Amy Schumer’s Whitewashed Feminism
The likable comedian has come under fire for her parody video of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” It is a teachable moment for Schumer.
When Amy Schumer pushes out racially insensitive content, the Twitterverse gets in formation. The familiar pattern popped up again last weekend, when the likable female comedian, for no explicable reason, did it again. Oops! This time, it was a lip-sync parody of Beyoncé’s “Formation”, a sonic celebration of black women, Beyoncé’s “nose with Jackson Five nostrils,” and “baby hair and afros.” To help her awkwardly grind and twerk her way through this ill-fitting material, Schumer enlisted Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, and Joan Cusack, co-stars in her upcoming film. The result was a miscarriage of synergy; an off-key tribute that, for Schumer, is unfortunately on brand.
Contrary to popular belief, the millennial internet is not comprised of vigilante PC warriors, fervently reloading their “white feminist fucks up” Google alert. Seeing a Coachella chick wearing a feather headdress that’s two times her body weight does not make Twitter’s day. Watching Amy Schumer make an ill-informed comment for the umpteenth time is just as exhausting as reading the hundredth aggregation of irate Twitter clapbacks. On some days, it can feel like we are all stuck in a critical feedback loop of our own creation, retweeting our frustration into oblivion, and becoming parodies of our own social justice movement. If, as Schumer proudly quoted in the wake of this newest controversy, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” then is all of this criticism only making Schumer more confident in her polarizing product? In a world where white feminists—Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Amy Poehler being the oft-cited trinity—are the undisputed queens of comedy, it can feel as though backlash further cements a binary between the humorless detractors and the buzzworthy celebrities.
The more we complain about Amy Schumer’s “Formation” parody, the more clicks it gets. Even Jay Z—Instagram husband of Beyoncé, outspoken advocate of Black Lives Matter—knew that there was money in watching a white woman fumble through his wife’s radical anthem. That’s why he released it exclusively on his streaming service Tidal.
But forget for a second that what we perceive as our human agency is in fact just a tool of the illuminati and/or Blue Ivy. What could possibly make this eye roll and déjà vu-inducing “controversy” important? After all, we’ve all “attended” the #AmySchumerGottaGoParty before, basked in the warm glow of our computer screams. We’ve all seen the uncovered tweets and old stand-up routines, in which Schumer perpetuated racist stereotypes. We’ve watched her defend sexist troll and longtime collaborator Kurt Metzger. We’ve noted her reticence and ultimately her inability to truly apologize. But simply writing off this backlash as more of the same—internet vitriol for internet vitriol’s sake—is a missed opportunity. Schumer’s parody video, whether or not it strikes you as racially insensitive, is a teachable moment—especially for the comic herself.
Given the current presidential showdown—Clinton vs. Trump, Pussy vs. Pussy-grabber, democracy vs. anarchy—it’s easy to forget that politics is a whole lot bigger than two grandparents screaming at each other on a national stage. And while Hillary Clinton might be America’s only shot at making it out of 2016 more or less intact (R.I.P. Vine), she’s not the anecdote to all of our problems. When it comes to feminism, this election has unfortunately oversimplified an endlessly nuanced issue. As Trump continues to grope his way both towards and away from the Oval Office, Clinton’s gender presents itself as a crucial escape route. As a woman running for president, Hillary is a historical anomaly. As a woman running for president against Donald Trump, she’s a godsend.
But while women have, understandably, rallied behind the former Secretary of State, we have to remind ourselves that Hillary Clinton is not the be all and end all of feminism. Patriarchy isn’t a board game that’s over once you get your lady piece into the White House. In her Thursday defense of the “Formation” parody, Schumer invokes Hillary, and all of those warm, fuzzy feelings that accompany the notion of our first female president. She writes, “While we were shooting our movie in Hawaii this summer we were all crazy for the album and also for Hillary Clinton. We would rush back to our televisions or phones to watch a stream of CNN to see the convention and watch Hillary and Michelle and so many extraordinary women speak. All of the women on set were bonded together from this music and from the election simultaneously. It was such a powerful time.”
Lumping together Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an album about black women, with the candidacy of a white female politician, is a bold move, especially from a woman who’s been accused of racial insensitivity. Remember all of those articles about how Lemonade isn’t for white women? Amy Schumer does not. She continues, “I love how in the lyrics of ‘Formation’ Beyoncé is telling us to get in formation. And also I like to think she is telling us ladies to get information…It was a way to celebrate bringing us all together. To fight for what we all want. And to do it together.” It’s not just that Schumer has missed Beyoncé’s larger point (despite the fact that it was basically written in 72-point font, highlighted three times and italicized). It’s this notion that every woman is fighting, together, for the exact same kind of empowerment. As women, we have all taken different routes to 2016—we did not get here arm-in-arm, on a level playing field. After centuries of not sharing the burden of being black women in America, why should white women have an equal share in Beyoncé’s triumph?
When it comes to Lemonade, an epic work of art that spans police violence, black love, New Orleans post-Katrina and everything in between, Beyoncé is talking about issues that are important to black women—issues that mainstream feminism routinely leaves behind. Unfortunately, the history of feminism in America is largely a history of white feminism—a refusal to see how gender politics affect women differently, across lines of race, class, and ethnicity. For centuries, women of color have often felt as though their invitation to the big feminist party has gotten lost in the mail. That’s why, when Amy Schumer tries to say that Lemonade is for every woman, black Twitter throws its own party.
Schumer’s mentality, well-meaning though it may be, is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s deeply premature “Mission Accomplished” flag. In an ideal world, all women might share the same struggles and, better yet, the same triumphs. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. So when a self-proclaimed feminist like Amy Schumer says that her mission “is to continue to work as hard as I can to empower women and make them laugh and feel better and I won’t let anything stop me,” it raises a few important questions. Does Schumer believe that the concerns of real women should be grouped into the category of criticisms that won’t stop her? And if she’s so set on female empowerment, why does she keep making the same mistakes over and over again, turning off whole communities and then retorting with half-hearted apologies? Since when does feminism mean ignoring criticism, and refusing an intersectional education?
2016 has been a year of uncertainties and unpredictable outcomes. But unfortunately, we sort of saw this one coming. As a preeminent feminist comedian, Schumer has taken some important stands—she’s advocated on behalf of gun control, added a nuanced voice to the conversation surrounding sexual assault, and mercilessly mocked Donald Trump. As someone who does so many things so well, and is clearly determined to use her pulpit for good, Schumer’s whitewashed feminism should be more surprising. As long as Schumer maintains that she knows what empowers women, mutes liberally, and refuses to reckon with racial intersections, this cycle will continue in perpetuity. The solution could be just as easy—and just as difficult—as really listening.