Brow Beat

Bumbled Bee

With one word, the comedian ensured her righteous outrage about immigration would be drowned out.

Ivanka Trump and Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee only succeeded in scoring an own goal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

Americans may not agree on whether calling the president’s daughter a “feckless cunt” was inaccurate, but after the events of this afternoon, there should be no question that it was self-defeating.

The outrage that followed the segment on last night’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee was as predictable as rain in monsoon season, with right-wing outlets like the Daily Wire immediately calling for Bee’s firing and CNN anchor Poppy Harlow kicking the subject to media reporter Oliver Darcy with the introduction, “It’s never OK to say something like that about someone” and asking, “What was she even talking about?”

It is in fact a little tougher to figure out what she was talking about now that the segment has been pulled off TBS’s website. Bee was responding to a picture Ivanka Trump posted on her social media feeds amid reports that her father’s administration was forcibly separating immigrant parents from their children: a soft-focus image of her and her son basking in the closeness of each other’s company. Given the context, Ivanka’s act was tone-deaf at best and sociopathic at worst. “You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child,” Bee said, “but let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices.” And then she dropped the C-bomb.

There are people who are offended by that word however it’s used, and it’s not my place to tell them how to feel. I do think it’s worth noting that Bee’s deployment was strategic: Ivanka weaponized her motherhood and her femininity to deodorize her father’s policies, and Bee turned both back on her in turn, “one mother to another.” Ivanka’s broadcast of her affection for her own white, wealthy child displayed an obscene disconnection from the suffering and rupture her father not only allows to happen but actively seeks to cause, under the dubious logic of deterrence, and Bee was responding to one obscenity with another. (We would, of course, be having an extremely different conversation if a man had called Ivanka the same thing.)

But Bee shouldn’t have used the word in the first place—not because it’s inappropriate for her to use the word to describe another woman, or because there’s no excuse for using language equal in its harshness to the degree of her outrage, but because it was destined to obliterate whatever point she was trying to make and give rise to the kinds of false equivalencies that have been blooming like mold across conservative Twitter all day. Having failed in their hilariously misjudged bid to exchange Roseanne Barr’s scalp for Bill Maher’s—yes, Bill Maher, that beloved lion of liberalism, whatever you do, please don’t take him away!—people who didn’t care about Trump “grabbing women by the pussy” are suddenly furious about his daughter being called one.

The difference between what Bee did and what Barr did is substantial—there’s no long history of white women using the C-word to dehumanize and enslave other white women, for starters—but it’s been overshadowed by the difference in the White House’s response. Donald Trump had nothing to say about Barr’s racist tweet, except to equate it to the “HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC,” but within hours, his spokesperson was declaring Bee’s show “not fit for broadcast.” That’s not just expressing displeasure—that’s verging on censorship, and it’s a line that an administration more devoted to constitutional freedoms than demanding obeisance might be reluctant to cross. But as always for Trump, the important thing is that we’re talking about what he wants us to talk about, and it’s not Ivanka’s picture or the immigration policies that made it in such poor taste. Bee’s segment ended up drawing attention away from the subject and not toward it, and that’s because she made a bad call. But if you’re genuinely more exercised about a political appointee being criticized, in whatever terms, than about the families she’s apparently fine with seeing torn apart, then it’s time to rethink when and about what you give a feck.