The Female Gaze

How Amy Schumer flips the script on real-life gender dynamics.

Amber Rose and Amy Schumer in Inside Amy Schumer.

Amber Rose and Amy Schumer in Inside Amy Schumer.

Photo courtesy Ali Goldstein/Comedy Central

The third season of Inside Amy Schumer opens with a musical number. “Milk, Milk, Lemonade” is a spoof of booty anthems starring Amy Schumer herself, with an assist by the impressively proportioned model Amber Rose, and it serves as a reminder that butts don’t just serve as a focal point for the male gaze; women also poop out of them. It is at once scatological, sexy, and subversive—exactly the feminist flavor that’s made Schumer’s Comedy Central sketch show a hit even among the network’s target demo of young men. “Milk, Milk, Lemonade” is also a sly little sweetener: a way for the show to lure viewers into their seats before serving them more complicated fare.

The societal gender dynamics that Schumer skewers don’t shift much over the course of a year, so part of what keeps Inside Amy Schumer interesting season to season is the way Schumer finds new angles into old problems. Look closely, and you can even see Schumer’s own political perspective shifting. When the show’s second season premiered last year, Slate’s Willa Paskin called it “the most sneakily feminist show on TV.” This time around, Schumer gets more explicit. In one absurd faux PSA (“The More You Think You Know!”), Schumer addresses the audience about the gender wage gap while she digs a makeshift grave for a dead stripper. But the website that appears on screen during her spiel is no joke—it leads viewers to a pay-equity fact sheet published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Another way Schumer advances her commentary is by finding some new butts for her jokes. Part of the show’s cross-gender appeal has traditionally lied in its rejection of conspicuous man-hating: Over the past two seasons, Schumer has emerged as comedy’s sharpest observer of female pack behavior, and many of her most memorable skits have zeroed in on how women contort their own minds and bodies to cope with the low-grade degradations society throws their way—from refusing to accept compliments, to competitively body-shaming themselves. This focus makes sense in part because Schumer, the actress, performs so winningly at the batshit edge of femininity. It also helps Schumer’s sketches to resist the obvious target and find humor in surprise. In addition, pointing out how women perpetuate sexism against themselves, and one another, makes for a relatively easily digestible feminist critique.

One of last season’s bravest stretches was a sketch about a “very realistic” military video game where female avatars are kept in the barracks and raped by their superiors. GQ later reported that Schumer had worried that a certain line in the sketch might come off as “too heavy-handed.” She “could see a young male viewer feeling reprimanded.” Schumer included the line anyway, and the sketch became a viral hit.

This season, she’s doubling down. In the Friday Night Lights parody Football Town Nights, Josh Charles plays a high school football coach who courts controversy in a small Texas town when he institutes a new rule for his players: “no raping.” (“Hey!” one townsperson taunts him outside his home. “You’re that new coach that doesn’t like raping!”) Schumer is hilarious as Charles’ preposterously folksy Tami Taylorish wife, but the sketch mostly situates her on the sidelines. This one is all about the boys.

And in the season’s third episode, Schumer barely appears at all. The episode explodes the show’s sketch format to make way for a 19-minute, black-and-white spoof of 12 Angry Men. In this version, the jurors have been tasked with deciding, once and for all, whether Amy Schumer is hot enough to appear on television. The short mirrors the setup of a Season 2 sketch, where men in a Comedy Central focus group debate whether they’d sleep with Schumer, but there’s so much minable material here that it feels more like a running gag than a tired rehash. Schumer cleverly peppers the jury room with male stars known for their off-kilter looks: Jeff Goldblum as the foreman, John Hawkes as the skeptic, and Paul Giamatti as a juror who claims Schumer is “built like a lineman and has Cabbage Patch–like features”—and who ultimately breaks down in tears when he finally admits that Schumer is hot enough to stir his loins. The result is a brilliant critique of the absurd gulf between Hollywood beauty standards and real-life sexual attraction. “Maybe she doesn’t have to not be on TV at all,” one juror suggests of Schumer, a 33-year-old buxom blonde. “Maybe she could play somebody like a wacky neighbor, or a divorced obese woman with a funny dog.”

The sketch also functions as a sly advertisement for Schumer’s imminent jump to the big screen. “Now this Amy Schumer’s going to be in a movie? We’ve got to stop this,” one juror complains. “She’s definitely not protagonist hot,” another insists. And yet she’ll play one in this summer’s romantic comedy Trainwreck; in fact, Schumer wrote the part for herself.

Much of Schumer’s comedy exaggerates real-life gender dynamics to absurd heights, but the 12 Angry Men sketch doesn’t need to do much more than hold up a mirror to the “male demographic” that Hollywood prizes. As soon as the Trainwreck trailer hit the Web, some fossilized male gossip blogger took it upon himself to deem Schumer “Jennifer Aniston’s somewhat heavier, not-as-lucky sister who watches a lot of TV” and claim that “there’s no way she’d be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world.” Even when comments like those are roundly denounced by the Twitterati, they still have the effect of putting women on the defensive. The Gloss produced a piece arguing that women with Schumer’s looks can definitely be “hot to adult human males,” as if it needed to be said; Schumer herself tweeted: “I am a size 6 and have no plans of changing. This is it. Stay on or get off. Kisses!” But on Schumer’s show, it’s men who are required to defend their judgments of women’s bodies, and it’s ultimately their own insecurities that are held up for public ridicule.

Of all the feminist issues that Schumer has tackled on her show—birth control access, pay equality, sexual assault—the very idea that Schumer could be a movie star ranks among her most radical statements. (Thankfully, Schumer’s show is hilarious enough to temporarily counteract how depressing that is.) In 2011, the New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote about how women in comedy are still held back from being accepted as funny “like a guy,” and are instead relegated to the pretty-girlfriend role—or else hired by the scene to remove their tops. When Friend noted that television tends to be ever-so-slightly more forgiving to women than film, the director Nancy Meyers wondered if that’s because men feel “safer, somehow, seeing less than perfect-looking women on a smaller screen.” If anyone can knock them out of their comfort zone, it’s Amy Schumer.