Seven Steps to Swagger, With Amy Schumer

Her excellent new essay collection, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, offers a gentle rebuke to the comedian’s own self-effacing act.

Schumer appears at Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs" at the Beacon Theatre in New York in February 2015. (Charles Sykes / Invision / AP)
During Amy Schumer’s HBO special last October, the comedian referred to herself as, variously, a “fat tumbleweed,” a “garden gnome,” “one of those inflatable things outside a carwash,” and “Gilbert Grape’s mom.” When she appeared on Saturday Night Live earlier that month, Schumer joked in her opening monologue that “I have an 18-month-old niece—and we have the exact same body” and confessed that, under her dress, “it just looks like a lava lamp—like, things are just moving around and not really finding a home.” As she summed things up at the end of her set, to thunderous applause from SNL’s live audience: “So … I’m trash.”
Schumer’s particular brand of self-mockery is on the one hand, as The New York Times put it, “a comfortable kind of self-deprecation, born of insecurity but delivered with a confidence that takes the sting out and gives the listener a snug feeling of complicity.” That’s what made “12 Men Inside Amy Schumer,” in which a jury of dudes debates Schumer’s sexual appeal ad ridiculum, the most iconic sketch in a series full of them, and it’s what makes her superficially regressive observations actually, in their way, progressive—even radical. But the self-deprecation, which is directed at Schumer’s audience as much as it is at Schumer herself (the real object of mockery here is, of course, Society), has also been the most fraught aspect of Schumer’s profanity-laced, sexually explicit act. Here is a woman who has publicly embraced the feministic tenets of the moment, chief among them body positivity. Here is a woman who has used her fame to speak out against gun violence and internet bullying and the glib indignities Hollywood heaps upon its female stars. And here is that same woman in the spotlight at the Apollo, referring to herself as a “Jack-o’-lantern with tits.”
So it is unsurprising that Schumer’s new essay collection, out this week from Gallery Books, is peppered with self-effacements and mini-masochisms. The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is named for Schumer’s “tramp stamp”—hers features tribal art of indiscriminate origin, courtesy of an artist who, inking under the influence, slightly skewed its angle—and in its pages Schumer compares herself to a Cabbage Patch Kid, a Garbage Pail Kid, “that eighties doll Kid Sister,” “an old sunken ship covered in plankton and kelp,” and “a still of Rupert Murdoch in a rocking chair.” Those jokes, though, are relatively rare. The book instead offers, overall—for author and reader alike—a compelling kind of catharsis: It is, contrary to the postmodern parfait that is Schumer’s standard act, decidedly un-layered. It is Schumer, the celebrity, shedding Schumer, the schtick. It is a memoir that is also an unapologetic paean to self-love. In that, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo finds a new way for Schumer to be radical: It treats feminine self-confidence not in the way it is too often regarded, as a BrainyQuotable truism or an inborn gift or a fuzzy aspiration or, indeed, a source of shame, but rather as a skill like any other—something that is developed and worked at and thus, most importantly, earned.
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One one level, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is simply another memoir, squarely in the funny-lady-sharing-stories-of-her-life manner of Poehler/Fey/Rhimes/Kaling/Dunham/Dratch/Greer and their ilk. And it features, as per the now-solidified conventions of that genre, a mix of the searing and the soaring: tales of minor embarrassment and major, of successes and failures, of flashpoints and turning points, all of them punctuated by jokes, cheeky lists of things liked and/or hated by the author, and bits of wisdom couched in protestations that “I have no advice to give.” But Schumer’s stories are really, particularly good. They concern failed romantic exploits (many); successful romantic exploits (an unnamed rock star, an unnamed hockey player, an unnamed wrestler, a carpenter named Ben); what it’s like to grow up rich; what it’s like to grow up no-longer-rich; what it’s like to have parents divorce; what it’s like to lose a friend, and wait tables, and be caught shoplifting, and live with weird Craigslist roommates, and be on comedy tour, and generally fake-it-’til-you-make-it.
Schumer’s own version of the memoir sear-soar—one moment brings a detailed taxonomy of scones, the next several statistics about gun violence—is woven together with transitions that are often adept (“I wish I could Irish-good-bye my way out of this chapter,” Schumer notes, after professing her love for the maneuver) and sometimes not (“Anywhoozle…”). But the depth creates, overall, an impression of a person who is much, much more than a collection of witty one-liners and irony-laced self-deprecations. Along with the story heralded by Schumer’s admission that “one of the best nights of my life was just a one-night stand in Tampa,” we also get stories of her dad’s MS—of the disease’s onset (one episode came during an ill-fated family trip to Adventureland) and of its steady ravaging of her father’s body and mind. We get recollections of the time, at once short and too long, that Schumer spent living with an abusive boyfriend. (“I’m telling this story,” she notes, “because I’m a strong-ass woman, not someone most people picture when they think ‘abused woman.’ But it can happen to anyone.”) We get the story, too, of the sexual abuse she endured from an early boyfriend—the biographical basis of Schumer-the-performer’s coinage of the term “grape,” or “gray-area rape.”
And with that is the caricature presented in Schumer’s comedy insistently complicated—her “fat tumbleweed” jokes answered with realness and rawness and then varnished, lightly, with the humor that will make them more palatable, to reader and author alike. “I look at the saddest things in life and and laugh at how awful they are,” Schumer writes, “because they are hilarious and it’s all we can do with moments that are painful.” It’s fitting, then, that comedy itself is a repeat character in The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. Comedy is not just Schumer’s coping mechanism, and not just her career, but also her joy—and, in a way, her soul mate.
She wasn’t always good at it, though. Schumer had to learn, and earn, her swagger. And that is the most compelling aspect of her extremely compelling memoir: The book’s stories take for granted the relatively radical notion that “self-confidence,” so often, if so paradoxically, elevated as both as feminism’s means and its end, is … neither. It is a not a fuzzy goal; it is not a fuzzy tool. It is simply one other thing that can be learned and practiced and developed. “I had to learn (and I’m still learning) how to choose to be proud of who I am rather than ashamed,” Schumer notes. “Lucky for me, I’m a woman, so I’ve had the opportunity to practice this lesson over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
The book is full of stories of Schumer’s early forays into comedy, and full also of stories of her bombing in those efforts—in various venues, on various stages, with varying degrees of humiliation. “I think for anyone to become good at something,” she writes, “they have to fail a lot, too. And they have to be completely unafraid to fail or they’ll never make it to the next level.” It was allowing for those failures to happen, Schumer explains, publicly and repeatedly, that desensitized her to criticism, and that enabled her to fully inhabit her stage and her persona without worrying about the audience’s reaction. She taught herself confidence, failure by failure. And, in that, she demystified it. In her telling, no longer is “self-esteem” a kind of psychic unicorn, washed in the gauzy filters of ‘70s-era psychological aphorism; it is simply a skill like any other. One that you build. One that you improve. Put in the work, get the gains.
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo does at times (as its genre so often will) whiff of self-help. (“For anyone who has ever looked for love and found nothing more than a denim-on-denim-on-leather-wearing Hair Club for Men dude, I want to say, Love yourself! You don’t need a man or a boy or a self-proclaimed love expert to tell you what you’re worth. Your power comes from who you are and what you do!”) And it features, yes, the occasional, outright platitude. (“I am all of you,” Schumer declares at one point, without an ounce of irony.) On the whole, though, the book is, in addition to being entertaining and occasionally profane and very often laugh-out-loud funny, also more broadly important. It pulses with the recognition that so many comedians have been reluctant to acknowledge: that Schumer is, whether she wants to be or not, a role model. It is a personal memoir that manages also to be generous.
And that, in the end, is why Schumer named her book after her tattoo—her “tramp stamp,” and also her voluntary beauty mark, and also her youthful mistake. The memoir’s title is not just an acknowledgement of what any US Weekly creep-shot of “Amy Schumer caught in a teeny bikini on the beach” will reveal anyway; it is also, for its author, a declaration of pride. Schumer chose her book’s name, she explains, as a tribute to the evolutionary elegance of that most universal of things: screwing up. “I wear my mistakes like a badge of honor,” she writes, “and I celebrate them. They make me human.” They are the source of Schumer’s self-confidence. They are what allow her, finally, to swagger.