As a self-confessed progressive, when Amy Schumer’s parody of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ first appeared in my FB newsfeed, my initial response was denial. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that it featured Schumer and Goldie Hawn in muddy slip dresses twerking in the middle of swampland. I kept the sound muted and continued to scroll.
Like a child in a 1990s video store walking past the porn shelf, I kept my eyes unfocussed in the hope that if I didn’t directly engage, I would be able to keep my innocence.
Eventually though, the media clamour over the video intensified, and even the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that ‘Amy Schumer’s Beyonce parody leaves fans angry and confused.’
I couldn’t take it anymore.
‘I’m a progressive,’ I thought. ‘I am ready to be confused.’
What I gleaned from the experience is that progressives friggin’ hate being confused.
Why I love Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ and was not down with the parody
Beyoncé has taken the medium of the music video and elevated it to an anthem for African American empowerment.
The song and video for ‘Formation,’ speak about staying connected to one’s humble country roots, addresses police brutality and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The video is filmed in New Orleans and features Beyoncé on a police car as the flood waters rise – both a metaphor for the escalating tension in race relations, and an indictment of the legacy of neglect and poverty in New Orleans in the ten years since Katrina.
In another iconic scene, a hooded black child dances in front of a line of bullet proof vested police – an image flashes of graffiti scrawled on a wall that reads “Stop Shooting Us.”
By parodying the filmclip’s aesthetics as just a wacky arthouse clip, Schumer and Goldie Hawn come across as culturally insensitive and entitled. Watching two very blonde women twerking in muddy slip dresses and dancing around in police vests, with no recognition of the symbolism of the imagery from the original video, was an incredibly uncomfortable experience for me.
I didn’t feel angry because the video was racist. It is culturally insensitive and just plain idiotic, yes. But no more or less than a lot of comedy.
Rather I felt angry because a personal hero of mine, who had championed one social justice issue – namely feminism – had shown themselves to be completely clueless when it came to another – race relations in the US.
Just how much I love Schumer
I am a huge fan of Amy Schumer. How can you not love a female comedian who consistently churns out laugh-out-loud material on issues such as misogyny on television, inequality in the workplace, and even rape culture?
A personal favourite of mine is her parody of 12 Angry Men, in which the jurors are tasked with deliberating whether or not Schumer is “hot enough to be on TV” and can give them “a reasonable chub.”
It is a brilliant satire on the double standards that apply to women on television, compared with their male counterparts. The skit throws into sharp relief the fact that the dominance of the male gaze in entertainment has not changed much since the 1950s.
In my mind, one of Schumer’s standout achievements as a comic has been making women’s sexual experiences valid material for mainstream comedy.
Before Schumer, jokes about sexual relationships and the cosmic absurdity that is the human body were the preserve of male comedians.
A mainstream comic like Aziz Ansari could spend a good 70% of his set talking about sex without anyone noticing, but female comedians who did the same were considered salacious peddlers of ‘gross out humour.’
Even a veteran comic like Tina Fey wouldn’t touch these topics with a ten foot pole, preferring to present her female protagonists as basically sexless, with all the sensuality of a pre-adolescent boy in a grown woman’s body.
This sucked if you were a woman. Don’t we all deserve a cathartic release that comes from laughing out loud at someone who holds up a mirror to our most intimate frailties?
Schumer gave us that, and we were grateful.
Progressives are the ficklest fans in the comedy business
By and large, progressives coalesce around the similar political worldviews stemming from a common sense of personal responsibility. We are deeply concerned about equal rights for marginalized social groups: women, people of colour, the LGBTI community and individuals with disabilities. We care about the sustainability of the environment and the impacts of armed conflict.
Seeing a comedian who speaks for us ascend to the mainstream causes us great joy. Seeing them display a ‘blindspot’ to an area we feel deeply passionate about causes a deep sense of personal betrayal.
Herein lies the irony, the more we identify with a comic, the harder we come down on them when they make a misstep.
In the age of the newspaper review, a few raspberries was par for the course of being a comic. But in the age of echo-chamber of the internet this tendency can be downright dangerous and career destroying.
In the wake of the Formation parody debacle, the Twitter hashtag #AmySchumerGottaGoParty has created an unwitting alliance between disappointed feminists and Supreme Gentlemen who ‘never found that bitch funny to begin with,’ calling for an end to the comedian’s career.
My favourite comedians are those who are both hilarious but also politically astute; Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Margaret Cho, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Amy Schumer all fit within that description. All, at various times have made critical missteps in playing with their topics.
If we want our comedians to continue to be funny, as progressives, we need to take a step back and let them make mistakes. The alternative: risk a world where the only comics ready to take on touchy subjects are unfunny dinosaurs like Seth MacFarlane.
Do you think Seth MacFarlane worries about progressives raging out on Twitter? No. Not because he is a badass, but because his fans are all conservative white men on the verge of a Lester-Burnham-in-American-Beauty style meltdown. They don’t care if comedy holds up a mirror to society or not, they just want their random references to obscure 80’s television. They don’t even have Twitter accounts.
They are sitting at home after a long day’s work, boozing to forget the general emptiness of their lives while watching re-runs of Family Guy.
Thoughts for the future
When we see a comedian we know and love making a misstep, by all means talk about it, think about it, engage in dialogue that feeds back to your favourite comic artist. Just don’t rage out in the Twitterverse as your first knee jerk reaction.
I think that, as a comedian, Amy Schumer still has a long way to go when it comes to deftly handling issues of race in comedy. An all time low was in 2013 when Schumer dropped the following line:
“I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
As you can see from the Twitter exchange below, dialogue, rather than indictment, goes a long way.
When we rage out at culturally insensitive material, the chilling effect on progressive comedy is all too real. We need to give comedians the chance to evolve, unless we all want to be stuck watching re-runs of Family Guy.