(AP/Donald Traill)

Amy Schumer's subtle brilliance: "12 Angry Men" isn't feel-good feminism, it's crushingly dark satire

Once again, Schumer shows she knows how to nail a knotty issue


Katie McDonough
May 6, 2015 11:33PM (UTC)

Somewhere out in this big country of ours, there is a professor (or maybe an adjunct who doesn’t have health insurance) planning a course on masculinities, and Amy Schumer is on that syllabus. Probably a couple of times over.

The new season of “Inside Amy Schumer” is by far the most politically ambitious the show has ever been, and Schumer is on a particular streak when it comes subjecting the male gaze to its own brutal scrutiny. While a comedian on a mission to educate could lead the show into boring didacticism, Schumer has excelled at mining the darker corners of gender, sex and violence in order to arrive somewhere incredibly subtle.

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This is what made “Football Town Nights” so brilliant. The sketch’s entire premise -- a town reeling over the injustice of football coach who doesn’t want his players to rape -- was just the long set up to a devastating monologue in which our rape-hating coach celebrates male aggression and sexual entitlement.

And so Tuesday night’s “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” -- a parody with look and tone that adheres remarkably close to its source material -- cuts in precisely the same way: deep and deadly, with the fatal strike coming from the direction you weren’t looking. This time around we have the perfectly cast John Hawkes in the Henry Fonda role, the hero who is the first to vote that Schumer is hot enough to have a show on basic cable.

Hawkes: “All I’m saying is it’s not easy for me to raise my hand and end a girl’s life without talking about it first.”

Other juror: “What do you mean her life?”

Hawkes: “Well, her appearance, so... her life.”

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Schumer said she referred to Hawkes’ character as “the voice of reason." In the wonderfully absurd universe of the sketch -- a woman literally on trial for the crime of not being "bangable" -- he is the calm, empathetic hero to root for, the man who brings the others on board to affirm her appearance. (And "so... her life.") Hawkes plays the role well. He is warm and compassionate, and far less crude than his fellow jurors. (Paul Giamatti and Nick DiPaolo -- playing the jury's designated hotheads and gleeful misogynists  -- also bring a surprising amount of depth to lines about potato faces and "reasonable chubs.")

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But for all his charms, Hawkes is still one of 12 men debating a woman’s worth based on whether or not he would fuck her. It is a cringing kindness, if you can call it kindness at all. He may be the best of the lot, but there's no redeeming the reason they're all gathered in the first place. And that feels very much like the point.

It’s a brilliant thing to make the best character -- the guy you want to prevail -- into the same guy who would leave you adjusting your coat and covering yourself if you shared an elevator with him. The one who looks at your tits for just a second while he asks about that book you’re reading or how your new job is going. Hawkes may be soft spoken and sweet, but he is still very much at home in that room of men. They are all more alike than not.

The joke here is certainly about the sexist double standards women are subjected to, but it's not really about women. Like "Football Town Nights," "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is much more interested in the men -- going deep on their sexual hangups, their aggressions, their entitlements, their warped sense of their own importance.

But because it's comedy, it never loses the laughs in all of its probing of toxic masculinity. It's a masterful little trick to pull off. The sketch goes crude and hilarious as the jurors trade insults about Schumer’s appearance (who looks like an “uncut weiner” with an ass that makes Giamatti's character "furious") and then pivots to quiet commentary on the brokenness of these men.

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As the sketch progresses, men who moments before were railing against the insult of having to look at Schumer's body reveal the psychosexual pain that makes them hate women -- and makes them believe that their attraction matters. Their redemption comes when they finally admit they'd fuck her. These are men who believe their dicks are gifts that can save women.

The boys in "Football Town Nights" went into that locker room believing that they should be able to take the things they want, and that's how they left it. The men in that jury room are very much the same. Even after Hawkes turns them around and makes the case for Schumer's fuckability, those 12 men leave just as warped -- and angry -- as they went in.

The strength of "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is that it is very funny. The strength of "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is that it isn't funny in the least.

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Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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