How Amy Schumer’s Unconscious Self-Criticism Made Me Love Her

How Amy Schumer’s Unconscious Self-Criticism Made Me Love Her

‘The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo’ reveals a great deal about Amy Schumer as a person, and not necessarily in the way she intends.
Neal Dewing
By

Amy Schumer was a comedian once. I know this because in 2014 and 2015 I was told by approximately all the publications that she is hilarious and brave. Make no mistake: she is a funny person. Her shtick is brassy, smart, confident, self-aware, and unapologetic. Her comedy could be enjoyed by just about anyone who isn’t scandalized by sex. Maybe even by most of those people, too.

Sadly, this couldn’t last. One faction of our ever-splintering society quickly claimed Schumer, and it became increasingly clear that her talents were no longer meant to be enjoyed by the wrong type of person. From what I’ve been able to glean after perusing Amy Schumer thinkpieces (remember those?), her bravery came from being forthrightly sexual even though she is a very normal-looking woman. “Body-positivity,” I think they call it, “they” being tastemakers, thinkfluencers, third-wave feminists, or whoever. Along with this choosing up of sides came the sadly familiar spectacle of an entertainer using her stature to make political statements that nobody wants to hear, and halving the size of her audience.

I don’t necessarily blame her for all of that, because it wasn’t entirely her doing. Still, it’s a shame she played along with it. Her show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” had some great moments before it went on an indefinite hiatus for not being funny anymore. Before I saw her movie, “Trainwreck” (which is good, although it ran about 25 minutes too long), the first I heard of her was a skit called “Milk Milk Lemonade,” which took the childhood rhyme about pooping and tarted it up into a Beyoncé-esque dance number. That was solid material, but my absolute favorite was “Doggy Daycare,” a pitch-perfect skewering in which self-righteous dog owners compare notes on which of their “rescues” is least fortunate.

Speaking of getting skewered, that seems to be the primary focus of Schumer’s book, “The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo.” This won’t surprise fans of her act, but sex comes up a lot. That’s not a criticism, just a heads up for people who don’t have a keen interest in the bedroom habits of strangers. The book begins with an open letter to her vagina, so that pretty much sets the tone. Yet it also reveals a great deal about Schumer as a person, and not necessarily in the way she intends.

Amy Schumer’s Sex Is Not So Positive

After that opening focused squarely on her lady-business, Schumer gets even more personal as she recounts her heartsickness upon learning a very serious boyfriend with whom she had lots of sex decided he was gay (or realized he was gay, whichever floats your boat). Grasping at the tattered shreds of her self-worth, she has a one-night stand that goes very well indeed. Here, I’ll read it to you:

Hopefully that reading had the intended effect of making you uncomfortable (such things amuse me), but it might also demonstrate that this isn’t a poorly written book. I’ve read some clunkers that left me tied up in knots over their prose, but this isn’t one of them. Schumer writes in a conversational and semi-confessional way, sort of like she’s telling you the story over lunch. When she writes about the pleasures of being “New Money,” or any of a dozen other minor or major indignities, she is charmingly self-deprecating. It’s not dense material by any stretch, but it’s not meant to be.

It’s not fluff, though. Her focus on her sex life is not rendered in pornographic detail, but this is not the portrait of a healthy, sex-positive woman Schumer thinks it to be. Just about every other page circles back around to sex. Yes, this is part of the thing she does, but as you read through a few chapters it starts to feel like she’s calling up the image of a penis just to slap you in the face with it to keep you from noticing that themes of vulnerability and a lack of self-worth recur over and over, right alongside a somewhat hollow insistence that she’s got a thick skin and unshakeable confidence.

It would be easy to say the entire book is irredeemable smut from an overexposed clown, but that’s not the case. While it might have been gratifying to spit venom at it based on a few select passages, that would not be strictly honest. When she isn’t forcing you to picture her having sex (which your humble reviewer will note was entirely nonconsensual), she can write movingly and maturely about her father’s multiple sclerosis, or her parents’ divorce, or losing her virginity to rape, or being a victim of domestic violence. Maybe I’m a soft touch, but reading her account of those things made me reconsider where she’s coming from. Seeing her as a human being complicated my initial plan to hate-review her book.

Amy Schumer Writes Like the Walking Wounded

That’s not to say there aren’t things to hate about it. There definitely are. As mentioned earlier, Schumer has recently begun confusing her opinions about things like guns and feminism for what makes her appealing to an audience. The chapter “Letters to the Editor” seemed to this white male book reviewer the sort of petty complaint that is typical of shrill feminist crusading. In short, she writes an article for Men’s Health and assumes they think she’s an ugly porker because they don’t include a photo of her. She complains, and when the editor apologetically mansplains his magazine’s formatting to her she takes it as evidence of systemic misogyny in the publishing world. It struck me as an incredibly insecure episode, but I’m sure the chapter pleases the right people.

This brings me back to not hating Schumer or her book. She succeeds in painting a portrait of herself as a flawed and, in my opinion, misguided human being. Maybe my sympathy for her is born out of a misplaced patriarchal impulse. Maybe I’m patronizing her. But I think Amy Schumer is the walking wounded, a victim of cultural forces far more toxic than it is currently popular to admit. It is evident in the way she anticipates criticism of her body and gets ahead of the insult by joking about her own appearance. That’s a defense mechanism that anyone who has ever been made to feel ugly, unimportant, or stupid will recognize.

Happily, towards the end of the book she seems to be in a stable relationship that a quick Google search indicates is ongoing. But for most of the book I was struck by the pain in her life, and like many women with the same pain she looks to the wrong place for answers. She’s seeking shelter, and thinks she has found it in the same tired feminist messaging that only perpetuates the degradation of women. It’s a dead end, but she doesn’t know it yet.

That is the real shame of this book, because it’s fun when she isn’t doing things like devoting an entire chapter to gun control and giving readers a list of congressmen to harass. Even with the relentless specter of Schumer’s sexytimes haunting each page, it moves along smartly and provided several satisfying chuckles.

Yet the political moralizing left me cold, and I have to think most other readers would skip right over those chapters. While she can speak powerfully about things like abuse and rape, the feminist sermons about standards of beauty seem almost perfunctory. I can’t tell if she’s saying some of this stuff because she’s truly committed to these ideals, or because her new audience expects her to strike the right moral posture.

She’s at her absolute best when making the connection between her personal struggles and her success in comedy, or discussing the process of being a working comedian, or explaining how she came to understand her parents as flawed human beings. Anyone who has ever tried to make people laugh ought to know how ridiculously difficult it is. Being funny is work, and Amy Schumer has put the work in. It shows in this book, which I do not hate. If another memoir is forthcoming when she is 45, or 55, I expect I’ll read it. My hope is that in the meantime she’ll become comfortable enough in her success to be a comedian again, and arrive at a point where she truly knows her own worth.

Neal Dewing lives and works in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is the co-host of The Fifth Estate, a podcast examining culture and politics.

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