This Saturday, comedian Michelle Wolf performed at The White House Correspondents' Dinner, lambasting Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and, of course, Trump. She spoke for nearly 20 minutes, and criticized liberals and conservatives alike. But for some, yet unexplained reason, the internet lost its collective mind over one simple joke about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
“I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. 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.”
Sanders grimaced at the remark—but the internet did a whole lot more than that. CNN's Chris Cillizza wrote that Wolf “got very personal about Sanders” and called Wolf’s comments “bullying.” Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski tweeted that “watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable.” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman added:
Someone please explain this to me, because I am genuinely confused: in what world does “she burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye” amount to “intense criticism of her physical appearance”? As Wolf herself pointed out, also via Twitter:
The White House Correspondents' Association even apologized, with WHCA president Margaret Talev issuing a statement calling Wolf's performance "not in the spirit of [the night's] mission," which she defined as "to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorousand free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people."
But the pushback to Wolf’s comments isn’t just about this alleged criticism of Sanders’ looks—it’s also a totally sexist response to what has always been a contentious relationship between comedians and attendees at the WHCD. For years, comedians from Hasan Minhaj to Joel McHale to Stephen Colbert used the event as a platform to criticize the administration and the journalists who cover them.
In 1997, Norm MacDonald brought physical criticism to the podium when he joked about Al Gore’s absence, commenting that he “broke down and they had to leave him in the shop.” Fourteen years later, Seth Meyers joked, “You can always tell how much danger Anderson Cooper is in by how tight his pants are.” But most critics of Wolf’s performance compare her to Stephen Colbert—who delivered biting, personal commentary on the failures of the Bush administration in 2006. Imitating a conservative pundit in his typical Colbert Report style, Colbert said:
“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
But when Colbert was criticized, he was criticized on the quality of his comedy. He wasn’t called a bully, and his comments weren’t pulled out of context. Nobody said that the White House Correspondents Dinner owed Bush an apology, as many critics are now saying of Sanders. Other jokes in recent years (see: Hasan Minhaj's explanation of Betsy Devos’ absence in 2017: “She’s busy curating her collection of children’s tears”) have been treated much like Colbert’s.
Why was this year different? It might be because our culture is getting more polarized every day—which makes it harder and harder for everyone to take a joke. But it also probably has something to do with sexism—the same kind of sexism that makes people think that Samantha Bee is meaner than Trevor Noah or John Oliver, despite the fact that they all eviscerate conservative politicians on a daily/weekly basis. If Colbert says it, it’s comedy; if Wolf says it, it’s "bullying."
There are a few major problems with this approach. First and foremost, it depends on a traditional, restrictive view of women as kind and nurturing. Women should be allowed to be just as critical (and just as funny) as their comedic counterparts.
But it also distracts us from the fact that Wolf offered salient, meaningful criticism of everyone in attendance. She blamed journalists for profiting off Trump’s sensationalism, and criticized congress for legislative inaction. And as Pod Save America co-host Jon Favreau tweeted, Wolf ended her speech with a call to action about Flint’s water crisis that has been largely ignored in the media hurricane regarding Sanders’ eyeshadow.
Watch a full video of Wolf’s comments here:
Photo Credit: Screengrab, Michelle Wolf's Full Speech
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.