Can Women Be Funny?
By Jean Godden
Michelle Wolf, the young woman who delivered the roast at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, was severely criticized, not only by President Donald Trump but by some members of the press itself. They said she was too mean, too personal and too raunchy.
Some critics argued that Wolf should apologize to her targets and the entire event should be rethought, perhaps discontinued.
Taken as a whole, reaction to Wolf's performance seems blown out of proportion. What she said was indeed rude and blue. There is even realization that her comedy was not laugh-out-loud funny except for a certain surprise factor. Can an attractive young woman addressing a crowd of tuxedoed and gowned journalists, politicians and celebrities really be saying that? Wolf was reaching for gasps rather than just guffaws.
There is one school of thought -- and I can sympathize -- that takes a moderate, defensive stance on Wolf's speech. Defenders point out that Wolf was only following recent tradition. Past performances at White House Correspondents events -- Stephen Colbert's roast among them -- have not hesitated to twist knives in sore spots and talk truth to power.
Then there is the current standard, pushed by the president himself, to demonize and bully opponents and to ridicule women's looks. Certainly, as far as raunch is concerned, the president with his "grab them by the pussy" remark has set the bar so low that it is not possible to outdo the King of Crude.
There is misogyny here. One wonders about the reaction if, instead of Michelle Wolf, the monologue (leaving out the abortion joke) had been delivered by Seth Meyers or Bill Mayer. Would there have been a different, perhaps even a yawning comeback? After all, a roast is a roast and comedians seldom deliver bouquets.
Society still finds it hard to accept that women can be funny. I discovered that fact myself, first as a columnist and again when I ran for office. It was interesting to discover that, when it came to humor, jabs went unnoticed as long as I stuck to making fun of myself or poking at male targets. But whenever I made a joke about a woman, it provoked an outsized response.
One time I used my column to joke about phone-answering messages allegedly left by local politicos. I erred when I wrote that state Democratic Party chair Karen Marchioro had a voice message saying she had missed your call because she was "off in Nicaragua teaching the Sandinistas to fight dirty." I thought it was a mild, even lame, joke. But the next morning I heard from Bill Ames, my old journalism professor, yelling into the phone. Apparently, I violated a code about a woman making fun of another woman.
Wolf made the same mistake: a woman attacking other women when she skewered Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The Sanders jokes were raw, particularly when Wolf compared Sanders to Auntie Lydia, the meanest character on "The Handmaid's Tale."
On the other hand, Sanders, in her job as press secretary, has not been a shrinking violet. She hands out blatant falsehoods, white washes executive actions and is none too kind to reporters who are merely doing their job, trying to inform the readers and listeners. To ridicule Sander's eye makeup, with the target seated steps away, may have been tasteless, but it was not undeserved.
White House Correspondent president Margaret Tallev, interviewed the day after the dinner, said she had no regrets about inviting Wolf to speak. Tallev agreed that Wolf had been polarizing, but added, "Comedy is meant to provoke thought and debate."
Beyond the raunchy roast, there is a more significant question: What is the rationale for the correspondents' dinner itself? Should media be sitting down with newsmakers? While it might be OK to meet over coffee to elicit information, coming together in evening wear to dine on leg of lamb and chortle over raw jokes should cause discomfort. Reporters, they say, should have no friends. After all, how can one write unbiased news, the unvarnished truth, about last night's dinner companion?