No Laughing Matter

Categories: Activism
05/07/2018
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On Sunday, April 28, comedian Michelle Wolf took to the podium at the Washington Hilton to participate in the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With increasing momentum within the Women’s Movement, the White House Correspondents’ Association had seemingly hand-selected Wolf as the event’s invited comedian, making her only the sixth women to hold the honor throughout the dinner’s storied history. In February, the Association’s president, Margaret Talvev announced Wolf’s selection by stating, “Our dinner honors the First Amendment and strong, independent journalism. [Wolf’s] embrace of these values and her truth-to-power style make her a great friend to the WHCA. Her… self-made, feminist edge make her the right voice now.” Invitations were sent, reservations were made, and for the second year in a row, President Trump made the unprecedented decision to skip the event, but the show went on.

“Her… self-made, feminist edge make her the right voice now.”

Right out of the gate, Wolf’s “feminist edge” was immediately put on display as she quipped, “And I know as much as some of you might want me to, it’s 2018 and I am a woman so you cannot shut me up — unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.” She then proceeded to wryly critique Democrats and Republicans alike, with a notable focus on feminist topics such as pussy hats, Roy Moore, the #MeToo Movement, abortion, and women within the Trump Administration. As Wolf shifted her commentary towards the women of the Trump Administration, much of her focus fell upon President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who sat only a few feet away from Wolf on the dais in Trump’s stead. Pulling no punches, Wolf lambasted Sanders for the unpredictability of her press briefings, the frequency of her lies, and the complicity of her actions. In some notable zingers, Wolf remarked, “We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you’d love it” and “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies” and, “And I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you know… Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know. Aunt Coulter.”

Following Wolf’s performance, she was met with a barrage of negative feedback from news outlets and political figures alike, who largely aimed their criticism towards Wolf’s comments supposedly regarding Sanders’ physical appearance. Mika Brezezinski of Morning Joe later tweeted that “watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable, while Maggie Haberman of The New York Times tweeted “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.” Yet, the most notable response came from the White House Correspondents’ Association itself, which released a rare statement about Wolf’s performance the following day, stating, “Last night’s message was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment and free press while honoring civility, great reporting, and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission…I appreciated Sarah Sanders [sic] for joining us at the head table and her grace through the program.”

But, is all of this outrage surrounding Wolf’s comments about Sanders justified?

But, is all of this outrage surrounding Wolf’s comments about Sanders justified? First, let’s look at the main critique—that Wolf made insulting comments about the Press Secretary’s physical appearance. If it were true that Wolf attacked Sanders with harsh jokes about her face, body, and style, then such words ought to be largely questioned and appropriately condemned. For, any woman who negatively comments upon another woman’s appearance ultimately plays into patriarchal social dynamics that place an undue premium upon a woman’s beauty. Yet, such is not the case when examining Wolf’s set. Of the many lines that Wolf cracked about Sanders, only two can be potentially interpreted as joking about her appearance—the first, where Wolf compares Sanders to the evil Aunt Lydia of The Handmaid’s Tale and the second, where Wolf suggests Sanders creates a smoky eye from burning facts.

By comparing Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia, one could arguably make the conclusion that Wolf was likening Sanders’ image to the character’s somewhat dour appearance in the Handmaid’s Tale. But based on Wolf’s quip immediately following the comparison, where she states “Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you’d love it,” we can reasonably infer her joke is focusing more on how the show and how Aunt Lydia relate to themes of women’s oppression rather than more superficial aspects. Fans of the Handmaid’s Tale have been quick to point out that within the series, Aunt Lydia serves as part of a class of women whose job is to brainwash the Handmaids into believing the government’s propaganda so that their bodies can be manipulated—not dissimilar to how Sanders has often tried to convince other citizens of the Trump Administration’s supposed sympathy towards women while defending policies that are ultimately harmful to women such as increased restrictions to reproductive health.

As for the smoky eye comment, while the joke does focus on Sanders’ image, it makes neither a positive nor negative judgement upon the Press Secretary’s eyeshadow choice. Instead, at its premise is the idea of how she gets the smoky eye—by “burn[ing] facts” to create lies and applying the ash to her eyes as some sort of deceitful mask. And much like predecessors within the Trump Administration, Sanders has willingly spread blatant misinformation about the president’s policies and activities. Among a long list of falsehoods she’s claimed throughout her tenure, she’s lied that former President Barack Obama ordered wiretapping on Trump, that President Trump has “in no way, for or fashion…ever promoted or encouraged violence,”  and diversity visa immigrants are not vetted.

So, why were members of D.C. society so quick to jump to Sanders’ defense in such a misplaced fashion? In my mind, I can think of three ultimate reasons—each upsetting in their own unique way. First, women have been conditioned to feel defensive about any comments regarding their physical appearances, particularly within the Trump Era, where the president frequently offers negative commentary upon the way women look. This unfortunate reality could be the ultimate explanation as to why liberal commentator Mika Brezezinski was so quick to defend Sanders, as she further noted in her earlier tweet that “I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president… All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen.”

My second thought regarding this overwrought defensiveness is that although commentators may deny it—they still place an undue value upon a woman’s appearance and feel unnecessarily compelled to defend it whenever it’s supposedly insulted. If one was to look for any comment throughout Wolf’s entire set that was solely derogatory towards an official’s physical appearance, they should be fixating on Wolf’s comment regarding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which compared his neck to a penis with the line “Mitch McConnell isn’t here tonight, he had a prior engagement, he’s finally getting his neck circumcised. Mazel.” Yet, nobody has made any effort to protect him from Wolf’s “harsh” jokes or defend his appearance. Why? Because they feel that he’s powerful and influential enough by virtue of his position and influence that a crass joke about his image won’t diminish his power. Such an unnecessary and spirited effort to protect Sanders suggests that such an attack upon her image will—because, of course, for women in power, image must always carry such great importance.

“commentators’ decision to stand behind Sanders, rather than Wolf, reveals a deep level of hypocrisy regarding the media’s stance surrounding feminism.”

Finally, commentators’ decision to stand behind Sanders, rather than Wolf, reveals a deep level of hypocrisy regarding the media’s stance surrounding feminism. In many ways, it’s the same of what Wolf concluded in her monologue when she aptly observed the press corps’ relationship with President Trump, “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”  

News outlets are quick to support women’s issues when it’s convenient to them and can bring them higher ratings such as the Women’s March, the #MeToo Movement, or controversial policies related to women’s reproductive rights. But when it comes to actually supporting feminism or feminist ideals that could potentially jeopardize their profit margin or their public image, they’re quick to abandon such values. The White House Correspondents’ Association said it wanted Wolf for her “truth-to-power style” and “feminist edge.” Yet, when she met these expectations, at the first sign of potential conflict, the Association duplicitously condemned Wolf’s performance by stating that her set had failed to advance its mission of having a “unifying message” and ultimately “ divide[d] people.”

But here’s a news flash. Despite ideological differences, what used to unify politicians and members of the Washington Press Corps was the pursuit of the truth. Facts could not be disputed. Facts could not be manipulated. The truth was the same regardless of what side of the aisle you were on. Those days are now gone, thanks to the purposeful misinformation spread by members of the Trump Administration—Sarah Huckabee Sanders largely included. Wolf did what she was asked to do. She used feminism as a lense to reveal distortions and deception within Washington, but instead of seeing clearly, others allowed their own personal biases to distort and deceive their interpretations of Wolf’s message. The true disgrace of the evening was not Wolf’s actions during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but the ensuing reactions to her presence. And that’s no laughing matter.  

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Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.