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The queasy side of Amy Schumer’s viral rape sketch

Amy Schumer attends the TIME 100 Gala on Tuesday in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision via Associated Press)

“Watch amy schumer’s powerful inspiring speech about john oliver destroying sexism in one west wing parody,” BuzzFeed’s Matt Zeitlin tweeted yesterday. “77 million shares.” He was referring to the reaction to a sketch on “Inside Amy Schumer,” in which the titular comedian teamed up with actor Josh Charles to put on a clever parody of “Friday Night Lights,” but also to a tendency in Web publishing to treat comedians’ clips as if they’re finishing moves, insights so powerful that they settle the debate in question for good.

Of course, comedy can have a real-world impact: Hannibal Buress’s denunciation of Bill Cosby during a stand-up routine finally broke the dam that had minimized sexual assault allegations against the legendary comedian. “Football Town Nights” has been greeted like a rhetorical and political triumph, which maybe it is. But to me, it felt a bit more like a sketch that served another, darker comedic and political purpose: to point out how futile our efforts to change the world can actually be.

In the sketch, Charles plays the new coach in town who’s trying to turn his players into better men, and Schumer is his wife, figuring out what she can do from the sidelines. Schumer’s comedy — such as a brilliant sketch in which a group of women commit collective suicide when one of their number simply accepts a compliment rather than tearing herself down — often excels by turning subtext into text. In “Football Town Nights,” that means watching the team’s players run through all the scenarios in which they think it might be all right to override a woman’s consent, and watching the town insist that the players’ ability to rape whoever they want is critical to their success:

“Schumer’s team, on the other hand, understood that rape isn’t really about sex, but that sex is just a weapon being used to assert power and establish a social hierarchy that puts victims at the bottom,” Amanda Marcotte wrote in a paean to the sketch at Talking Points Memo, comparing it with another bit on “Saturday Night Live.” “Schumer’s sketch, doing what good humor should do, questions this belief, showing how ridiculous you sound when you actually try to argue that men are incapable of understanding context or meaningful consent.”

But the sketch itself sort of ends up making this argument. After multiple scenes of Coach Thompson intercepting every scenario his players throw at him for when it might be all right to take a no as a yes, he sent them back onto the field at the end of halftime with the exhortation that “[Football is] about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want! You gotta get yourself into the mindset that you are gods, and you are entitled to this!” Even the man who’s giving his players clear and blunt anti-rape education turns out to be feeding the mind-set that turned his players into predators in the first place.

ThinkProgress culture editor Jessica Goldstein did a smart interview with “Inside Amy Schumer” writers Christine Nangle and Jessi Klein about the sketch, in which Nangle confirmed that some of this fatalism is intentional. “Obviously, it wasn’t lost on me that these guys are trained to knock each other over while half-dressed girls jump up and down on the sidelines,” Nangle told Goldstein. “The history of it is all there, and it just says something.”

If we really think elite athletes can’t be taught that different behaviors are permissible in different circumstances, and if we really think that sports themselves, rather than a culture that venerates players and exempts them from the codes of conduct that apply to the rest of us, are a cause of rape, then maybe it really is time to despair. Sports are an enormous part of American collective life. Serious scandals like the prevalence of steroids in Major League Baseball and the National Football League’s denial about concussion rates haven’t turned us away from our national games. And humor may comfort those standing on the sidelines who find fanatical sports fandom risible, but there’s a difference between providing a campfire in a cold world and actually burning an entire toxic culture to the ground.

No wonder that as Coach Thompson’s wife, Schumer not only makes the decidedly un-Tami Taylor suggestion that he might lay off the anti-rape crusade, and that her wine glasses get larger every time she appears on screen. She knows that his campaign is futile and that he’s part of the problem, despite his good intentions. By the last scene, the goblet’s big enough that her attempts to drown her sorrows no longer seem metaphorical — and “Football Town Nights” has become dark enough that we might be tempted to join her.