I love the word “cunt.” It’s so direct, sharp, and mean, with an acrid finish like a lick of whisky that leaves the roof of one’s mouth feeling disinfected and the eyes watering. In my mind, I use “cunt” on everything—men, women, pets, modes of transportation, inanimate objects. The other day I called the toilet paper holder in my bathroom a “stupid little cunt” for failing to hold up the toilet paper. I wish it were more socially acceptable to use it in more contexts. Everything can be a cunt if you truly believe in it.
But until we live in my dream world where everything disappointing can also be a cunt—when a gendered insult can be decoupled from its misogynist baggage—it’s almost never worth it to say it aloud. It’s even less worth it to aim it at a woman. And, generally, the more people who can hear it, the less worth it is to say at all.
On Wednesday, Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on her TBS show Full Frontal. There was an uproar. Bee apologized to Ivanka and to her viewers. The uproar continued. The network apologized. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who works for a man who has allegedly called women who aren’t his daughter cunts multiple times, called for Sam Bee’s show to be canceled. The uproar roared on. Some people pointed out that Donald Trump is fine hanging out with men who call other women cunts. Uproar! In the meantime, nobody’s talking about the reason that Samantha Bee was incensed.
Bee isn’t new to this. She should have known that “cunt” is a political comedy A-bomb, that performative pearl-clutching over the word would eclipse the larger point she was trying to make. Which is a shame, because she was making a worthwhile point.
Samantha Bee’s comment came during a segment on immigration. The Trump administration’s policy has been to separate parents from children at the border as a deterrent to other would-be immigrants coming to the U.S. Trump isn’t the first president to crack down on immigration. The Obama administration deported more people than any previous administration. But Trump’s approach is far more aggressive and, overtly, inhumane.
From every angle—Jeff Sessions’ barely contained glee over Getting Tough with Immigrants to President Trump’s lies about who originated the policy to separate families—the Trump administration’s approach is stupid and cruel. Right as news of the family separation policy was gathering viral heat, Ivanka posted a photo of her cuddling one of her children to social media, a move that made the first daughter look either tone-deaf or cruel.
This is why Samantha Bee used the phrase “feckless cunt.” And compared to what preceded and followed, it’s a minor fucking deal.
The American government’s systematic dehumanization of immigrants is leagues more offensive than a bleeped insult during a comedy routine. And the White House calling for a show to be canceled—demanding censorship—is much more offensive than a clumsily deployed bad word aimed at a crappy presidential adviser.
Rampant corruption and unchecked grift from the White House is more offensive than “cunt.” A careless dismantling of institutions that keep the government functional is also worse than “cunt.”
But Bee should have known better. Everybody who can’t resist the cheap shot should know better. When Jimmy Kimmel took a (cheap) shot at Melania Trump’s accent and made a mildly homophobic joke about Sean Hannity’s relationship with Donald Trump, Hannity was able to swoop in and play moral. Kimmel apologized, and the salient point that Kimmel was originally trying to make about Hannity—that he was so deferential to President Trump that he functioned like a media organ of the executive branch—was lost.
My father used to do this infuriating thing when he was arguing with a teenaged me. As I would raise my voice, he would lower his, to the point that I was nearly screaming and he was whispering and I always ended up feeling like a real dummy. No matter who had the better points, the more sound logic, he’d always win at a lower volume. In arguments, he explained once, whoever yells first loses. Lose control, lose the argument.
Yes, the Hannitys and Huckabees of the world don’t actually care about misogyny. If they did, they wouldn’t carry water for Trump, a man whose brand is misogyny. They don’t care about decorum. If they did, they’d lament the coarsening of American discourse, they’d decry the normalization of Trumpian coarseness. Trump supporters who are silent on any given day of this administration but who demand an apology from Samantha Bee are insincere pricks. But giving them space to legitimately complain about something as beside-the-point as the word “cunt” gives them more breathing room for their bullshit. And, in the end, this is about exposing bullshit, not inviting it.
I wish Bee had apologized by saying “I’m sorry my use of an incendiary and sexist word has distracted from the real offense: that children are being separated from their parents at the U.S. border, that the Trump administration has enacted this practice, a cruel ratcheting up of existing cruelty, and that Ivanka, the administration's self-proclaimed advocate for children and families has been too busy securing Chinese patents for her eponymous clothing brand to do anything to stop it.”
There’s something cathartic about yelling “cunt!” at things that make us angry. But is momentary catharsis worth firing up the pearl-clutching outrage machine over? Is it a good thing that we’re exchanging glove slaps over politeness and decorum and hurt feelings when the U.S. government is imposing its cruel will on the lives of other human beings? Of course it’s not. The kerfuffle over Sam Bee’s use of “cunt” is making cunts of us all.