Comedians Debate: Is Amy Schumer’s ‘Trainwreck’ Sexist, or the New Feminism?

The feminist comedian and filmmaker is everywhere—and her fans’ expectations are mounting.

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Amy Schumer attends the world premiere of “Trainwreck” on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (AP/Invision/Evan Agostini)

Originally posted August 6, 2015 on The Nation

It’s hard to watch TV, go online, or even leave the house without encountering the deceptively cherubic face of comedian and filmmaker Amy Schumer. Sketches from her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, are viral sensations; her HBO standup special, directed by Chris Rock, will air in October. She wrote and stars in the critically-acclaimed film Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, which is raking it in at the box office. On Monday night, she appeared as one of Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show guests; earlier that day, Schumer held a press conference to announce her support for a plan championed by her distant cousin, Senator Chuck Schumer, to make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain guns. This comes on the heels of the July shooting at a Louisiana movie theater during a screening of Trainwreck, in which two women were killed and nine people were injured.

Amy Schumer’s stand-up and sketches tackle issues like birth control, abortion, rape, sexism, and warped female beauty standards with humor and fearlessness, positioning her as a feminist icon. And indeed, some critics and fans have hailed Trainwreck as a clever subversion of the typical romantic comedy plot. But others complain that it reinforces the rom-com narrative more than it challenges it. Schumer has also come in for criticism over her handling of race issues, both in Trainwreck and in her sketches and stand-up.

I talked about Amy Schumer’s comedy and its presentation of gender and race with writers and performers who themselves engage with these themes in a funny and thoughtful way. Laura Swisher is a stand-up comedian who worked as a producer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and now works for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Gabe Pacheco is a stand-up comedian who co-hosts and co-produces Funhouse Comedy, a weekly stand-up comedy show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and is a co-host on The Katie Halper Show on WBAI. Rae Sanni is a comedian and writer who co-hosts the It’s About Us podcast. Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the author of Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life. Kate Levin is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction, and faculty member of the University of Southern California, whose most recent piece, for The Boston Globe, reflects on being a teenage prank call addict.

Katie Halper: Let’s start with the argument that some of Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist. What do you think of that criticism—and Schumer’s response?

Laura Swisher: There are comics whose material I loathe and find offensive, and often times it’s because their material is racist and/or sexist and utterly lacking in craft. But if a comic can make me laugh, or surprise me, I give them a lot more leeway, even if individual jokes might be offensive. I’d put Schumer in the “give her more leeway” category.

Kate Levin: The most salient thing for me when I think about Schumer and race is the response she gave after a Guardian writer called her out for having a blind spot around this subject. In response to criticism of the joke, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual,” she replied, “It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it…. Trust me. I am not racist.” I like Schumer—some of the stuff on her show I like a lot—but her response doesn’t hold up to the tiniest bit of scrutiny. She knows what she said wasn’t racist because… it was funny and people laughed at it? People laugh at racist jokes all the time! She knows that. (People also laugh at stuff that isn’t funny all the time, which she knows, too.) So what could land a smart person in such a swamp of illogic?

Katie: I too was disappointed that Schumer’s response to being called racist was basically that a racist joke isn’t racist if it makes people laugh. But I was also disappointed, though not shocked, with how her critics have reacted. I don’t know why, but very nuanced and insightful people are often incapable of bringing that same nuance and insight to their analysis of comedy. All jokes that deal with race or racism are put into the same category, regardless of the comedian’s perspective. It’s as absurd as lumping together Schindler’s List and Triumph of the Will.

“Now I prefer consensual”—Latino men are the butt of that joke. She’s not highlighting an injustice. She’s not being subversive. But here’s another joke her critics call racist: “Nothing works 100% of the time. Except Mexicans.” Here, I don’t agree. One could argue that Schumer is trivializing the exploitation of Mexicans. But it seems to me a critique of the exploitation of Mexicans and our willingness to be ignore it. It’s Colbert-esque in the way it uses a lighthearted voice to draw attention to something serious.

Katie: What do you think about the way Trainwreck dealt with race and racism?

Rae Sanni: Trainwreck seems to try to “deal with” race, most obviously by including a character, Amy’s father, who casually makes racist jokes, and, more interestingly, through scenes like the one wherein we learn that Amy herself doesn’t have any black friends. Schumer plays with this quite a bit in her material, often making fun of clueless white women for their failure to acknowledge racial privilege. It feels hollow here, though, because while Trainwreck points out racism, it doesn’t actually do anything about it, and most of the racism we see from the characters goes unaddressed. The character Amy offers a photo of herself with a black waiter as proof of an interracial friendship, but she faces no real consequences for it. The handsome doctor she’s interested in mocks her, briefly, but his interest in her does not wane.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: What frustrated me most about the depiction of race in Trainwreck wasn’t so much the lack of main characters of color as much as that the film ­went over the top being self-aware that there were no people of color. Does being self aware that you are bad at inclusion make the lack of inclusion any better? I left the theater thinking no.

Gabe Pacheco: First I want to heap on the praise. Trainwreck has cameos from stellar stand-ups Keith Robinson and Marina Franklin; Tim Meadows and Method Man are also in the film; LeBron James steals scenes as Bill Hader’s best friend. All these performers are examples of black excellence. But they are severely under-utilized. These fantastic artists and personalities are window dressing. Each of these roles could have been more fleshed out.

Worse is that fact that Schumer’s character is benignly racist.  She would never judge a black person negatively, but she doesn’t associate with black people. And her work buddy and confidant, played by Vanessa Bayer, fetishizes black men as sex objects.  Both these privileged white women live happily without ever having to examine their racism in any real way. Also, where are the Latinos in this movie? Let’s get a Danny Trejo in there, or Michael Peña.

Katie: Yas! More Michael Peña. In everything. But what I found most shocking was that in the scene where there is a very jump-cut heavy montage of all these men that Amy’s character is kicking out of her house, there wasn’t a single black man. I was surprised that casting didn’t have at least one black man in the mix. Not because that would show Amy the character or the writer to be a champion of racial justice, but because statistically, sleeping with that many men would likely involve sleeping with at least one black man.

Samhita: There is only one thing that needs to be said here: Give LeBron more acting roles. That might have been this movie’s most solid contribution to the rom-com cannon.

Rae: LeBron James is great in the film, though he’s relegated to the dude version of the Sassy Black Friend™ that exists solely to assist the white protagonist Aaron in identifying and accomplishing his goals. It’s also somewhat disappointing that Aaron’s black friends are all just athletes. No disrespect to athletes, but there aren’t any black doctors running in Aaron’s circles?

Katie: How do you view Trainwreck in relation to the conventional rom-com formula? And what do you make of the film’s depiction of Amy’s outlook on relationships, dating and sex?

Laura: Trainwreck is a feminist take on the rom-com. The traditional roles are reversed; the audience roots for the girl to pursue the guy. It’s Amy who must overcome her fear of intimacy or risk losing the love of her life. Plus, she has sexual agency, and verbalizes what she wants in bed. “Talk dirty to me,” she tells John Cena’s flustered Steven, who can only utter off-topic bromides like, “There’s no I in team.”

Katie: There is something subversive about letting the Matthew McConaughey role go to a woman!

Gabe: Amy is the pursuer; she has the power. We now get to see a female character objectify men. Could it be more progressive? Sure. Character Amy is not a sex-positive, self-actualized person having awesome and healthy sex with a bunch of people. Her encounters are alcohol fueled, one-sided, and don’t seem to be much fun for anyone involved. The content of the story is not progressive. Trainwreck is the story of a woman with a traumatic childhood and a dysfunctional family who finds a strait-laced successful guy and learns to be vulnerable with him. The narrative isn’t a radical departure from other romances. This is no roadmap to radical feminist liberation.

Kate: I agree: Amy’s character has more sexual agency and power than female characters are usually afforded in rom-coms. We see her being a player, invoking the “no sleepover” rule that’s more typically invoked by male characters (like Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids). I don’t see this as feminist but rather a pretty straightforward inversion. And as Gabe noted, these aren’t sex-positive, self-actualized people. But I didn’t walk into the theater looking for that.

Samhita: In portraying an exaggerated vision of the modern woman who is not just trying to settle down, but is busy and career focused, Amy’s character is relatable to a lot of women. It was nice to see the ambivalence a lot of women feel about love and dating given voice on the big screen. That said, what I didn’t love was that the suggestion that she was like that because she’s bruised on the inside. I think it perpetuates the idea that women who have sex outside of relationships just haven’t met the right man yet!

Gabe: Amy is portrayed as damaged, and the sex she has is depicted as empty. But it would be a shallow reading of the character to say her problem is the amount of sex she is having. The character’s problem is an inability to be intimate and vulnerable and to form meaningful relationships with her partners. Maybe I’m a utopian dreamer, but I believe that a world exists where people can have multiple sex partners and not be seen as a “trainwrecks.”

Laura: I think I’d like the film less if Amy’s character had a series of healthy, sex-positive one night stands. What impressed me was simply the fact that we got to see a woman on screen that wants and expects to be sexually satisfied by her partners. If this were any other rom-com, Amy’s character would be the slutty drunk girl. She’d be the girl that’s way less hot in the sober light of day, and the guy she slept with would have to find a hilarious way to ditch her. In Trainwreck we learn that the slutty drunk girl is actually more interesting than the guy who’s bummed he didn’t wake up to a super model.

Rae: I really liked the film, but it isn’t particularly subversive in its treatment of gender and sex and sexuality. Amy is a promiscuous alcoholic who eschews intimacy, and the movie is titled Trainwreck to ensure that the audience isn’t confused about how we are meant to see Amy and her choices. I mean, the opening scene frames Amy’s lifestyle as a manifestation of her daddy issues. There’s nothing new about the slut with daddy issues narrative. Trainwreck is ultimately the standard romantic comedy, though the gender role reversals make it a little more fun than a lot of other rom-coms. Scenes in which men immersed in the hypermasculine world of sports engage with their feelings are interesting, but they don’t necessarily mean Trainwreck is feminist or progressive.  After acknowledging that she is “broken,” Amy, who initially did not want a family, praises her sister’s domesticity, and chooses to be in a monogamous relationship with a man who has expressed his desire to have children in the near future. Traditional ideas about love and happiness prevail.

Laura: “Inside Amy Schumer” is one of the smartest sketch shows there is, and I hope its success prompts TV execs to seek out other strong, female comedians. And although I wouldn’t say Trainwreck is as groundbreaking as Schumer’s show, I thought she gave us an original take on the rom-com, if only because Schumer herself is original. So, no, she didn’t reinvent the genre with Trainwreck, but for audiences seeking a two-hour escape from reality, it delivers.

Katie: Some of you find the film not feminist or not that progressive. Would we ever ask a male comedian filmmaker to take on as much as we’re asking Schumer? Sure, she has a reputation as a feminist, so it makes sense for us to expect a more progressive movie from her than we would from your average rom-com star. But are we placing unrealistic demands on female artists that we wouldn’t make on male ones?

Rae: Some feminists and progressives place unrealistic and unreasonable demands on people. But Schumer has been praised for her feminism and she has embraced this role. So I don’t feel especially bad for her. On the other hand, she’s an individual and artist and entitled to self-expression.

Kate: I don’t think I am holding Amy Schumer to unrealistically high standards (comedically, politically, whatever) because she’s a woman. I expected more from her movie because her show can be so damn good. If Key and Peele’s Judd Apatow collaboration is as flat and predictable as Trainwreck, that will be a bummer, too. Same goes if Louis CK were to make a film that was just okay. That’s just how it is with artists who show you that they can be great—when they’re less great, you notice.

Samhita: No, I don’t think it’s unfair. Her whole thing is to be feminist and excoriate expectations around gender and male desire.

Gabe: I’m happy to see a smart, hard-working stand-up spread her wings and make a movie. Trainwreck is a solid first film. How fun would life be if we watched every single film and gave it the “Is it racist, is it homophobic, is it sexist,” test? Judging Trainwreck as a comedy, I’m more interested in, “Did it make me laugh?” For the most part, yes. The lines and performances worked. Usually rom-coms affect me like a couple pills of melatonin and a spoonful of Benadryl. I’d like to see Amy tackle another genre.

On [the hip hop podcast] Juan Epstein, co-host Peter Rosenberg said, “It’s the best comedic film debut since 48 Hours.” What I took from that is that Eddie Murphy got dropped into an action movie and made it sizzle. He brought comedy to a gritty, racially charged and threadbare plot. Amy is dropped into a genre film and by the end of Trainwreck she has established herself as a crisp writer, comedian and actor. A triple threat.

Katie: She dropped herself in, since she wrote it. Or she jumped in. Don’t deny her agency, Gabe!

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