The Inhospitable Rhetoric of Feminist Satire: Michelle Wolf’s 2018 White House Correspondents’ Speech
Accepted to the 2020 Rhetorical Society of America Conference
I argue that through the use of inhospitable rhetoric, most specifically carnivalesque satire, orators — especially those categorized as “other” — can utilize these unsociable practices, not as an exploitation of power, but instead as a means for challenging unbalanced sovereignty, while evoking progressive change by making audiences aware of society’s faults through satire.
Change fueled by inhospitable actions can further be understood in Kenneth Burke’s idea of the comic frame. In evoking the comic frame, we are choosing to glimpse at the world in a critical, satirical way; a view that helps us understand humanity in a positive lens while also creating a unique space in which we can address that our world is flawed. Ultimately, the comic frame should “enable people to be observers of themselves,” and thus, raise a “maximum consciousness” within society that allows recognition and correction of humankind’s faults (Burke 171).
In evoking change, humor — or satire — has recently been attributed as a product of third wave feminism, and thus “becomes an outlet for addressing oppression and discrimination” (Sowards and Renegar 63). Therefore, satire can be thought of as a rhetorical tactic that feminist activism can employ to raise a maximum consciousness to the faults of misogyny by creating a subversive context that challenges oppression based on gender, ideas of sovereign power and the status quo.
This type of activism can be observed in Michelle Wolf’s 2018 White House Correspondence Dinner speech, in which she utilizes Burke’s comic frame to “roast” the President, the White House staff, and Congress, while also creating a critical space to speak inhospitable truths in an unlikely setting.
Furthermore, the genre of humor often creates a space that welcomes rude and disagreeable behavior. However, use of inhospitable communication can increase the effectiveness of conveying a message. In referencing Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, social hierarchies of everyday life are overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies, evoking ideas of free expression, eccentric behavior, unification of opposites, and profanation (Bakhtin 122,160). Wolfe employs the carnivalesque to address social issues and advocate for social change by placing the White House administration and the country within a comic frame.
Wolfe’s speech embodies elements of the carnivalesque as she criticizes American society; her satire creates a unique space of “protected” inhospitable rhetoric within a hospitable setting. However, she justifies her inhospitable behavior because of her identification as a comedian. Wolfe’s inhospitable rhetoric was met with controversy and negative reaction from some audience members, yet others recognized her comic framing. and understood her unique and memorable message that “was funny because it was true” (Poniewozik).
Bakhtin, Mikahil. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press., 1984, pp. 122, 160.
Burke, Kenneth. “Comic Correctives.” Attitudes Towards History, Beacon Pr., 1961, pp. 166 -175.
Sowards, Stacey K., and Valerie R. Renegar. “Reconceptualizing Rhetorical Activism in Contemporary Feminist
Contexts.” Howard Journal of Communications, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2006. pp. 57-74, doi: 10.1080/10646170500487996.
Fanny Fern Digital Archive
Digital component of
2019 Masters of Arts Thesis
The Feminist We Never Knew We Needed: Digitally Archiving
and Recovering the Works of Fanny Fern
2019 Master of Arts
Creating a Millennial-Relevant Writing Curriculum Through Hashtags: Teaching the Digitally-Inclined Student
When we, as scholars, think of engaging students in our classroom through the idea of commonplaces, we often do not consider the digital world. It is true that academia as a whole has made every effort to incorporate new learning technologies and methodologies. However, is this digital implementation enough to engage students of a new, technology-based generation? Or should we as educators consider sharing more commonplaces with our students and their daily use of digital tools?
Any time an educator makes an effort to make a curriculum more relevant to their students, the affect is most certainly positive student engagement. So if educators familiarize themselves with topics that their students find relevant, then a means for inclusion is established. As worded in Perles’ 2012 scholarship “students who are taught in an inclusion setting are more likely to build a society that is accepting of differences and able to respect people from diverse backgrounds” (p. 1). Similarly enough, by engaging with the personal interests, world views, and activist approaches of our students’ generations, we as educators can create an inclusive setting within our classrooms by having the knowledge of what types of messages are relevant to our students’ mindset.
In this paper, I am not arguing that educators should submerse themselves within the digital world, or that they become avid social media users themselves; instead, I am advocating that educators should be familiar with what is ‘trending’ or what is relevant within digital platforms which represent current interests of millennial generations. This method of relevancy can be easily obtained through the observation or monitoring of trending (or popular) hashtags.