Opinion

Opinion | Michael P. Jeffries

Amy Schumer pay controversy highlights pervasive sexism in comedy

Amy Schumer walked down Tremont Street earlier this month as her new film shot in Boston.

Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe

Amy Schumer walked down Tremont Street earlier this month as her new film shot in Boston.

Amy Schumer is fantastically wealthy. She is the only woman on the list of the 10 highest paid comedians, her movies make it rain at the box office, and her stand-up sells out theaters. But last week she was in the headlines for complaining about being underpaid. Reportedly, when Schumer found out that Netflix paid Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock more for their stand-up specials, she went back to the negotiating table and demanded more money. Initial reports suggested Schumer asked for the same amount as Chappelle and Rock, though she later acknowledged that her career does not compare to theirs and she did not ask Netflix to match their compensation.

Those who have paid attention to Schumer’s career are unlikely to find her a sympathetic figure. She has been repeatedly accused of stealing material. She has also found herself on the wrong side of controversies in the comedy world about jokes about rape and sexual assault, and has made a number of blatantly racist jokes.

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For these reasons, critics were quick to dismiss Schumer’s gripes about pay as another example of her lack of self-awareness. Schumer considers herself a feminist, and the gender pay gap is real. But her version of feminism is unacceptable to many because she does not seem to prioritize those who are most vulnerable, nor does she understand that sexism can’t be dismantled without dismantling racism. Despite Schumer’s shortcomings, this latest controversy highlights pervasive sexism in the comedy business. As we criticize Schumer, we can’t ignore severe gender inequities in comedy.

Comedian Iliza Shlesinger recently suggested that one reason women still lag behind in comedy is that too many women lean on shock value and bawdy jokes, in part because they see men doing it, but audiences are not impressed. Still, movies like “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip” are full of raunchy jokes, and they broke records at the box office. Censoring women, even those who make the mistakes Schumer has, will never end sexism. The inequality is not driven by women’s lack of talent, and it isn’t about the sex jokes women perform or the language they use. To understand the deeper disparities we see in the comedy business, you have to look both on stage and behind the scenes of comedy as a career.

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Women in comedy have less control over the jobs they get and how much they are paid because fewer women choose comedy as a career and work long enough to wield substantial power. Sexist gender expectations are largely to blame; we encourage boys and men to be pranksters while penalizing women for being unruly or unkempt. Almost all of the women I interviewed in my book “Behind the Laughs” had already defied those expectations, but their defiance does not protect them from sexism. Women comedians are often judged before they even begin their first joke. Like Schumer, they perform with keen awareness of how their looks affect their audience, which can influence their content and the career paths.

Barely any of the men I talked to mentioned managing their physical appearance as a job requirement. None of them changed the trajectory of their careers because they were sick of being objectified. Women feel pressure to address their appearance as part of their act, and several turned their attention to comedy writing rather than working onstage or in front of the camera as a result. There is no question that many women who enter comedy don’t stick with it as long as they would like to because of these issues.

For those who stay in the comedy business, informal mentoring and socializing have a massive impact on professional development. Women told me they felt pressure to “join the boys’ team,” rather than enjoy a social scene that was open to all. Women also talked about how difficult it can be to figure out whether their more experienced male colleagues want to be mentors or “mentors with benefits.” In 2016, allegations of sexual assault rocked Upright Citizens Brigade and exposed deep divisions within the comedy community, prompting the immensely popular theater to ban one of its regular performers. Women’s reputations and career prospects can be adversely affected merely by dating within the industry, especially if touring is part of the job. Again, none of the men mentioned the politics of sex as something they worried about as they were building their social and professional networks.

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Comedy is more gender-balanced from top to bottom than any time in its history, and digital production and distribution has reorganized the entertainment industry. Television studios are no longer the only king- and queen-makers in the business, as streaming services and social media allow performers to reach audiences without the support of a major studio. Perhaps most important, at the top of the entertainment industry pyramid, film and television studios now have irrefutable proof that women-centered projects are highly profitable. They can no longer hide behind the self-fulfilling prophecy that lack of audience demand justifies lack of investment in women as comedy headliners. As the entertainment industry evolves, the next breakthrough in comedy will take place out of the spotlight, in the spaces where training and mentoring happen and performers build their communities.

Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of three books, most recently, “Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy.”
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