Amy Schumer’s coarse, playful comedy explores how women are complicit in their oppression

(And forgives them for it.)

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“The defendant is accused of committing a heinous crime. You gentlemen of the jury are facing a grave responsibility... So, gentlemen, raise your hands, please, if you think that Amy Schumer is not hot enough to be on television.” So begins one episode of Inside Amy Schumer  a parody of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men  and its brand of self-referential, culturally aware, playful comedy serves as a fitting introduction to the show.

Inside Amy Schumer is a mix of short sketches, bursts of stand-up, provocative vox pops, and interviews. The show’s success undeniably rests on the sketches, which see a parade of different “Amys” attempt to navigate a man’s world. With her searing critiques of rape culture in sport, birth control regulation, and the objectification of women in film and television, Schumer has been lauded for piercing the structural absurdities women tackle on a daily basis.

But, as the title of her show suggests, Schumer’s funniest and most nuanced sketches come when she rinses sexism from the inside as well as out. Schumer frequently plays out stereotypes from the Cool Girl to the basic bitch to examine how women internalise and perpetuate the sexism around them. It’s a technique that helps the show resist becoming too preachy in its overtly feminist agenda. A scene from series two shows a group of women refusing compliments with increasing insistence (“Are you drunk? I look like an Armenian man. People are trying to buy carpets from me”), until, when a passing acquaintance accepts one with a simple “thank you”, the rest suddenly commit suicide in despair. Another slates the moral dimension women attach to their eating habits: “I was cyberbullying my niece on Instagram the other day, and I literally ate 15 mini muffins. I’m so bad.” 

This thread has become darker and more pronounced in the third season of Schumer’s show. As one scene ends by pointing out the gender gap in self-confidence, it segues into another which opens with a friend asking Amy why she works two jobs to support her terrible boyfriend an aspiring rapper, “almost off drugs” and “like, a month away from being divorced”, who names himself “BBibbyRapsKyle1975@yahoo.com”. “You’re better than this,” she tells Amy. “No I’m not,” comes the dismissive reply. 

This peaks in Schumer’s satire of the Cool Girl, a trope previously lacerated by Ariel Levy and Gillian Flynn as “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size two”. Desperate to be considered “a chick who can hang” by the lads at work, Amy forces herself to engage in increasingly frantic “macho” behaviour, all the while screaming that she’s TOTALLY COOL WITH IT. The scene culminates in her burying a murdered stripper alone, in a moment that takes black humour to a stomach-turning extreme.

Schumer’s sharp insight is constantly undercut by her sheer silliness. Some of the series’s most laugh-out-loud moments are crude, or juvenile, or both. A music video parody includes lines like “I fart and break your glasses”. Women drown in wine spilling from four-foot-tall novelty glasses. Men swordfight with rubber dildos. Amy’s body is repeatedly offered up as the butt of the joke, as she is mistaken for “a bag of wet leaves”, “a fat wind howling”, “a garden gnome” and “a jumbo sleeve of cookie dough”.

But more ruthless scenes are also saved from becoming uncomfortably brutal – or perpetuating misogyny rather than satirising it – by a humanity that comes from lived experience. All these Amys feel as though they are a personality Schumer has flirted with at some point in her life: tried on for size, found ill-fitting, and ultimately discarded, like the “ambitious” dresses from her “New Body” sketch. There’s a danger of conflating comic female characters with the women behind them: as Lena Dunham remarked, “people have a lot of trouble imagining that women have the imagination to create a separate persona”. I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing the woman, not the work and perhaps this is just testament to Schumer’s depth as a writer – but the note of empathy that softens even her harshest portrayals of young women feels genuine. 

Recalling her college self at the Gloria Awards last year, Schumer conjures an image of ritual humiliation that feels both familiar and heartbreaking, when a crush invites her to his room at 8am, only to open the door clearly wasted:

He smelled like skunk microwaved with cheeseburgers, which I planned on finding and eating in the bathroom, as soon as he was asleep. We tried kissing. His 9 a.m. shadow was scratching my face — I knew it'd look like I had fruit-punch mouth for days after. His alcohol-swollen mouth, I felt like I was being tongued by someone who had just been given Novocain. I felt faceless, and nameless. I was just a warm body, and I was freezing cold. 

[...]

I was looking down at myself from the ceiling fan. What happened to this girl? How did she get here? I felt the fan on my skin and I went, ‘Oh, wait! I am this girl! We got to get me out of here!’

Like the host of other white, straight, middle-class women reaching new levels of success in comedy, Schumer doesn't speak for every aspect of womanhood. But her comedy does call to the common voice inside so many brilliant, smart women that, faced with a nightmarish maze of social expectation, says, “Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind”. It’s this sense of camaraderie with that girl that enables Schumer’s comedy to feel both unflinching and refreshing. It lends her work a near-redemptive quality that provoked Meredith Haggerty at Splitsider to write: “It would be really hyperbolic to compare Amy Schumer to Jesus, but Amy Schumer is basically exactly like Jesus.” As Schumer said to the roomful of women at the awards: “I am myself. And I am all of you.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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