2018, Politics, television

SAMANTHA BEE AND THE THEORY OF PUNCHING DOWN

Header: TBS via Vulture

Two things can be true at once: that’s the case when I’m eating McDonald’s (happy and sad), the case for Schrodinger’s Cat (both alive and dead), and it’s the case with Samantha Bee, comedian and host of TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, calling Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, a “feckless c*nt.”

It is completely inappropriate, wildly disastrous to the point Bee was making about the treatment of migrant children, and annoyingly hypocritical of liberals to be more forgiving; it is also, at the same time, categorically different than Roseanne Barr comparing Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to then-President Barack Obama, to an ape. These two things can both be true.

In the outrage news cycle of coverage surrounding Samantha Bee, many conservative pundits are calling for TBS to cancel Bee’s show, citing liberal indignation and demands for cancellation of Roseanne. The ABC reboot was cancelled a few hours later. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders herself called for TBS to cancel the show.

“Her disgusting comments and show are not fit for broadcast,” she said in a statement, “and executives at Time Warner and TBS must demonstrate that such explicit profanity about female members of this administration will not be condoned on its network.”

Re the Roseanne Barr controversy, Trump only commented to say that he was owed an apology by Disney CEO Robert Iger for the “HORRIBLE statements made and said about [him] on ABC.” When asked about Trump’s statement, which focused on himself rather than Barr’s comments, Sanders said, “The president is simply calling out the media bias; no one’s defending what she said.”

Here’s the thing: I hate what Bee said. I really like her show, and I enjoy her as a comedian, so I was disappointed and upset by the words she used. I was watching CNN this morning, anchor Poppy Harlow and CNNMoney Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcey said that Bee’s wording made the story about that, rather than the policy. I agree with that: I think that was probably part of the reason why Bee said it, but I also think that Bee is smart and cutting enough to have made her point without resorting to the c-word.

However, there are several things that separate what Bee said from what Barr said. First, Ivanka Trump works in her father’s White House administration. Several people were calling for Bee to separate the child from the father, but when the child literally works with the father, I don’t think it’s unfair to call her out. Additionally, Ivanka Trump has made the “working mother” her platform, so a policy that brutally separates asylum-seeking migrant mothers from their children would fall under Ms. Trump’s purview.

Secondly, there is the theory in comedy of “punching down” versus “punching up.” When making jokes, “punching down” refers to making fun of people who are more oppressed than you; “punching up” is making fun of people who are more, categorically, powerful than you. Roseanne Barr, a white woman, making fun of Valerie Jarrett, a black woman, using bigoted racial stereotypes is “punching down” because Barr is a racial majority in power and she is using the same logic used to condone slavery to make fun of a racial minority. Samantha Bee, a white woman with a platform, calling Ivanka Trump, another white woman with a platform, a c*nt is not punching down; it’s punching up, or at least punching sideways. Bee, unlike Barr, does not have the continued support of the President of the United States. And if we are to hold people accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable: including the president. Because while liberals can be hypocritical, if you don’t have an issue with the president bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, then why do you have a problem with Samantha Bee?

Thirdly, there is a difference between using a curse word and invoking a racist, bigoted myth used as justification for oppressing an entire race of people.

What Bee did was crass and unfortunate. What Barr did was racist and evocative of horrors that the United States allowed in the not-too-distant past. Lindy West, a contributing columnist for the New York Times, wrote this: “Chattel slavery in America ended 153 years ago. I am only 36 years old, and when my father was born, there were black Americans alive who remembered being the property of white people. Slavery is not our distant past; it is yesterday.” Racism pervades today, arguably as strong as ever. It’s not even hidden anymore; people are openly racist. It’s the reason why, as West points out, Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water; it’s why Trump took such an issue with black players in the NFL peacefully protesting for Black Lives Matter.

Bee made a horrific, rude joke, but it’s not comparable to Roseanne Barr. You can be outraged by what Bee said but still understand that it’s different to Roseanne. Two things can be true at the same time.

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