Over the weekend, Amy Schumer experienced what has become a contemporary ritual for rising entertainment stars after an editorial in The Guardian criticized her work as racially insensitive. Monica Heisey wrote, “For such a keen observer of social norms and an effective satirist of the ways gender is complicated by them, Schumer has a shockingly large blind spot around race.” What made headlines wasn’t the piece itself, but Schumer’s reaction. “You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not,” she wrote on Twitter. “I ask you to resist the urge to pick me apart. Trust me. I am not racist. I am a devout feminist and lover of all people.”
The response is disheartening for those who’ve been cheering Schumer’s ascendance. Her weekly injections of humor are at once topical and deft, feminist without feeling didactic — the exact opposite of her response to Heisey. Rather than listen to the critique, she got defensive and recycled a series of arguments that have become familiar from previous incidents involving Trevor Noah, Lisa Lampanelli, Daniel Tosh, and others: She has the right to joke about what she wants; it’s a comic’s job to be edgy; she’s not racist (or sexist, or homophobic), really; she’s a feminist! Schumer cut her teeth in the adversarial space of the comedy club, where you go in to win over the audience and kill them with your material. She’s used to cutting down hecklers, but that approach might not work so well with a broader audience that goes well beyond a small room.
To be fair, one of Heisey’s examples missed the mark: The sketch in which Schumer doesn’t want to call the salesperson who helped her at Urban Fitters black is arguably more about white people’s reluctance to talk about race than anything else. In her Twitter response, Schumer points out that she relishes the “irreverent idiot”: “I enjoy playing the girl who time to time [sic] says the dumbest thing possible, and playing with race is a thing we are not supposed to do, which is what makes it so fun for comics.” So when she does address race in her sketches, it’s often to tease the dumb, blonde persona. In another sketch, she asks God, played by Paul Giamatti, to get rid of her herpes, but is unwilling to make any sacrifices otherwise (like not using hair spray). He grumbles, “I need to stop making so many white girls.”
These sketches work because there’s another voice to counteract Schumer’s. But in her stand-up, there isn’t any pushback: The joke is simply whatever the “dumb girl” says it is. And it’s in her stand-up that the difference between her jokes about gender versus the ones she makes about race comes into clearer focus. When she’s lampooning ageism in Hollywood (the “last fuckable day” for female actresses) or lies that boy bands tell girls on her show, she’s clearly punching up against the routine sexism that women endure. Her jokes are as funny as they are clarifying. Her stand-up commentary on race, however, often deploys her dunce persona to make stereotypical jokes; it never looks beyond the joke. In this routine from “Women Who Kill,” she has an extended joke about a Cuban man she’s dating named Cesar that consists of doing a Cuban accent and talking about how short he is. Hosting the MTV Movie Awards, she called Latinas “crazy.” In another joke, she basically calls Latino men rapists. There’s no big reveal, no clever moment of redemption where the audience member has been edified on the machinations of American race relations. The jokes function on a more primitive level: Either you laugh because you think the stereotype is funny, or you don’t.
Digging in on this type of critique generally hasn’t worked out very well for entertainers (just look at Iggy Azalea). The better approach is to listen and take the criticism in rather than try to shut it down. When Lena Dunham was first criticized for disparities in racial representation on Girls, she addressed it openly. “I take that criticism very seriously … This show isn’t supposed to feel exclusionary. It’s supposed to feel honest, and it’s supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience,” Dunham told NPR’s “Fresh Air” back in 2012. After that, she incorporated more characters of color like Donald Glover’s as a response — whether totally satisfying to her critics or not — that showed that she was listening.
Dunham has never done stand-up; Schumer, on the other hand, is coming from a milieu that values defiance and pride. In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Steve Harvey tells Jerry Seinfeld about the time he had to apologize for making fun of special-needs children, when he was doing his character, Sister O’Dell. Seinfeld (not surprisingly) wished he didn’t have to apologize. “Why’d you have to do it,” he asks. “I just want somebody to go, It’s a joke. I’m not apologizing. Why can’t somebody do that?” “Now if I were just a pure stand-up [and] that was it? Sorry,” Harvey shrugs. He has a talk show. There’s a lot more at stake for him.
The irony is that Schumer has previously admitted to having racial blind spots. In a recent roundtable, she told Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez and Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross, “I never thought how bad it could be for you guys until I had a TV show and we had to do auditions.” She was surprised that black women felt the need to put on a “sassy” persona (something Nicole Byer has skewered in her stand-up) for casting directors. “I thought: That sucks. It meant they’d been in a lot of rooms where they were like, ‘Uh, can you be more like (snaps her finger).’” This just goes to show that the best conversations start with acknowledgment.