white girl—as an example of that blind spot. 

David Sims, at the Atlantic, concurs: “[T]he joke there is on Schumer, not anyone else, as she ties herself in guilty knots trying to identify an employee without mentioning his skin color.” And as the Daily Dot’s Nico Lang notes in a similar moment of racial discomfort experienced by Schumer’s idiot white girl protagonist in Trainwreck, Schumer doesn’t so much reproduce racism in these instances as she is commenting on a character’s flawed behavior.

Beyond its reductive reading and oversimplification of comedy, some of the criticism also refuses to accept Schumer as a comedian placing multiple subjects and groups under her satirical lens. Women, as I have written elsewhere, are not granted the opportunity to make art distinct from their subjectivity. 

And the recent backlash against Schumer, which intentionally emphasizes the autobiographical elements of her work—as a means of distilling the difference between Schumer “the comedian” and Schumer “the character”—reinforces that point. Schumer is simultaneously criticized for making art about only women who “look like her” and for daring to satirize communities of people (in comedy, through stereotypical identity markers) to which she doesn’t belong. In a world dominated by identity politics, we demand Schumer’s comedy be inclusive—but only selectively so.

Women are not granted the opportunity to make art distinct from their subjectivity. 

While on the one hand we can contend that the ubiquity of feminism has resulted in its seeming to mean everything and nothing at once, feminism in the mainstream is also driven by a morality about how one should be a feminist, as if there is a single, correct way to be a feminist in the world. 

This message presents an omnipresent morality that arguably served as the basis for the most widely read book on feminism in recent history, Roxane Gay’s New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist. In the book, Gay insists she’s a “bad” feminist because she “fails” at feminism and, in her estimation, inevitably does it “wrong.” 

As she writes in the introduction:

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain… interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist.

No doubt Amy Schumer would say the same. The question is whether or not feminists will understand how a provocative feminism like Schumer’s can still be integral to the movement. It’s indeed another way—not the way—to practice feminism.

Marcie Bianco is a contributing editor at Curve magazine, and an adjunct associate professor at Hunter College. She has contributed to AfterEllen, Feministing, The Feminist Wire, The Huffington Post, Lambda Literary, XO Jane, The Women’s Review of Books, and more. She writes and lectures about ethics, from feminism to race relations.

Screengrab via Comedy Central/YouTube

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*First Published: Jul 23, 2015, 2:05 pm CDT