About Samantha Bee, Ivanka Trump and That Word

Posted June 2, 2018 5:45 p.m. EDT

It is “arguably the most powerful negative word in the American English language,” author Inga Muscio writes. Her book happens to be sitting on my desk, but I’ve been told we cannot print its title. It is a word, she continues, that “is the ultimate one-syllable covert verbal weapon.” The kind that any “street-wise 6-year-old” or “passing motorist” can use against a woman.

This week, the woman who was called the c-word happened to be Ivanka Trump. Samantha Bee, the late-night talk show host and satirist, displayed a photo Trump had posted on social media in which she is nuzzling her son. Contrasting that motherly image with the news of the moment, the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating children from parents, Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless” version of that word.

We invited a group of New York Times journalists who happen to possess the anatomy in question to pick apart the controversy over the remark, and discuss why the word itself is so radioactive. They are Fahima Haque, social media strategy editor; Amanda Hess, culture critic-at-large; Bari Weiss, opinion writer; and Bonnie Wertheim, styles staff editor; I am the moderator, Jessica Bennett, gender editor. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Q: Let’s just acknowledge that we’re going to have an entire conversation about a word we’ve been told we cannot print. What is it about this word that so many people — including our bosses — consider unspeakable?

Wertheim: I try not to use the word and have at times taken the “See you next Tuesday” approach of Charlotte of “Sex and the City” (and I am definitely not a Charlotte). There’s something about the sound of it that is sonically shocking — the juxtaposition of two harsh plosives in a string of so few letters. But I don’t see the big deal with spelling it out once in print.

Hess: For most of my adult life, I’ve said it in my head when I’m really mad. Almost never out loud. But this whole incident has made me a lot more comfortable with it. I said it like 10 times in the office today. But in print, it’s like we have to conjure it in people’s brains. “The word!” Now you’re all thinking it!

Haque: I look at the word like how I look at “bitch.” It’s either incredibly demeaning or used when women are shooting the breeze. But with any word surrounding identity, it’s different when the actual person it refers to takes ownership of it, even if it’s also meant disparagingly.

Q: But not everyone regards this word to be quite as offensive as Americans do.

Weiss: Dating a Brit, which I did for a while, has many downsides. You gain minimum 10 pounds from the alcohol intake. You become emotionally needy, given that they have the emotional bandwidth of a very dry scone.

You also become immersed in the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare. In my ex’s case, this meant a near constant deployment of the word in all its forms.

It grew on me because it was always said as a joke. But in my own life, I try to follow the grandma rule. My grandma is extremely hip. I share almost everything with her. But would I say that word in her company? No.

Q: OK, so about Samantha Bee. I get it, it was a vulgar thing to say. Was it a sexist thing to say?

A: Hess I do think that Samantha Bee was criticizing Ivanka as a woman. To me, the word is the surest way to reduce a woman to her gender, in the most vulgar way possible: It’s both. And the line comes in this specific context, as a rebuke of Ivanka posting a photo to Instagram — she in her floral summer dress, her son in his choo-choo train long underwear, their foreheads pressed together in their idyllic mother-son embrace — just as news broiled of parents being separated from their children across the country.

Ivanka has always tried to use her status as a woman and a mother to soft-pedal her father’s aims, to pink-wash them in vaguely feminist sentiments and feminine images without actually accomplishing any pro-family policy. This was Samantha Bee excoriating Ivanka Trump, woman to woman.

Weiss: But it really backfired. Bee comes out from the whole thing looking like a bully, despite the fact that she was criticizing one of the most powerful women in the world, and the word she used is a big part of the reason why. Bee didn’t use it as some kind of daring reclamation. She used it exactly the way men have always used it: as a way to viciously humiliate a woman by shaming her about her physical body.

Haque: The word to me is a crude reference to a body part that all women have, but it is not sexist. It would have been sexist if she bullied Ivanka by saying she was an ineffective financial adviser because she was a mom — a vicious punch that actually lands because that’s how many men (and women) underestimate and discount what women can accomplish.

Q: What did you make of the apology?

Weiss: I hate false apologies. Michelle Wolf turned me into an instant fan when she not only refused to say sorry following her provocative set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but proudly owned it: “I wouldn’t change a single word that I said.” These days, everyone caves to demands for public mea culpas, but Bee’s felt particularly disingenuous.

That’s because she wasn’t apologizing for an off-the-record comment that was leaked or an ill-advised Facebook post. She was apologizing for a scripted bit recorded hours before it ran that she and her team knew would trigger outrage. One of Bee’s producers, Miles Kahn, was bragging on Twitter when the phrase was trending. That was an honest reaction.

Q: What about the comparison to Roseanne, whose show was canceled after her racist tweet. Fair or unfair?

Wertheim: There’s a big difference between making an assessment of someone’s character, as Samantha Bee did, and disparaging an entire race. I also think the methods of delivery matter here. What Samantha Bee says on her show, where she’s playing an exaggerated version of herself, is different from what Roseanne Barr says on her Twitter, where she’s narrating her life in real time. I highly doubt Samantha Bee would have tweeted what she said, but she’s expressed plenty of nonvulgar rage at the White House online.

Weiss: I’m seeing a lot of conservatives on Twitter outraged that Sam Bee hasn’t been fired while Roseanne has. But there’s also a difference on this score. ABC didn’t hire Roseanne to be a racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. They hired her to do an extremely popular blue-collar family comedy and prayed to God that they could somehow keep her off Twitter. TBS hired Sam Bee to be ... Sam Bee. She’s an edgy late-night comic. That’s what she does. Bee said something vulgar. Barr said something racist. Q: To what extent should we expect “civility,” as some have put it, from our public figures?

Weiss: “When they go low, we go high” has been transformed in the space of a few years into, “When they go low, we go into the dankest, darkest gutter.” And is it any surprise, given the vulgarian in the Oval Office? We certainly can’t count on Trump or the people surrounding him to maintain any sense of common decency. We’re left to rely on ourselves not to become like him.

Q: Do you think there’s a double standard when it comes to the punishments meted out for conservatives stepping in it versus liberals? What would have happened had a comedian called Sasha or Malia Obama that word?

Weiss: Forget Sasha and Malia, who are different because they were children when their father was president and didn’t have jobs in his White House. Just imagine for a moment that Sam Bee said the same about Michelle Obama or Susan Rice. There is simply no question about how TBS would have responded. There would be no more “Full Frontal.”

Wertheim: As a counterpoint, there are reports that the president has wielded this word against women, and he seems to be doing fine. Or, at least, he still has his job.

Hess: I feel like whatever other psychological and personal dynamics may be going on there, Trump brought Ivanka into the White House to function as a shield in just this way. Regardless of party, everybody knows the first kids are off-limits. But in this administration’s web of family and political entanglements, the first daughter is also (OK, I had to look this up) the president’s “senior adviser.”

Haque: Also, there have been advertisers that have already backed out of “Full Frontal,” so she hasn’t been spared because she’s a liberal.

Q: On Thursday night, accepting a Television Academy Honors award for “Full Frontal’s” #MeToo coverage, Samantha Bee said: “We spent the day wrestling with the repercussions of one bad word when we all should have spent the day incensed that as a nation we are wrenching children from their parents.” Thoughts?

Weiss: Exactly. Which makes it all the more baffling that a team of some of the top comedy writers and producers in the country signed off on that bit. Instead of spending the past 48 hours discussing a cruel policy, we’ve been discussing a cruel word.

Wertheim: I wish both of these stories would go away. And yet, here we are, talking about tweets and TV segments.

Hess: For me, the silver lining is this: In the past 48 hours I have said or heard this word repeated endlessly among friends, with colleagues and on Twitter. Sally Field tweeted it! If it used to have some unspeakable power, it doesn’t anymore.