Criticism of Michelle Wolf's White House Correspondents' Dinner speech shows we still hold female comedians to different standards

It wasn't Wolf's comments about Sarah Huckabee Sanders's make-up that ruffled feathers – it’s her refusal to be polite, while men have no such scruples when it comes to rocking the boat

Alix O'Neill
Monday 30 April 2018 17:34 BST
Michelle Wolf destroys Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents Dinner

There are lots of ways you can insult a woman’s appearance, both directly (as in many a high school playground) and indirectly (every ad that’s ever told you to get “beach body ready”).

But one thing that really can’t be construed as an insult by anyone who wears makeup is the suggestion that they’re rocking a perfect smoky eye. On the contrary, if you can manage the sultry, just-the-right-amount-of-smudged look, you deserve serious kudos.

Yet on Saturday night, a joke about eyeshadow caused widespread disgust among politicians and journalists attending the annual White House Correspondent’s Association (WHCA) dinner. During her keynote roast, comedian Michelle Wolf slammed senior White House staff, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

“I think [Sanders is] very resourceful. She burns facts and then uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

The quip invited audible gasps from the audience, while a stony-faced Huckabee Sanders, who clearly didn’t get the memo on how a roasting works, glared from the sidelines. Afterwards, reporters and conservatives took to Twitter to express their outrage. Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the (“failing”) New York Times, wrote: “That the @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance and so forth, instead of walking out was impressive.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, who Trump claimed was “bleeding badly from a facelift” when she visited his Mar-a-Lago resort, decided to lend her support to the person who defends the president’s insults on a daily basis: “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable,” she wrote.

Let’s for a moment ignore the strange circumstance of journalists rallying around a woman whose job it is to lie to them – or the suggestion that marriage and motherhood somehow makes you unable to handle criticism, or an unfair target. At no stage did Wolf denigrate the press secretary’s appearance. She didn’t pull her punches, but why should she have? Does Trump – who Huckabee Sanders spends her day speaking on behalf of – ever pause to consider the feelings of those he rips into?

I’ll admit I found parts of the speech hard to watch. I squirmed at a graphic joke about abortion – and I’m staunchly pro-choice – and for me, some of the barbs fell flat. Insult slinging generally isn’t my bag. Does that mean I think Wolf should have spared Huckabee Sanders and her colleagues? Absolutely and unequivocally not. Political satire is meant to make us squirm. Comedy isn’t just about generating laughs, it’s about cutting to uncomfortable truths and challenging our view of the world.

Here’s the real issue. It isn’t what Wolf said that’s ruffled feathers – it’s her refusal to be polite. From a young age, girls are – consciously or unconsciously – taught to people please. “By all means, darling, reach for the stars, break that glass ceiling, climb every mountain – just be nice about it.” We’re encouraged to excel, but not shout about our achievements, to smile when a stranger asks: “Why the long face”? And that man on the commute who persists in chatting you up when you’re trying to read? Sure, refuse his advances – just don’t be rude.

Men have no such scruples when it comes to rocking the boat. They’ll ask for the pay rise, tell the unsavoury gag. A man can stand on stage and bang on about wanking, and no one bats an eyelid. He might even get a few laughs.

Thanks to comedians like Amy Schumer, routines around female sexuality are finally breaking through, but we’re still not entirely at ease with a woman pushing boundaries. The comedian Kathy Griffin, who blasted Washington’s thin-skinned politicos for their reaction to Wolf’s performance, was shunned last year when she posted a photo of herself holding a model of Trump’s severed head. “The audience’s reaction was tepid and I really feel like it’s because she’s a woman,” said Griffin after the WHCA dinner.

In a recent interview with New York publication The Village Voice, Wolf said: “The time for being polite is over.” That’s probably the one thing Wolf and Trump agree on.

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