Today, Trump administration press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told The Wrap that she was distressed by the “silence from the left” in regard to the comedian Samantha Bee’s comments during her Full Frontal monologue on Wednesday night. In the monologue, Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” in response to the First Daughter and presidential adviser’s decision to post an image of herself blissfully hugging her son amid news of children being ripped from their parents by ICE. This afternoon, Bee herself apologized on Twitter to both Trump and her viewers, claiming that the use of the word cunt “was inappropriate and inexcusable” and that she had “crossed a line” and “deeply regret[s] it.”
As a left-leaning feminist, I agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders that “silence” on the matter of Bee’s comedic critique — and its connection to ABC’s recent cancellation of Roseanne is inexcusable. So even though I am on the last day of my leave from New York/the Cut and am supposed to be finishing the book I’ve been writing — which is not coincidentally about women’s rage — it is important to be clear about the dynamics at play in these situations, which are absolutely not remotely in any way equivalent to each other.
Language’s ability to inflict harm depends on the power of who’s wielding it and against whom it is being wielded. I’m not talking simply about the power of the individuals in question. For example, it’s not about the damage done by Samantha Bee to Ivanka Trump or Roseanne Barr to Valerie Jarrett, all of whom are individuals with various kinds of power. It’s not about them. Rather, it’s about considering the relative degrees of power of the entities and ideas that those individuals are representing.
So when Bee goes after Ivanka for her complicity with and support of a presidential administration that’s doing grievous harm to the bodies, families, and lives of human beings, Bee is acting on behalf of less powerful people (the immigrants whose children, including babies, are being taken away from them) and speaking out against the grotesquely powerful and abusive (the administration that is creating and enforcing this barbaric policy).
It is true that in her critique of Ivanka Trump, Bee used an expletive that is explicitly misogynistic; it is wholly reasonable to object to the word cunt for feminist reasons. It is also reasonable and worthwhile to consider why a term for female anatomy has become such a potent pejorative; why does a word that means vagina also mean “very bad person”? That’s a valid question, but it’s crucial to consider it in this context. Bee was not reinforcing or replicating the crude harm that “cunt” has been used to inflict historically: the patriarchal diminishment and vilification of women. In fact, Bee was using it to criticize a woman precisely because that woman is acting on behalf of that patriarchy, one that systematically diminishes women, destroys families, and hurts children.
This context makes the situation fundamentally different from Roseanne Barr comparing Valerie Jarrett to an ape, as she did earlier this week. That comparison was an explicitly racist locution with explicitly racist roots, but unlike Bee’s deployment of “cunt” against a misogynistic and racist administration, Barr’s racism has been deployed in support of that racist and misogynistic administration. That administration, as well as the party that has helped to build and shield it, came to power in part on explicitly racist and misogynistic rhetoric that both vilified and promised revenge against the previous, historic administration of Barack Obama, of which Jarrett was a member. That context matters, as does the fact that the Trump administration is using the power it so gained to inflict real-world racist and misogynistic harm on human beings. That means that Barr’s utterance mirrored and reinforced abuses being enacted by more powerful people against less powerful people, while Bee’s challenged those abuses.
These dynamics also apply, of course, to the faux offense taken by some Republicans and those in the political press to Michelle Wolf’s scathing White House Correspondents’ Dinner performance, to the cowering members of the “Intellectual Dark Web” recently photographed by the New York Times in their native Hobbiton, and to the amply propagated idea that the #MeToo movement is a witch hunt and that its critics have been unjustly silenced. None of that is real. None of it. It is an illusion of persecution created by the powerful precisely because the powerful have the ability to fashion a public narrative that serves their own interests, while normalizing to the point of invisibility the actual harm being done, in their name or with their support, every day, to the less powerful.
Look no further than the fact that Sarah Huckabee Sanders can say with a straight face that a comedian being mean to Ivanka Trump on television is “vile,” “vicious,” “appalling,” and “disgusting,” but she will never apply those apt descriptors to the administration she’s fronting for: one that is led by a man who brags about grabbing women by their pussies, calls human beings animals, and enacts policies that separate children from their parents in the name of keeping asylum-seekers out of the United States.
Words matter, and sometimes only the strongest ones will do the job.