Feminist media darling Amy Schumer is in the news again this week for her feature in 2016’s Pirelli Calendar — the world-famous borderline pornographic calendar distributed to distinguished clients by the noted Italian tyre company. This ain’t your classic garage nudie-cutie, either: This is high-end fashion photography with some glittering names both behind and in front of the camera. This year, photographer Annie Liebowitz recruited 13 women notable in their fields for a shoot she wanted to make distinctive by nature of the women’s talents, rather than their bodies. Most of the women appear largely clothed, except for Schumer, who wears simply a pair of underpants, perched on a stool with a cup of coffee, twisting to look at the camera with a soft, thoughtful expression.
The artistic vision for the calendar as a celebration of women and their accomplishments was the result of a collaboration between Liebowitz and Pirelli, tapping into the growing demand for “sheroes,” powerful, talented women who forge their own paths in life rather than needing to rely on men. It features a stunning array of extremely powerful women, but Schumer in particular is attracting attention for the photograph in which she bares (almost) all and for the alleged feminist statement that it makes, showing the rolls and curves of her body, the vulnerable nature of a naked woman largely untouched by extensive photo editing software. Schumer’s body, in a sense, is meant to represent an everywoman, showing the viewer that the bodies of celebrities have more in common with them than they realize.
All the hype, though, isn’t as deserved as one might think, given the subject of the image. For while Schumer’s baring all, she doesn’t have much to lose, making her photo less courageous than it’s being painted. She’s a conventionally attractive white woman in a society that prizes striking blondes, and while she’s working in an industry that can be extremely hard on women — comedy is a cruel and sometimes lonely place for female talent — she still enjoys considerable power and privilege, in part because of the huge demand for feminist girl power that she’s adroitly harnessed to drive her media juggernaut.
There’s one glaring problem with those fawning over the image: She’s not all that feminist, for all that she identifies as such and for all that she wants to project, unless one defines feminist values extremely narrowly — which a large number of mainstream feminists do. With voices like theirs and Schumer’s dominating the message of what feminism should look like, it’s perhaps not surprising that she’s become an icon, but people should question whether her status is really justified, given the harm she does to other women.
Most notably, Schumer uses transphobia for ‘humour’ frequently in her work, and not in jokes that punch down at transphobes, but rather in media that’s explicitly intended to use transgender women as the butt of the joke. Whether in film, standup, or elsewhere, she’s repeatedly targeted transgender women, which should be a turnoff to fans who claim to have an interest in trans equality — I’ve been forced to turn off every single Amy Schumer programme or feature I’ve ever encountered long before it’s done on the grounds of the transphobia alone. Life is short, and I don’t need to waste my energy on entertainment that mocks and belittles my transgender sisters.
The use of transphobia as an entertainment device is always damaging, but particularly so in the context of some of her jokes, which rely on dehumanising trans women but also on repeating the same harmful social attitudes that get trans women raped, beaten, and killed. Schumer appears unwilling to recognize the risks of what she’s doing, and certainly hasn’t responded to criticism by turning away from the easy laugh — the man in a dress shtick — instead of something more interesting, engaging, and creative.
Commentary about “beautiful ugly” and embracing the body aside, Schumer treats trans women’s bodies as hideous monsters — ugly ugly, as it were. Captioning the image, which is getting critical acclaim as a brave and outspoken victory for body image discussions, Schumer wrote: ‘Beautiful, gross, strong, thin, fat, pretty, ugly, sexy, disgusting, flawless, woman.’ While Schumer may embrace her femininity and stress that a range of bodies are powerful and beautiful, she doesn’t extend that thinking to trans women, who are so dehumanised in her work that they aren’t even people, let alone women.
Schumer also doesn’t really engage with criticism, though her writers do, taking a particular pleasure in eviscerating critics on social media. Even when those critics are feminists engaging with her work from the perspective of women who want to see feminist media and want to encourage women in comedy and other genres where they’re underrepresented, Schumer’s writers are quick to go on the attack in highly alienating and aggressive sprees that leave women like noted critic and Global Comment contributor Sady Doyle reeling from their viciousness.
Instead of reining in her writers, Schumer largely ignores the issue, sending the unmistakable message to commentators that she either doesn’t care about their concerns, or actively condones the actions of her writers. It’s not an attractive message for a self-avowed feminist to be sending, as whether her writers agree with critics or not, targeted misogynistic attacks should have no place in anyone’s feminism. While some comments about her work may be harsh, they’re also accurate — and people shouldn’t be afraid of speaking up for fear of being attacked by a media personality with far more power and influence than they’ll ever have.
A woman who fails to stand in solidarity with other women, and who at times actively undermines them, is dubiously qualified to be a feminist.
These anti-feminist behaviours take place in a very public landscape, and yet they fly largely unacknowledged past the online feminist community, save in isolated pockets where people express concern about their beloved pop culture icon. This is a common issue with female entertainers and the standard bearers of mainstream feminism in general, with some apparently so excited by any representation at all that they’re willing to tolerate the fact that it isn’t very good representation, and that at times it’s actively built on the backs of those who are already paying a high social price. While it would be nice to unreservedly embrace a woman in comedy, any female entertainer is bound to have flaws, just like any human, and eliding those flaws in an insistence that admitting any weakness is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a grave disservice. Schumer has the potential to do better and should be asked to do better, rather than being protected in a tender cocoon that labels her a feminist and mistakenly believes that this isolates her from any and all critical discussion.
Until Schumer takes the issue on, all I see when I look at her photo for the Pirelli calendar is a privileged cis woman smugly staring out at the camera. ‘I got mine,’ she seems to be saying, ‘so go get your own.’