Amy Schumer's Not Shutting Up; I Did and Wish I Hadn't

by Philippa Bateman

Matt Tilley: A Melbourne radio announcer for KISS FM interviews AMY SCHUMER, American comedian, writer and actress about her film TrainwreckMatt Tilley: Do you have the word ‘skanky’ in America?
Amy Schumer: (smiling with mouth only): We do have that word. Yeah, what made you think about your mom? Why did she pop into your mind?
Matt Tilley: She didn’t wear a skirt all the time, length wasn’t really an issue… but come on that’s the character of the movie I’m not trying to offend you—
Amy Schumer: Whatever you’re trying to do, you are. That’s a rude question.
Then Matt Tilley tells her what her semi-autobiographical movie Trainwreck that SHE wrote is about:

Matt Tilley: Being with a guy eclipses everything else. So clearly everything’s been thrown out the door, in terms of decorum and dates and drinking and partying.
Amy Schumer looks non-plussed and a little frosty.

Matt Tilley: Am I making sense to you?
Amy Schumer: I just think you’re wrong.
I don’t know that I have ever watched a woman celebrity talk back and shut chauvinist shit like this down publicly and right then, right there. This is an important leap forward for womankind. Such is the sophisticated conclusion I’ve arrived at after spending no time at all wondering why, in the past, I put up and shut up when really—I shouldn’t have.

Amy Schumer is a writer, comedian and celebrity. And it’s true that she has a platform and privilege many don’t but she’s using it to cut through the hypocrisy and double standards of Hollywood and expectations about who women should be, and how they are expected to behave. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham are not women who observe the rules of old about what you’re allowed to talk about and not bowing down to shoddy tradition has worked for them.

Goodbye to that bro-dominant dinosaury world order (I write, hopeful but not convinced).

It’s 2015 and the inspiring nouvelle vague of feminism represented by women in the public eye: Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Pussy Riot and in Australia writers and commentators like Van Badham and Clementine Ford — to name only a handful, are making themselves heard, not backing down, or disappearing when confronted by ugly blowback.

Being polite to avoid confrontation, rationalizing silence based on what you convince yourself is ‘appropriate’ or somehow you’re a ‘nicer’ person because you don’t speak up (really you’re not)—I have been guilty of all this. What I’ve learned is that shutting up and not dealing with things directly when you have something legitimate to say, and want to say it, changes absolutely nothing.

Knowing when to zip it is also important but that’s not what this post is about. Suppressing your voice is a skyscraper of an obstacle, in almost all areas of life. I’m not talking about being an egotist, narcissist, bitch or bully. Voice is not about being a shouter, airing unconstructed thoughts or expressing irrational feelings free floating from the topic at hand. Voice is about the expression of an opinion, an attitude, a considered point of view. Tone, nuance (or not), your style of expression all come into it. Using your voice requires courage, clarity and another thing: confidence. For women, this can be harder to come by when surrounded by a culture of implicit sexism and modes of shaming women into silence, perfected over decades.

My generation benefited from the feminists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who were aggressive, confrontational, insistent and unapologetic about equality for women in work, pay, and owning your own body. I studied feminism at university (Kristeva, Irigaray, De Beauvoir et al) and was taught by brilliant women philosophers (like Professor Elizabeth Grosz) who gave their students ways of analyzing the complexities of patriarchy and the semiotics of power. Intellectually, we understood what that meant in a society where power was with the men and you weren’t one of them. This was not intended to silence you or teach you to play the game—quite the opposite but in my case, it was a primer for dealing with the reality of a world I was about to walk into.

What I didn’t understand until much later, and after years of working full time in senior professional roles in the film industry was the more veiled, subtle way that power worked through the culture by having a voice, or rather having one and not using it, of being unconsciously intimidated, of internalising the sexism you want to challenge.

I am white, middle class, educated and relatively privileged: I had opportunities many didn’t (and don’t) have. And yet, when I look back at some of the chauvinism and misogyny I was exposed to in my experience as a professional and a woman, the problem was that I kept my mouth shut. To my shame, now, the reason I often didn’t react or respond in the moment is because I feared being cast as victim, shrill, neurotic or worst of all: an angry feminist. I was always a feminist and if asked, I’d say yes without qualifications but anger wasn’t tolerated — I knew that because the few times I had got angry, it was as if I had taken a machete to the family pet.

There were two options; one: ignore blatant sexism and stay silent or two: make a joke to show you had a sense of humour, jolly the uglies along; three: ask politely that you be represented fairly (that didn't work usually). BUT under no circumstances challenge directly or mock the man who had behaved like a misogynist jerk. Because for that, you would be punished. Not always directly because as we know, the most pernicious methods of undermining people are done behind your back or via manipulation within the structures of institutional power. I had less of a problem with the blatant attitudes of overtly sexist men because I knew what and who I was dealing with. They were, more often than not, a product of their culture, education and times and would be genuinely confused, by a head on repudiation of their assumed authority but they didn't all hate women.

When I worked at a federal funding agency (the Australian Film Commission) in the late 90s, the CEO, the Chair of the Board, many of the senior executives and lawyers were women. At a professional level, I never experienced any sexism within the AFC and for all the complaining people like to do about funding bodies, the underlying values that informed the support of new talent and new voices (represented by the first indigenous filmmaking programs in the late 1990s) were all good. (Sadly, the women’s program was phased out). I couldn’t say the same about certain individuals in the industry, men and women, or the blokey culture that undeniably existed in the mainstream commercial arena. In a speech at the Screen Producer's Association Australia (SPAA) Conference one year, a well-known independent producer, an AFC board member, and a man, smiled broadly when referring to the AFC as the “cuntocracy” because of the high proportion of senior female executives. It got a big laugh. He was giggling, like a ‘girl’, as he made the ‘joke’. I think I even laughed while wondering if I'd slipped into a parallel universe that was some sort of surreal satire on professional misogyny. Except it was not satire, it was garden variety reality.

I was the CEO and Head of Creative at a privately funded independent film production company for almost a decade (until 2010). I came across a range of casual sexism, which passed mostly uncommented on and was generally accepted by me and everybody else. In meetings with commercial TV network executives in high-waisted jeans who spoke to other men in the room and barely clocked my presence despite the fact that I was the person making decisions at my end (I wasn’t blonde or smiley, it’s true). Or a financing type who spent the entire meeting flicking his eyes between my breasts and my crotch while I fixed my eyes just over the top of his head and after he’d stopped talking, thanked him for his time. Or the aspiring director who was so enraged because I had passed on his feature project that he wrote a long, personal and abusive letter about me and the Head of Production (a woman) complaining about the ‘talentless middle-aged women in the Australian film industry’ he was forced to endure. We were in our mid thirties at the time; he was probably the same age if not older. Or the high profile director, a woman, who shouted over me and shut me down when I said that I couldn’t help thinking that the low numbers of young women funded as writers and directors in Australia had something to do with a lack of confidence (I knew because I was one of them). Or producers (women also) who would ask for meetings with my (male) business partner assuming, wrongly, that I was not an owner but an employee and he was my boss and my word didn't carry the same weight. Or the CEO of a funding body in his late 50s who boasted to the same partner, after an important meeting attended by about 20 people, that he had waited five years to humiliate me publicly and he was happy to have succeeded.

My business partner said not much back to him because he didn't want to alienate him; undoubtedly, he was relieved it was me taking the heat, not him. They continued to have a 'relationship'—and lunch, without me.

The bureaucrat's revenge was driven by my choice not to acquire a project of his some years before when he was a producer. I'm sure many men in senior positions had also passed on his projects; as a writer/producer I have also had many projects passed on but that goes with the territory and even if I haven't liked the decision, I've had to suck it up and move on without rancour or grudges. It's a business in which the odds of getting anything financed at all, even in development, are crazily high. Coming from a woman, and a younger woman he didn't like or respect, passing on his project was clearly not something his ego would tolerate. What was clear is that he considered his public diminishment of me fair and appropriate.

At the time, I was distressed that no-one in the room stood up for me and in their embarrassed and complicit silence condoned the behaviour. But worst of all, I failed to stand up for me. Despite knowing that his behaviour was out of line, despite my feminist upbringing and education, despite my professional standing and my job as a boss, I took it silently and waited until I was in my car in the underground car park, and alone, too stunned to move and holding the sobs in because I had another meeting to attend. When I cry, the evidence is writ large on my face and I look unambiguously undone. That was not something I could risk. Of course, I had thought of a few Amy Schumer-like stingers, post the moment, and of course, if I had my time again—I wouldn't hold back. At the very least, in response, I would have asked the room why a producer with a track record of making several commercially and critically unsuccessful films had continued to be supported and had a senior job determining the futures of other filmmakers. 

Over the years, I worked with a few good men who weren’t chauvinists, even though some of them could and did say outrageous things, which shocked people—and might be regarded by as 'inappropriate'—but made me laugh out loud. They could be wild, rebellious and funny. When it came to treating you as an equal, they did...and be the first to push you to to go further than you thought you might. One of them mentored me from afar as did (male and female) friends of mine—older, wiser and smarter than me. On more occasions than I care to admit to, they had to remind me that I was allowed to fight back but advised me, judiciously, to pick my fights as most weren't worth having. I still believe that to be true—but not at the cost of your self respect.

I also worked with some formidable women others feared and described as ‘scary’ and ‘ruthless’. (I have been called that as well but by other women). They weren’t scary or ruthless—they were talented, clever, had high standards, a strong work ethic and they didn’t suffer fools. I suppose that could be ‘scary’ if you thought that belonged to the domain of men only. It is also true to say that I didn’t see many women supporting other women, or not the (boomer) generation above me. There are exceptions, as there always are but it wasn't the norm. Maybe they had had to fight so hard in a generation where men got most of the breaks that they were exhausted or simply not interested, it was hard enough to get where they were and that was enough.

A woman and writer-director I admire: the late Nora Ephron, in a 2009 New Yorker Piece remarked: “If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there’s all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it but move on.” — Nora Ephron, The New Yorker, July 2009

Maybe. But I’d like to think that times are changing and feminists in the mainstream like Amy Schumer are showing women that they don’t have to put up with sexism and they don't have to be threatened by other women—not at any age. On the weekend, a 34 year old friend told me that she felt terrible because she had written a piece about the experience of young women as if they didn’t experience sexism. She didn’t feel she had (until she had a baby and wanted to continue her career) but what made her wince was the realization that she was afraid of being labeled a whiny feminist.

So, enough of that. Be any kind of feminist you want but don’t keep it to yourself. As a wise girlfriend who was struggling with her own right to ask for what she wanted sagely reminded both of us: Your silence will not protect you.

(From the SILENCE AND SEXISM series, 2015)