Comedian Amy Schumer found herself at the center of controversy this past week, as a think piece in The Guardian put a spotlight on criticisms of Schumer’s treatment of race in her standup, claiming she has “a shockingly large blind spot around race.” Schumer denied being a racist on her Twitter page, asking for critics to continue to give her the space to discuss the material she wants.“I am a comic,” Schumer responded. “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.”“You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy,’ but you are wrong,” she added. “It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it.”
Schumer is not the first comedian to go on the defensive over jokes about race, gender, and sexuality, and comedians of eras past have complained about the politically correct nature of the times we live in. In particular, Chris Rock has been vocal about no longer performing on college campuses because students have gotten “too conservative.” Even notorious pussyfooter Jerry Seinfeld has joined the fray, claiming that college students who complain about racism and sexism “don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” In a way, comedians who make racist jokes and then complain about being asked to play it safe for audiences overthink the matter. Audiences aren’t being sensitive—your old joke just isn’t funny anymore. Whoopi Goldberg aside, just about everyone seems chill with saying blackface humor should stay in the past. What’s so different about verbal humor that stereotypes people of color? If you’re a progressive comedian and your punchline about Latinos uses the same logic as Donald Trump’s presidential announcement rant, it’s time to rethink your punchline. It might be honest for white comedians to joke about feeling unsafe around people of color, at least honest to their feelings and their perceptions. But if you’re going to adhere to the rule of honesty, then you better be down to welcome the honest response of your audience. Because while you might feel unsafe, that doesn’t mean you are unsafe, and in case phenomena like #BlackLivesMatter haven’t reached you: young, multiracial, progressive America—the America that makes up the audience for comedians like Schumer—that America is tired of humoring the importance placed on white people’s incorrect perceptions of danger. On the other hand, it’s not every joke that provokes a visceral and personal reaction, and it’s not every protesting audience that protests their own feelings. Frankly, if comedians like Schumer focused the scope of their frustration to only white liberal critics who claim offense on behalf of marginalized people any time they are reminded of their own biases, it seems unlikely we would be having this conversation.
Sometimes the voices of allies are useful, amplifying protests without overriding them, like when Bill Maher used the censorship of a mostly harmless Clint Eastwood joke on Spike TV—he compared The Rock to other athletes who’ve become stars, like “Jim Brown and Caitlyn Somebody…”—as an opportunity to make dick jokes about trans women. Maher’s jokes were violent, denying Caitlyn Jenner the right to define her body on her own terms, but had Maher stopped at pointing out the hypocrisy of Eastwood’s censorship, he might have had something. Eastwood’s comment on Spike was mostly harmless, more of an “old man out-of-touch” joke than a “haha trans women’s bodies” joke, and that Spike felt the need to take the moment off the air is a sign of how eager some people are to absolve themselves of the responsibility of thinking seriously and critically about their own relationship to race, gender, and sexuality. Looking for ways to be offended on other people’s behalf doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a distraction.Maybe it’s just within the world of aggregate media culture, but it is increasingly difficult to discern when backlash is born of honesty or out of a sense of obligation. Google counts more than 45 publications with stories about Amy Schumer’s “racism,” but of the articles on display, the vast majority appear to be written by white women on the “woman” beat. Most articles provide no commentary whatsoever, and the ones that do oscillate back and forth between wanting to defend Schumer and not wanting to be associated with the not-so-nice words she’s been called. Even the articles that are resolutely critical about Schumer’s treatment of race, like Anne Thériault’s over at The Daily Dot, feel like long paraphrases culled from notes made off of a black activist’s Twitter page, not like personal explanations of their own responses.Frankly though, why should these women (and occasionally men) feel comfortable writing about this topic? White feminists aren’t exactly an impartial source for analysis of white feminism, and sending young, inexperienced white women writers out as foot soldiers to cover the complex intersectional territory of white feminist racism is a cop-out on the part of editors and publications.It is the responsibility of newsrooms to reach out and find people who understand and who feel passionately about these issues, because running evasive and confused coverage helps no one. In the absence of newsroom support, social media provides a platform for people of color to raise concerns with comics and artists, but as of yet, there is no means to monetize a Twitter essay, leaving activists to expend emotional resources over hurtful entertainment with no potential for compensation. Also limiting the effectiveness of social media as a platform for dialogue is that while social media provides a space for activists, it also supports trolls who make death and rape threats, and the bigger you are on social media, the less safe it becomes as a space for dialogue.And dialogue is crucial, especially for white comics who do material on race. Good comedy about race makes it possible to express what is otherwise too taboo to discuss, and white comics have the power to not only make white audiences aware of their own biases, but to make that experience pleasurable and safe, easy to repeat, and easy to apply in life outside the comedy club.
It’s not Schumer’s fault that it’s hard to trust white comedians with this kind of cultural power. Schumer’s Twitter post is just the latest in a long tide of unapologetic often white, often men who’ve made comparable (and frankly, comparably arrogant) pleas, and who have gone on to disappoint again and again. It’s also not her fault that white comedians are the ones who get TV deals and media coverage, creating a cultural environment where the perspectives of people of color—especially women of color—are drowned out in a sea of whiteness.Over the last few years, black women comics have been sidestepping the lack of industry-wide support by creating content directly for the web, and the increasing popularity of web series like Cecile Emeke’s Ackee & Saltfish or Franchesca Ramsey’s Decoded is encouraging. But until producers, studio executives, and networks take the initiative to reallocate resources to the development of these artists—like HBO has with Issa Rae, whose adaptation of her web series Awkward Black Girl is due to premiere in the next year—the cultural landscape will continue to be defined by white comics. Frankly, it should be a self-motivated priority for white comics to promote the success of non-white comics, as the unnatural dominance of whiteness is part of the reason all racial transgressions feel so major. When there’s nothing else on TV to counteract that bias, the impact of every misplaced joke hits harder. Just the same way Trevor Noah’s comments about fat girls sting because of the absence of women on late night, Schumer’s jokes about Latinos sting because of the absence of women of color on Comedy Central.However, while below-the-belt jokes occasionally slip back into Schumer’s routines—The Guardian was right to call her stint at the MTV Movie Awards a backslide—most of the race humor on Schumer’s show consists of active critiques of white women and their spaces, patterns, and behaviors.In my personal favorite skit of this season, Schumer plays a businesswoman who overcompensates trying to impress the guys at her work by going to a strip club. In the course of a night, she binge drinks, invasively compliments an Asian server, and takes a turn around the strip pole herself, all while screaming a refrain of “I’m cool with it!” The skit ends with Schumer alone, burying the body of a stripper her coworker murdered, and just as she turns to the camera to deliver a plea for equal pay, the stripper wakes up, only for Schumer to kill the woman herself.In three minutes, Schumer manages to deconstruct white feminism’s complicity in capitalism, depicting the slavish devotion with which some women deny Petra to get paid by Paul, only to turn around and call themselves feminist models at the end of the day. It’s a hilarious skit, and a skit that I doubt Schumer would have been able to articulate in the first season of her show, when she was still performing jokes like, “I used to date Latin men, but now I prefer consensual.”What the ethics are when it comes to a comedian’s old material seem to be in question at the moment, as jokes Trevor Noah made on his Twitter a few years ago drew similar ire when Noah was made the new host of The Daily Show. On one hand, racist and sexist humor feels revealing—it’s negative and nasty in a way that lets your audience know exactly where you come from, who you associate with, and whose feelings you find valuable. On the other hand, if we are all always going to be married to the worst parts of who we have been with no hope for growth, what’s the point of making a career in art at all?There is no need for Schumer to apologize for the jokes she told two years ago. She’s a human being—and an artist—who’s evolving. I wish that’s what she had said in her Twitter response to The Guardian piece, instead of the condescending comedian-speak “Listen here, folks, it was just a joke!” nonsense she did publish, but at the same time, there are no handbooks for this kind of scrutiny. We have developed highly advanced ways of recognizing and articulating when we feel offended, but very few ways of making something productive out of our own hurt feelings.I’ve questioned if my choice to overlook what’s hurtful in Schumer’s comedy for the sake of what’s insightful is a sign that I’m complicit in the faults of white feminism, not valuing the importance of others’ feelings on this matter enough. This argument of apathy gets used often on social media to raise awareness around issues of race, sex, gender, and other topics surrounding justice and a need for change, and it is often useful, but it can also be a blunt instrument. Where I’ve landed for the moment is that not all marginalized people feel the same way about every issue—even on social media, but especially outside it—and asking everyone to respond in the same way to the same joke takes a simplistic view that flattens the complexity of marginalized communities just as much as it does the white, cisgender mainstream.However, if we’re going to ask audiences to keep in mind the multiplicity of responses that a person might have to a work of art before they attempt to control someone else’s opinion, then it’s only fair that comedians follow the same rule. It’s not that you can’t be an edgy comedian in 2015, it’s that you can’t be 1995’s idea of what an edgy comedian looks like in 2015. You don’t get to collect laughs from generalizations about Latinos (and I somewhat suspect Schumer’s tendency to focus her meanest humor on Latinos is a sign that she believers Latino stereotypes are somehow safer than black stereotypes) and also control people’s negative responses. If Schumer wanted to make the stripper she murders for the boy in her “I’m Cool With It” skit a woman of color? That’s edgy. Not including women of color in her skits, except for a music video making fun of twerking? That’s lame, and if you’re paying attention to voices beyond white media, this week wouldn’t be the first time you heard someone say that.It’s not a crime to want things to be simple—how relieving it would be if we could just say once and for all, this is harmless and everyone should forgive comedians very time their feelings are hurt! Or this is bad and everyone should all just stop watching it! But reality is complicated.No one likes when artists say this, but producing ideas entails entertaining the bad alongside the good, and this is especially true of comedy, where surprise and transgression are key to provoking the audience. Not every great artist makes a great role model, and holding creative people to both standards is just as much a disservice to the intelligence of audiences as it is to the integrity of artists. What’s reconcilable for me might not be reconcilable for you, and maybe we would be better off expressing our own responses and listening to others as they express theirs, instead of blindly trying to anticipate someone else’s feelings.Schumer’s request for trust in her post on Twitter has been criticized, but even if you are not interested in what Schumer has to say, trust is the heart of this issue. Part of your responsibility as an audience is in deciding if you trust the comedian in front of you to get it wrong sometimes, to hurt your feelings unintentionally.Of course, complicating matters is the very nature of producing comedy for television. With shows like Inside Amy Schumer, you are asked to produce your material divorced from your audience and trust that it will play once it reaches them, despite the fact that there’s no changing it once it’s been filmed.Even the once-sacred environment of a standup club has been fundamentally changed by the ubiquitous presence of cameras. Where small clubs once allowed comedians like Schumer to communicate intimately with their audience through eye contact and body language, putting a camera in a club obliterates that relationship. Instead of playing for one audience, the comedian is forced into the position of having to play for two. An audience of people is essentially fallible and therefore safe—they’ll respond in the moment yet leave behind no record of what didn’t work. When you make a bad joke in front of a crowd, it might offend them but you are operating within a safe zone, because even the most offended person’s memory will fade over time. Short of someone writing down and retelling your jokes, there is no way for that joke to leave the club. But the camera is global and it’s forever. Whether it’s a joke you put on your TV show or it’s a joke that someone recorded on their phone and put on YouTube—the moment your material meets the camera, it is a part of the public record forever, whether you eventually grow out of the joke or not.If Amy Schumer had just owned this element of fallibility and said, “Yup, I am racist, as are most people in some ways. I try to make comedy that actively interrogates my own structurally-born racist beliefs, and sometimes I fall short of my own artistic ambitions,” what would our response have been? After all, this is what Schumer does on her show, this is presumably why people keep tuning in and sharing videos like God lamenting making so many white girls after Schumer refuses to tell her sexual partners about her herpes diagnoses, or a group of white women turning to stone after a friend talks about changing her life instead of holding on to resentful wishes about starting an all-white bakery in Maine.For me, it’s this element of reflexivity in Schumer’s comedy that makes the missteps feel like missteps and not like disasters.When Bill Maher tells a joke, it’s a simple one-to-one relationship between himself and the audience. He’s a “truth teller” and you laugh because you’re shocked by the bluntness of his delivery on a subject that you yourself would be too timid—or, in his words, too politically correct—to say. It’s a domineering, self-satisfied mode of performance because it leaves the audience little room to disagree with the performer. There’s Maher’s way, and there are the idiots.Schumer is also looking to shock her audience, but not always into agreeing with her. Just as often, she actively seeks our disapproval, and we watch Schumer act out in ways ranging from annoying to sacrilegious. In other words, Schumer is a Larry David, not a Jerry Seinfeld—at her best, she pushes her mostly female audience into a kind of productive discomfort, making a space for self-criticism right alongside empowerment.In the end, I trust Amy Schumer to criticize and eventually improve her work because there are times on Inside Amy Schumer when I have been pushed to criticize myself. Whether you feel the same is for you to decide.
UPDATE: On Monday, Schumer issued an additional response to the criticisms.