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What the Amy Schumer Saga Says About Feminism and Compromises

Golden Globe Nominees 2016 Reactions
Courtesy of Universal

Watching “Inside Amy Schumer” has often elicited a storm of different reactions: laughter, recognition, shock, occasionally frustration.

So it’s not surprising that this week has been a rollercoaster for those who’ve followed Schumer’s meteoric rise.

Shock, horror and sadness are only a few of the emotions that swirled online as Kurt Metzger, a longtime writer for the Comedy Central show that launched Schumer to prominence, spent days making offensive and incendiary comments about a situation involving allegations of rape within the comedy community.

Via Twitter and Facebook, Metzger mansplained how women should process and report their assaults. His behavior was a textbook demonstration of male privilege and a series of examples of clueless and cruel victim-blaming. And yet as much of this occurred, Schumer remained silent.

When she finally commented on Wednesday, via Twitter, she conveyed disappointment about Metzger’s actions, but she didn’t use the kind of bold, cut-through-the-b.s. language that is familiar from her stand-up material and her show. She distanced herself from Metzger, but in ways that felt equivocal and halting.

There was some doubt about where things stood late Wednesday night: Was Metzger fired or not? Was the show canceled or not? She finally cleared things up Thursday morning: The show is not canceled, but it’s taking a long break, and Metzger no longer works for “Inside Amy Schumer,” but then again, nobody does, because it’s not gearing up until next year, after her tour.

As the situation played out, observers — many of them, like Schumer, self-declared feminists — tried to understand how she could have employed a man with such toxic tendencies for so long. Because this isn’t the first time Metzger made a series of poor decisions; back in 2013, a similar controversy swirled when feminist writers Lindy West and Sady Doyle accused him of harassing them online. There are few things more tiresome than a comedy bro being offensive to women in the name of speaking uncomfortable truths or whatever his excuse is, but that seems to be Metzger’s thing. Sigh.

Perhaps the lowest point of the more recent Metzger affair was when women who asked Schumer to speak up found they’d been blocked by her on Twitter. It’s hard to describe the letdown of seeing someone who’s positioned herself as a champion of women literally wall off the words of those airing their concerns in a civil fashion.

Maybe we should have seen all this coming. After all, Schumer has said things before that crossed lines, only to retreat into the usual excuses about how she didn’t mean to offend anyone. Last year, she faced criticism over what one writer called her “blind spot about race,” and while she apologized for an offensive joke about Mexican men, she also said that those who called her humor “lazy” are “wrong.”

This is a pretty familiar pattern: The more famous a comedian gets, the more scrutiny he or she is subjected to, and while everyone understand that writers and artists must grow and evolve — and possibly make mistakes along the way — defensiveness and self-righteousness seem to be the instinctive responses of many in the comedy world when challenged in reasonable ways.

But this time felt different. The Schumer-Metzger mess is a huge, exhausting reminder that even when a woman is the boss, she can make other women feel like she doesn’t have their backs.

If you’re a woman over the age of 14 or so, the depressing deflation of being let down by a woman you had admired isn’t a new feeling. But to be so disappointed by someone whose whole public persona is based on bold talk, refreshing honesty and confrontations with sexism in all its slippery forms is a huge bummer.   

As the controversy gained steam, I kept thinking of a sketch that aired in the second-season premiere of “Inside Amy Schumer.”

A focus group made up of men talked in graphic and insulting terms about whether they would sleep with Schumer, who stood behind a one-way mirror, listening to them list her faults. Like a number of her sketches throughout the years (particularly the lauded “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”), it brilliantly captured the ways in which women can’t avoid being subjected to unfair and crass judgments. It was yet another comedic distillation of the idea that double standards and unfair limitations too often determine the shape and scope of our lives.

At the end of the sketch, Amy asks the focus-group leader a question: “A couple of them said they would bang me?” He nods, and she turns to the camera and smiles. The joke is that, even though the men shredded her, some part of her wanted their approval. It’s funny because it’s true; I’ve been there. A lot of us have been there. So much of Schumer’s work is based on the idea that, even as women reject the punishments and judgments they know are unfair, they still have to operate inside biased systems, and they can still find themselves responding to the alleged “rewards” offered to women who conform. 

“A Chick Who Can Hang” is another skit that explored how women have to conduct themselves in order to be accepted by men, and how tiring that can be. Because she depicted that kind of everyday sexism and those kinds of brain-melting compromises with such subversive glee and amusing focus, I let the lesser sketches go. I didn’t write about being troubled by some of the gender and race content of some of her jokes (and that’s my bad). I made allowances, because Amy Schumer, the woman who aired effective comedy sketches eviscerating rape culture, got it, right? Especially as a woman who revealed in her new book that she was sexually assaulted, she got it. Didn’t she? 

It’s a confusing situation that partly reflects the binds that so many women are put in on a daily basis. But that explanation is not a justification, and I am clear about one thing: Schumer did not come up with a statement that made it clear that she picks women over Metzger. She tried not to make a choice, but evasion can speak volumes.

The banning of Aaron Glaser from UCB for alleged rape is just one of many rape, harassment and assault controversies that have roiled various comedy communities in the last year or two. Those painful confrontations with the toxic elements of comedy culture have, for the most part, happened after the 2013 debut of Schumer’s show — after she came up through that world. Maybe her embrace of feminist concepts in her work helped change the culture she sprang from, and much of her work clearly reflected personal experiences. But maybe her success has made her more prone to compromise, not less. Without her offering a more complete explanation of these events, it’s difficult to say (and her recent interview with Charlie Rose on this topic didn’t help). 

Speaking of her memoir, it was hard not to feel a few shreds of sympathy for Schumer in the last few days. This week marked the arrival of her book, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo,” but a thoughtless and selfish man  made everything about him and pulled the focus away from her moment. What woman hasn’t been there — having to deal with a male colleague whose poorly timed and immature hissy fit threatened to undo her hard work? Could he have picked a worse week to have his manbaby meltdown? 

But this isn’t just about that, and attempts to turn the conversation into a discussion of what Schumer has suffered aren’t working, not for me anyway. As writer and comedian Nikki Black wrote in a compelling essay, the past few days have really been about how women in comedy don’t “deserve to be treated like our experiences are unreliable.” 

Metzger’s actions are typical of the kind of gatekeeper behavior women face, especially as they ascend the ladder. Sometimes when gatekeepers get testy and possessive, you just have to break the gate, and Schumer had that power. But this week has laid bare the kinds of disappointing compromises even powerful women sometimes make in order to succeed in male-dominated professions. When she needed to make it clear to her fans that she valued her feminist beliefs over the actions of a rogue employee, Schumer didn’t step up to the plate.

Maybe she will in season five of “Inside Amy Schumer.” If it ever comes to pass.