It has been quite a week in the world of television. After resurrecting “Roseanne” and being greeted with high ratings, ABC canceled the show due to racist comments made by the show’s star, Roseanne Barr.
And within a day, Samantha Bee, on her own show “Full Frontal,” made an incendiary comment about Ivanka Trump. In a debate that has been mostly partisan, conservatives are calling for Bee’s show to be canceled as well.
Bee’s actual statement about Trump was that she was “feckless” and included another insult relating to female anatomy. This controversy opens the question: What words go so far that a person must be removed from the cultural milieu?
In the case of Barr, it is more obvious that her show needed to be off the air. It wasn’t just that she had made the one racist comment — her Twitter is full of conspiracy theories, and she herself has insulted liberal women using the same epithet Bee used, without backlash from the people who now defend her and condemn Bee.
To pretend that a word meant as a pure insult is morally equivalent to racist language trivializes the commentary around racism. Comparisons like the one Barr made have been used historically to oppress and dehumanize Black Americans for hundreds of years — not even close to the impact that Bee’s insult made.
One insult hurts, the other reinforces a system that has powerfully oppressed people since America’s founding. One was said by a white woman about a black woman, the other was said by a white woman about another white woman. Whatever happened with either television program, it is unproductive to put forth this false equivalence.
The mistake many are making is stripping both words of their historical and cultural context. Perhaps Bee was wrong to say what she said — insulting female politicians with gendered language was the purview of many Trump supporters and seemed wrong then. The problem is perhaps more nuanced in this case.
Bee insulted Ivanka Trump, in the vein of critiquing the way that she and her family are affecting U.S. policy. (Reminder: as many pointed out on Twitter during this conversation, there are 11,000 people in Puerto Rico who still do not have power.) She insulted her harshly, and the audience appeared surprised to hear what she had said. But does that mean she should be removed from air altogether?
The likely answer is that the money will decide. If advertisers pull their support from the show, and writers or other members of the team decide to quit, the show may be forced out. For “Roseanne,” some who worked on the show publicly announced that they would quit following the tweet, making quick cancellation an obvious choice.
What happens next in this story will reveal how Americans react to racism and vulgarity. Hopefully, the reaction will be able to differentiate between the moral weight of the two.