Writer and comedian Michelle Wolf has hit the headlines for her routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday. Comedians were invited to take the piss out of the American political establishment and the press, and Wolf did not disappoint.
Her jokes ranged from Trump using pussy-grabbing to find loose change to Senator Mitch McConnell getting his neck circumcised. No one was let off the hook. Wolf joked that she could talk about Russia but, addressing the ‘liberal media’ in the room, said that ‘I’ve never really wanted to know what any of you look like when you orgasm’. She poked fun at Hillary for losing Michigan, as well as Ivanka Trump for being ‘about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons’. It was rude, lewd and, in places, quite funny.
But it was Wolf’s segment on White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that prompted many to claim she’d gone too far. ‘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.’ At this point the camera cut to Sanders who, as my granny would say, had a face like a slapped arse. ‘I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you know?’ Wolf continued. ‘Is it Sarah Sanders, is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is it Cousin Huckabee, is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know. Aunt Coulter.’
That was pretty much it – that and a crack at the start about Sanders looking like Aunt Lydia from the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For this, Wolf was slated. ‘The filthy “comedian” totally bombed’ tweeted Donald Trump. Sean Spicer said it was ‘a disgrace’. Margaret Talev, the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and president of the correspondents’ organisation, put out a statement after the event describing the ‘dismay’ of the attendees at Wolf’s routine. ‘Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honouring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people’, she said, ‘unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission’.
Wolf has hardly been censored, merely criticised. One commentator asked her to apologise (she refused). And yet so many of what she calls the orgasmic liberal media have jumped to her defence. ‘It was just a joke. The response to it, however, has been no laughing matter’, wrote a Guardian columnist. ‘I have spent years defending women on both sides of the aisle from sexist attacks & digs on their appearance. Michelle Wolf did neither’ tweeted feminist commentator Jessica Valenti. ‘Dear “the media” – @michelleisawolf was FUNNY. Hire a juggler next year’ tweeted talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel. Fellow comedian Kathy Griffin defended Wolf by asserting: ‘A comic’s job is to go over the line and then push the line and go over it again. Great comics aren’t supposed to be safe or careful.’
Wolf’s routine has highlighted the hypocrisy in the debate over free speech. Liberal commentators and pundits scream foul play when Trump says something rude (or when people make jokes about Nazi pug dogs), but when it’s a joke about Trump’s daughter being full of shit like a ‘diaper genie’, that’s free speech. These double standards are a problem for the right, too, who go on about free speech on the internet, but have been decrying Wolf as going too far for making jokes about Republican women. It seems that no one has the guts to stand up for free speech at all times – only when it’s useful to their own political ends.
It doesn’t matter if a joke is offensive, tame, rude or stupid – if it’s funny, it’s funny. This goes for takedowns of Donald Trump, the Dalai Lama and your best friend’s granny. It’s horribly ironic that it took an event that was supposed to be about freedom and speaking truth to power to highlight how hypocritical America’s press is when it comes to attitudes to free speech. Perhaps there’s a joke in that.
Ella Whelan is author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.