Samantha Bee has been America’s leading late-night feminist comic for over a decade. As the longest serving correspondent in the history of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bee spent 12 years skewering politics and the media. When she was offered her own development deal with TBS to start a late-night comedy show, I’m sure I wasn’t the only feminist who waited with baited breath to see what path Bee would take. So few women have hosted late-night shows that each chance seems very important. If Sam couldn’t do it, how soon would women have another shot?
A few months in, it’s clear that I had nothing to be worried about. Airing weekly on Monday nights, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is a breath of fresh air in a year of simply awful national politics. With the crazy, seemingly unending election cycle of 2016, it has been the perfect time for Bee to make her mark. Criticizing Republicans and Democrats alike (though, really, who wouldn’t spend a bit more time on Trump and Cruz in a year like this?) Bee has shown that a woman’s voice and perspective has long been missing in comedy-news. With female executive producers and a diverse writing staff, Full Frontal brings something unique to the comedy-news desk — which, actually, Bee has avoided by ditching the desk altogether and presenting each show standing on a stage.
What’s been most refreshing about Full Frontal is how the show foregrounds women’s issues of all kinds. Bee has done segments on abortion and the rolling back of women’s reproductive rights across the United States; crisis pregnancy centers, the “health providers” that try to convince women to change their minds about abortion; the rape kit backlog that plagues most US states; and the anti-trans bathroom bills that have popped up this year. She also has covered other feminist issues like the refugee crisis and gun safety.
The abortion segment that first aired February 29 is the perfect example, where Bee highlights many of our frustrations with the abortion debate. She interviews “uterus expert” Texas legislator Dan Flynn, who wrote the anti-abortion laws that closed two dozen abortion clinics, currently under review by the US Supreme Court. Bee asks “how does removing access to health care improve health care?” Flynn shows a complete misunderstanding of abortion procedures, calling it an “invasive surgery” and mentioning “cutting on people’s bodies.” As Bee did for years as a Daily Show correspondent, she is bluntly honest during the interview: “You don’t seem to know anything specifically about abortion, really at all. In fact, you did all this with building regulations. Whaaat? … You don’t need to gloat. You’ve done enough.” A childish argument about which of them is the “wrongiest” shows just how easily Bee can manipulate Flynn into looking bad on camera.
Yet the pro-choice side is not given a free pass. The segment also includes an interview with Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, who Bee questions about not being aggressive enough in legislating the pro-choice agenda. Bee asks, “How did the group that fought the notion that women should stick knitting needles up their vaginas cede the language of women’s health and safety to the other side?” Hogue replies, “It was a little bit of a sneak attack.” When Bee pushed, “Where’s your sneak attack?” Hogue sheepishly responded that they’ve “got some memes” up their sleeves. Clearly memes can do little against the aggressive lawmaking of the Republican state legislatures that have blossomed in the last few years. Bee’s ability to comically critique both the left and right sides of this debate brings welcome chuckles and may inspire some viewers to think about pro-choice activism and what more can be done to defend women’s reproductive rights.
Bee did not stop talking about abortion there. As part of a series of segments on the religious right, she discussed the history of the pro-life movement in the United States from the 1970s to the present on May 23. Though many think the religious right rose in response after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, Bee shows how it came about a few years later when leaders like Jerry Falwell were looking for a new way to unite evangelicals. An exclusive interview with Frank Schaeffer, an early warrior in the fight whose father starred in early pro-life propaganda films, allows her an insider look at this period. Bee critiques a variety of pro-life media, including a Schoolhouse Rock-style cartoon that showed “Anything Goes” with abortion. Schaeffer also tells how Congressional Republicans brought respectability to the movement. Bee connects this legitimization to the violence, including bombings, acid-attacks, and murder — “you know, pro-life stuff” — perpetrated by pro-life radicals. The interview with Schaeffer, combined with the easily satirized imagery from pro-life films, makes for both good journalism and an entertaining segment.1
Other news shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah also carry on the mantle that Jon Stewart left when he retired from late night last year. But Bee brings something that these hosts are lacking — a woman’s perspective. A feminist and a mother, Bee brings satire, outrage, and yes, a vagina to discussions of politics that is simply a joy to watch. Whether celebrating the end of Ted Cruz’s campaign with a Michelle Branch performance or pursuing an NRA Eddie the Eagle costume across America, Bee brings great comedy and a smart take to all she presents. In the year we are likely to have our first female presidential nominee, Samantha Bee shows that it’s well past time for women like her to lead the comedy pack.
- I’d recommend watching the full interview with Frank Shaeffer; it is illuminating. Return to text.