Monday, November 09, 2015

Amy’s Men: Unruliness, Media Parody, and the Male Audience

[the following are notes from a roundtable discussion I participated in on Amy Schumer]

What’s left to say about Amy Schumer?

She’s been riding a wave of critical acclaim over the last year that recently culminated with winning the first Emmy for a sketch comedy program, preceded by a hit romantic comedy, and a Peabody Award. Her program Inside Amy Schumer has become the kind of Must See TV that Chappelle’s Show briefly enjoyed in the mid 2000s. The programs are very similar in their format: sketches separated by stand-up. Chappelle’s musical guests are replaced with Schumer’s interviews.

And, of course, whereas Chappelle was must see TV because of his satiric critiques related to race, Schumer critiques gender norms. As has been oft-remarked, Schumer is an example of the “unruly woman.” She follows a line of female comedians that aren’t just funny, but who exceed the bounds of what is considered socially acceptable for women. Unruly women are talk too much, are loud, have too much sex, fart, poop, and in other ways exceed bounds of what is considered normal or acceptable.

In TV, we can trace that line back to Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen, up to the 80s and 90s with Roseanne Arnold, and Schumer’s contemporaries Melissa McCarthy and Lena Dunham. Amy, though, works in sketch comedy versus sitcom or drama, and because of this the boundaries of how the takes on gender norms are less restricting. Roseanne in a domestic comedy and so was about motherhood and family. Lena Dunham is also bound by narrative, if not the domestic. Amy is in sketch and has freer reign, and has proven relentless in her focus on her own unruliness.

However, I would suggest that because Amy’s show is a sketch comedy on CC, the “male skewing audience” has meant particular attention to the question of Amy’s sexual desirability among men. What’s interesting to me is the success of that critique, and the ways that has perhaps been made more acceptable to the male audience. I think that the ways in which the critique has been crouched within media parody is important to this.

That is Inside Amy Schumer emphasizes not being unruly in culture, but unruly in media culture specifically. Going up against media norms deflects the critique, and avoids being directly critical of men.

A significant amount of time that Amy has spent talking about sex has been focused on whether or not the male TV audience wants to have sex with her. The first scene of the second season dealt with this explicitly

Not only did this scene open the first episode of the second season, but it also immediately followed what has been IAS’s lead in all three seasons: Tosh.0. On the air since 2009, that program has been enormously successful, and IAS’s success has been reported in terms of not how big her audience is, but how much of Tosh.0’s audience she loses.

This scene directly represents the stereotypical “bad” male audience member through a collection of dipshit “bros.” Even the guy who says he appreciates that she provides a feminist perspective on a “male-skewing channel” is doing so only to set up a joke that he also is only concerned with talking about whether or not he would fuck her. Finally, the guys battle over beef jerky and energy drinks. If this is the audience Amy loses, good riddance. But there’s a implicit argument here also: don’t be like these guys. Be more sophisticated. You understand how focus groups, etc. work, and you are not like these guys.

But I think that it is not too difficult to connect this skit to the male audience that is constructed indirectly through media parody. That is, there (understandably) aren’t scenes illustrating the smart, ideal, sophisticated male viewer as that would be incompatible with satiric ridicule. The prevalence of parody posits a sophisticated male viewer even when it is not an explicit “behind the scenes” sketch like the focus group. Parody requires being in on the joke; that is, understanding the media forms being adopted in order to critique gender norms (Milk Milk Lemonade, Amy Live Blakely).

The ultimate example of this is “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer.” This is an entire episode devoted to the question of whether or not Amy is sexually desirable. In contrast to the focus group scene, it is entirely couched within a remake of 12 Angry Men. This isn’t in order to parody 12 Angry Men, rather it is parody used as a form for satire. The target here is…not clear exactly. It’s an incredibly well produced homage to 12 Angry Men, but only as a format within which to continue the same debate about whether or not Amy is within the bounds of conventional desirability. It’s another chance to rehash Amy’s unruliness, but especially to celebrate the cultural savviness of viewers. The cast are all-stars from film, TV, and comedy. Slowly their true desires are brought to the surface and they ultimately will agree that Amy could elicit a “reasonable chub.”

This may be the best example of what I am talking about in terms of how parody becomes useful as a mode to cage critique of patriarchy and gender norms within media parody, but the same gesture is present in many other scenes which are in effect, at least superficially, media parody. Again, the point is not to parody the media, but to use parody as a form through which to debate gender norms and critique patriarchy.