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Amy Schumer's comedy is smart on feminism. Is it bad on race?

Amy Schumer attends the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 2, 2015, in London, England.
Amy Schumer attends the Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 2, 2015, in London, England.
Anthony Harvey/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Amy Schumer is the most popular female comedian of the moment. Her Comedy Central sketch series, Inside Amy Schumer, is a critical darling that just won a Peabody Award. She's been hailed as a groundbreaking feminist, a smart voice on women's issues, and someone who oozes subtle brilliance. Time magazine named her one of its 100 most influential people of 2015, she's got a movie coming out later this month, and the buzz surrounding her comedy has reached the point where you feel like an outsider if you miss one of her sketches.

What Amy Schumer says matters.

But Schumer has recently been in the spotlight for a different — and less flattering — reason. Instead of cracking jokes and showcasing that subtle brilliance everyone keeps going on about, Schumer has found herself defending her comedy against an allegation that she might not be as smart or as funny on the topic of race as she is on some of the other topics she tends to cover, like feminism and beauty standards. And Schumer's justification of her material has inspired many people to listen to her past work a little more closely, and to think about what comedy is and what it's supposed to be — two big, important questions that go beyond Schumer's stardom.

Why is everyone talking about Amy Schumer and racism?

A lot of the current chatter about Schumer, her comedy, and how she addresses the issue of race has to do with a lengthy statement she posted to Twitter on June 28:

"Stick with me and trust that I am joking," Schumer wrote in defense of her work, adding, "Trust me. I am not a racist. I am a devout feminist and lover of all people."

It appears she was responding to a column by Monica Heisey in the Guardian. The piece was largely positive and tried to capture what a momentous year Schumer is having, but concluded with the assertion that Schumer's comedy, while smart, fails when it comes to the issue of race.

"Schumer has a shockingly large blind spot around race," Heisey wrote. She also declared that "Schumer’s stand-up repeatedly delves into racial territory tactlessly and with no apparent larger point."

The comedian's Twitter post — in which she directly referred to Heisey's allegation that she has a blind spot around race — went up shortly after Heisey's column was published.

Can you give me an example of Amy Schumer's "racist" jokes?

Heisey refers to one joke in particular that Schumer performed at the MTV Movie Awards in April. Schumer was delivering a monologue and started speaking about Gone Girl.

"It's the story of one crazy white woman who did what all Latinas do when you cheat on them," she said (the joke comes toward the end of the following video):

Heisey also cites two jokes from Schumer's other work:

Her stand-up special features jokes like "Nothing works 100% of the time, except Mexicans" and much of her character’s dumb slut persona is predicated on the fact that the men she sleeps with are people of colour. "I used to date Latino guys," she says in an older stand-up routine. "Now I prefer consensual."

During Schumer's 2012 standup special Mostly Sex Stuff, she made a few jokes about "all my black friend":

She also discussed race during the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen in 2011:

Are the jokes in question truly racist?

If you read some of Schumer's critics, the answer is yes.

But it's important to remember that a lot of Schumer's early comedy was rooted in the conceit of Schumer lampooning the idea of a privileged and ignorant white girl. The context of these jokes is key, as is the way they're delivered. And there is a major difference between laughing at the idiocy of that privileged and ignorant girl and Schumer making a dig at Latinas by way of Gone Girl.

"I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot," Schumer wrote in her Twitter post. "I enjoy playing the girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible and playing with race is a thing we are not supposed to do."

There's a difference between Schumer's older standup jokes about her one black friend and what she said during her more recent appearance at the MTV Movie Awards. The black friend jokes involve a bit more thought, and they're presented with more pronounced delivery that indicates Schumer is intentionally playing a fool and making fun of herself. In contrast, the Gone Girl joke is lazier and lacks the same kind of setup. Whether you find either one funny depends on your personal taste.

In her critique, Heisey actually misinterprets a joke from an Inside Amy Schumer sketch called "Urban Fitters," saying that "it's sketch in which the titular problem appears to be that all the store’s black employees look the same."

The sketch actually rests on the idea of Schumer not wanting to describe the salesperson who helped her as black. While in character as that ignorant, privileged white girl, she jumps through all kinds of awkward hoops to avoid mentioning his race.

As Jessica Goldstein explains at ThinkProgress: "That, at the end, every guy who works in the place is (1) black and (2) dressed in nearly-identical hipster-wear — plaid button-downs, thick-rimmed glasses — is a classic Schumer kicker: an escalation of the joke to the extreme."

How has Schumer responded to these criticisms?

In addition to explaining her jokes and the mindset she's coming from, Schumer included an interesting fact about her material in her June 28 Twitter post. She stated that race isn't something she's touched upon in her standup sets for the past two years:

At the time, Schumer didn't explain why she hasn't discussed race in her recent standup material (and it appears she thinks of her standup as separate from her MTV Movie Awards monologue). However, the distinction does raise a few questions — particularly because, in that same two-year window, she's made a name for herself by writing and performing thoughtful, searing comedy with a political and social message.

On July 6, Schumer once again addressed the issue via a new Twitter post, explaining why she made a conscious decision to stop telling jokes about race. She stated that she is evolving as an artist and that the jokes were too easily taken out of context:

Why are some people comparing Schumer's comedy to the confederate flag?

On July 6, the Washington Post's Post Everything blog published a fiery op-ed about Schumer's comedy. Titled "Don’t believe her defenders. Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist," it connected Schumer's work to recent national news events like the Charleston murders and South Carolina's vote to take down the Confederate flag:

"While black families are burying their dead, churches are burning, black women church pastors are receiving death threats and the KKK is planning rallies in South Carolina, Schumer is 'playing' with race," authors Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard wrote, arguing that Schumer's jokes are a foundation of racism, and lead to to harmful results like the shooting in Charleston. (The authors failed to note that Schumer has stated she no longer discusses race in her standup.)

"[N]obody wants to take responsibility for spewing rhetoric that breeds the fear that results in soaring gun purchases, that 'inspires' monsters like Dylann Roof to craft a manifesto with deadly consequences," they added.

Connecting Schumer's comedy to Dylann Roof is a drastic, dramatic leap. The Guardian's Heisey merely asserted that Schumer has a blind spot around race, but Patton and Leonard's reading of Schumer's comedy is one that assigns more blame and more harmfulness. Patton and Leonard's piece was widely sharedpraised, and maligned, and reignited the discussion of whether Schumer's work is racist.

On July 10, Patton told the Interrobang, a site focused on exploring the impact of comedy, that she co-wrote the op-ed even though she is not familiar with Schumer's work:

The Interrobang: Have you ever watched Amy’s television show… in preparation for the article?
Stacey Patton: Nope. Not at all.
The Interrobang: Her stand-up set[s]? have you ever watched any of them?
Stacey Patton: Nope. None of them.

Patton explained that she formed her judgments based on photos of Schumer and what she saw on Twitter:

Based on the images that I've seen, photos of her- again, I have not watched any of her videos but if I look and I see a predominantly white audience that tells me something right there. And based on what I'm seeing on social media- and I have a huge social media audience myself, most of the black people that are commenting- actually all of them that I'm seeing- have been reacting very negatively to her.

Isn't comedy supposed to be subjective rather than absolutist? Why is this argument so rigid?

Schumer, her defenders, and her critics seem to be caught up in the idea that whether Schumer is racist — and whether her jokes about race are funny — is a yes-no, end-all-be-all question. Schumer, who stated in her June 28 Twitter post that "I am not going to start joking about safe material" and pleaded "don't ask that of me," clearly believes she should be able to joke about whatever she wants to joke about and not be criticized for doing so.

The trouble lies in her implication that jokes should be untouchable because they are jokes: "It is a joke and it is funny," Schumer wrote. "I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not."

Meanwhile, some of her critics seem to think sensitive topics should be completely off-limits for comedians, and that the mere fact that Schumer is joking about such topics automatically marks her comedy as bad.

"There’s nothing funny about a 30-something woman preying on 15-year-old boys, especially in a culture that ignores and marginalizes male survivors," Anne Theriault wrote for the Daily Dot, in reference to a Schumer joke about sleeping with a "crush" who is literally in high school. "A rape joke is a rape joke, even if it’s a cute blond girl making it," Theriault added.

I'm not confident that Theriault and Schumer's "off-limits" arguments are valid. Not everyone is going to think every joke is funny, and conversely, not everyone is going to find every "offensive" joke offensive. It helps neither comedians nor critics to be so resolute.

Comedy can change and evolve over time

One major issue with this controversy is that it assumes Schumer isn't capable of changing or evolving as an artist. The situation is not unlike what happened in March when Trevor Noah, who will replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show this fall, was criticized for making crass "jokes" about women and LGBT people, some of which he made before he started gaining attention for his astute views on American identity and racial politics.

Noah ultimately released a statement asking people to trust that he and his comedy have evolved over time:

Noah and Schumer aren't the only comedians who've had their past material called into question. For example, Jerry Seinfeld, Daniel Tosh, and Tracy Morgan have all had similar experiences, and they've all pleaded that they are more complex than the jokes they're telling. Now, the same thing is happening with Schumer.

Just because something is labeled as a joke doesn't mean it should be protected from criticism

Comedy that touches on sensitive topics is always going to be a difficult balancing act, and there will always be jokes that cross the line. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist.

I would never want to see Schumer restrict herself to "safe" topics simply because people condemned her for joking about controversial ones. But I'm not sure that's what critics like Heisey are asking for. It seems that Heisey in particular wishes Schumer could address the topic of race as astutely and incisively as she does the topics of feminism and the way society treats women.

In her July 6 Twitter post, Schumer acknowledged that some of her jokes have been troublesome and that she understands the criticism she's received.

"I am evolving as any artist," she wrote. "I am taking responsibility and hope that I haven't hurt anyone."