Why it's okay to talk about Sarah Huckabee Sanders' smoky eye
If you didn’t know who Michelle Wolf was before Saturday evening, chances are you do now.
The Wall Street banker-turned-comedian, whose resume includes a HBO comedy special titled Nice Lady, a stint as a correspondent on The Daily Show and a forthcoming Netflix series, sparked a raging Twitter debate (but honestly, in 2018 igniting a Twitter debate is not hard) following her monologue at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which she mentioned Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ “perfect smoky eye” in a joke about the White House Press Secretary’s job performance.
Those who were live-tweeting the event immediately latched on to the comment, criticizing the comedian — who identifies as a feminist — for the mere mention of Sanders’ makeup.
Mercedes Schlapp, the White House Director of Strategic Communications (who replaced Hope Hicks, in case you’ve had a hard time keeping up) tweeted that “women attacking conservative women” for their appearance is “shameful.”
Mika Brezinski, co-host of Morning Joe and a one-time target of a joke by the president about her looks, said that the WHCA owed Sanders — “a wife and mother” — an apology. “Women who use their government positions to spread lies and misinformation deserve to face the same withering criticism as men,” she wrote. “But leave our looks out of it.”
Following the ensuing Twitter drama, Wolf tweeted that folks had misread the point of the joke, which is that Sanders lies. “Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks?” she wrote. “I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials.”
The Big Sick co-writer and star Kumail Najiani echoed this point, imploring journalist Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who also pointed out the “criticism,” to, “please quote the exact line that intensely criticized her appearance.” Betches put it more succinctly in their daily political “Sup” newsletter, writing dryly that, apparently, “a perfect smoky eye is a huge burn in Washington.”
Wolf continued to defend her stance on NPR’s Fresh Air on Tuesday, telling host Terry Gross, “I wouldn’t change a single word that I said. I’m very happy with what I said, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns.”
So, why were so many feathers ruffled over some jokes? More importantly, why are we still talking about this, especially when, as Wolf noted in her NPR comments, no one is rushing to the defense of Chris Christie or Mitch McConnell, whose appearances she actually criticized? (Her exact words about McConnell: “Mitch McConnell isn’t here tonight, he had a prior engagement, he’s finally getting his neck circumcised. Mazel.” Zing.)
Maybe it’s because we’ve been told time and time again not to comment about women’s appearances, especially when it comes to women in politics.
Professor Heather Widdows of the University of Birmingham in England, whose forthcoming book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton Press) discusses the changing beauty standards in the digital, “selfie culture” era, tells InStyle via email that, “it is still true that women are judged on their appearance in the way that men are not.”
“The old feminist critique would have claimed that commenting on appearance reduces women to their bodies and is wholly harmful and happens to women not to men,” says Widdows, who also co-runs the Beauty Demands blog. “But I argue in Perfect Me that in a visual and virtual culture it is not just harmful. We are never reduced to mere bodies—as our bodies are active and ourselves.”
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So, no, a mere mention of a woman’s smoky eye makeup is not harmful in and of itself.
But what is important as consumers is to have an awareness of how those comments construct the narrative of the person, and play into the idea of their level of competence. For example, Justin Trudeau is often praised for his good looks, while President Trump is ridiculed for his hair.
Sanders has yet to comment on the debacle, though her dad, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, told The Hollywood Reporter that, “she handled it a whole lot better than I think that most people do, and it just did not seem to cause her — she didn’t go home and cry her eyes out or anything like that.” (Of course, there’s more to unpack about women crying being seen as weakness, but that’s for another time.)
It’s also important to reiterate that Wolf was hired to make fun of Sanders. And Trump. And every journalist in the room, whether they work for Fox News or CNN. “You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” she joked in her monologue.
Kathy Griffin, who, if you’ll recall, had her own experience getting dragged for crossing a line in comedy, praised Wolf on Twitter. “By pushing the line we force people to think differently, to ask questions and disrupt the status quo.”
At the end of the day, it’s interesting that so many would rush to Sanders’ defense, eager to play the savior role. If the press secretary has proven anything, it’s that she isn’t in need of rescue.