Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee: Political Comedy’s Unwritten Rules

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"Free TV Texture" by B.S. Wise is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

At the end of May, Rosanne Barr, star of a hit TV sitcom, tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a black advisor to President Obama, was (somehow) the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and The Planet of the Apes. ABC cancelled her show and apologized to Jarrett. Then, a few days after the Barr incident, Samantha Bee, star of a political comedy show, called Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, a “feckless c***” for insensitively posting a picture of herself holding her young son in the midst of growing attention to the way children are being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. She apologized, as did her network, TBS, but she wasn’t fired.

I’m absolutely certain that the most important issue among those I just mentioned has nothing to do with Barr or Bee. It’s the one about children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.  However, the Barr-Bee business is not unimportant or uninteresting. What constitutes speech that’s “over the line”? Was the difference in response unfair? A matter of liberal bias?

There’s no way to read Barr’s tweet except as expressing the view that black people are ape-like. That was a violation of our common, mutually understood code of conduct. You can have contempt for individual people, we’ve collectively decided, but you can’t write them off for belonging to a particular race, sex, religion, etc.  Barr violated the common code, and this wasn’t the first time. So it’s perfectly reasonable that she’s been taken off the airwaves.

As for Samantha Bee: she has a record of feminist activism, making it very hard to believe she was disparaging Ivanka’s sex in the same way Barr was disparaging Valerie Jarrett’s race.  And yet, she used that word.  She didn’t call Ivanka a “piece of shit,” which would have amounted to permissible contempt for an individual. She used the “c” word, with its unmistakably misogynistic flavor. It was as if, simply because Ivanka is a woman, Bee thought she was deserving of a particularly harsh insult.

At least, that’s how I read it.  I admit, young people I know don’t see it that way.  They think calling a woman a “c***” is like calling a man a “dick”—so why (they wonder) the uneven reaction (and the asterisks just in the former word)?  Well, words have inexplicable differences of tone, and “c***” does convey more anti-female content, at least in the US. People who are dicks are a dime-a-dozen, whereas c***s are the lowest of the low.  I’m going to have to say Bee did “cross the line” (as they say).

So is it a sign of liberal bias that Barr’s show was cancelled, but not Bee’s? Actually, maybe not, because there’s a major difference in the details here: TBS could have edited out the offending segment ahead of time, since Samantha Bee’s show is scripted and edited, but they didn’t. It’s a subtlety that may be lost on Roseanne’s angry fans, but this can be reasonably seen as forcing the network to waive their right to punish her. If Roseanne had made her comment about Valerie Jarrett on a scripted, edited, ABC-approved show, she probably wouldn’t have been fired either. But she made it entirely on her own, on Twitter.

It’s actually a pretty nice thing that we live in an age when there is a code of conduct that comes down hard on racism and sexism, but sadly, there are people who don’t comprehend the code.  One of them is the President of the United States. After ABC apologized to Valerie Jarrett, he tweeted that he too had a right to an apology from ABC, since the network airs all manner of caustic comedy about him.  In fact, he even gets called an “orangutan” now and again. But what of it? Calling Valerie Jarrett a chimpanzee-offspring disparages her race, but calling Trump an orangutan simply conveys contempt for him as an individual. One insult conveys racism and the other conveys mere ridicule.  

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Jean Kazez teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is the author of The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children (Oxford University Press) and two previous books. Find out more at kazez.blogspot.com.