The problem of Amy Schumer’s transphobia

I wanted to like Amy Schumer. Really, I did. I like sharp, funny, smart women doing engaging and challenging things in the comedy world, which is still strongly stacked against women, though white, nondisabled comedians are definitely starting to make inroads (shout out to Margaret Cho and Mindy Kaling, though!). I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as too many women in comedy, and seeing more comediennes hit the stage and the screen is really fantastic. Seeing those women get their own shows is also fantastic, and it shows how the media landscape is progressing, because it wasn’t all that long ago that giving the reins to a woman would have been almost unthinkable for comedies, where women were supposed to be part of the ensemble cast, or the subjects, not the narrators.

Unfortunately, a number of women in comedy have really showed a high degree of privilege and a poor understanding of social issues—Lena Dunham stands out as a woman who, while earnest and focused on doing important work like breaking down stereotypes around sexualities, the body, and what’s ‘allowed’ for women who don’t necessarily fit into beauty ideals, has also shown herself to be rather narrow-minded when it comes to larger issues. Diversity on her shows is a huge problem, she fought back viciously when sex workers asked her to reconsider her opposition to the UN’s recommendations on decriminalising sex work, and she’s lashed out at critics concerned with the homogeneity of her work.

Schumer shares some of these qualities. Much of the work I’ve had an opportunity to see has been funny, brilliantly sardonic, and sharply pointed. Like many women in comedy, she explicitly identifies herself as a feminist, which is fantastic. I’m not a feminist, but as an outsider, it’s valuable to see women pushing back against stereotypes about feminism (humourlessness being one) and working to build a better movement—one that I might perhaps want to come back to, but that’s a story for another day.

But it’s notable that there are serious problems with the way she interacts with her followers, like her reluctance to engage with writer Sady Doyle after she highlighted the fact that she was being publicly and repeatedly harassed by Kurt Metzger, a writer on the allegedly ‘feminist’ show. Despite the fact that Metzger has an established history of dangerous interactions with Doyle and other feminist writers and commentators, Schumer hasn’t taken any apparent public action against him, she certainly hasn’t fired him, and she also hasn’t apparently approached him in private to tell him to knock it off.

Her humour is also not always to everyone’s tastes. That’s to be expected with comedy, where different styles and approaches resonate with different people. As with other comedians, Schumer is sometimes offensive or oppressive in her work, often unwittingly, and it can make viewers flinch, but one area in which she’s particularly problematic is in her treatment of the trans community.

I have yet to see a single Amy Schumer production without at least one trans joke, usually directed specifically at trans women. Earlier this year, she really brought the point home when she pushed a trans porn star to talk about bottom surgery and really went there with “you have a cock.” Bailey Jay, her interview subject, took it in stride, but it’s hard to know whether that’s because she was putting a face on it, or because she genuinely didn’t care, or because she wanted to take it as an opportunity to lay down some education about trans experiences.

Schumer isn’t alone in her fascination with The Surgery and willingness to ask incredibly invasive questions, but it’s not the only time she’s sniped at trans women for laughs from the audience, often in ways that are designed to specifically deny their femininity, and to imply that they aren’t real women. (What kind of woman has a cock?) We’re supposed to view this as funny.

And cis audiences are lapping it up. The progressive cis community—cis women in particular—absolutely loves Amy Schumer. Can’t get enough of her. Waxes poetic about her at the slightest provocation. Widely shares and adores clips from her show and can’t stop talking about her on social media. She’s the It Girl for a generation demanding more women in comedy and willing to sacrifice marginalised groups to get there, as it’s done, for example, with Dunham. So what if Schumer has to break a few eggs to make it in the industry, right? She’s representing women in comedy and increasing diversity (where are the disabled comediannes? the comediennes of colour? who cares?) and that means going hard sometimes—and let’s all secretly admit it, trans jokes are kind of funny, right?

Here’s the thing, though: When people tell me that they like Amy Schumer, and when she wins accolades from the cis community, what I hear is not just approval of transphobia, but active celebration of it, and that is yet another reminder of the contempt with which people view the trans community, particularly trans women. Few people are willing to criticise Schumer’s treatment of the trans community, beyond the community itself, and few people listen to these criticisms, instead turning the other cheek to avoid having to hear that their comedy idol is, perhaps, someone who needs to be evaluated a little more closely in the interest of challenging dominant media narratives.

The whole point of women in comedy, for me, is getting away from harmful tropes and attitudes in comedy, and upending norms. Schumer’s not doing that, though—she’s performing the ‘just one of the guys’ feminism that leaves a chalky, bitter taste in my mouth. So go ahead: Talk up Schumer’s work. But don’t expect me to respect you for it.

Image: Amy Schumer at the 92YTribeca Festival, 92YTribeca, Flickr