The comic has been criticised for attacking a woman’s looks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – but her defenders say she was just speaking truth to power.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), held every April in Washington DC, is a major date in the US political calendar. The black-tie fundraising event sees celebrities, politicians and members of the press gather at the Washington Hilton hotel, and is usually hosted by a comedian, who pokes fun at the sitting president and their administration.
The WHCD is also seen as a chance for presidents, who almost always attend the event, to prove they have a sense of humour. At the dinner in 2011, President Barack Obama famously used his time onstage to mock Donald Trump, who had been publicly spreading the lie that the first black US president was born in Kenya. “Tonight, for the first time, I am releasing my official birth video,” Obama said – before playing the opening scene from The Lion King. Trump, who was in the audience, did not crack a smile.
But while the WHCD is often criticised for highlighting the cosiness between America’s political and media class, it has not been genuinely controversial for some time. That changed this year in the wake of comedian Michelle Wolf’s set, which has divided opinion more than any in recent history.
Wolf, a stand-up comic and contributor and writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, was the host of this year’s WHCD. During her set, she made a series of barbed jokes about members of the Trump administration, many of whom were in attendance. (Trump himself has refused to attend the dinner since becoming president, something that is interpreted by many as a sign of his notoriously thin skin.)
On Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, Wolf said: “I actually really like Sarah. 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.”
She also compared Huckabee Sanders to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, and suggested she was an “Uncle Tom” (a phrase used to describe a black man who is subservient to white people) “but for white women who disappoint other white women”.
Elsewhere in her set, Wolf described Ivanka Trump as being “about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” (“She’s done nothing to satisfy women. So, I guess, like father, like daughter”) and mocked the president himself by suggesting he is not as rich as he claims to be.
“People call Trump names all the time,” she said. “And look, I could call Trump a racist or a misogynist or xenophobic or unstable or incompetent or impotent. But he’s heard all of those, and he doesn’t care.
“So tonight, I’m going to try to make fun of the president in a new way, in a way that I think will really get him. Mr President: I don’t think you’re very rich. Like, I think you might be rich in Idaho, but in New York you’re doing fine.”
Predictably, Wolf’s roast drew ire from many right-wing US politicians and commentators. White House adviser Mercedes Schlapp and her husband Matt Schlapp walked out of the event, while Sean Spicer – Trump’s much-mocked former press secretary – described it as “a disgrace”.
Perhaps more surprisingly, given the well-known hostility between the Trump administration and the news media, many high-profile US political journalists also criticised the content of the set. Andrea Mitchell, the chief foreign affairs correspondent at NBC News, said that Wolf should apologise to Huckabee Sanders and others she “grossly insulted”, adding that she was the “worst” comic to appear at the event since Don Imus mocked President Bill Clinton’s infidelity and Hillary Clinton’s legal issues at the WHCD in 1996.
Maggie Haberman, the White House correspondent for The New York Times, suggested that Wolf had been mocking Huckabee Sanders’ appearance, and praised the press secretary for not walking out of the event.
Margaret Talev, the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg and the president of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), released a statement in which she said that Wolf’s monologue was “not in the spirit” of the WHCA’s “common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honouring civility”.
However, many others have defended Wolf, pointing out that she was criticising Huckabee Sanders for her character, not her appearance. As press secretary, Huckabee Sanders is one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders and is known for dissembling and twisting the truth. This suggests that Wolf’s reference to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale was political, not aesthetic: in THT, the character of Aunt Lydia tortures and brainwashes other women into subservience to a violent patriarchal regime.
Others observed that President Trump is notorious for making cruel remarks and attacking women for their looks – making it hypocritical for his supporters to turn around and criticise Wolf for doing the same.
It was also suggested that Wolf’s monologue didn’t go down well with many senior media figures because she criticised political journalism in the Trump era.
Ultimately, Wolf had the final word.
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