As Trump continued to be a terrible human being, the elite sphere burned with rage against comedian Michelle Wolf for her hilarious and honest performance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Before getting into the discussion, I must note that I am biased in favor of Wolf because we were both college track athletes. This bias does, however, have clear limits: Bill Cosby also ran track, but I certainly will not defend him.
One reasonable criticism of Wolf is that the dinner is supposed to be friendly and the roasting at a low heat. As such, it could be argued that Wolf violated the expectations, much as Stephen Colbert did when he roasted George Bush. Fox News, which routinely defends behavior on the right that is offensive and horrible, attacked Wolf for being offensive and horrible. One reply is to point out the hypocrisy of Fox News in this matter, while being careful to not say that they are in error because they are hypocrites—to avoid committing the “you, too” fallacy in which hypocrisy by the person making a claim is fallaciously taken as disproving a claim. It would also be a fallacy to defend Wolf by arguing that what she did was acceptable because Trump behaves far worse—this would be a mere red herring (an attempt to distract attention from the original issue to an irrelevant issue).
A sensible reply to the general criticism is that the agreement should specify a gentle roast, otherwise a comedian is free to do as they wish. As Aristotle noted, comedy is a species of the ugly and so one should always expect things to get ugly when comedy gets rolling.
A second sensible reply is that the fault lies in part with those who selected Wolf. A cursory review of Wolf’s comedy makes it clear who she is and what she does—so her performance should not have come as a surprise. To use an analogy from superhero movies, if you call up Deadpool to deal with villains, you should not be shocked when he kills them all. That is what he does. If you do not want a body count, you light up the bat signal.
There was also criticism from both the left and right regarding what they saw as Wolf’s attacks on White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ appearance. In one joke, Wolf said that Sanders burns facts to make “the perfect smoky eye.” In another joke, Wolf compared Sanders to Aunt Lydia from the Handmaid’s Tale. This criticism gets its bite from two main foundations. First, there is often a focus on the appearance of women while substantive matters are ignored. For example, the press often focuses on how female politicians are dressed or their looks rather than focusing on their stances on the issues. This, obviously enough, attempts to reduce women to their appearance. Second, attacks on women tend to focus on insulting their appearance. For example, Hilary Clinton was often bashed for her pantsuits. This also attempts to reduce women to their appearance. Since Wolf purports to be a feminist, attacking her for attacking a fellow woman about her appearance would be an extra deep cut. Fortunately for Wolf, there is an easy and obvious reply to this attack –and one she has made herself.
While the eye remark does reference Sanders’ eyes, Wolf praises her for these perfect smoky eyes—the cutting edge of the joke is that Sanders burns the facts to get the ash for her makeup. This is not an attack on her appearance, but an attack on the fact that Sanders lies in the service of the liar Trump. Likewise, for the Aunt Lydia remark—Wolf’s point is not that Sanders is unattractive, but that Sanders is the mouthpiece for Trump. If Wolf wanted to simply take a crack at Sanders’ appearance, selecting Aunt Lydia does not make much sense. There is also the fact that Wolf included Pence in the Handmaid’s Tale theme—and she was obviously not taking a shot at Pence’s looks. It is, however, not surprising that critics would err in interpreting Wolf’s remarks.
In some cases, the “error” is no doubt intentional: Wolf is being attacked for allegedly attacking the appearance of a fellow woman by people who have not shown very much concern about women until now. This approach does have a double appeal: it allows the dishonest critic to mask themselves behind the honest outrage of others and it allows them to create outrage against Wolf among those on the left.
In other cases, those on the left and feminists, the attack is honest but in error. That is, they are probably not feigning their outrage in this specific matter of appearance. Interestingly, the mistake being made is to assume that a criticism of a woman must be about her appearance rather than substantive in nature. This blindness to substantive matters of criticism in favor of appearance is analogous to the blindness of focusing on a woman’s appearance and ignoring the substantive matters. Both are errors, although they are made by different sorts of people. While a delicate snowflake might take deep offense at being criticized and some might erroneous believe that Sanders is a font of facts, it is evident that Wolf’s target is not skin deep. Instead, she engaged in a moral critique of Sanders’ character and this is a matter of substance and not appearance.