The Annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner took place once again without the presence or support of the President of the United States. The longstanding tradition to exchange jokes and relieve the stressful relationship between administration and the press has been sidestepped for the second time this year.
Yet the unprecedented treatment of the press or limited availability of the administration to the public was not the subject of controversy last Saturday night. Instead, many found themselves offended by the comedian, Michelle Wolf’s comments on those very subjects.
Jokes have traditionally been incorporated in the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Usually the President has his turn to jab the press with a set and is followed by a comedian for the night. You may remember Obama’s savage Jake Tapper joke in 2016. But with the President’s absence, it upset the normal format and left the jokes of the night one-sided.
Michelle Wolf didn’t hold back. “You should’ve done more research before you got me to do this,” she warned early in the evening.
It was the jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders that generated most of the controversy. Namely, a comparison to Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Many took this to be an attack on Huckabee’s looks. While there is a slight similarity to the talented Ann Dowd, fans of the show interpreted it as a play on her role in the administration. Sanders acts as a mouthpiece for the patriarchal developments, much as Aunt Lydia carries out the dystopian tasks of the male-dominated society.
There were also interpretations of the “smoky eye” joke about Sanders’ makeup, but the forgotten piece was the description of it being “perfect.” The only true landing of a harsh joke was that of Sanders as a gruff, softball coach. But was that truly more offensive than McConnell getting a neck circumcision? Or the “knocking out a baby” abortion joke? The selective sensitivities of the crowd made almost as much sense as their need to swoop in to defend Sanders as victim, as if she is without agency or power.
“You should’ve done more research before you got me to do this.”
The idea that women of the administration are off limits to jokes does not advance the cause of feminism. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not a powerless victim, she is one of the most influential people in the free world.
The controversy also seemed amnestic or perhaps sexist. Everyone seemed to forget Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. Or even last year, when The Daily Show’s Hasan Mihnaj didn’t hold back on the President’s racism or distaste for free speech.
Wolf’s most cutting jokes were not about Trump or his administration, but toward the media itself. She spoke pointedly about the role the media has played in creating Trump. “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your tv. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him,” she quipped.
Peter Baker posted on Twitter unironically, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” A statement of self-importance only outdone by the laughability of the idea that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner ever does.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.
— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) April 29, 2018
One can’t help but wonder if the jokes Wolf landed on the media had any bleed into the self-righteous op-eds about the night. There were mean, inappropriate jokes concerning looks directed toward both Chris Christie and Mitch McConnell. They were interestingly not part of the controversy of the evening. Neither were the serious points about water in Flint or the media’s culpability.
When the Freedom of the Press is under attack by the very institutions sworn to protect it, what was it the press corps expected? Light pleasantries? In the midst of the Me Too movement, the only man unscathed by leagues of accusations sits in the White House and they expected the jokes to stay “wholesome?”
To be clear, Wolf isn’t shedding any tears over the controversy, which rocketed her to becoming a household name mere weeks before her new Netflix show drops.