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Is the Michelle Wolf White House Correspondents’ Dinner Backlash All About Gender?

Michelle Wolf WH Correspondents DinnerMichelle Wolf WH Correspondents Dinner
Comedian Michelle Wolf attends the Celebration After the White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images

Members of the Trump administration walked out of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday night during a performance by standup comic Michelle Wolf, who attacked the administration’s relationship to the truth as well as the past behavior of the president, who did not attend the event for the second year in a row.

Among the sharpest attacks were references to Trump family members having sex with porn stars, and a description of Sarah Huckabee Sanders as “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.” According to Politico, administration members including Sanders, Wilbur Ross, and Kellyanne Conway—who Wolf repeatedly referred to as a habitual liar—attended with the president’s approval. White House communications advisor Mercedes Schlapp and her husband were reportedly among those who walked out under the attack.

Wolf’s performance was met with waves of laughter in the room, but subsequent responses have been sharply divided. Current and former members of the administration were predictably huffy.

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But even some journalists who have themselves clashed with Trump issued disapproving statements, broadly arguing that the tone of the attacks was too harsh, and could undermine the higher goals of journalism.

Wolf, whose recent work includes an HBO standup special and appearances on The Daily Show, didn’t spare the media, which she described as benefiting from Trump. The most talked-about media response to Wolf’s performance came from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who has risen in the public eye by providing often-unflattering insights on the president and his staff.

Wolf responded to Haberman on Twitter, saying that her jokes weren’t critical of Sanders’ appearance. Even a mildly generous interpretation supports that claim—Wolf mentioned Sanders’ eyeshadow in passing while criticizing Sanders’ job performance, and a comparison of Sanders to a character from The Handmaid’s Tale was first and foremost a political rather than personal attack.

Wolf’s performance, and reactions to it, beg comparison to another infamous Correspondents’ Dinner performance—Stephen Colbert’s 2006 evisceration of then-President George W. Bush. Colbert’s routine, though perhaps muted by his satirical conservative character, was a frequently bruising attack that also focused on the administration’s political and policy failures. Colbert, much like Wolf, mocked Bush’s apparent distaste for facts, hammered the administration’s actions in Iraq, and described Bush’s then-32% approval rating as “backwash”— all while the president was sitting less than 10 feet away.

Colbert’s 2006 audience was far more obviously tense than at last night’s dinner, and debate raged over whether he had crossed a line. But the broader public responded favorably, propelling Colbert to new heights and, ultimately, the helm of CBS’s Late Show.

Whether Wolf eventually benefits similarly from her barn-burning routine remains to be seen. But the focus so far on Wolf’s attacks on Sanders and Conway highlights a key difference between her and Colbert—their gender, and the gender of their targets. During an interview with Fox News, Mercedes Schlapp seemed eager to frame Wolf’s jokes as disrespectful to women in general, and Fox underlined that theme with a chiron reading “So-Called Feminist Attacks Conservative Women.”

The implication that women in power might be shielded from criticism on the basis of their gender, of course, is not a particularly feminist stance. But it shadows much of the response to Wolf’s performance so far, suggesting that Americans may be more comfortable with a man attacking other men than a woman criticizing others of her gender.