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Amy Schumer and the Freedom to Be an A–hole

Amy Schumer and the Freedom to Be an A--hole

Amy Schumer has never been more in the limelight. Now that the countdown is on for her Judd Apatow movie, “Trainwreck,” and the third season of “Inside Amy Schumer” wraps up next week, it felt inevitable that some sort of backlash would crop up; You can’t be America’s hottest comedian for long without someone finding a reason to take you down (though Louis CK managed it for a good long while until quite recently, and even that hasn’t really gained much traction; hopefully the rumors aren’t true).

So yes, maybe Schumer isn’t doing everything right; I’ve cringed at some of her racial standup in the past. I understand why some of that criticism is being leveled at her, and I also understand her response that the territory of being a comedian entails pushing boundaries (albeit sometimes wrongly, which is the part she didn’t say). But I think the outrage machine currently aimed at her detracts from what she’s really been doing right — and more loudly than any other female comic in recent memory. I don’t think her occasional tone-deafness (of which most edgy comics are guilty, at some point, when the world starts paying close attention to their every word) should take away from that.

When the third season of “Inside Amy Schumer” started, I was impressed by its taking on bigger and broader issues than the self-deprecating tone of much of the first two seasons. The initial few episodes of Season Three alone gave us “Last Fuckable Day” and “Twelve Angry Men,” “Football Town Nights” and “Ask If Birth Control is Right for You,” and that rousing anthem “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup.”

Taken on their own, that list of sketches comprises some of the year’s most scathing, on-point gender and cultural satire.

Since then, the show has slowed down to being sporadically funny, in the way that most sketch comedy shows are (I find myself enthusiastically liking about half of what I see on “Key & Peele,” which I still think of as another one of the best comedy shows going). Not all of it is gonna work, but there’s generally one sketch per episode that really makes it all worthwhile. This week, it was the “Listen Alert” ad which, as a bona fide terrible anecdote-teller, I could really relate to. I also liked that the point of it wasn’t the old “men don’t listen to women” saw, but rather that most people just aren’t into listening to other people most of the time. Its kicker, “We won’t listen to your dreams,” also nicely highlighted the running Schumer gag about how basically everyone is a dick sometimes.

Which, I think, is really the essence of why Schumer is so beloved by so many people right now, and why she’s created such a cultural stir. To say that she’s trying to flip gender roles is inaccurate (which she’s said recently herself, regarding her movie). Her niche is also different than the Female Curmudgeon or the Difficult Woman, both of whom I have a great regard for. And she’s not going for the wild-woman ethos of “Broad City,” the idea that today’s millennials are playing by their own rules. What Schumer’s done is something simultaneously more mundane and more pervasive.

Schumer’s trying to level the gender playing field in a very particular way — to reclaim the very basic concept that a woman, too, can be a bit of an asshole. Not all the time, and not in the big areas that matter (this is especially true of “Trainwreck,” which I’ll get to in a minute). Schumer just has an uncanny ability to channel, and perform, the ways that we often act rather than how we imagine the best versions of ourselves acting.

And I don’t think that’s a gendered thing. It’s simply an attribute that hasn’t been encouraged in female characters. How often is the male lead — in a drama or a comedy — a lovable rogue, a hilarious misanthrope, or a gruff and blunt-spoken guy who still manages to win the love of a good woman?

In romantic comedies, particularly, the woman is usually the one who has assholishness visited upon her, whether it’s via the wrong boyfriend at the beginning or the initially grouchy but eventually right love interest, or her boss, or her oppressive family, or some other outside influence. Rarely do we see a woman at the heart of a rom-com who’s got friends and a good relationship with her family and a robust dating life, who’s just… kind of an insensitive dick. Amy, as “Amy” in “Trainwreck,” has a scene with a fleeting boyfriend (played, hilariously, by John Cena) who’s crushed when he finds texts from other guys on her phone. As they sit together on a stoop talking, she puts her hand gently on his… and asks if she can leave. “I just really need this interaction to be over,” she says in a voice that, in any other comedy, would be giving some variation of a speech about how his feelings matter to her.

In “Trainwreck,” because it’s a feature film, Schumer gets the opportunity to flesh out this idea, and to juxtapose it with scenes of deeper emotion, like the ones with her dad (Colin Quinn), which show her character to be capable of love, personal responsibility, and awareness of what a good relationship is and isn’t. In her show’s sketches, though, she doesn’t need to go any farther than allowing it to be OK for her character to say, or do, the insensitive thing.

The flip side of this, of course, is pointing out how much pressure women are under to look right, be nice, or do the appropriate thing — as in her sketch about accomplished women saying “I’m sorry,” or the one about the woman who lives her entire life with another man because she’s been told it’s arrogant to tell a guy at a party that she has a boyfriend.

Taken together, Schumer’s material is tackling territory that many of us have been discussing — but not seeing much in pop culture — for approximately forever. That may not absolve her of other transgressions, but it does inarguably put her on the map as a feminist trailblazer.

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