I don’t think I’m alone in my slight fatigue regarding American politics. However this morning I took some time out to watch Michelle Wolf speak at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner because I like Michelle and I was interested to see how she did. I chuckled along, it was as I expected, apart from Kellyanne Conway and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, we were all having fun here. OR WERE WE? Apparently not. In fact, this performance has warranted an apology from the White House Correspondent’s Association WHCA.
Now, you could argue the Correspondent’s Dinner has little to do with Funny Women and perhaps on previous occasions I’d say you were right. However, as we deal in the subject of women in comedy and how they are received I think we can delve into this one. To be clear, I want to look at the comedy and its reception, not give you my political opinion.
To give a bit of background, the Correspondent’s Dinner is an American tradition that was founded in 1914 by journalists who believed an unfounded rumour that President Woodrow Wilson’s congressional committee would select which journalists could attend press conferences of the president. So, it has roots in freedom of speech and access to information, but as with many celebratory but formal dinners it can get a little flabby and boring and rather than go down the President’s Club route, in 1983 they began hiring a comedian to come lighten the mood.
Another tradition is that the sitting president is… present, something Trump has failed to do for the past two dinners, AND that they deliver some form of self-deprecating speech so that they can appear human in front of the White House Press Corps.
Someone who did show up was comedian Michelle Wolf, whose jokes have been… interpreted in an interesting manner on social media by those present and absent. As is tradition at this event no one was safe, Republican, Democrat and the media got sent up. However one zinger seems to have caused most offence and that is the one I want to focus on, the comedian’s observation of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s eye make-up. Was the application of eyeshadow mocked? No. Okay, did she say it looked awful? No. Brace yourselves because this is pretty freaking sassy, Michelle said: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
I said I wasn’t going to touch on the politics here and actually, the ongoing commentary of this joke makes this easy for me. Very few people seem to be upset at the suggestion the Press Secretary has so little regard to fact that she uses the cinders of truth as an alternative make-up, or to translate because a lot of people don’t seem to be understanding this joke, lies. Instead, people such as MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski tweeted: “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.”
On the other hand and in the name of balance, comedian Sara Schaefer tweeted: “@michelleisawolf eyeliner joke is so good. Makeup is meant to hide / enhance / obscure the truth – perfect metaphor for SHS lies. AND it’s the kind of joke only a woman can make to another woman. Compliment about makeup is actually a searing critique of character. *chef kiss*”.
Like Sara, I do not see where this joke touches upon the Press Secretary’s looks. If someone joked my red lipstick was made from the blood of newborns (the exact colour I am searching for) we’d all know that joke was about my lipstick colour, not my lips. Of course, I am not a mother so it wouldn’t matter either way, humiliate away people!
And hey, it’s okay to not find a joke funny, I do that all the time. It’s okay to not get a joke, I do that some of the time. It’s okay to be offended by a joke, I see a lot of white boys on the open mic circuit, I get offended constantly. They have to have really, really punched down for me to demand an apology though. That being said, if that audience sincerely believes Michelle was criticising Sarah’s looks, then Colbert was really taking his life in his hands when he asked to be shot in the face during his comedy monologue at George Bush Jr’s 2006 Correspondent’s Dinner.
By issuing an apology for the act I assume they booked (apparently without even Googling) the WHCA not only vindicates the people who claim not to have expected any jokes at rich-people-in-power’s expense, but throws the booked comedian under the bus. A comedian, I repeat, not a politician or journalist who needs to win a few points with Kellyanne Conway or maintain amiable access to the White House. A comedian who did the job she was booked for.
I find this highly problematic. I book comedians for our monthly comedy show at Brighton Komedia. I don’t book people I haven’t seen, I don’t book people I don’t know and I don’t book people whose material I don’t think our audience will like, precisely because I do not want to have to spend any time apologising to people about an act I booked, or spend the night cringing as an act delivers wildly unsuitable material to people who have paid to see a better-curated show.
It’s also wildly problematic to perpetuate this idea that sisterhood is about being nice. Or that marrying and having children gives you a free pass in The Sisterhood which is absurd. A true sisterhood holds people who are endangering others to account. A true comedian doesn’t try to make uncomfortable truths palatable, they try to make them funny.
I think that’s exactly what Michelle Wolf did.