Passing the cultural buck, as demonstrated by Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer reacts to her reflection in the gym bathroom mirror with Sacheer Zamata reacting to Schumer in the background in "I Feel Pretty"

Maybe Schumer could have given the title role to Sasheer Zamata? (Photo credit: STX Films)

The ongoing journey of becoming a better, more socially and culturally responsible person is tough. You’re bound to make a lot of mistakes and face your biases and lackadaisical responses to certain things. You’re bound to question some of your actions or lack of actions.  And in some cases, you might have to be told that you passed the buck on an issue that was within your power to change or rectify. What does this passing of the buck look like? Let’s take a look at Amy Schumer’s recent TIME interview promoting her film, I Feel Pretty.

In the interview, Schumer acknowledges there were some areas the film could have done better in.

“It’s not a perfect movie,” she says of I Feel Pretty, which she also produced. “It would be great if my role had been played by a woman of color and there were more trans people in it, more people with disabilities.” She readjusts the pillow behind her. “But it’s a step in the right direction, I hope.”

Schumer acts as if the ability to have said woman of color, trans actors, and disabled actors was somehow out of her hands. But she’s a producer on the movie, not to mention the star of the film. If she wanted actors from marginalized backgrounds to be at the center of the movie, she could have easily done so. In fact, the culture of Hollywood now demands that she do just that.

As we saw at the Oscars, more attention is being paid to the “inclusion rider,” a clause an actor can put in their contract to demand that the films they work on be inclusive, ensuring that racial and gender equality can be met on set.

The legal language for the inclusion rider or “equity rider” was created by the USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. As the initiative’s director Stacy Smith wrote for The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, the equity rider would change Hollywood’s landscape for the better.

“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot. If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”

The inclusion rider came into the popular lexicon thanks to Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech, and subsequently, Michael B. Jordan and McDormand’s husband, director Joel Coen, have publicly announced their adoptions of the language into their contracts.

Most recently, East Los High executive producer and Wise Entertainment co-president Maurício Mota wrote for Variety about the power of the inclusion rider, writing bluntly, “They work for everyone.”

“What happened with ‘East Los High’ is proof of what happens when you hire from traditionally excluded groups. Given a real chance, white women, men and women of color, disabled people and LGBT individuals bring terrific energy and craft to ongoing projects. But the best part is, this kind of hiring opens up the pipeline for the entire industry. Inclusive hiring on one show can help pay it forward for everyone…What we need are more open doors — and more inclusion riders — bringing in talent that doesn’t have access to the formal and informal networks of power already in place.”

In Schumer’s defense, the big push towards the inclusion rider came after I Feel Pretty finished filming and was firmly in the editing bay. But none of that negates the fact that Schumer is the star and producer. If having an inclusive set was truly important to her, she could have advocated for that. If she felt the film needed a woman of color as its star, she could have given it up, something actor Ed Skrein has already set a precedent for. If you recall, he gave up his Hellboy role of Ben Daimio, after being told the role was a biracial Asian character (the role has now gone to Daniel Dae Kim). In his Twitter message, he wrote in part:

“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts. I feel it is important to honor and respect that.”

Skrein was giving up a role that was already established as an Asian character, and while Schumer’s character isn’t defined by race technically, the same logic still applies if Schumer really felt that having a white actor (i.e. herself) was wrong for the film. Like Skrein, she could have gracefully bowed out and let the role go to other actors of color, like Sasheer Zamata, who plays one of Schumer’s friends in the film. It could have gone to plenty of talented WOC actors in Hollywood or it could have even gone to an unknown, which could only help an actor who has been looking for their big break for a long time.

Instead, Schumer said she hopes I Feel Pretty is a step in the right direction, despite not taking the actions to put it firmly in the right direction.

So how can we apply this instance to our real lives? Here’s what I think:

1.  Understand what your power is and where it lies: We believe ourselves to be powerless against a lot of injustices, but that’s simply not the case. We also think that our contributions to fixing society’s problems must be humongous for it to matter. Not at all.

Whether it’s big or small, we can fight injustices within our own families, neighborhoods, and communities. We can do it through giving to charity, giving our time, writing, creating art, talking with a family member or friend who needs some counseling, taking your friends and/or family out to a dinner and movie, etc. There are a lot of things we can do, we just have to be creative and committed to exercising our power.

2.  Don’t shirk your responsibility: It’s too easy to say, “I wish things were better.” We all wish things were better. But there’s something special about saying, “I wish things were better, and I’m going to do what I can to make things better than it was the day before.”

To reiterate the first point, we can do a myriad of things to help make the world more equitable and more supportive. Even holding the door open for someone is spreading the necessary joy to make life easier. But it must be understood that it’s our responsibility to make life better for ourselves and for others. It’s not a responsibility we can give to someone else. For instance, who is Schumer waiting on to make the type of movie she’d like to see? If she’s got the seat at the table to make change, she should have used that power, not bemoan about it after the fact.

3.  People do learn at different rates, even though it can be frustrating: I could easily go in on Schumer, saying it’s yet another case in which white feminism rears its head, protecting itself while leaving other women and other groups out in the cold. Technically, all of this is true. But if I’m being more gracious, I can say something that is also a truth, but not a truth many of us deal with well–people learn about racial and cultural responsibility at different rates and at different times due to the amount of conscious and unconscious baggage they have to work through. The learning process also hinges on if the person even knows they have stuff to work on at all. Do I think Schumer could have done more if she wanted to? Absolutely. Do I think she feels guilty about it? Yep–why else would she say what she said in the article? She’s trying to shift her guilt into a “learning experience” narrative. Technically, this is a learning experience, but it’ll only be worth it if Schumer actually learns and exhibits that new knowledge in future films.

I hope Schumer thinks about what she said in this interview and realize the Biblical message at the heart of all of these points: faith without works is dead. You can hope and pray and wish all you want for things to change, but unless you put some effort into what you want changed, it’s going to stay the same. To be fair, this article is as much for Schumer and others who need the loving kick in the pants as it is for me, because I’m not above feeling powerless sometimes. Schumer is not a person who doesn’t know how to use her power; she used it when she was advocating against gun control, for instance. But I hope she realizes that same zeal can be used for other issues that are dear to her. Likewise, we should learn that we can affect change, even if we think we can’t.

In Schumer’s case, though, we’ll see if she’s learned from her mistake with I Feel Pretty. She states in the article that she expects to make a lot of mistakes in her career. “I don’t want to hurt anybody…I really am a chick from Long Island who’s just learning along with everyone. So whatever sh-t comes out of my mouth–and I f-ck up all the time–just know that I’m trying my best,” she said. I’m sure she’s trying her best, but let’s see if she’ll do better.

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