One of the many facets that I appreciate about comedian Amy Schumer’s work is that she shines a light not only on the cultural conditioning that keeps women in restricted place, but also she exposes the misogyny that many of us have internalized from living in a patriarchal society. As some of her sketches intimate—women and girls have been known to do as good a job as anyone of objectifying, suppressing, or disempowering themselves.
Schumer’s sketch “I’m Sorry” from this latest season is one example. In it, a group of female experts at a conference spend an entire panel discussion apologizing for pretty much anything and everything. (Video could not be embedded, so please click on the New York Magazine link):
It’s the expert, the one who sustains burns after someone accidentally spills hot coffee on her, who really got to me. She is writhing on the floor, blood and guts spurting out of her now severed legs. Yet none of that stops her from apologizing for the disruption. Meantime, the other female experts are uttering their own apologies for no reason, over and over.
The sketch made me think of the summer I interned at CBS News in Washington DC. As I stood with a camera crew outside the US Supreme Court in record temperatures and severe humidity, I started to faint.
My lips went clammy, I felt like I was being pulled into a wind tunnel, and it was all I could do not to lose consciousness. I dropped to my knees. “Sorry!” I exclaimed to the crew.
I’d been assigned the job of standing in front of the camera until the CBS reporter arrived. From the ground I raised my arms over my head so that at least my hands were still visible in the shot. “I’m so so so sorry!” I kept saying to anyone who would listen.
But it’s not just that one incident. I can think of hundreds of times in my life when I’ve apologized, either overtly or covertly—not even aware that was what I was doing—for doing nothing more than taking up time and space in this world.
Yet isn’t that what so many women have been taught? As feminist critic Soraya L. Chemaly wrote in an article for Role Reboot in 2013, girls are trained starting at a young age to “be as small as possible and we will love you more.” The title of her piece: Our Society Urges Girls To Take Up Less Space And Boys To Take Up More, And It Needs To Stop.
Be skinnier, weigh less, speak softer, don’t toot your own horn, the list of ways to minimize the self goes on—all acts of mea culpa for taking up space. (Full disclosure: I’ve tried many of those tactics and I’ve never found the “we will love you more” part to be the case. The only people who’ve appreciated my efforts are those who’ve also been taught to keep small—and assholes. )
Which is another reason I’ve officially become a Schumer fan. She allows herself to take up space. She would have to be willing. Otherwise, there is no way she could create a show named after her and star in it or write a screenplay for a movie, Trainwreck, and star in it.
Every time Schumer performs her feminist, owning-her-sexuality stand-up act, she is taking up space and permitting herself and her work to take center stage. As she said, when accepting the Trailblazer Award from Glamour magazine earlier this month, “I’m not going to apologize for who I am.” Allowing others to honor you for what you do also requires a willingness to take up space.
Watching Schumer’s show reminds me that eradicating misogyny from the world is as much an inside job as it is a fight to be won out there. And when we slowly but surely identify and kick out the sexist that lives within, we are freeing not just ourselves but also giving others permission to do the same.
With no more apologies, we take up space in the world—that is, until the next time we run into someone who pays us a compliment: