Michelle Wolf is right to reject the empty ritual of the forced apology — just ask Miley and Kathy

A new day: Michelle Wolf isn't playing along and Miley Cyrus and Kathy Griffith are taking their old sorries back

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 1, 2018 6:59PM (EDT)

Kathy Griffin; Michelle Wolf; Miley Cyrus (Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Tasos Katopodis/Christopher Polk)
Kathy Griffin; Michelle Wolf; Miley Cyrus (Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Tasos Katopodis/Christopher Polk)

The trajectory of public shaming almost always follows a predictable path. There's the revelation or a real or perceived transgression. There's the haltingly delivered, awkwardly written apology that begins with a humblebrag of the person's stellar track record, a segue into a vague allusion to "mistakes made" and ends with a nonspecific promise to do better. There's the laying low, followed by the carefully plotted comeback. But the cycle of outrage and the public thirst for immediate contrition have led to a spate of transparently coerced apologies over the years. And now we're learning that some mea culpas have a statute of limitations.

It's been a decade now since a 15-year-old Miley Cyrus incited a wave of pearl-clutching when she appeared, styled like an Ingres portrait in a satiny sheet clutched modestly to her chest, on the cover of Vanity Fair. The Annie Leibovitz photo sparked instant cries from fans that the underage girl was displayed in an image verging on "soft-core porn," and concerns about the "Hannah Montana" star's status as "a role model." Even media outlets that were more restrained expressed a tut-tutting subtext, with the New York Times calling the image "revealing" and the CBC deeming it "sexy."

Cyrus, a Disney superstar at the time, then went into swift damage control mode, issuing a statement that "I have let myself down. I will learn from my mistakes. . . . My family and my faith will guide me through my life's journey," and explaining, "I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize for my fans who I care so deeply about."

Cyrus is now grown woman who's outspoken about her gender identity, pansexuality and drug use. She doesn't need anybody's approval for her behavior, past or present, and she stopped reflexively apologizing years ago. Just three years after the Vanity Fair dustup, she remained conspicuously silent and unremorseful when supposedly "reputation-damaging" images of her with a bong surfaced.

And now ten years after Leibovtiz-gate, having completed a hugely successful transition to adult pop stardom, she is once again reconsidering that notorious shoot. Over the past weekend, she issued a salty sorry-not-sorry about it, tweeting a vintage shot of the New York Post's front page declaration of "MILEY'S SHAME" with a new addendum. "IM NOT SORRY," she wrote, adding, "F**k YOU #10yearsago."

Her defiant withdrawal of regret drew some reignited concern trolling over the magazine's choice of how to depict such a young girl, but the passage of time has also provided fresh perspective, perhaps best articulated by the Twitter user who said that in the photo, she was merely "looking like she just woke up from a bomb ass nap."

Just one day later, another controversial woman decided she too was ready to issue her own backsies on a provocative image. The photo that got Kathy Griffin into hot water eleven months ago was a Tyler Shields image of her holding up a bloodied Donald Trump mask. The arresting image sparked an instant backlash, with Trump Jr. tweeting, "Disgusting but not surprising. This is the left today. They consider this acceptable. Imagine a conservative did this to Obama as POTUS?" (Oh, but we don't have to imagine!) Mike Cernovich, meanwhile, announced that "If you're a Trump supporter, Hollywood wants to murder you. Media will not decry this."

At the time, Griffin also reacted quickly, saying later the same day on Twitter, "I am sorry. I went too far. I was wrong." She then also released a video, saying, "I sincerely apologize. . . . I crossed the line, I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. . . . It wasn't funny, I get it. I ask your forgiveness."

Things have changed a lot since then, for Griffin and for the country. She was dropped from co-hosting CNN's New Year's Eve coverage and replaced by Andy Cohen, sparking a grudge she continues nurse. Over the summer, Griffin shaved her hair in solidarity with her sister Joyce, while she was undergoing chemo. Joyce died in September. Around the same time, Griffin became embroiled in a legal conflict with her neighbor, KB Homes CEO Jeffrey Mezger, who called her a “bald dyke” and a “c**t” who "Donald Trump put the heat on" during a dispute. And then somewhere along the way, the comic decided she was all fresh out of f**ks to give.

When she announced her comeback world tour in March, setting the first two in "Trump's backyard" at Carnegie Hall, Griffin pointedly called it her "Laugh Your Head Off Tour." The poster for it features her attired exactly as in the infamous photo, triumphantly holding up a very head-like globe.

On "The View" Monday, Kathy Griffin recalled the incident and declared, "Look, I'm not holding back on this family. This family is different, and I have been through the mill," and said, "By the way, I take the apology back. F**k him."

She did admit that her initial apology was inspired by her experiences performing in Iraq and Afghanistan, "two places Trump has never been and couldn't find on a map," and her empathy for the mother of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, who was decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

"Then I found out I was part of the Trump wood chipper, which Michele Wolf is in now," she said. "I wanted to make a statement about what a misogynist he is."

"The First Amendment is the First Amendment for a reason," she said, revealing the terrifying harassment she received in the aftermath of the controversy. "My mom got death threats in her retirement village, and my sister got death threats in her hospital."

As Griffin alluded to on Monday, part of her inspiration for speaking up so vocally now surely comes from the explosive backlash to Michelle Wolf's weekend performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner. For firing off some digs at Sarah Huckabee Sanders — notably her "perfect smoky eye" smudged out of burned facts — at a comedy event, Wolf provoked the ire of obtuse pundits who took the remark as a comment on White House Press Secretary's looks. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman, for instance, said on Twitter that Sanders had "absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance," despite literally zero evidence anything of the kind had taken place. The White House Correspondents' Association then also moved to distance itself from Wolf, issuing a statement that the evening was "not in the spirit" of its mission.

But Wolf, instead of being cornered into a reciting the kind of hollow apology every parent has squeezed out of their squabbling offspring, has thus far refused to back down. She tweeted back to Maggie Haberman that "All these jokes were about her despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?" She posted a photo of herself on Instagram, smiling, with the caption "not in the spirit of the mission." And doubling down on the joke, she asked on Twitter that "Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks? I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials."

God knows we are running at a deficit on sincere amends for authentically terrible behavior in this country. And whatever you think of Miley, Kathy, Michelle and company, it should be pretty clear that the penalties for women speaking and merely existing are far greater than they generally are for men for doing legitimately not OK things. Women are trained from birth to smooth the path, to take the blame, to be deferential for making other people uncomfortable. That, thankfully, looks like it's changing.

The first rule of thumb for a good apology is just being truly sorry. If you don't believe you have anything to apologize for, then don't. Or if you are pressured to and don't mean it, take it the hell back. Not every single thing that offends someone else is worthy of atonement. And regret should be reserved for the things you really wish you'd done differently, not the things that tick anybody else off.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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