Amy Schumer has built a career on pushing the boundaries of feminist comedy, which is probably why she occasionally finds herself the target of societal vilification for making jokes that aim to transgress laws of common decency. She has been lambasted for her “racist jokes,” as well as her jokes about body size. Last week, only one day after the publication of her debut book, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, she found herself on the defensive after a former Inside Amy Schumer writer made comments on social media mocking alleged rape victims. For illogical reasons, however, Schumer was held accountable for words that came out of a man’s mouth (or, rather, were typed by his fingers into a social media post), and she drew even more ire for stonewalling critics with the dreaded Twitter block.
But comedians like Schumer don’t adhere to social codes; they break them. And Schumer’s unflinching personality shines in The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. From the beginning, Schumer offers her form of an apologia by way of paring back expectations: She insists the book is not a memoir or an autobiography (“I’ll write one of those when I’m ninety”). Rather, it is simply a collection of personal essays that, she exclaims, “has NO SELF-HELP INFO OR ADVICE FOR YOU.”
And yet, it does. The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is speckled with kernels of advice about sex and love and self-worth and gaining confidence in the workplace. (Amy quite literally faked it hard until she made it.) Despite her attempt to prove otherwise, Schumer chronicles her life with digestible stories that impart powerful messages through a kind of logic of the opposite: she makes mistakes so that we can learn from them. “I have no wisdom to offer you,” Schumer implores. “But what I can help with is showing you my mistakes and my pain and my laughter.”
Here, 10 of the most powerful moments where she shows that while living unapologetically and fearlessly isn’t a path free of mistakes – like getting a tramp-stamp tattoo of some unidentified “tribal” origin (or dating a guy who wants to make your vagina his “own personal moccasin” by fingering you with his toes) – it is the only way that we are able to find strength within ourselves, including through all our flaws. The message is one that Schumer, for better or worse, epitomizes: Do not be afraid of your humanity, do not be afraid of the messiness or life and certainly do not be afraid of demanding your worth in the world.
It’s OK for women to want to earn a lot of money
While the chapter “On Being New Money” may be borderline offensive, the unapologetic flagrance with which Schumer talks about money – “The best part about having money is that you get to be an asshole and burn money on stupid shit” – functions to subvert those social codes that women shouldn’t talk or care about their income. Schumer refuses to seek moral righteousness through humility and some kind of feigned indifference to money, and talks about the privilege of money with refreshing candor. She hated being broke, and super-hated being “Vanilla Ice broke, before HGTV Ice.” Schumer is also under no delusion that this golden streak of hers will last forever. (“I won’t be famous forever – not even much longer actually.”) At the chapter’s conclusion, she writes with sincerity: “I don’t believe that money changes your level of happiness. But things do get easier and I feel great in the moments when I can help someone.” Money does make things easier – contrary to what Schumer contends, has been proven to make people happier – but the chapter works to change the discourse around women and money.
And women shouldn’t be ashamed to hustle for it
“You can’t be a comic and make complete strangers laugh without a strong hustle,” Schumer begins her chapter “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” If you weren’t born with a silver spoon, you better love to work only like Rihanna can sing about in order to get all that you want. Schumer learned early that she could close on any deal by making adults laugh: “Whether it was teachers catching me talking in class or cops catching me with beer in my backpack on the beach, it always felt like my only way to get home free was to make everyone laugh,” she writes. “It always dismantled the power structure within seconds. Being funny was my ultimate hustle!” And, while making people laugh still didn’t save her and her sister from getting the maximum charge for shoplifting merchandise from a department store she simply calls “Schloomingdale’s,” Schumer realizes through this big mistake how she wanted to focus her energy: “[T]he hustle I’m honing isn’t about shoplifting or lying or winning friends with horrible heists gone wrong,” she observes. “It’s about being my own best advocate and knowing how to take what I deserve in life without bringing anyone else down.” The ethical difference for Schumer is in the objective: the bettering of one’s self is a far more noble enterprise than tearing down or harming someone else. Success, she realizes, isn’t about “sleight of hand or trickery,” but about hard work.
Some people just have to be their own boss
“There is nothing better than being your own boss,” Schumer begins her chapter “Faked It Til I Maked It.” She acknowledges that all these jobs – including an under-stimulating job at a lesbian bar, teaching aerobics in college and working at a bodega where her pay was regularly docked for eating too many hotdogs – were significant because through all these “pretty unglamorous, regular, shitty, low-paying jobs,” she realized what she was supposed to do: Be her own boss. “Nothing feels better than running the show on my own now,” she writes, because “every person reading this [book] knows how much personal dignity you sign over when you work for someone you don’t like or for a company you don’t care about.” And she acknowledges that all her jobs prepared her for being in charge. For women castigated as strong-willed, opinionated, and unwilling to be submissive – women who seem incapable of landing and sticking to one line of work – the answer might be that they need to become entrepreneurial. They shouldn’t be working for others. Like Schumer, they should be working for themselves.
Sex won’t fix everything – but it will fix some things
In the chapter “My Only One-Night Stand,” Schumer describes what amounts to the ideal casual sexual encounter with a man she met while touring who looked like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. You can almost hear Schumer singing, “No one’s slick as Gaston / No one’s quick as Gaston,” as she’s eyeing him up and down. “My clitoris was thumping like the Tell-Tale Heart and I kept thinking of the 98 Degrees song ‘Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),'” she writes. Schumer is not a one-night-stand type of girl – no matter what audiences intuit from her raunchy standup routines – and while she knows they aren’t “cure-alls for broken hearts and low self-esteem,” she understands why why this one was important: “[S]ometimes when you’re trying to fix a problem with sex, you find that sex is just its own reward. No lessons to be learned. No agenda other than fun.” Not to mention it’s a proven antidote to stress. “And sometimes,” she continues, “tons of well-deserved orgasms from a guy looking at you like you’re lunch right when you fucking need it is just what the doctor ordered.”
It’s OK to be an introvert if that’s your thing
A self-declared introvert, Schumer is quick to clarify that she isn’t shy – she just likes being alone. “If you’re a true introvert, other people are basically energy vampires,” she writes. “You don’t hate them; you just have to be strategic about when you expose yourself to them.”
Conservation is self-preservation for Schumer against all the “energy vampires,” who demand “mindless small talk” or, say, demand an official response anytime some Bob or Joe comedian she may know makes some offensive remark. Schumer understands her acceptance of being introvert as a type of feminist act. “When you’re a performer – especially a female one – everyone assumes you enjoy being ‘on’ all the time,” Schumer observes. “The unintentional training I received when I was little was that because I was a girl and an actor, I must love being pleasant, and making everyone smile and feel comfortable all the time.” The message for women is that instead of letting the world suck them dry of their time and energy and talent – all at a fraction of the cost of men! – they need to be more judicious about giving their energy out to the world.
Knowing how to laugh at yourself is a sign of maturity
Amy Schumer writes that she “officially became a woman” not when she got her first period, not when she had sex, and not even, technically, through her bat mitzvah. Rather, it was at her bat mitzvah, when her voice cracked better than Peter Brady’s while chanting her Torah portion. Why? Because in that moment, just as the audience began laughing at her, she stepped outside herself and her fears and laughed at herself. Soon, the entire audience joined in – and she felt like she was in control. “I’m pretty sure that’s why I officially became a woman that day,” she explains. “Not because of the dumb ancient ceremony… No, I became a woman because I turned a solemn, quiet room into a place filled with unexpected laughter.” The ability to laugh at oneself, Schumer demonstrates, is both humanizing and empowering, because it conveys to others that not only are you in on the joke, you’re writing it.
Even strong women end up in shitty situations
“The Worst Night of My Life” is the most heartbreaking chapter in The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. Schumer documents her longterm relationship with a physically and psychologically abusive boyfriend who she just can’t quit. At the culmination of the harrowing story, her boyfriend pulls a knife on her. She throws a glass to divert him and then flees the apartment, knocking on doors in her apartment complex until a neighbor lets her in. They break up, but she admits reuniting with him. “I wanted to punish him for hurting me so much in the past,” she explains. “I’m not proud of that. But there was a part of me that wanted to be with him again so I could hurt him back. … I’m telling this story because I’m a strong-ass woman, not someone most people picture when they think ‘abused woman.'”
But, as she she writes in the chapter’s conclusion, “it can happen to anyone.” This story can be read as a political act, a way to take space through storytelling when so many victims of sexual assault remain silent out of fear of retribution. In coming out, Schumer made sure she wasn’t just a statistic.
Mistakes are (sometimes) good
In her concluding chapter, “Forgiving My Lower Back Tattoo,” Schumer relives how she got the eponymous tattoo, gross infection and all. She knows what message the tramp stamp sends to people – that she’s “trash” and has made “poor, poor decisions” throughout her life. But she doesn’t care: “I wear my mistakes like badges of honor, and I celebrate them.” Because it is only by making mistakes that we learn how to navigate fraught or treacherous situations, she concludes that “the tattoo represents the opposite for me today. It reminds me that it’s important to let yourself be vulnerable, to lose control and make a mistake.” Through experiencing the pain of a making a mistake – or five – Schumer knows it’s less painful to fuck up than to harbor the resentment of never trying. “After having all my fears realized and being insulted to no end, I got stronger,” writes Schumer.
Self-love is the best antidote to all kinds of hate
Frequently in her book, Schumer breaks the story narrative to speak directly to readers as a way to emphasize one of her most important messages: “Love yourself!,” she writes. “Your power comes from who you are and what you do!” The language rings like a mantra: “I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story.” At the same time, Schumer does not shy away from conveying the message more idiosyncratically: “I’m a real woman who digests her meals and breaks out and has sweet little pockets of cellulite on her upper thighs that she’s not apologizing for,” she asserts in the chapter “Letter to the Editor.” Likewise, she knows women need reminding, amid the sheer inundation of of body-shaming advertisements about the natural smells of women’s bodies, that “vaginas are supposed to look and smell like vaginas.” She points her fingers at women’s magazines, “Keep your strange scented washes away from me,” she implores. “I’ll allow my bag to keep its natural aroma of chicken noodle soup, thank you very much.”
Empowerment is taking control of the narrative
Through the wild variety of stories, the ultimate message Schumer imparts to readers is how important stories are. We tell stories in order to make sense of life, but we also tell stories as a way take control of our lives. This message carries a profound emotional weight in Schumer’s stories about her abusive boyfriend in “The Worst Night of My Life,” and about her sexual assault in the chapter “How I Lost My Virginity.” By taking control of the narrative and telling her story, she gains the agency she never had. And that makes her powerful. And it helps make all women powerful, too: “I’m opening up about my ‘first time’ because I don’t want it to happen to your daughter or sister or friend someday. I want to use my voice to tell people to make sure they have consent before they have sex with someone,” because, Schumer writes, “this happens so frequently that clearly we need to talk about it.”
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is not just another vehicle for Schumer to test her comedy chops through self-aggrandizement – it’s anything but. Like the literary antecedent cheekily appropriated in the title, our protagonist falls down repeatedly, but gets back up stronger than ever. And for women, Schumer’s many mistakes and poor decisions function to illuminate the many ways society inveighs women. The stories of these mistakes offer women space for catharsis.