Amy Schumer's Mirrors

Curator's Note

Amy Schumer's rise in comedy coincided with allegations of racial and ethnic insensitivity. Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard wrote in The Washington Post (2015) that Schumer's jokes draw from "shared cultural stereotypes and use dehumanizing language." My analysis of the compilation video of Schumer's racial and ethnic jokes reveals a more complicated, ambivalent picture.

Several of Schumer’s jokes have markers of satire. Incongruities reside in her misuse of ignorant sayings (e.g., “I was hanging out with all my Black friend”), the misuse thus suggesting that Schumer is playing the role of the wise fool. Schumer the fool models ignorant behavior, thus holding a mirror to society that magnifies and exposes discriminatory discourses. 

After talking about her Black friend, Schumer imitates said friend, stating, “She was like: GIRL!!!” Schumer pauses briefly and sweeps the imitation away with a wave of her hand, interjecting to the audience, “I won’t do some racist impression.” After marking her performance as racist, Schumer delivers a more drawn out “GIIIIRRRRLLL!” while miming the turning of Double Dutch ropes. The exaggeration is satiric, demonstrating the comic mirror's power of magnifying society's flaws. The scene ends with Schumer shaking her head dismissively, smoothing her dress and touching her blond curls, drawing attention to the ignorant fool’s white privilege. 

In contrast to the satiric monologue, Schumer’s joke about Latina irrationality stays at the level of surface meanings, not using the magnifying mirror to encourage the audience to see a new perspective. While hosting the 2015 MTV Movie Awards, Schumer introduces Gone Girl as “the story of what one crazed white woman—or all Latinas—do if you cheat on them.” When the audience does not issue many audible laughs, Schumer uses an ironic device commonly employed by Stephen Colbert in his Report: she doubles down, stating, "That's a fact." But we see no other markers of Schumer's fool persona in this monologue, so this ironic device receives little textual support. The camera closes the vignette by shifting its focus to Jennifer Lopez in the audience who points at herself and looks confused.

In this scene, the comic mirror is not turned on an ignorant society, and Schumer is not a wise fool exaggerating a stereotype to comic effect. Instead, she is a fool who makes a tired, degrading joke that has little resonance with the audience. The mirror in this case reflects Schumer back to us as the object of ridicule.  


Lisa, you do such a superb job of not only describing Schumer's signifying mannerisms but also her intent. I have zero doubt that Amy is playing the wise fool (as Sarah Silverman did before her and as others less famous do as well) and to substantial effect. I believe she is very popular in large part because she is widely admired for her creative expression re racism and sexism (of course there are outliers). The MTV scene was unfortunate but is a good indicator of a comic still faltering when in a different "room." I'm sure she wished she had more time so she could fully express her usual persona when that joke would have done better. But I also have a hunch that she's feeling her way toward a different persona (I did hear her say in an interview that she is intentionally bringing more of her real self into her stand-up), so this transition time could be a bit bumpy. She is fearless, and I have faith that her wisdom will prevail.

Lisa, you make a very persuasive case here for assessing irony as a textual function, rather than assuming it belongs to the nigh unchartable terrain of tone. Your analysis also works as a response to the ironic racism thinkpiece genre more broadly, of which the WaPo column is only a more recent (and opportunistic) example. Usually these pieces practice a zero tolerance ethics towards the rationale that putting racist tropes into play allows us to hit them where they live, under the presumption of a naive spectator who won't "get the joke" and might even have her racist beliefs entertained. This certainly does happen to great, critical comedy: Chris Rock retiring his "N****s vs. Black People" routine after it innervated white mouthbreathers, for example. Hence the need for laser precision and control of context, which the Colbert Twitter account failed to secure quoting his Dan Snyder bit, and which Schumer failed to do on MTV here. No doubt many viewers are too exhausted by racism in their everyday lives to feel the need to give Schumer the benefit of the doubt on her "bumpy" journey, to borrow Kathleen's term. But, to borrow a point argued at the "Irony in Film and Media" panel I saw at SCMS last year, it impoverishes our discourse to assume there's no possibility of recuperation.

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