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Michelle Wolf, the comedian hired for the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, said the words “pussy” and “porn” a lot during her almost 20-minute act. But that’s not what’s driving a significant amount of criticism and discussion today: It’s the fact that she mentioned White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s eye makeup.
Sanders was sitting mere feet away from Wolf at the head table, elevated on a dais. After first comparing Sanders to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale, Wolf said in her act, “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” Sanders remained tight-lipped during the whole thing.
Twitter exploded with arguments about this perceived attack on Sanders’s appearance. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted: “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.” Even Mika Brzezinski, who has had to contend with President Trump tweeting about her alleged plastic surgery, weighed in on Twitter, calling it “deplorable.”
That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 29, 2018
Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) April 29, 2018
Many, though, including the New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum, did not find it to be a direct attack on Sanders’s looks.
Wow. The idea that MW's joke "called out" Sander's eye makeup is madness. She PRAISED her eye makeup—she said it was a "perfect smokey eye"—she just pointed out that it was made of the ashes of burned lies. Which it is! Both.— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) April 29, 2018
Makeup is a choice, just like lying. https://t.co/0jpqLTT5Hh— audible gasp (@morninggloria) April 29, 2018
Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies all the time. I fail to see what the issue in calling her a liar and then complimenting her makeup.— chelsea g. summers (@chelseagsummers) April 29, 2018
Wolf responded on Twitter.
Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks? I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials. https://t.co/slII9TYdYx— Michelle Wolf (@michelleisawolf) April 29, 2018
Hey mags! All these jokes were about her despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though? https://t.co/JRzzvhBuey— Michelle Wolf (@michelleisawolf) April 29, 2018
Before we debate this further, let’s discuss smokey eyes. For the uninitiated, a smokey eye is a technique that involves smudging dark eye makeup, and generally comes with glamorous connotations. A so-called perfect smokey eye is also something a lot of women find desirable and hard to achieve; if you search “smokey eye tutorial” on YouTube, there are almost 3 million results.
Sanders’s makeup has been the source of some discussion in the media. Is this unfair? Sure, but it is unfortunately where we still are as a society, particularly in this visual age. (Just ask Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina, the former Republican presidential primary candidate, about whom President Trump said, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”) And as Vanessa Friedman noted at the New York Times, the Trump administration seems to be obsessed with appearance, as per the president’s “central casting” comments regarding people he hires.
Sanders herself wrote to Friedman, “This is something previous administrations have done as well, and in the age of HD cameras, I’ll take all the help I can get.” And the White House actually employed a full-time stylist, Katie Price, after former communications director Anthony Scaramucci complimented the work she had done on Sanders.
As a person who has covered makeup for almost nine years, I can say that Sanders’s makeup is well done. Yes, she wears a noticeable amount of it, but that is a matter of taste. The technique is there.
And I definitely did not see Wolf’s joke as a direct assault on Sanders’s looks. To compare, Chelsea Handler received some criticism last December for a satirical video in which an actress pretended to be Sanders doing a makeup tutorial. It was perceived as being fat-shaming and definitely was derogatory to Sanders’s looks, to an extent. But this was not that. (Wolf definitely did, however, directly criticize Mitch McConnell’s looks at one point, saying that he wasn’t present at the event because he was “finally getting his neck circumcised.” She also riffed on her own looks, during a bit in which she called out Kellyanne Conway for having a perfect name for what she does, saying it would be like being named, “Michelle Jokes Frizzy Hair Small Tits.”)
Wolf used a recognizable part of Sanders’s persona and made a bigger point that she is a liar, while actually complimenting the makeup. The bottom line here is that Wolf spoke the truth: Sarah Huckabee Sanders does have a perfect smokey eye. She also lies.