“Full Frontal,” “Veep” and the *!#&ing Politics of Swearing

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus as foul-mouthed President Selina Meyer on HBO's Veep. Photo: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Last Monday’s episode of TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee opened with its host walking the streets of New York City and being accosted by “fans” rudely telling her how much they hate her. Faced with hecklers threatening to send her letters of complaint, Bee starts handing over Katie Couric’s email address instead of her own. Cut to Couric, sitting in a restaurant and staring at her phone as she is inundated with complaint after complaint. Reading one she exclaims, “I’m not a basic bitch! I’m America’s Sweetheart!” and, outraged, she gives her phone the middle finger.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Couric enjoys steamy pumpkin-spiced beverages (but come on, we know she does), most of the humor in the sketch comes from the opportunity to see the smoothly professional Couric dropping an expletive. During the credits, the show had even more fun with this conceit, running outtakes of Couric trying out multiple line readings of the word “bitch,” giggling after saying, “go fuck yourself,” and sheepishly telling someone off-camera, “This is a little racy for me.” The extended gag has it both ways: getting laughs out of suggesting Couric has a potty mouth while still maintaining her G-rated image.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A frankly feminist, fucking profane woman’s voice[/pullquote]

In comparison, between the show opener and the credits sequence, Bee herself was comfortably vulgar as she took on topics like the New York primaries and laws targeting transgender people written by sexual harassers. After 12 years as one of the few female correspondents on The Daily Show – not to mention being overlooked to replace Jon Stewart – Bee has proven with Full Frontal how necessary her perspective is in the world of political satire. As the only woman currently hosting a show in late-night, Bee doesn’t just add a woman’s voice to its boys’ club, she adds a frankly feminist, fucking profane woman’s voice that utilizes language often considered inappropriate to her gender.

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We know that the way women speak is heavily policed and subject to endless scrutiny. A recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago revealed that women are both less likely to approve of swearing in public and less likely to admit to swearing, with 31% of men surveyed admitting to using the f-word daily as compared to only 16% of women.

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As my Clyde Fitch colleague Devra Thomas pointed out in her article about gender parity, expletives, and women in theatre, swear words have a particular function, acting as a release of emotional buildup through choice of language. It’s that very show of emotion that makes both men and women uncomfortable. As a 2015 paper by Jessica M. Salerno and Liana C. Peter-Hagene found, “…expressing anger might lead men to gain influence, but women to lose influence over others (even when making identical arguments).”

Just a couple of Canadians hangin' out.

A post shared by Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (@fullfrontalsamb) on

Comedians, like Bee, Amy Schumer, or The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams, are, of course, given greater latitude than your generic office worker to use profanity in the workplace. In an op-ed last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adam Grant discussed office dynamics and noted that “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.” According to Sandberg and Grant, more women in positions of authority might solve this perception imbalance.

Luckily, that isn’t a problem for President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, deserving of all her Emmy Awards), lead character of HBO’s Veep, which returned last night for a fifth season of bottomless narcissism, extreme vitriol, and government incompetence. Veep was originally intended to function as a funhouse mirror for American politics, but there aren’t enough mirrors left in the world to distort what is actually happening this primary season. The first few episodes back focus on a recount plot line that has more in common with the 2000 election than our current cycle, and as nasty as the characters are to one another, no one matches the extreme ideological nightmare that is Donald Trump.

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Instead, Veep is strongest when letting its foul-mouthed, amoral protagonists (played by a universally strong cast) circle, sniff, and scratch at one another as they maneuver for power and influence. Veep’s innovation is that the center of this human cesspool is Selina, who doesn’t have to worry about being barely heard or too aggressive. She’s the most important person in any room, and if you aren’t listening to her, she’ll only get more aggressive and nasty until you do. Of the possibility that she might, through some deranged electoral process, end up as vice-president instead of president, Selina declares, “There is no world in which I’m gonna end up as vice-president to that smug, Dick Van Dyke–looking motherfucker Tom James.” 

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”That’s the way we talk in the White House.”[/pullquote]

It’s important that Selina isn’t any more or less offensive or profane than the men around her, keeping her from being some sort of Strong Female trope, the Woman Who Can Out-Curse Men. Instead, she’s just speaking the language of power and politics as it exists in the world of Veep. When, in episode four, Selina’s chief of staff, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), responds to a rival political staffer’s question by saying, “Did Eleanor Roosevelt eat pussy?” she defends herself against his incredulous reaction, by saying “That’s the way we talk in the White House.”

In the first episode of the new season, Selina repeatedly cuts herself off in the middle of a profanity-laced tirade when she realizes that her daughter is filming it (the command Selina most often directs towards her daughter is “Catherine, out”). This reflects the male politicians of Veep who likewise cultivate one image for the camera and another for their subordinates. Unlike Couric’s faux moment of exposure, catching Selina on tape telling someone to “suck her dick” would be revealing the real her. Bee uses expletives in order to convey true moral outrage at the injustices committed by our callous political leaders. In contrast, Veep demonstrates that given enough power and opportunity, women have equal propensity as men to be morally bankrupt, coldly ambitious, and motherfucking proud of it.