I figured out a long time ago that I’m not Bill Maher’s Real Time target audience: I’m feminist and female. And even though the funniest—and most popular—late night show on television right now is hosted by a feminist and has a feminist show runner, Bill’s audience still cracks up when he makes jokes about how feminists don’t have a sense of humor.
Maher’s ultimate compliment for someone is “badass.” During 2011, Maher described President Obama as a “badass” after the killing of Osama Bin Laden and Somali pirates. And, in 2011, when chef Anthony Bourdain was his guest, Maher claimed that both he and Bourdain were badasses. While, to my knowledge, he has never defined exactly what a “badass” is, my guess is that Maher claims the mantle for himself for his willingness to do battle week after week with a straw enemy he calls “political correctness.”
According to Maher, “political correctness” has so thoroughly weakened liberals and the Democratic party that its members get more offended over language than they do over actions. Each week on Real Time, Maher cites some form of P.C. behavior that disgusts him—usually a celebrity or a politician apologizing for having offended someone—and goes off on a rant about how the problem with liberals these days is they just don’t understand humor. There’s nothing wrong with an ethnic joke or misogynistic crack—as he explained on February 17th to guest Milo Yiannopoulos—because such jokes were how people got to know one another back in some mythical time period known to Maher before political correctness took over.
But it was obvious watching Bill Maher, a white man, speaking to the white Yiannopoulos, that a world in which you bonded with strangers over ethnic jokes could only take place in an all-white bar, between two white men. In what fantasy world were we expected to believe that the best way for a white man to get to know a woman of color was to tell her an ethnic joke at her expense? In Maher and Milo’s fantasy world apparently, where, having been pulled into septic-tank discourse by Milo, Maher opted to hide behind the corpse of Joan Rivers and read some of her most racist and pointlessly mean comments about Michelle Obama.
It wasn’t insignificant that Maher’s “jokes” were about black women. Week after week, Maher’s show is built around Maher’s toxic masculinity, in which rape is the basis for humor, and if there is a joke that can use women as a punchline, he’ll work it in. Maher’s liberalism seems to make him uncomfortable. For someone who lambasts political correctness, Maher goes out of his way to make sure his liberalism doesn’t get him called a “SJW.”
Maher supposedly wants to have serious, wonky discussions about the role that government can and should play in providing services to its people—one of the core tenets of liberals is that they believe that the role of government is to help each of its citizens live their best life (you know that whole “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” stuff from the Constitution). Maher’s inability to recognize on his show how those services actually work can be quite stunning, then. Case in point: On the same episode where he hosted “badass” Bourdain, Maher yelled this into the camera:
“Due to the Obama healthcare plan, birth control for women in this country is now free. So you may have no job, you can’t pay your bills, you’re losing your house, but YOUR FUCKING IS FREE!!”
Maher sounded like Rush Limbaugh at that moment, who had gone after law student Sandra Fluke for testifying about the need for insurance plans to pay for birth control. I don’t know: am I an unfunny feminist for wanting to point out to Maher that for women, an accidental pregnancy can mean losing the job you have, not being able to pay your bills, and losing your house? I shouldn’t have to explain to a “badass” liberal man that making birth control affordable should be as much a part of the liberal agenda as providing training for jobs.
The episode with Yiannopoulos, for which he has faced criticism for not interrogating the since-fired Breitbart editor’s beliefs, was a classic example of watching Maher bond with another male guest whose contempt for women and gay people matched Maher’s own.
Maher began his conversation with Milo by claiming that he had “only just” heard of him. For a guy who is supposed to have his finger on the pulse of the culture, only becoming aware of Yiannopoulos in 2017 is either lazy or disingenuous. It means that Maher slept through the 2016 Republican Convention where Yiannopoulos and his band of hateful followers made themselves into a sideshow you couldn’t look away. It means Maher somehow missed Yiannopoulos’s Twitter history, which led to his banning after encouraging a hate campaign against actress Leslie Jones. (It also means that Maher is not familiar with Laurie Penny’s writing about Yiannopoulos, which is really a shame.)
Maher welcomed Yiannopoulos as a fellow provocateur. “I’m happy to have you here. You’re very controversial.” And then, in a statement that made Milo Yiannopoulos the moral equivalent of every single other guest that Bill Maher has ever had on his show, he said, “I think you’re colossally wrong, but if I banned everyone, I’d only be talking to myself.”
At which point, Maher and Yiannopoulos ran down “political correctness,” which we learn is not being able to say every mean thing that comes into your head whenever you feel like saying it. This was the greatest liberal crime—hurt feelings. In the meantime, Maher never offered a single challenge to any of Yiannopoulos’s odious views on refusing to hire other gay people, women, his feelings about Muslims, and his other policy proposals that read straight out of the Fascist playbook.
A few days later, despite allowing the guy to talk unchallenged—unless it was to agree with him—on his show, Maher declared that he was responsible for Yiannopoulos’s downfall. In an interview with the New York Times, Maher took direct credit for Yiannopolos losing his CPAC speaking gig, his book contract and his job with Breitbart. “What I think people saw was an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe, trying to make a buck off of the left’s propensity for outrage. And by the end of the weekend, by dinnertime Monday, he’s dropped as a speaker at CPAC. Then he’s dropped by Breitbart, and his book deal falls through. As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome.”
For a guy who claims to be a liberal thinker, Maher shouts at his audience in absolute black-and-white statements. All religion is bad, therefore, if some Muslims get offended at being called Islamic terrorists, that’s their fault for being stupid enough to believe in God. All speech is permitted, therefore, if a woman gets frightened or offended because she’s receiving rape and death threats through Twitter, it’s because she’s been infected with political correctness and hates free speech. Maher claims that liberals are so caught up in paying attention to speech that they’re not paying attention to the real harms being done to real people by repressive regimes and terrorists. But on Real Time Maher is so busy proving that he’s a “badass” and not some liberal snowflake that he misses his chance to educate his audience on the difference between speech that offers insight and that which is solely intended to inflame hatred and resentment.
Insisting that words don’t have consequences while living in the protected cocoon of television celebrity is not the act of a badass. It’s just the act of an ass.
Lorraine Berry writes about cultural issues at LitHub, The Guardian, Signature and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.