In her White House Correspondents’ Dinner roast, Michelle Wolf prodded everything from abortion to sexual assault to pedophilia to pussy hats. Her appearance has been described as cringeworthy, scathing, salty. I found it all of that and hilarious to boot.
If you’ve ever watched Wolf on The Daily Show or seen her HBO special, you know what you’re in for: she’s savage. She might present with a strange, almost squeaky voice—often accompanied by a cheeky I’ve-gone-too-far giggle—but she’s brutal. And she was either hired because the White House Correspondents’ Association failed to do their research on her (as Wolf speculated in her act), or more likely because they had. The Association knew precisely that she’d deliver all that we’ve come to expect from her.
Of all the criticism that the performance has received, the narrowest eyes and the deepest frowns have been directed at Wolf’s remarks about Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sanders was called an Uncle Tom and likened to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale. In the night’s best gag, Sanders’ trademark smoky eye—incidentally one of the few legacies of Anthony Scaramucci—was attributed to her burning of facts and using the ash as eyeshadow.
As a feminist though, I can’t pretend that there weren’t some watching-through-slightly-parted-fingers moments for me. And yet, sharing the boobs/blood/biology bond with Sanders most certainly isn’t enough to motivate any protective feelings of sisterhood towards her: as eviscerating as Wolf was, I never commiserated enough to forget that Sanders spends her days lying for the Misogynist in Chief.
So can my issues with Sanders justify Wolf’s ad-hominem attack?
Humour is notoriously subjective and all jokes are open to interpretation. Comparing Sanders to Aunt Lydia therefore, of course, can be interpreted as 35-year-old Sanders being unflatteringly likened to a drab, sour-faced, stocky woman in her 60s. Equally, even mentioning Sanders’ eyeshadow can be read as yet another sexist appraisal of a woman’s body. But listening to Wolf’s roast, to my ears her jokes were actually far more interesting than yo’ mamma appearance-based digs.
For anyone familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia is both a victim of Gilead but also one of its fiercest enforcers. It’s Aunt Lydia who most regularly abuses the handmaids; it’s Aunt Lydia who is the matriarch who should know better but either doesn’t or simply doesn’t care. Likening Sanders to Aunt Lydia isn’t an assault on looks, it’s an outing of a gender traitor.
Equally, putting aside the quandary of whether the merest mention of Sanders’ eye make-up is sexist, to me the joke was less an aesthetic critique and more about the arresting—and funny—visual of Sanders turning truth to ash. To interpret the gag as about make-up misses entirely Wolf’s point about the font of fake news being Sanders.
And yet, as much as I was laughing, and scant as the sympathy is that I have for Sanders in her press secretary post, there was more than a little heartstring tugging in watching her face during the performance. In fact, more brutal than the slurs was the camera panning back to Sanders and me having to see not only her embarrassment, her regret and her likely reassessment of her every life choice, but having to watch her remain seated —remain quiet—and being unable to will open a trap-door beneath her. As a woman who does media and gets her own share of ‘feedback’, I know too well the heinous mandate of being graceful. And yet, this is one of those endless examples of life’s complexity. Wolf was funny. Wolf was cruel. Seeing Sanders suffer was wretched. Sanders actively works against women. And these truths can all exist at the same time.
I could line-item defend each of Wolf’s jokes—even the controversial abortion one, because I don’t think there are untouchables in comedy—but more interesting is the simple but essential point that she was hired as a comedian. She’s not a politician, she’s not a press secretary, she was employed—as were the dozens of comedians at this event in years past—to roast. Wolf was behind that podium to mock, to malign to mistreat everyone. Expecting her to be ‘nice’, to somehow perform her feminism by giving a pass to women like Sanders, like Kellyanne Conway, like Ivanka—i.e., the women who do Trump’s dirty bidding daily—is delusion, is reductive.
Comedians can’t be held to a higher standard that we hold our leaders. That some members of the Trump administration walked out during the performance—is indicative less of their lack of enjoyment and more of the hypocrisy we’ve come to expect. Trump consistently gets excused for every dig, barb and lie, and yet when he’s called out for any it— by a woman no less!—it’s all apparently demonstrative of a liberal elite media conspiracy.
Sanders is the mouthpiece for a man who prefers to tweet from the safety of his smartphone than face the press corps. Had Wolf been lampooning a random member of the public then perhaps criticism would be justified. Instead, she was poking fun at a woman who earns her coin by telling rotten porkies for the President. Placing herself in that position— choosing to be his media bitch—means not only is Sanders rightfully susceptible to scrutiny, but it’s actually long overdue. That a comedian had to deliver Sanders’ scathing performance review is an indictment of the news media and on a society that’s becoming ever more acclimatised to this frightening Trumpian world order.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of nine books, and co-host of ‘Stop Everything!’ on Radio National and of the ‘Sealed Section’ podcast.