I love men. I really do. I love the things some of them say, I even love the some of the things they don’t say, and yes, I love the way some of them look. But we all fall short sometimes, even the men this token loves.
I’ve been a Bill Maher fan for more than half my life, since the days my dad and I used to watch “Politically Incorrect” on Comedy Central. Since then, I’ve followed Maher to ABC and HBO, loving his biting wit, courage and the true balance on his shows’ panels (instead of the feigned intellectual diversity on lesser programs like “Crossfire“). I don’t agree with everything Maher says, and I never have, but I appreciate that he seems thoughtful and interested and educated. Unlike his pal Ann Coulter, I think Maher believes everything he says and isn’t interested in resorting to shock value to get press.
But that doesn’t mean he’s right. I’m not really interested in cataloguing all of Maher’s faults and every perceived gaffe he’s made, because when you’re having thoughtful televised conversations daily or weekly for almost 20 years, you’re bound to slip up, and that’s not what I want to address. What I think is more troublesome is his treatment of Delaware’s U.S. Senate candidate (and Julia Louis-Dreyfus doppelganger) Christine O’Donnell.
O’Donnell is a lot of things: a Christian, a Republican, a devout opponent of masturbation, and I’d argue that she doesn’t really deserve to be taken all that seriously. Yes, she’s a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but she’s also, well…someone who admitted to “dabbling in witchcraft.”
While I do care about who ends up in the Senate, she’s not who I’m concerned with in that clip. At 0:16, Maher utters the phrase, “Christine, if you’re listening, I CREATED YOU.” It’s a funny line, but it’s also a telling one. I first found out O’Donnell was running for senate this summer, when I Googled her in an attempt to find old clips of “Politically Incorrect.” I recognized her name and remembered her both from that show and MTV’s “Sex in the ’90s” (I watched a lot of inappropriate TV as a preadolescent). I knew that she looked like Elaine, didn’t believe in premarital sex and loved Jesus. She also, as I found out, wasn’t too sympathetic about the accidental death of Michael Kennedy, saying “you reap what you sew.”
My point is this: I knew who she was outside of her appearances on Maher’s show. OK, so I don’t take Christine O’Donnell seriously, but plenty of other people do. So when Bill Maher says that he created her, I take issue with that. He’s not the puppet master pulling her taut Christian strings (and I’d guess that, as the man who made “Religulous,” he wouldn’t want to be thought of as responsible for her in any way). I don’t think Maher was saying he was behind her rise, but I think he was humorously pointing out that she owes him a little credit because he gave her a stage. Maybe he’s right, but his use of the words “I created you” make me feel like he’s Larry Tate, or Don Draper taking credit for Peggy Olson’s work.
I don’t need to lecture anyone on why many women, especially Milennial women, are sensitive about the idea that any substantial or successful woman must be a wooden doll sitting on a man’s lap, but it’s worth reiterating at least this point: When a man claims to take credit for a woman’s success, it’s loaded with misogynist historical subtext about women not being able to achieve anything individually, and you don’t need to read “Ms. Magazine” to know that. And, to steal a quote from last weekend’s number one movie, Maher doesn’t get to claim that O’Donnell is sitting on his shoulders while calling herself “tall.”
This is a concern that’s grown deeper as he’s continued to play old clips of O’Donnell’s quotes. Last Friday’s nugget, about how O’Donnell was a Hare Krishna until she realized she couldn’t give up meatballs, officially crossed the line. Maher was once showcasing her ridiculousness, effectively using her words against her (which is not gotcha journalism, Sarah Palin, but rather “research”) to illustrate that she might not be worth taking seriously, at least not Senate seriously. But Maher’s latest clip — or as I call it, “Hare with no chance of meatballs” — is basically a throwaway line about how she experimented with a lot of different religions, gave one up because she likes Italian food, and then includes Maher’s cutting quip mocking her professed “spirituality.”
With that clip, Maher made it more about his dismissal of her and less about O’Donnell being a whack job. The moment satire becomes about the performers and not about the mocked, it loses its firepower. The takedown is now less potent and makes Maher inches closer to being Glenn Beck (with his self-pitying crocodile tears and his self-aggrandizing rallies) and inches further from being Jon Stewart (with his self-deprecating wit and less-self-aggrandizing rally).
Maher tends to stroke his own ego and I’m usually willing to let it slide (especially when it’s funny and functions as praise for Sarah Silverman), but with O’Donnell, now he’s just being mean. Maher is being bitchy, and it’s not about politics or religion. It’s about Maher’s ego, and how he can bigfoot a woman he claims partial responsibility for while simultaneously reducing her to a flitting caricature. I don’t have a problem with the last part, as long as it isn’t in service of the first part.
O’Donnell is doing a fine job of floundering on her own and she doesn’t need Maher’s contrived coattails to do so. With his new crusade, it’s appearing that Maher has a hormonal compulsion to put a little lady in her place. Unfortunately, that’s too politically incorrect, even for this diehard fan.
I don’t think that Maher should quit running clips of O’Donnell. In fact, I think the opposite. I want him to use every comedic bullet in his gun, so to speak, to fire at her credibility. But Maher has also defended politicians who have made gaffes, stating that “there’s more to being smart than just not misspeaking.” O’Donnell made a dumb joke, or maybe it was a true statement, about meatballs and religion that isn’t ultimately that consequential. I’d like to see Maher use his rhetorical fine-tooth comb to instead parse her politics and not her palate.