Drew Barrymore's interview with Kamala Harris was a cringefest. As for why that is, answers may vary

Was it the close-talking or the fact that other powerful women wouldn't have been asked to hug the nation?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 1, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

"The Drew Barrymore Show" (CBS Media Ventures)
"The Drew Barrymore Show" (CBS Media Ventures)

A couple of years ago Drew Barrymore posted an Instagram video of herself giddily strolling in a downpour, hair soaked and laughing hysterically. “Whenever you can, go out into the rain!” she says before bouncing up and down and chirping, “Do not miss the opportunity!”

That, I believe, revealed a dividing line in our common consideration of the sunshiny child actress turned daytime talk show host, in that while most people might have found it to be adorable and life-giving, more than a few folks probably reacted with, “Ugh, no to this.”  

There are many good reasons to avoid deluges, most having to do with the amount spent on one’s hair. Maybe Barrymore understands that. Regardless, that viral moment neatly establishes that storms don’t befall everyone equally. Drew has a lovely home, a fat bank account and a team of stylists. She can afford to let skies wreck her blowout. To others, those same relentless showers are a pneumonia risk, actual and figurative. 

You may think this doesn’t relate to Vice President Kamala Harris’ ill-advised appearance on Monday’s episode of “The Drew Barrymore Show.” You’d be wrong.

See, while we can all agree that Barrymore telling Harris, in her quavering “I’m so serious” tone, that we need the second-highest ranked elected official in the land “to be Momala of the country” was top shelf cringe, opinions of what made it so vary.

Given the broadly encompassing nature of the term “cringe,” that's not too surprising. Barrymore’s sit-down with Harris gave the internet endless reasons to wish for one’s couch cushions to instantaneously vacuum them, glutes first, into another dimension.

Barrymore opened her interview with the vice president by doing what every talk show host does, which is to relate their oh-so-normal lives to that of the celebrities to whom they’re speaking. In Barrymore’s case, she cited Harris’ status as a stepmother to her husband Doug Emhoff’s children Cole and Ella.

“I have such an investment in this question, because I too am in a beautiful dynamic,” is how Barrymore awkwardly describes being a stepparent. 

At this, Karris explains she doesn’t like the term “stepmom," for good reason. “I love Disney, however, Disney kind of messed that up for a lot of us over the years,” she said. Instead, Harris shares, Cole and Ella call her Momala. 

As Harris speaks, Barrymore inches closer and closer to her, leaning in enough to have made Sheryl Sandberg beckon security. She shortens the distance between herself and the vice president until her head invades a significant portion of Harris’ close-up framing. Then comes that "no no no no please don't" passage, when Barrymore's voice shudders with a tender warble.

“I keep thinking in my head that we all need a mom. I’ve been thinking that we all need a tremendous hug right in the world right now,” Barrymore says before adding, "but in our country, we need you to be Momala of the country.”

Ask yourself whether anyone called for Hillary Clinton to mommy us when she was running for office.

Cue the first all-female studio audience in the show’s history erupting into whoops and applause, and Harris' polite "Hmm . . . yeah . . . I mean . . ." speechlessness. This only fuels Barrymore to dive into throw pillow embroidered quote mode as she grabs Harris’ hands. 

“As a woman who respects so much and wants to share and wants to be confident and has no ounce of me that has competitiveness, when we lift each other up, we all rise!” More applause. “However, we need a great protector.” 

Some this is simply Drew Barrymore being Drew Barrymore. No guest sharing a couch with her is immune to her exaggerated, child-like eagerness, a little hand holding and, if you’re Oprah Winfrey, becoming the pliant biscuit dough to the actor's kneading kitten paws

For the record, the media mogul claimed to find the experience of having Barrymore rest her cheek against Winfrey’s hand while stroking her forearm to be "soothing." But as powerful as Oprah is, she isn't subject to the political consequences of "yikes" moments like this one.

In multiple polls, the vice president's approval ratings are consistently lackluster. Sexism and racism play no small role in those results, with Harris being the first Black and South Asian person to hold that office. Regardless of what she says and does, any perceived mistake is magnified. Add the bright idea of having Harris sit down with Barrymore to that column.

Barrymore's daytime talk show has steadily increased its viewership after she nearly forced her staff to cross the WGA's picket lines during its strike, but there has to be a better way to help the woman holding one of politics’ most thankless jobs look more relatable. 

As for the parameters defining that amorphous cringe episode, was it the forced two-handed clutching that made you recoil like a vampire before garlic, or Barrymore’s uncomfortable close talking? Either answer is valid.

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Another dynamic is one that marginalized folks may have picked up on immediately, owing to Harris’ physical reaction to Barrymore’s “Momala to the nation” comment.

See how the vice president squeezes her lips together tightly with the corners upturned? That is the expression of someone trapped in a situation with all eyes on her, knowing she has no choice but to display grace while Barrymore is radiating “I just discovered Alice Walker,” website-certified-white-lady-shaman energy.  The same well-meaning souls give jars of rainwater as gifts or, as Barrymore called on Harris to do, urge "strong Black women" to protect us all during every presidential election cycle.  

Now ask yourself whether anyone called for Hillary Clinton to mommy us when she was running for office. Can you imagine a daytime talk show host asking the late Madeleine Albright to swaddle frightened voters? Not even "Gilmore Girls" was that maudlin.

Barrymore’s sit down with Harris gave the Internet endless reasons to wish for one’s couch cushions to instantaneously vacuum them into another dimension.

Many years ago, perhaps around that same time Albright made a cameo appearance in Rory Gilmore's dreams, Barrymore announced to the planet, “I don't want to be stinky poo-poo girl, I want to be happy flower child.” Every day of “The Drew Barrymore Show” depicts her striving to live up to that life goal. It’s her brand. Sooo cute.

Also, please recognize that neither Sherri Shepherd nor Tamron Hall could build a career on such dippiness because, like Harris, they aren't afforded the latitude to prescribe fluff as the solution to our problems. (Wendy Williams might have, but in what universe?)

Harris helms multiple White House-backed programs that support women’s empowerment as well as fighting for voting rights and reproductive rights, any of which could have been styled in pre-show interviews to appeal to Barrymore’s all-female audience without tanking her sunshine vibe.

To Harris’ credit, she steered out of the froufrou “Momala” ick with a response that worked for the room she was in. “I think that sadly over the last many years, there's been this kind of perverse approach to what strength looks like, which is to suggest that the measure of one's strength is based on who you beat down, instead of what we know: the true measure of your strength is based on who you lift up,” she said, to her share of reflexive clapping.

From there Harris urged viewers to take a true interest in the well-being and suffering of others, adding, “I think we all know that's what we want in each other. That's what we want from leaders. But let's be intentional about it and open about saying, ‘You know, that's really what strength looks like.’” Those are the words of someone who has honed the art of gliding between raindrops, aware of how many of her detractors would cruelly jeer her for getting soaked in a storm while praising Barrymore for dancing in it. Now there's a cringeworthy duality for you.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Drew Barrymore Kamala Harris Media Momala