Sean Spicer and anti-Trump unruliness
McCarthy’s fame is only one example of a larger tendency toward feel-good narratives about the new inclusivity in the United States in the Obama era. Such narratives celebrated self-confident personal success, touted the importance of diversity, but largely ignored entrenched structural inequalities and concrete policies that might addresses those inequalities. Obama, for example, may be a powerful cultural figure signaling changing racial attitudes and new opportunities for (some) African Americans in the United States, but as the #BlackLivesMatter movement has illustrated, there is still a significant gap between Obama’s personal success and meaningful social change that gives full cultural citizenship to black communities. Likewise, McCarthy and other body image heroines may signal a general challenge to patriarchal structures that discipline and control women’s bodies, but entrenched assumptions and double standards about women in the workforce remain a powerful deterrent to women’s success, as Hillary Clinton found out in her 2016 presidential campaign.
Of course, Clinton had banked on the power of feel-good diversity discourses like McCarthy’s. Her ad “Roar,” featuring the Katy Perry song of the same name, encapsulates this strategy by offering a hopeful and positive vision of the country based on tolerance and inclusion as foundational to U.S. values. Featuring a range of diverse individuals, the ad speaks to women, people of color, LGBTQ populations, and environmentalists (among others) in an inspiring montage depicting inclusion and respect as key national ideals.
Slightly more than half of the voters in the country hoped that this vision would triumph on election day, and yet instead the electoral college vote went to Donald Trump, whose campaign mixed a populist appeal to working-class whites, a xenophobic insistence that immigrants and Muslims are a threat to the nation’s values, and a masculinist insistence that (white) men should be “restored” to political power (ignoring the massive political and cultural power already wielded by white men).
In retrospect, Clinton's ad and her campaign against Trump should have been a warning to liberals and progressives about the dangers of feel-good rhetoric in the face of continuing economic inequality. The ad offers inspirational images of diversity and inclusion, but the concrete policies that might actually challenge inequality were never really the main focus of Clinton’s campaign, which focused its energies on shaming Trump’s sexism and racism. For many voters, Clinton’s promises felt empty. Those voters (mostly white) felt excluded from the vision of diversity touted by the Clinton campaign, and a wave of white resentment that had been building over the past 8 years swept Trump (barely) into office. This was not, however, a failure on just Clinton’s part. It was a failure of mainstream, white, liberal politics and media more broadly, which committed themselves throughout the Obama age to feel-good narratives of diversity and inclusion while putting meaningful policy changes to address inequality on the back burner.
In the dawning of the Trump era we are seeing new forms of media discourse that veer away from feel-good affirmations of diversity and toward acerbic condemnation of Trump and right-wing politics more broadly. Tapping into the shocked but newly energized progressive movement—which launched a massive women’s march, a march for science, and waves of angry town hall meetings calling out Republicans who align themselves with Trump’s agenda—left-leaning popular culture launched a barrage of parody, satire, and general outrage against the Trump administration and its representatives.
Riding this wave of progressive outrage was McCarthy herself in her popular impersonations of embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Throughout the presidential campaign, SNL led the satirical charge against Trump, impersonated by frequent SNL host and outspoken Trump critic Alec Baldwin. In the wake of some bizarre behavior of the new press secretary in the early days of the Trump administration (e.g., admonishing the press for publishing photos that showed Trump’s inauguration crowd was significantly smaller than Obama’s, explicitly lying to the press about the size of Trump’s crowd, and taking an unnecessarily hostile tone with the White House Press Corps), SNL enlisted McCarthy to bring her trademark aggression and outrageousness to their vision of an out-of-control Trump administration.
In a sketch from February 4th, McCarthy portrays Spicer as unhinged and full of rage at the press, especially the New York Times’ White House correspondent Glenn Thrush (played by Bobby Moynihan). After claiming that he wants to punch the press corps in the face, McCarthy-as-Spicer gets violent with the reporters, picking up the podium and ramming one reporter who asks about his mental health and then later dousing another reporter with a Super Soaker water gun when he asks about the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn't mention the Jewish people. In what will become a running gag, Spicer also uses silly props to condescendingly illustrate the Trump administration’s policy goals.
McCarthy would reprise her role as Spicer the next week on February 11 with another performance in which Spicer uses props—in this case, a G.I. Joe action figure, a Barbie doll, and a Disney Moana doll—to explain the new forms of “extreme vetting” that the U.S. will use to scrutinize immigrants and refugees. And in more displays of over-the-top outrage against the press, McCarthy-as-Spicer turns a leaf blower onto a reporter who question’s his inaccuracies about the crime rate (“That was me blowing away their dishonesty,” Spicer yells) and then trying to run over the press corps with his podium, now motorized like a Segway.
In April, McCarthy would play Spicer again, this time dressed as the White House Easter Bunny as Spicer apologizes for his real-world statements claiming inaccurately that Hitler never used chemical weapons (and bizarrely referring to concentration camps as “Holocaust Centers”).
And McCarthy reprised the role in May when she returned to host Saturday Night Live. This time, Spicer blasts a reporter in the groin with a fire extinguisher when he suggests that Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders should replace him, and he later removes a decorative column from the stage and launches it as the reporters. But when the reporters get Spicer to question whether Trump might fire him, Spicer takes his motorized podium to New York (and later a golf club in New Jersey) to confront Trump, who placates Spicer by tickling his belly and then forcing Spicer to kiss him (referencing the recordings of Trump released during the campaign in which he claimed that, by virtue of being a celebrity, he could force women to kiss him and “grab them by the pussy”).
These sketches articulate new possibilities for McCarthy’s brand of unruly femininity. They clearly amplify already existing elements of her star persona—her penchant for violent outbursts while in character, her ability to channel rage into insults—but this time those elements are aimed at those with real social and political power. Her portrayals of women with low social class that came before the Trump era used a form of “trashy” unruliness to help sell the power of self-confident femininity, but post-Trump McCarthy is taking actual political risks by targeting bastions of male power and privilege.
Examine, for example, the differences between the Spicer sketches and the “Arlene” sketch discussed above. McCarthy-as-Arlene gently pokes fun of the standards of decorum in middle-class, male-centric institutions like the corporate office by overturning our expectations of feminine behavior, but in the sketch the polite, bland office worker Tim (Jason Sudekis) is the audience’s point of identification. The sketch is organized around Tim’s horror at having to deal with someone like Arlene (in the same ways that Identity Thief is organized around Jason Bateman’s horror at having to deal with McCarthy’s antics). Even if we revel in the unruly flouting of feminine social norms, the stable point of view of the well-intentioned white, male is never questioned, even if the sketch makes that perspective slightly uncomfortable.
McCarthy-as-Spicer, however, actively undermines and makes a mockery of a sense of stable, male authority. Instead of providing a polite, middle-class perspective from which to view the horrifying and unruly antics of a self-confident woman, the Spicer sketches unveil the horrifying and unruly spectacle of incompetent white masculinity taking the country on a joyride like it’s a motorized podium.
As a number of commentators have noted, the sketches are particularly effective at undermining male power through the use of comedic drag. Having McCarthy play Spicer undercuts Trump’s constant affirmation of his masculine power and mockery of his adversaries as “weak” and feminine. The cross-gender performance was also highlighted in the February 11th sketch when McCarthy-as-Spicer revealed that he was wearing a bangle and high heels from Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand (referencing the controversy when Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway encouraged viewers to buy Ivanka’s products when representing the administration on a news interview). These gender-crossing performances, as Eva Sealove wrote for Out magazine, “gestured powerfully toward the fragility of white masculinity,” especially as the sketches make clear that Spicer’s bombast only hides his immense vulnerability and frail ego. The fragility of white masculinity was also on display when Trump himself reportedly expressed dismay at one of his underlings being portrayed by a woman. According to Politico, “More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the President’s eyes, according to sources close to him. And the unflattering send-up by a female comedian was not considered helpful for Spicer’s longevity in the grueling, high-profile job” (Karni, Dawsey, and Palmeri). Indeed, the sketches seemed to imperil Spicer’s position from the start, although it was Spicer himself who finally resigned the position in July of 2017 in objection to shake-ups in the President’s communications staff.
The use of comedic drag as a form of political satire, however, also poses challenges for the progressive movement, providing an opportunity to puncture the over-inflated, hyper-masculine posturing of a politician like Trump but also relying on very old and problematic tropes surrounding drag performances. As Sealove continues in Out:
“Female-to-male drag is not exactly new, but its application now feels important, if not entirely innovative. On the one hand, this is punchline drag. It seeks out cheap emasculation and is successful at it — ‘Look! Spicer’s a woman!’ This is problematic. If the best we’ve got is to weaponize femininity in order to knock Trump’s inner circle down by a few pegs, we are in trouble. On the other hand, if McCarty’s impression makes Spicer appear ‘weak,’ it’s only according to his definition of weakness, and to Trump’s, and is therefore, something of a perfect trap.”
Mirroring the essential ambivalence of the unruly woman, McCarthy’s drag performance overturns the middle-class, patriarchal order of things and yet also offers cheap laughs that only seem to reinforce the misogynistic logic of the Trump movement.
These ambivalences are only exacerbated by the May 13th Spicer sketch that culminates with Trump forcing himself sexually onto Spicer. On the one hand, the forced kiss in the sketch demonstrates that Trump’s acts of sexual violence (whether real or boasts) are not products sexual desire per se but products of power and domination. As in all cases of sexual harassment and assault, Trump possibly groping women and then bragging about groping women aren’t expressions of lust but rather expressions of subjugation, using forced sexual contact to dominate women and assert his privileged position in the social order. By forcing himself on a male subordinate in the sketch, the sketch demands that the audience see those actions as expressions of social power. Whether Trump desires women or men or women dressed as men is not really the point—instead, the sketch shows how Trump uses forced sexual contact or threats of forced sexual contact to assert power and assuage his white, male fragility.
And yet the sketch also uses the specter of homosexuality to needle Trump, as if the best insult the writers can think of to lob at Trump is that he might be gay. On a certain level, the sketch conforms to the same homophobic logic used by Trump and the conservative movement more broadly to use homosexuality as a stand-in for weakness and emasculation, even if the sketch is simply using Trump’s own logic against him. Where do we draw the line between meaningful political satire and cheap insults?
McCarthy’s unruly, drag performances as Sean Spicer, then, suggest the possibility that popular media have simply replaced the superficial, feel-good narratives of Obama era politics with superficial, feel-good lambasting of Trump. Instead of uplifting narratives about the new possibilities for inclusion and diversity (narratives that have often ignored the structural causes of inequality), the Trump era is quickly becoming marked by outrage-fueled narratives casting Trump as a cartoonish villain. This is not to suggest that Trump’s racism, misogyny, corruption, heartless policy positions, and general incompetence shouldn’t induce outrage. Rather, we should question whether or not the spectacle of hating Trump across mainstream and left-leaning media is yet another form of neoliberal consumption that feels good for many people but leaves little space for media discourse on, say, mass incarceration, income and wealth inequality, or climate change. After all, some of the primary beneficiaries of the flourishing anti-Trump sentiment today are media industries, who are cashing in on the demand for Trump hate. But Trump didn't invent the inequalities that have been cultivated by both political parties for decades, and mocking him won’t end those inequalities; but mocking him sure will increase profits for media companies.
At the center of these questions about media culture today, naturally, is the figure of the unruly woman. As Karlyn argues, the unruly woman has long been a cultural figure capable of drawing out the anxieties and fragility of patriarchal culture, even if her transgressive behavior marks her as an object of ridicule or disgust. In moments of cultural or political crisis, the unruly woman is often there, deflating the pretentions of bourgeois masculinity, giving voice to the culture’s angst about power and those who wield it, and offering the complex pleasures of taboo and transgression.
Throughout much of the Obama years, Melissa McCarthy (and others) filled that role, demonstrating the extent to which unruliness can be commodified in neoliberal culture as a marker of self-confidence and individual achievement. But with the dawning of the Trump administration, will the images of unruly women in celebrity culture become icons of resistance to entrenched male power or yet more commodities fueling neoliberal media industries?
The answer to this may come from McCarthy’s comedic future or perhaps from the unruly woman that preceded her: ABC recently announced that it was bringing back the sitcom Roseanne with the original cast for an eight-episode reboot that will run in 2018 (France). As U.S. politics have shifted focus onto the white working class in the wake of Trump, Roseanne’s iconic character and her family are jumping back into the fray, demonstrating just how central the unruly woman is to the cultural and political anxieties in the United States today.