2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Unruly bodies and body image heroines:
corpulent femininity, Melissa McCarthy, and pop-feminism in the age of Trump
by Russell Meeuf
Actress and comedian Melissa McCarthy has been on a roll lately. Since her breakout performance in Bridesmaids in 2010—which earned her a rare Oscar nomination for a female comic—McCarthy has had a string of box office successes that bring a pop-feminist spin to typically male genres, most notably in her other collaborations with Bridesmaids director Paul Fieg. In The Heat (2013) she and Sandra Bullock reimagine the buddy-cop film. In Spy (2015) she deflates the masculinist pretensions of the spy thriller. And in Ghostbusters (2016) she and the rest of the all-female ghostbuster crew poke fun at the online, fan-boy culture that bristled at the idea of a woman ghostbuster. While also starring in the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly (2010-2016), she has leveraged her box office success over the last seven years to write and produce her own films, from Tammy (2014) and The Boss (2016) to the forthcoming Life of the Party (2018), all directed by her husband and collaborator Ben Falcone. Her successes made her the 4th highest paid actress in Hollywood in 2017 (Robehmed), and in the early months of the Trump administration, McCarthy became a darling of left-wing politics for her raucous and cross-gender impersonation of embattled (and now former) White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.
On the back of this success, the popular press has celebrated McCarthy as a powerful role model and an icon of progressive gender politics who undercuts the cult of thinness in Hollywood. In 2011 Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed that McCarthy is “proof you don’t have to look a certain way to have wonderful things happen to you” (Harmon 20) and in 2012 stated that, “Melissa McCarthy is giving women everywhere the confidence to embrace who they are” (Newman 84). Good Housekeeping wrote in 2012 that, “In an industry obsessed with youthful, toothpick-slim actresses, McCarthy has never let her age or her shape become an issue” (Keeps 134). As a feature in Redbook in 2014 put it, “She’s sweetly silly, but also a ballsy barrier-breaker. She looks more like your neighbor than a Barbie. Instead of griping about Hollywood, she simply changed it” (Rochin 92). Thus the cover of a 2014 Rolling Stone declared McCarthy “Fearless, Fierce, and Funny” while picturing her as a tough, empowered crusader. This persona as a tough, progressive role model would only be cemented on social media thanks to her digs at the Trump administration while playing Sean Spicer on SNL.
McCarthy, then, seems to be the heir apparent to the corpulent and unruly star at the heart of Kathleen Karlyn’s foundational 1995 book The Unruly Woman: the comedian Roseanne Barr (popularly known simply as Roseanne). For Karlyn, Roseanne’s gruff but loving working class persona in her sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997) undercut the patriarchal expectations for women to be thin, quiet, and deferential, all while skewering a pretentious vision of feminism that spoke for affluent white women while ignoring women of the working class. Roseanne’s size, class-standing and willingness to mock patriarchal systems made legible a series of cultural contradictions that resonate still today:
“a fat woman who is sexually ‘normal’; a sloppy housewife who is also a good mother; a loose woman who is tidy, who hates matrimony but loves her husband, and who can mock the ideology of true womanhood yet consider herself a Domestic Goddess” (Karlyn 91).
Like Roseanne, Melissa McCarthy’s comedy transgresses a host of patriarchal norms concerning appropriate feminine behavior, celebrating her exuberant and often-crass mockery of men and male-dominated bureaucracies. She is often paired with bland, middle-class men who represent male institutions (for example, Jason Bateman in Identity Thief, Jude Law in Spy, and often Jason Sudekis when she hosts Saturday Night Live), providing a loud and lewd challenge to the normal rules of femininity and bourgeois decorum. Alternatively, she is also paired with middle-class white women seeking self-fulfillment (Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Sandra Bullock in The Heat, Kristen Bell in The Boss), inspiring them to make room for themselves in a patriarchal culture by being louder and more self-confident.
Additionally, like Roseanne, McCarthy’s performances rely on the imagery of low social class to undercut middle-class expectations for women. From sporting bowling shirts and capris in Bridesmaids to her big-haired performance in Identity Thief, McCarthy’s film roles link her outrageous and sometimes violent antics to imagery of tastelessness and “bad” fashion. And as I note elsewhere, in almost all her work as a guest host of Saturday Night Live she is costumed to suggest “bad taste” and a “trashy” sensibility (Meeuf, “Class, Corpulence, and Neoliberal Citizenship”).
However, as Karlyn documents, Roseanne became a lightning rod for controversy in the late 80s and early 90s. Like most unruly women, she was both popular and despised in the culture, an ambivalent source of humor but also a source of fear and anxiety. Along with the incessant tabloid coverage of her marriage to actor Tom Arnold—which portrayed them as out-control and violent—her performance singing the national anthem at a San Diego Padres game in 1990 became the most visible manifestation of these anxieties about her femininity. In her performance of the song, she sang off-key and ended the song by spitting and grabbing her crotch as she parodied the crass, masculine behavior that we accept as normal in baseball. She was excoriated in the press for mocking not only the national anthem but seemingly the national pastime as well (Karlyn 51-54)
If Roseanne’s unruly comedy inspired so much anxiety about gender and social class in U.S. pop culture, then why has Melissa McCarthy become America’s sweetheart? Why is McCarthy so seemingly adored for performances of crass femininity and thumbing her nose at patriarchal institutions while Roseanne was so controversial? What has changed in U.S. culture that has made space for an unruly star such as McCarthy? And, importantly, have the meanings of McCarthy’s pop-feminist persona changed in the age of Trump after the electorate seemingly rejected the vision of inclusivity that a star like McCarthy represents?
As I claim in my recent book Rebellious Bodies: Stardom, Citizenship and the New Body Politics, McCarthy has certainly taken on the mantle of the most prominent unruly comedian in U.S pop culture. However, McCarthy’s success also shows that the intensification of hyper-individualist, neoliberal culture in the United States has allowed McCarthy and others to make some forms of unruliness a marketable commodity for middle-class (mostly white) women looking to project self-confidence as an individual achievement. Her comedy in the Obama years is founded on a neoliberal vision of feminism that celebrates self-confidence and individual achievement without interrogating the systems of power that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
However, the rise of Trump in the US has led to new avenues of resistance to entrenched male power for satirists such as McCarthy (and others), and her parody of Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live more forcefully challenges patriarchal power than the feel-good, pop-feminism of her previous work. But in a historical moment when many media outlets are cashing in on Trump-hate click bait, has McCarthy simply replaced feel-good, self-confident unruliness with feel-good—but ultimately vacuous—Trump bashing?
Unruliness and neoliberalism
According to Karlyn, the unruly woman is a long-standing trope that demonstrates the possibilities of laughter and comedy to disrupt patriarchal systems of power, at least symbolically. The unruly woman, among other characteristics
As Karlyn explains, figures such as the Muppet Miss Piggy also functions as an icon of unruliness through her loud antics, open sexual desire, violent outbursts, and, by virtue of being a pig, her associations with dirt and the non-human. Anne Helen Petersen’s recent book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman explores several contemporary examples of unruly women celebrities, from Nicki Minaj to Lena Dunham to Kim Kardashian, demonstrating the continuing fascination with female unruliness in the United States.
The unruly woman, then, has always been deeply ambivalent, providing a symbolic challenge to patriarchal authority while simultaneously embodying misogynist ideas about out-of-control women.
McCarthy’s loud, sexual, and violent performances in film such as Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief, and others make her perhaps the most popular and prominent example of unruly womanhood in the 2010s, but as I write in Rebellious Bodies, some of the best examples of her unruly persona come in her sketches on Saturday Night Live. For example, in a season 37 sketch, McCarthy plays Arlene, a woman with a bad perm, huge glasses, and low social class who makes aggressive sexual overtures to her nice but indifferent coworker, Tim, played by Jason Sudekis. As I write elsewhere:
“As the sketch progresses, Arlene’s overt sexuality overwhelms Tim’s protestations as her antics become increasingly graphic and over-the-top. Rubbing his tie over her breasts, mock pole dancing on the string of a helium balloon, and licking and fellating the nose of a horse-shaped balloon, Arlene and her unbridled sexual desire (her “lady boner,” as she calls it) cannot be contained by the rules of proper office decorum or middle-class romantic values. Tim protests that he is married and has children, but Arlene only pretends to toss his wedding ring aside while continuing to rub his chest.” (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 51)
The unruly comedy here is not simply outrageous—it carefully upturns a host of assumptions about gender, sexuality, and bourgeois norms:
“These sexual excesses make a mockery of respectable, middle-class culture, using Tim as a nice, white, male, middle-class foil to Arlene’s exuberant and uncontained sexuality. In a classic example of Bakhtin’s carnival-grotesque, Arlene turns the rules of the dominant culture on their head: a bland site of corporate labor becomes a colorful place of dancing, rubbing, and sexual innuendo; appropriate feminine norms of passivity are tossed aside in favor of aggression; the nuclear family is dismissed as a hindrance to passionate sex; mock bestiality serves as a symbol for human sex acts; an overweight woman—normally a symbol of ugliness or asexuality—promotes herself as an object of sexual desire; and female sexual desire is made visible and masculine (her “lady boner”) instead of being denied as impure. Her wild, open sexuality demonstrates the ability of corpulent femininity to overwhelm and elude the structures of male control.” (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 51; for more discussion of feminine corpulence and sexuality, see Braziel)
However, one of the important ways that McCarthy’s unruliness deviates from Roseanne’s is the larger context of neoliberal culture surrounding McCarthy. Since Roseanne’s popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, U.S. culture has seen an intensification of neoliberal economic policies and a hyper-individualist neoliberal culture. This larger context impacted the ways that popular media imagines inclusion and diversity and helped create a new category of celebrity that McCarthy has occupied.
As an economic doctrine, neoliberalism promotes privatization, seeking free-market alternatives to pubic services as part of a general transfer of social responsibility from the state to individuals. Within the context of these economic imperatives, the culture of neoliberalism in the United States has seen an increase in hyper-individualist rhetoric, a culture that increasingly privileges self-transformation, self-discipline, and self-help as central to one’s identity and a prerequisite to cultural belonging. It is an individuals’ responsibility to transform themselves in response to a changing world and structures of inequality (through consumption), as witnessed in the rise of transformation based reality TV and other “lifestyle media.” Both Brenda Weber and Jayne Raisborough have explored this neoliberal culture of self-discipline and constant transformation, pointing to the role of reality television in shaping expectations for individual identity in a neoliberal age.
Neoliberal culture, then, has yielded two seemingly contradictory trends when it comes to corpulent femininity. On the one hand, neoliberal culture has spurred a moral panic about the so-called obesity epidemic, which stigmatizes weight as not only unhealthy but as a sign of moral degradation. From this perspective, self-transformation through diet plans and exercise are key pathways to self-actualization and cultural belonging (for more on the obesity epidemic as a moral panic, see Boero).
And yet, on the other hand, media culture has also seen an increase in body positivity rhetoric and the power of individual self-confidence, as evidenced in media campaigns such as the Dove True Beauty campaign or the success of books such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Reflecting a general acceptance of some feminist discourses, this media rhetoric extols the virtue of self-confidence as a form of self-discipline, especially as achieved through make-up, fashion, beauty products and personal behavior. (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 39, 56).
These two trends, of course, are simply different forms of self-discipline, suggesting two different ways that individuals should change themselves, their appearances, or their attitudes in the face of social inequalities (rather than exploring ways that social policies or the culture at large, not individuals, should transform to help create a more equitable world).
Within this neoliberal culture of intense body-disciplining, then, we have seen an emerging category of celebrity that I call body image heroines. These are figures like Melissa McCarthy who provide uplifting messages of the power of self-confidence and whose stories, especially in an age of social media, can be used as social justice currency to demonstrate one’s commitment to diversity rhetoric. Other examples include Gabourey Sidibe, Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham and others. While such figures are easy to celebrate as providing a new and important visions of inclusion in U.S. culture, they also serve the function of neoliberal individualism, suggesting that self-confidence and personal outlook are the solutions to entrenched social inequalities, all while performing the same function as other celebrities: promoting consumer culture.
Body image heroines, then, tell us that certain forms of unruliness can be packaged and marketed as “feminist” commodities in a neoliberal marketplace. Andi Zeisler’s recent book We Were Feminists Once documents this trend toward “marketplace feminism”—that is, using the language of equality and empowerment to sell consumer commodities instead of interrogating the causes of gendered injustices. Zeisler offers a compelling history of the incorporation of feminist empowerment rhetoric into consumer capitalism in our neoliberal age.
Melissa McCarthy’s unruliness, then, functions in service to her status as a body image heroine, as her outrageous performances of loud, crass femininity become a kind of mock unruliness, a way of demonstrating over-the-top self-confidence rather than truly transgressing gender and class norms. After all, McCarthy can put on the trappings of unruliness in her performances—spurting a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch into her face while wearing a Mr. Spock sweatshirt in a popular sketch on SNL, defecating in a sink in Bridesmaids, sporting turtlenecks and a thick accent as vlogger Marbles Hargrove. But we are assured by entertainment journalists that she is actually a nice, wholesome, middle-class woman who can offer platitudes about self-confidence and personal success. (And, in fact, as Petersen documents, McCarthy often claims that her most outrageous performances occur while she is in a kind of “fugue state” or trance, distancing her unruliness from her “authentic” self.) She may play an unruly woman on TV, but in reality she is just an average wife and mother who can use the outrageous behavior and “bad” taste of the lower classes to demonstrate just how self-confident she is.
She told Ladies’ Home Journal in 2012, for example:
“One of my favorite things is playing someone who’s utterly confident—even if they are, just, like wrong. They’re off the beaten track. They’re not polished or perfect, but they’re so solid in their shoes. And I always think, Now that’s someone who’s interesting. They don’t give a s—— what they’re supposed to be, or how they’re supposed to look. I find them mesmerizing. I think there’s greatness in not caring what other people think.” (Newman)
But her prime example of these mesmerizing individuals is “the woman at Walmart who’s happy in her cat sweater,” using the popular connotation of Walmart stores as a locus of low social class commodities and shoppers to suggest this carefree attitude.
So, is unruliness today a performance that nice, middle-class women can put on (and take off when needed) to demonstrate their self-confidence? While Roseanne’s unruliness was tied to her sense of “authentic” self, helping to make her a controversial figure in popular culture, in an age of neoliberal culture, McCarthy demonstrates the possibilities of commodifying unruliness for the safe consumption of middle-class audiences.
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.
Boero, Natalie. Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American Obesity Epidemic. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012.
Braziel, Jana Evans. “Sex and Fat Chicks: Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001: 231-254.
France, Lisa Respers. “’Roseanne’ Returning to ABC.” CNN May 16, 2017:
Harmon, Sonia. “Melissa McCarthy.” Ladies’ Home Journal, June 11 2011: 20.
(Karlyn) Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Karni, Annie, Josh Dawsey, and Tara Palmeri. “White House Rattled by McCarthy's Spoof of Spicer.” Politico February 6, 2017:
Keeps, David. “Funny Girl.” Good Housekeeping December 2012: 134-147.
Meeuf, Russell. “Class, Corpulence, and Neoliberal Citizenship: Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.” Celebrity Studies 7.2 (2016): 137-153.
—-. Rebellious Bodies: Stardom, Citizenship, and the New Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017.
Newman, Judith. “Funny Girl.” Ladies’ Home Journal May 2012: 84-87.
Petersen, Anne Helen. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Plume, 2017.
Raisborough, Jayne. Lifestyle Media and the Formation of the Self. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2011.
Robehmed, Natalie. “The World’s Highest-Paid Actresses 2017: Emma Stone Leads with $26 Million.” Forbes online. August 16, 2017: https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2017/08/16/the-worlds-highest-paid-actresses-2017-emma-stone-leads-with-26-million/#578cdfb611e6
Rochin, Margy. “You’re Perfect, Melissa,” Redbook July 2014: 92-97.
Sealove, Eva. “On SNL, Drag Has Transcended Comedy as a Weapon Against Trump’s Brand of Masculinity.” Out February 12, 2017:
Weber, Brenda. Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009.
Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot GRRRL to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016.