On Saturday night, Michelle Wolf blew up the media world with her take-no-prisoners monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The commentariat wasted no time lamenting Wolf’s vulgarity, her insult humor, the way she’d “crossed the line.” C-Span Radio reportedly cut its live coverage, citing “FCC indecency guidelines.” Several Trump administration officials walked out in the middle, and Anthony Scaramucci pronounced it “an atrocity.” For CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, it was “an embarrassment,” and the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi dubbed the routine “downright nasty.” Kyle Cheney of Politico felt Wolf had “undermined an otherwise meaningful night”; and the New York Times’ Peter Baker lamented that she had not “advanced the cause of journalism.”
We can debate subjective concepts like “indecency” and “embarrassment” but, with all due respect to Mr. Cheney and Mr. Baker, there is no debating that Michelle Wolf both lent meaning to the night and advanced the cause of journalism. And she did it all via what felt like high-concept performance art, involving some fascinating role play with the audience — transforming the whole occasion into a brilliant microcosm (and reality check!) of the Trump presidency’s relationship with the media. Here’s how it went down.
Of all Wolf’s jokes, what seemed to rile critics most was her very personal takedown of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Mika Brzezinski said it was “deplorable” — adding that “women have a duty to unite.” Even Maggie Haberman was moved to declare Huckabee Sanders “impressive” for having sat through Wolf’s “intense criticism of her physical appearance.”
In her remarks, Wolf accused Huckabee Sanders of lying on the job — presumably the most heinous crime imaginable for a press secretary — but everyone was far more distressed about Wolf’s looks-based criticism of Huckabee Sanders. She opened by jokingly “confusing” Huckabee Sanders with actress Ann Dowd, who plays the frightening Aunt Lydia in the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. (“I love you as Aunt Lydia.”) This insult has two levels. The first is conceptual: Aunt Lydia betrays, intimidates, and tortures the women she inducts into handmaiden-hood, so with this comparison, Wolf called out Huckabee Sanders for representing a misogynist administration.
The insult’s second level is more primal and purely physical: Aunt Lydia is a dowdy, dour, and unadorned woman. She “educates” the young and fertile handmaidens but cannot be one herself. The actress who plays the character is over 60. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is 35. Via simple arithmetic then, Wolf leveled one of our culture’s most devastating critiques of a woman: You look older than you are. If the women in the Hilton ballroom took special umbrage at this remark, their outrage stemmed from something more than pure altruism. Saturday night’s crowd overflowed with hundreds of professional women in politics and media — many over 40 and surely no strangers to the kind of youth-ifying treatments virtually required for any woman in the public eye: Botox, fillers, hair coloring, nips, and tucks. Age is a sensitive subject, and when Wolf — who opened by giving her own youthful age (32) — attacked another still-young woman for looking old, she also reminded every other woman in the room of their own “expiration dates,” of the unrelenting scrutiny and ageism to which they are all subjected — not least by our own president.
With her next “over-the-line” personal insult, Wolf moved even deeper into taboo territory, taking aim at Huckabee Sanders’s femininity, or rather perceived heterosexuality. “Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I’m not really sure what we’re going to get … a press briefing, a bunch of lies, or divided into softball teams. ‘It’s shirts and skins, and this time don’t be such a little bitch, Jim Acosta!’” Cruel as it was, the joke was complex and brilliant. With its quadruple-layer structure, it was a model of semiotics: demonstrating how we might interpret a cultural phenomenon as dense as a Trump White House press briefing. First, we acknowledge what something appears to be: a press briefing. Next, we consider what lies beneath the surface: and here, Wolf is correct — these briefings are usually little more than “a bunch of lies.” At layer three, we get to the heart of the matter, pushing to wonder what else is going on, asking why particular lies are being told and in this manner.
Wolf’s third level here was a nasty jab, likening Huckabee Sanders to the homophobic cliché of the female softball coach: a mannish, hectoring bully. But beyond the insult was Wolf’s third-level interpretation of White House press briefings — and again she is not wrong: Huckabee Sanders not only lies at these events — she scolds, diminishes, and yes, bullies the press with the goal of subduing them, of wearing them down (that is the answer to “why”).
Wolf’s fourth level was a kind of grace note on the motif, where she drove home the insult by adding satirical imagined dialogue, placing those biting words about Jim Acosta in Huckabee Sanders’s mouth. It was funny and the crowd laughed — but again, it had a larger purpose. The “little bitch” remark, while continuing the gender-reversal insult humor, was not a swipe at Sarah Huckabee Sanders or even at Jim Acosta, so much as it was an attack on the entire press corps. To be a “little bitch” is to be a cry-baby, a weakling, someone who can’t “take it.” Yes, it’s a sexist epithet, using a slur against women (“bitch”) to equate feminine behavior with inadequacy. But beyond that lay Wolf’s greater point: The White House currently resembles a misogynist dystopia, but the press has some complicity in this. The press complains, but they return again and again to that briefing room, asking questions as if they might ever get a straight answer, as if this were a normal White House that hadn’t declared the free press “an enemy of the people.” And so, in level four of her insult sequence, Michelle Wolf directed her comedic firepower not at her ostensible target, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but at every member of her audience. They are the “little bitches,” the ones who whine but rarely stand up for themselves, who grant credence to Trump’s nonsensical tweets or empty boasts, weighing and dissecting them as if they were brilliant policy papers rather than pure obfuscation, and rarely attaching the label “lie” to the incessant falsehoods.
If there was any doubt about Wolf’s withering, gender-bending put down of the press, one of her later jokes confirmed it: “you guys are obsessed with Trump,” she told the assembled company, “Did you used to date him?” she asked sardonically. “Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him.” Exactly. Like the proverbial scorned woman (and let’s face it, the cliché of the obsessed ex applies primarily to ex-GIRLFRIENDS), the press focuses constantly on Trump, feeding his monstrous ego, stoking the very machine dismantling our republic.
In nearly every case, Michelle Wolf’s insults partook of the typical Trump style of personal attacks — as we all know, Trump is deeply invested in critiquing and rating women’s appearances. We also know that Trump subscribes to a very retrograde notion of femininity, and may even have a preferred dress code for women who work in the White House (fitted dresses, high heels, “looking like women”). And to understand Trump’s age-ist views on women, we need only recall his crass remark to Howard Stern about the longevity of women’s attractiveness: “What is it at 35, Howard? It’s called check-out time.” In other words, via her riff on Huckabee Sanders, Wolf was demonstrating the “atrocity” (to borrow Scaramucci’s term) of Trump’s world view.
On its side, the outraged audience and punditry played their roles perfectly. Offended, wounded, indignant, they denounced Wolf’s insensitivity. They felt for Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And admittedly, it was hard to watch Huckabee Sanders, who sat stoically there on the dais, barely wincing at the onslaught of invective. These were new roles for Huckabee Sanders and the press. In fact, these were inverted roles: normally, Huckabee Sanders (and of course sometimes Trump himself) badgers and insults the press and they sit stoically in their seats wincing. Watching her sit silent while being aggressed, they recognized their own situation at most press briefings. In other words, for a few minutes on Saturday night, Michelle Wolf played Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s role, and Huckabee Sanders was pressed into the role normally played by the press corps. Everybody else — especially the press in the audience (both at the Hilton and beyond) were being treated to a kind of morality play as staged by Michelle Wolf: watching as a woman at a podium insulted, badgered, and embarrassed someone sitting right in front of her, someone who simply stayed in her seat and took it.
But this is great news! The press corps, it turns out, is not numb after all! They can recognize offensive, bigoted, misogynist, ageist, hurtful discourse, express unadulterated anger at injustice, and stand up to a hectoring bully. In a tour de force performance that involved multiple role reversals, Wolf actually gave the press corps a kind of moral lesson. By provoking them so strongly, she shocked them out of passivity. And to all who reacted strongly: feeling offended, walking out of the room, or reasserting the need for a unifying feminism, I say, Bravo! Now, let’s all remember these responses and redirect them to more appropriate targets, not to the ingenious comedian who staged this master class in righteous outrage.