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Swanson: The Ethics of Mocking the President’s Family


It’s a semi-universally accepted notion by the American media that the family of the president is off limits for satire. This, of course, has not always been respected, and there have been notable incidents where major media figures openly mocked residents of the White House. In 1992, Rush Limbaugh referred to Chelsea Clinton as “the White House dog.” The Trey Parker and Matt Stone sitcom “That’s My Bush!”, which satirized the Bush administration, included Carrie Quinn Dolin, who was cast as Laura Bush. There was, of course, the prominent satirizing of Michelle Obama and her efforts to bring awareness to the unhealthy eating habits of American children.

When this happens, it’s usually agreed that this satire goes too far and that mockery should be limited to the president, not the family members who didn’t choose to be in the national spotlight. However, there are exceptions to this sentiment, which are primarily made for the adults of the family. For example, the Laura Bush portrayal on “That’s My Bush!” isn’t looked back on as poorly as Limbaugh calling Chelsea Clinton a dog.

Despite this general rule of thumb, the Trump family has faced a world of ridicule. Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka have been ridiculed, openly criticized and made fun of in the media. For the Trump children the outcry hasn’t been very outspoken, except for Barron Trump after some memes were made on Twitter after the inauguration.

The trend continued last week with the controversy between Jimmy Kimmel and Fox News host Sean Hannity. On his April 2 show of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, Kimmel made fun of Melania Trump’s storytime reading to children in attendance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, commenting on her accent. This caught the attention of Sean Hannity, who he openly criticized Kimmel on his own show, “Hannity.”

This led to a few jokes at Hannity’s expense on Kimmel’s show, and the feud began to gain traction on Twitter. After the tweets and a few more mentions on their respective shows, Kimmel reached out to Hannity and apologized. Sean Hannity has since accepted Jimmy Kimmel’s apology and extended an invitation for Kimmel to come on his show.

Such incidents beg the question of when it becomes okay to mock family members of the president and when it goes too far. It’s okay to mock Eric, Ivanka, Donald Jr. and the other older children of President Trump because they’re adults and they can handle it. However, it’s too far when it’s Melania and Barron. Some will go on to say that the distinction is about how much control each party has over what they’re being criticized for. Barron is a child and therefore can’t effectively defend himself, and Melania can’t change the fact that she has an accent — therefore, it is unacceptable to make fun of them in those cases.

This claim does not stand under scrutiny. Some of the most widespread and openly embraced jokes at the expense of Eric and Tiffany Trump have been about their appearance, an aspect of themselves over which they have no control. The fact of the matter is that we justify making jokes about some people and express outrages when certain others are ridiculed. If there are going to be controversy and rules set in place for the criticism of the president’s family, then they need to be consistent and bipartisan. If we’re going to defend Chelsea Clinton and Melania Trump for aspects of themselves they can’t control, then we owe that same courtesy to the Bushes and the older Trump children.

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About the Contributor
Gavin Swanson, Opinion Writer
Gavin Swanson is an opinion writer.

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