I am not one to eschew the feminist label. I am a feminist, plain and simple.
But I reject the notion that there is one standard definition of “feminist.” I remember how rejected and misunderstood I once felt in the women’s studies department of my undergraduate institution — so much so, in fact, that I dropped my women’s studies minor a mere one class short of completion. My particular Christian ethics did not jibe with the feminist norm being taught, and many thought me a traitor to the cause.
That was about 15 years ago. In the interim years I’ve learned a lot about popular conceptions of what it means to be a feminist. I’ve realized ideals I once thought immutable are actually cyclical and subject to both minor and major revisions, made by different thought leaders over time. And one current, popular semi-wave of feminism is being led by comedian and actress Amy Schumer.
Schumer’s style falls distinctly under third wave feminism — the main wave we’re riding now — but Schumer has succeeded in taking it to a more popular level, appealing to both men and women alike with her “cool girl” style.
Salon recently dubbed Schumer a potential “feminist savior.” That may be a tough label to live up to, but Schumer gives it all she’s worth. She takes seriously her power to further gender equality, creatively using her Peabody award-winning show, Inside Amy Schumer, to deconstruct and redefine notions of female sexuality, expose the absurdity of “bro” culture, and highlight the injustices and double standards faced by women today.
As a feminist myself, this all sounds well and good, but … is it? For a certain definition of feminist, I suppose it is. But when I look at the devices used by Schumer — who I find smart, witty, and real — I find myself shaking my head in rejection of her methods and self-immersion into the very same “bro culture” so many of her comedy skits reject.
Daily Beast writer Isabel Schwab sums it up nicely when she writes that Schumer “is crass, she is sexual (and proud of it), and she often talks about … cracking jokes and taking shots. She is, in other words, a lot like a man — with the added benefit that she’s a woman.”
Which leads me to wonder: is the creation of bro-culture women really the hope of today’s semi-wave?
According to the skits played out on Inside Amy Schumer, the answer is both yes and no. In fact, there is probably no other show on Comedy Central to which the words of Walt Whitman apply so well: Do I contradict myself? Very well ... I contain multitudes. Of course, if I am to avoid hypocrisy I must say that this is simply one more way of being a feminist.
But I do not see how this style can be the salvation of gender equality in a world still struggling with the notion that women are people, too.
A passing glance at recent headlines will show that those we need most in the feminist camp — the powers that be — remain in need of serious schooling in this regard, despite the decades’ long battle for women’s rights. Hilary Clinton may have feminist speak down pat, but she stands as only one of two women in a field of men running for president. And the other, Republican hopeful Carly Fiorina, may be a high-powered woman who has broken through the glass ceiling, but she’s also against current proposals to close the wage gap as well as legislation for better family-leave policies.
Earlier this month, Republican candidate Jeb Bush was taken to task for his Florida law (thankfully no longer in effect) requiring any woman pursuing adoption but unsure of the father’s identity to publically detail her sex history so that potential fathers might come forward. Even “uber feminist” Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders isn’t immune to criticism in this area: He once penned (granted, 43 years ago) what was meant to be a liberal commentary on gender roles that ended up implying women fantasize about rape.
So when Schumer asserts that she is proud of and open about her sexuality, some may not understand why feminists see that as okay, but cry foul when women are asked to detail their sex history in a local paper. And when she titles skits with names like “Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” and “Gang Bang,” it isn’t entirely clear to me that she is deconstructing a norm so much as she is reinforcing it.
I assume her hope is for deconstruction. In a powerful speech Schumer gave at the Gloria Awards and Gala last year, she made clear that she’s in this fight for the long haul, and that it’s deeply personal:
"I am a woman with thoughts and questions and sh** to say. I say if I'm beautiful. I say if I'm strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I will speak and share and fu** and love and I will never apologize to the frightened millions who resent that they never had it in them to do it. I stand here and I am amazing, for you. Not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself."
Part of me wants to applaud her words. But a larger part feels great unease, and not just because of any moral disagreements I may have with what I’ve quoted here. It’s also because Schumer’s strong, emphatic, and well-intended words once again have reduced the feminist cause to the act of sex and a woman’s appearance. She rails against sexual restrictions on women, male sexual dominance, and that weight and beauty define a woman’s worth, all worthwhile topics. But in this extremely powerful and culturally influential speech, I wonder: where is any mention of actual equality? Equality in worth for the mere act of being? In intellectual equivalency? In health care, wages, the workforce, social policies, and the boardroom? Men have reduced women to sex and appearance for ages; when the dubbed “feminist savior” of this generation makes those same topics her emphasis, isn’t she merely perpetuating the idea that those are the two things most important in a woman?
It’s also true that Schumer uses the allure of scantily clad women and sexualized skits to her advantage in terms of viewership. It’s not entirely clear to me that she’s done this on purpose, to appeal to the base instincts that relegate women to a lower class but drive up ratings, or if it’s her attempt to empower women to take charge of their own sexual prowess (an argument we’ve seen in pop culture time and again).
Regardless, my goal here is not to criticize Schumer. Again, I would be nothing but hypocritical if I didn’t acknowledge this is her definition of feminism, no matter the moral, ethical, or efficacy issues I have with it.
I would feel forever guilty, however, if I did not respond to the increasing notion of Schumer’s methods as savior to the cause. This is especially true because I am a Christian feminist, a label I see not at all as oxymoronic, but simply a direct response the teachings of Jesus and his treatment of women.
I won’t reject 100 percent of Schumer’s efforts. She has focused on the wage gap (however poorly done), and certainly she’s drawing attention to some important issues. But when reading Salon’s top 15 list of Inside Amy Schumer skits that tackle important feminist issues, I see a list completely saturated with appearance and sex. Truly, feminism is and should be about so much more than that. If we are to label any mere mortal our feminist savior, I hope it’s one who can take the conversation beyond porn, strip clubs, and makeup, to issues of equal opportunity, fair workplace policies, healthcare needs, and the like. These things may not be as easy to get a good laugh from, but given Schumer’s true comedic genius, I’m sure she could come up with something.