Certainly because I’ve always been hyperfocused on clothes and in all likelihood because she is a woman, the first thing I thought as comedian Michelle Wolf walked onto the set of her new Netflix show The Break was: “Huh. That’s the same thing she wore to tape Nice Lady.”
This wasn’t hard to remember; I’ve watched it at least three times in the wake of her incendiary remarks at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf’s previous appearances on The Daily Show hadn’t left much of an impression on me, I suspect due to the gag effect of cable TV standards on her most controversial jokes. But in Washington that night, unbound by advertisers or the FCC, she responded to the increasingly chaotic state of American politics and discourse with an appropriately confrontational monologue. She fought fire with fire, hurling digs at the expense of the right and left; politicians and media; blatantly racist gubernatorial candidates and “well-meaning” corporations doing damage control. She wasn’t just funny; she was nuanced, creative and apparently fearless.
In the aftermath, instead of reporting on her quips about the political establishment’s “wavering values” on abortion, the ongoing Flint water crisis, or the actual, verbatim, “collapse of the [American] republic,” pundits seized on Wolf’s jokes about Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ makeup to illustrate the comedian’s feminist hypocrisy — and by extension, the hypocrisy of all liberals. If the President of the United States and his policy-making cohort can’t gleefully critique women’s looks without backlash, they reasoned, then nobody should be able to. Obfuscated in these discussions was the fact that Wolf’s “perfect smokey eye” line capped off a joke about Sanders’ constant, republic-endangering dishonesty to journalists and civilian audiences, rather than a misguided makeup choice. And missing from those conversations, too, was the fact that her comparison of Sanders to The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunt Lydia was about the character’s brutality, sycophancy and spectacular internalized misogyny, rather than actor Ann Dowd’s physical attributes. The latter misinterpretation — that Aunt Lydia’s actions aren’t as shameful as Dowd’s 63-year-old, plus-size body — was especially illuminating.
It was invigorating to watch Wolf exhibit scalpel-esque precision on points that, when construed as jokes about Sanders’ looks, revealed the underlying beliefs of the opposing party. So much so that, despite my initial surprise at Wolf’s joke about Chris Christie’s size (“Republicans are easy to make fun of, you know; it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie”), I ended up letting it go. Maybe it was that Wolf also poked fun at her own physicality while roasting Kellyanne Conway’s uncanny surname (“It’s like if my name was Michelle Jokes Frizzyhair Smalltits”); maybe it was that this felt somewhat innocuous, as fat jokes go, and I’m not interested in coddling awful and enormously powerful people; or maybe it was that I needed a modern feminist hero who could make me laugh so I didn’t cry, and Wolf otherwise fit the bill. Whatever the case, I rationalized that it must have been a singular aberration — a cheap shot coercively recommended or oversimplified by a less conscious or principled collaborator, but surely inauthentic to Wolf’s actual beliefs. If nothing else, someone so talented wouldn’t write jokes so unoriginal.
But by the end of The Break’s debut this past weekend, the doubt that lingered in the back of my mind was fully realized: In the year 2018 A.D., decades post-unfortunate comedy milestones like The Nutty Professor and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, generally incisive, patriarchy-eviscerating comedian Michelle Wolf seems intent on putting more fatphobic jokes into the world. Michelle Wolf, who told Stephen Colbert she wanted the promo poster for Nice Lady to show her “burning it all down.” Michelle Wolf, who appreciates a good pussy hat even if hers “has a lot more yarn on it.” Michelle Wolf, who used her platform on Sunday to suggest that we “stop killing black people and address that we have centuries worth of ingrained racism in our society.” And yet she is evidently oblivious to her own ingrained fat hate, and its broader social, economic, and medical consequences — strains of systemic discrimination that run parallel to (and often intersect with) those she’s pointedly railed against.
Wolf spends a fair amount of The Break’s intro comparing celebrity chef Mario Batali to a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and joking about his insatiable appetite (edgy!), on the premise that no one could possibly defend a sexual predator’s looks. Later, Wolf and fellow Late Night with Seth Meyers alum/usually brilliant comedian Amber Ruffin reintroduce Batali as a jumping off point for their most reductive and dehumanizing fat jabs — think swine comparisons and diabetes zingers worthy of the internet’s bleakest message boards. The sleight of hand Wolf had deployed in her Aunt Lydia line fell away as she and Ruffin exposed the boundaries of their tolerance.
Lest it seem like I have any interest in defending Mario Batali himself, let me be clear — I do not. I believe three things: Batali deserves due legal process like everybody else; there’s far more to lose than to gain by accusing men (especially rich, well-connected men) of sexual assault, and as such, false reports are exceedingly rare; and Batali will probably continue leading a life far more comfortable and prosperous than his accusers, anyway. So I was happy enough to giggle along with Wolf’s jokes about his character, including that catastrophic apology featuring a cinnamon bun recipe. Poor character, after all, has no size; a jerk is a jerk is a jerk.
But the truth is, this was never about Mario Batali or Chris Christie anyway. Wolf seems to have a longstanding fixation on fatness and the lazy, gluttonous, diabetes-zombie narratives that surround it in popular culture; the two men are simply vessels for her prejudice. This malicious, lowest-common-denominator material is at times complemented by cracks about a desperate, compulsory desire for thinness, bringing into focus a tragically familiar wound. I recognize it because I too grew up in the society that inflicted it — a society that, I assume Wolf would agree, women tend to bear the brunt of.
That’s why I, too, must consider my bias here. Am I falling right into the trap, as I did in my reaction to Wolf’s repeat outfit, of holding women to virtually impossible standards? I think the answer is no, not women — just self-proclaimed feminist voices of The Resistance. Wolf may not be a “nice lady,” as she says in her HBO special, but she and Ruffin have each cultivated their images as socially aware and just ones; they’ve positioned their takes on immigration and racism in deliberate contrast to Trump-and-co’s rhetoric on the topics, but their digs at body size aren’t substantively different.
Wolf and I agree that feminism isn’t an obligation to support all other women, but the truth is, I’d really like to support her and Ruffin. And so I hope the pair will follow the example of Wolf’s Daily Show colleague Trevor Noah, who has approached his own legacy of fat jokes with an open mind, rather than dismissing the criticism as performative outrage.
Wolf’s new platform affords her great power, and therefore great responsibility; there’s a lot at stake here, perhaps especially for women (as Ruffin noted recently in response to Kanye West’s Trump-loving tweets, “I’m sure you think what you’re doing now is fun, but your words are being used as fuel”). If Wolf and her contemporaries are truly invested in broaching social ills through comedy, they’ll need to unpack their feelings on fatness, too.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Robin Hood.