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Amy Schumer is Not A Racist: On Good Jokes, Bad Jokes and The Wisdom To Know The Difference.

I am a creature of habit in all things, but most especially when it comes to TV. I have a few shows I love and it takes me a really long time to give a new one a chance. I make snap decisions- if you don’t get me at the pilot, it may be season 4 before I check back to see if you’ve stopped being awful. Anyway, everyone I knew and respected were getting quite embarrassingly effusive  about Inside Amy Schumer, so I decided to give it a whirl last night.

I didn’t start from season 1. I knew enough about the show to know it was intensely topical, so I thought I’d save myself the faff of filtering all the jokes through the ‘current affairs’ of 2013. Instead, I decided to see what season 3 had to say for itself. Even before the opening credits of S3E1, I was won over by the brilliant, perfectly bonkers mind of the Funniest Woman Of Our Time.* I’m of course talking about the sketch on bottoms, or fudge makers, in the form of a spoof hip-hop video ala Nicki Minaj’s  Anaconda.

Now, I’m a black girl and so there is no part of me that is against the recent shift in ‘acceptable body image’. But I’m also a woman with a brain, so I’ve got to say that the Rise of the SuperArse has been more than a little silly. Where black men and other fine arse appreciators once did so in a more naturally complimentary way, newcomers to the Arse Lovers club have fetishized it to the point of ridiculousness. The arse, no matter how pert or beautiful is, as Amy points out, just a place where you do a poo from.  Whilst women’s breasts have received similar treatment for years, I don’t think there has ever been a time that all women everywhere were expected to have huge breasts. Somehow though, the only acceptable arse size portrayed in social all sorts of media is BIG.

This point was already well made by Tina Fey in Bossypants (one of Schumer’s admitted idols and stealer of a great cameo scene in this season’s ‘The Last F***able Day). It’s less that black women’s bodies are now also considered to be beautiful, which I’d be in complete support of, it’s that not having a huge arse has become yet another thing for women of all races to be self-concious about.

But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.- Tina Fey, Bossypants.

To have made this point, in a 2 minute spoof music video featuring Method Man and Amber Rose, was brilliant. Using Rose, one of the Queens of the SuperArse, made it less about shaming other women and more about the grand shallowness of it all. Rose was in on the joke, rather than the maligned punchline.  This careful but seemingly effortless treatment marks Schumer’s brand, and it won me over so completely that I ended up binge watching the entire season. I laughed out loud so many times, my brother thought a prowler had invaded my bedroom to tickle me to death.

Other exceptional moments are Schumer’s interviews with random people, from a male prostitute, to a transsexual, to Magic Johnson’s outrageous son (who, I’ve got to say, holds his own and doesn’t allow himself to become the punchline). My particular favourite was 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer, an incredibly risky episode in which Schumer riffs off the 50’s film 12 Angry Men – a tense courtroom drama following the deliberations of an all white male jury over the fate of a young buy accused of murder.

Here, using dramatic heavy hitters like Goldbum and Giamatti to carve exquisite holes in sexism, the male gaze, patriarchy and the outrageous double standards placed on women in the media, Schumer herself is on trial. The charge is whether or not she is ‘bangable enough to be on TV’. Again, this is material repeatedly covered by modern feminists- why should the way a woman looks still be the most important thing about her? But I found this episode to be particularly resonant- I live in Nigeria now where female beauty is a religion. It is perfectly normal to spend hours getting ready for work, to have perfect nails, hair and makeup at all times. And by perfect I quite literally mean red-carpet ready- I know girls who can and do recreate Kim Kardashian’s trademark contour every single day. Nigerian men have high standards.  I know girls who have been sent back home to ‘glam up’ by their husbands.  It’s not uncommon for a completely heterosexual Nigerian man to know that subtle black bag is from Fendi SS14 and to judge you if your jeans are not True Religion. Many Nigerian men will expect to contribute to the cost of your N300,000 (approximately GBP1000) weave- not out of altruism, but because he thinks it’s normal for pretty girls to have celebrity hair and doesn’t want his girl to be the odd one out. All of these things are as or more important than your cleverness, kindness or general humanity. To be a ‘fine girl’, in Nigeria, is an aim in itself.**

Schumer’s skit was about Hollywood standards, but for me, also served to hammer home how Nigerians have imported these impossible and stupid rules into every day life. For a white American comedian in her 30s to connect so perfectly with a black Nigerian lawyer in her 20s is not something I imagine happens very often. But it did, repeatedly, as I watched the show.

Schumer is a feminist, of course, but she presents her feminism in what I consider to be the best way. Humorously, yes, but also in a common sense, black-or-white manner; a method that leaves you with two options- you either agree with her, and therefore feminism, or you disagree and prove yourself an idiot. A good example of this was in the Friday Night Lights sketch- it’s impossible to watch and not laugh, and equally impossible to watch and not be repulsed by the outlandishly stupid (and harmful) rape culture that has been built up around American team sports. ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape’.

This is the sort of feminist comedy  made famous by Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler, but they are very different women, with very different methods. I find Schumer to be a bit more accessible. In her early 30s she is younger and somehow ‘cooler’ than Fey and Poehler. I feel like Schumer would be into the same sort of millennial nonsense I am without irony, whereas I think Poehler and Fey are quite distinctly of a different generation. Kaling, another female comic I admire, dances around the serious stuff that is Schumer’s bread and butter. They all have their place in comedy, deserved and earned, but I think of all four,  I’d rather go on holiday with Schumer- the ultimate ‘friend’ test.

With such a ringing endorsement, gleaned from only one night of fandom, it was incredibly surprising to me to discover that Schumer had been receiving a lot of fire for being, at worst, an ignorant racist or, at best,  a person with a harmful ‘racial blind spot’. (I think it’s worth noting that the author of the Guardian piece on Schumer’s alleged racism is a white lady from Toronto. Now I’m not saying that a white person can’t see and call out racism (they should! Please do!) but it seems to me that we ought to perhaps look a little deeper when the most prominent article accusing Schumer of racism is written by a white lady from Toronto.

So I did, and found this piece on Schumer’s racism, which is at least written by a person of colour and tries to be more detailed in its criticism.

Amy Schumer is a racist. This is from her stand up: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual!” Are you serious? Schumer gets a lot of cred for a sketch she did on a political-correctness training program for octogenarians, but that’s exactly it. Your white grandma calling people “colored” is kind of not as problematic as your narrative that Latinos are rapists.- from www.racefiles.com

The second piece made a few points I agreed with (Schumer’s joke about Hispanic men is admittedly not very funny and more than a little odd.) but here’s the thing: I still wasn’t convinced she’s a racist.

Harmful comedy is like pornography- you know it when you see it. Harmful comedy creates a narrative that either reinforces or creates a societal belief that can cause real harm to people. One joke can be problematic (hate that word by the way), but it very rarely creates a narrative. It takes a joke of real power to do that, and usually that power comes from the intent and wider context in which its told. It’s got to be told by someone with an ulterior motive, it’s got to have the intent to harm or alienate, and it’s got to have enough truth in it to keep it alive. So we react badly to fried chicken jokes, because they were told by actual racists, spread by actual racists and were based in a minor truth. That joke created a narrative, which caused and causes harm, and is therefore, harmful. However unless my familiarity with American culture is way off, I really doubt Schumer’s joke about Hispanic men either created or reinforced a belief that Hispanic men are rapists.  I think it was beneath her, and not very funny, but not harmful comedy. I don’t think telling it makes her racist, and I don’t think her intent in telling it was racist.  Guess what though? If Donald Trump told that joke, I’d absolutely believe it was racist. Because he is.

This is the trust that exists, that Amy herself asked for in her rebuttal, between a good comic and her audience. Political correctness, a good thing, limits that trust a little- it provides harder lines and limits, little red lights that flash to alert us to someone undeserving of our trust. But there’s a huge grey area before the lights go off, before a comic uses an unjustifiable term or paints an abhorrent scenario, where we have to look at the teller of the joke and not just the joke itself to determine the intent, and therefore the harm.

Comedy can discuss a harmful topic, without being itself harmful. Good comedy should go out of its way to use topics that, ordinarily, fill us with anger and despair, because sometimes we need to laugh at a thing to see how damaging it really is. This is not a new thought; I think it’s something we all know. It’s the same inner knowledge that causes us to elevate the Chris Rocks and Dave Chappelles- they’re making us laugh at things that usually make us cry, and they’re making us work harder to change them.

I also think we are, mostly, wise enough to know when laughter is provoked by this ‘right’ sort of urge.   Last year, I took to Twitter to condemn a Nigerian comedian, Basketmouth, for making a joke about raping Nigerian girls when they don’t put out after a series of expensive dates. This wasn’t a joke that sought to change men’s behaviour, or reduce the disgusting transactionalism in Nigerian relationships (though Basketmouth belatedly tried to say it was). It made many Nigerians laugh- but I maintain that this was not a joke that came from a good place. It did not provoke a desire to get Nigerian guys to treat girls less like commodities- and many of us knew that instinctively.

When, in a  skit called Babies and Bustiers, Schumer makes a joke about Asian people “smelling funny” she does so in the guise of a contestant from a Toddlers and Tiara type show. No one who has ever had the misfortune to watch these shows can deny that  many of the people showcased are some of the worst humanity has to offer. She is saying “look how ridiculous and unfounded their views are, look at what we put on TV.” She isn’t actually saying, or encouraging anyone to say, that Asian people smell. I think we all know that instinctively too.

I think we all know the sort of ‘white is the only way to be right’ comedy when we see it. Seinfeld and Girls are very good examples- they promote a kind of ‘funny’ that is exclusive and reinforces all the  stereotypes that make ethnic minorities invisible, bit parts or sidekicks.

I think, actually, that rather than being racist,  Schumer  doesn’t go far enough with race.  This is the only part of the label of ‘lazy’ that, in my view, applies. I think she’s smart enough and sensitive enough to do a lot more. She has the same chops Chris Rock does, who uses his brilliant hilarity to make jokes about race (and sometimes racist jokes) but never does so without purpose.  Rock can spend 45 minutes reducing audiences to tears on a riff of “White people are crazy!” but the message he’s sending is that race relations in America are “nonsense” and are entirely reliant on the “niceness” of the dominant race at the time.

“There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

….

“There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.- Chris Rock.

If I’m being honest, I think Schumer is the sort of person post-racial (North) Americans strive to be- someone old enough to see the damage racial tension has done and continues to do to America, young enough to truly not care what colour someone’s skin is, but wise enough to not try to sell you the bullshit of ‘not seeing race’ at all. I hate the idea of black people needing ‘white allies’ but I think, in so far as the concept has any merit, Schumer is one of them.

“I am a comic. I am so glad more people are laughing at me and with me all of a sudden. I will joke about things you like, and I will joke about things you aren’t comfortable with. And that’s OK. Stick with me and trust I am joking.”- Amy Schumer.

Well Amy, I do.

A final word: I want to see more black female comedians on American TV, please. Empire, and Shonda-Land have helped with drama, but black female comics are still largely the province of daytime talk shows and BET. The UK had Little Miss Jocelyn years ago- do sort yourself out, USA-ians.

*yes, I’m calling it.

** I note all your #notallNigerians objections with thanks.

5 Comments

  1. Red says

    I enjoyed reading this. And all the others. I’m sort of dropping this comment because I think comments on a post are nice. Don’t stop writing!

    Like

  2. Kelli says

    Most of her act is ironic and she’s making these jokes to show how ridiculous they are. She makes fun of herself, women and Jews (she’s Jewish) just as much. She’s equal opportunity. Jokes about Race help open up conversations that people might not normally feel comfortable having. It’s a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked this article because it echoes a lot of the feelings I have towards Schumer and her comedy but I will say that upon talking to my latino friends about her joke towards mexicans, they didn’t see irony or satire. The comments that I was getting from them were that Ironic racism is still racism because they felt it perpetuated the stereotypes further.

    Like

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