First, I watched the entire 19 minutes and 17 seconds of Michelle Wolf’s speech.
Clearly that was something that the vast majority of the people talking about it did not do.
Then, just to be clear, I checked the most expansive definitions of “roast” in the context of humor, and “satire.” A precision with words might help when discussing a piece of art made entirely by words.
Roast, it turns out, has more of a range of meaning than I thought. Conventional old Merriam Webster says that it can mean “to subject to severe criticism or ridicule” or “to honor (a person) at a roast.” So that covers just about any humor from Lenny Bruce to your drunk Uncle at his boss’s retirement party at the VFW. The Urban Dictionary is less broad; to roast is to “humorously mock or humiliate someone with a well-timed joke, diss or comeback.” No honor involved in the more street-cred definition.
Satire, an old friend of mine, always brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Yes, that essay where the satirist suggested curing poverty and that damn Irish problem in a two-for-one solution of eating Irish children, who were described as very tender meat at the age of one. (Luckily for Swift, the reading public of his time did seem to actually read his essay before trashing it and him, unlike the current viewing public that is too busy to spend 19:17 to verify what was said by a comic satirist.) So according to the venerated Oxford English Dictionary, stodgy olde satire is “(a) poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.” To be fair, I also checked the Urban Dictionary to see if any new meanings have evolved. I was surprised at the restrained tone it presented by defining satire as “(t)he art of sarcasm typically directed from events that take place in the world. Much like a caricature of the human race. Usually it is done through comedy, but sometimes it is just as serious as the event itself.”
By now you might sense where I am headed.
First, clearly Michelle Wolf roasted a wide variety of people during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats – she ridiculed them severely, she humiliated them, she roundly dissed them. Her monologue however was not of that second definition from Merriam Webster; she came to praise no one. So she cannot be compared to the gentle nudge-nudge, wink-wink comics that ruffle no feathers while telling the masses that the powerful are “just like us.”
Was the monologue satiric? Did she use humor and irony to exaggerate, expose and criticize prevailing immorality and foolishness? Yes. Did she present a caricature of the human race? Yes. And under it all, was it serious? Yes.
If you have watched it, you will know that the entire monologue, surprisingly, was not about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, nor was it about her looks. (There was a joke about Chris Christie, and it was about his looks, his size. He laughed.) If you are relying on the reporting about the event, you must assume that Michelle focused almost entirely on the women of the Trump administration: Kellyanne, Ivanka, and Sarah. That leaves out her jabs at Congress, Hillary Clinton, pussy hats, Ann Coulter, Jack Tapper, CNN, Fox News, Harvey Weinstein, the Me-Too movement, Roy Moore, Michael Cohen and $130,000, Reince Priebus as a porn star name, Trump’s economic worth, Trump’s virility, white nationalists, arming teachers, Mike Pence, Bear Stearns, Al Franken, Ted Kennedy, Starbucks, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Democrats, Scott Pruitt, Sean Hannity, MSNBC, Mika and Joe, Rachel Maddow, Megyn Kelly, print media, the general media, immigrants, and Flint, MI.
For the almost three minutes that Michelle spoke about the women in the Trump administration, there was a definite theme: lying, active deception, and how facts/truth are treated (note, this is where the criticizing “prevailing immorality or foolishness” part of the definition plays well). There were swipes about appearance for both Ivanka and Sarah, but how Michelle used it was interesting. Ivanka was not criticized for being lovely, but for using her loveliness to hide political corruptness. Sarah and Kellyanne are major players in the current destruction of the public’s belief in facts and truth as norms. The “smoky eyes” comment wasn’t about makeup, or Sarah’s face, it was about her role in the immolation of truth. The swipe about resembling Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was accurate, because she does resemble the actress, and it was potent because Aunt Lydia’s character is a repudiation of wacked out fundamentalist beliefs. If evangelical Sarah had taken a page out of Chris Christie’s playbook, a smile might have won some critics over to her side. But the Trump White House is at its core an administration of thin skins. They love to toss insults, but don’t like to have any lobbed back.
Especially at the womenfolk.
Yes, this was bound to come around to that. You can talk trash about the men, but leave the ladies alone. That is what I have been seeing from the conservative side ranting about this monologue. How can we tolerate a Woman being Humiliated Publicly this way? And a Christian Mother, at that! How Noble that she took the Humiliation, and was so Brave, so Stalwart! (No comment on how if she had been a man, then she would have shrugged it off, because men have to suffer the slings and arrows, after all.) A Woman Must Be Protected! So many valiant men are frustrated that they could not get up and just shut that damn woman up. (Women are, after all, fragile things, tender things, dare I say snowflakes?)
“Yeah. You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” Michelle warned. And “don’t count your chickens!”
But there is more criticism of her monologue coming from a certain uncomfortable liberal camp. It turns out that the problem was that Michelle did not uphold core ideals, including civility. Liberals, especially ones who are firmly rooted into the mainstream power grid, are having trouble with a woman satirically roasting women. It does not feel pleasant. There are few enough women who have clawed their way into national office in our country; currently 23% and 19.3% of the US Senate and House of Representatives are women. And it is a safe guess that not a single one of them got there by getting “into someone’s face” or “getting down in the dirt” like your average male politician might. And here was Michelle, going after successful women, treating them with exactly the same intensity of jokes that have been lobbed at successful men forever. Why was her joke about McConnell’s neck being circumcised (yes, he’s a dickhead) not as offensive as Sander’s smoky eyes being created by ashes of truth?
Liberal women cannot do certain things to other women, it turns out.
Michelle Wolf spoke for a little over 19 minutes about the state of our political world, to a gathering of journalists, and yet the most important bit, the part when she spoke about the way that news has failed us, has received less attention. (Cue the video up on your computer, and go to about 17:37; listen.) This has been bothering me increasingly over the last few years. We live in a media saturated world and hear almost none of the news. “Trump has helped all of you,” she says, noting that the money generated by reporting about his dumpster fire administration has made the media millions in profits. Spokespeople for the administration – yes, Kellyanne and Sarah in predominant roles – keep the news cycle spinning along with outrageous complicity from the press. Rather than keeping journalistic eyes trained on the real, sometimes non-porn-related news, CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and the rest are off chowing down on the buffet of Trump scandals.
“Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
That is the real news.
Oh where is a great satirist when you need one?