The Trump presidency has come with its share of strange side effects — immediate panic when you see someone in a red ball cap out in nature; no longer being able to freely use the frog emoji; occasionally remembering that Tiffany is alive and doing her best, dad — but perhaps the worst is that, even in such a preposterous news climate, making jokes about all of it has become risky business. It’s now practically routine for comedians who comment on politics to say something that triggers outrage, forcing the rest of us to stop and dissect whatever they said to determine if it’s really offensive or actually funny or directed appropriately, which is great, because everyone knows that jokes are better when you talk ad nauseam about exactly what they mean and how they’re constructed.
Last year, the FCC vaguely threatened to investigate Stephen Colbert for a crack about Trump's mouth being “Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” Soon after, there was Kathy Griffin and her fake decapitated Trump photo, which got her kicked off a few television specials, blacklisted for at least a year, and eventually investigated by the Secret Service. At this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, everyone got all hot and bothered about a few jokes host Michelle Wolf made about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, one of which (admiringly) referenced her smoky eye makeup. And with each of these dustups came an exhausting rinse-and-repeat peanut gallery debate on social media over whether the jokes in question actually merited all this hand-wringing.
Then, earlier this week, Roseanne Barr made a “joke” (does this word have any meaning anymore?) comparing former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett — a black woman — to an ape. Her terrible show was canceled by ABC, presumably because the executives responsible for giving her a revival to begin with had just recently awoken from a long slumber to discover that, surprise, the lady who once called Huma Abedin “a filthy nazi whore” and Susan Rice a “big man with swinging ape balls” is actually a racist. We rejoiced! Finally, maybe Laurie Metcalf can get her own show.
But hot on the heels of that incident, the joke police — who thrive on both the left and right, although their motives may vary — came, perhaps inevitably, for Samantha Bee. On Wednesday, Bee, host of the late-night show Full Frontal on TBS, went after Ivanka Trump for failing to oppose her father’s immigration policy, which separates children from their families, eventually calling her a “feckless cunt.” Bee has since apologized for her “inappropriate and inexcusable” expletive, the White House has issued a statement demanding that TBS “demonstrate that such explicit profanity about female members of this administration will not be condoned on its network,” and TBS more or less complied.
But one of these things is not like the other. Barr’s racist comment came from a bigot who should have never been allowed back on network television; Bee’s point was that Ivanka thinks she can distract us from children being taken away from their families at the border by posting cute photos of herself and her own kids. As Rebecca Traister writes for the Cut, “Language’s ability to inflict harm depends on the power of who’s wielding it and against whom it is being wielded.” Bee’s power and Ivanka’s are hardly equal: Bee is a comedian on television, while Ivanka works in the White House and has tangible power to make things better or worse for people around the world. But if the Trump administration and its supporters are good at anything, it’s at forcing false equivalencies into reality by screaming about them for a full year and a half.
Bee’s crime wasn’t insulting a woman — the Trump administration has made it clear that (white) women can be just as bigoted, hypocritical, and offensively dishonest as their male interlocutors — but rather it was hurling a weak insult under the guise of a weak joke. “Feckless cunt” was a waste of a shot at a senior White House adviser who used a 60 Minutes appearance to promote one of her ugly bracelets.
Bee isn’t wrong, technically. Ivanka is, indeed, a woman who has claimed to be an advocate for women’s rights but seemingly falls back on just being a daughter when faced with questions about how her father’s policies negatively impact women. Calling her a “cunt” suggests the right tone — Rage! Righteous indignation! — but the wrong vocabulary. It’s a word that, when used as an insult, has obvious roots in misogyny, one that’s been hurled by countless angry men at countless undeserving women (including me) when they can’t think of anything smarter or less sexist to say.
What’s disappointing about Bee’s choice of words is that now we’re all fighting about the acceptability of one woman calling another woman a “cunt,” which only the most boring people find interesting. (Have you noticed? Men love to talk about how they’d never use that word as an insult toward a woman, but lordy, is it ever cute to say out loud! Louis C.K. has a whole bit about it, and everything worked out just fine for him. I’m sure I Love You, Daddy was great.) Bee’s actual point — one about how the White House’s immigration policies are ripping families apart while Ivanka is playing mom on the internet — has gotten washed out by an argument about etymology. And letting the word “cunt” be the reason you lose the Respectability Wars feels like an opportunity wasted.
The best version of a joke is usually the most specific one, where you take the little details you know about someone and use it to crush them under your heel. If you’re not going to be polite, be precise. Wolf’s comments about Sanders were lumped together in the face of blowback, but her smoky-eye joke was better than some of the others because it had an actual point (that Sanders is a liar), and the language was sharp for its incisiveness (that she burns facts for ash) rather than its shock value. Bee’s cunt-free quip about Ivanka, on how she should “put on something tight and low-cut” and tell her dad to cut this shit out, is a stronger one, because the joke is about how the president of the United States is not just a pervert on the record about wanting to date his own daughter, but he's also easily distracted and big on nepotism. (Hilarious! The news cycle makes my bones hurt and I want to die!)
So yes, “feckless cunt” wasn’t Bee’s best work. But she has also been tasked with the unfair burden of playing nice — a burden that seems to wind up on the shoulders of women and people of color all too often. While plenty of Trump’s male supporters gleefully called Hillary Clinton a cunt, Bee has to somehow be better. The burden of respectability is boring, and, come to think of it, why should women like Bee have to bother with being respectable when the people she’s calling out on her show demand that their political opponents be jailed, make cracks about sexually assaulting women, call Mexicans rapists, defend neo-Nazis, refer to African nations as “shithole countries,” call women “fat” or “crazy,” refer to immigrants as “animals,” and, well, you know all the rest.
If you’re going to take a swing — regardless of what you say or how you say it, whether you’re right or wrong, in good or bad taste — take a real big swing. Don’t waste it on a word that in any other context would get you written off as a jerk and possibly suspended from Twitter, if that. Go nuts. Eat a dog on live television. Poop on a baby. If you already know they’re going to call for your head on a silver platter, make the fight worth it for the rest of us who have to watch this argument play out for the 50th time this month.
The issue with Bee calling Ivanka a cunt isn’t that the word is mean or that we have to play nice with a woman who has far more control over international policy than someone whose name is stamped all over a bunch of poorly sewn espadrilles ever should. Bee was punching up, the way you’d want any comedian to do; the issue, then, is that her unspecific shock-value-joke-without-even-being-a-joke isn’t worth the fight we’ve all been forced to have over it. If you want to go after someone who doesn’t play by any commonly accepted rules, going high doesn't necessarily work any better than going low. But whichever way you're going, make sure you stop to map out the route before you leave. ●
Scaachi Koul is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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