Sorry seems to be the hardest word, especially when you’re in the public eye. After all, if you take just 2017—the year of sociopathic baby men and pathetic excuses—it’s no wonder apologies are so hard to get right.
Except that’s what comedian Samantha Bee did on her TBS show Full Frontal last night (June 6) after she called the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” In fact, the apology was perfect, which is something society is not used to.
Over the last year we’ve seen disgraced powerful white men being inept at apologizing. Take Donald Trump, who demands apologies for true statements. We’ve also got Harvey Weinstein, whose apology for allegedly sexually assaulting dozens of women bizarrely quoted Jay-Z. You’ve also got the alleged sexual predator Louis CK, who left out the words “I’m sorry” from his apology altogether.
So perhaps it’s not too surprising that the first perfect apology in a long time came from a woman.
Last week, the internet erupted after Bee called Ivanka Trump a cunt during a monologue about the crisis of migrant children missing near the southern border of the US. The comedian took umbrage to this photo Ivanka tweeted, which was posted at time where millions of people were petitioning to recover the lost children, on social media. It was a socially tone-deaf moment.
The insult was nestled within that monologue, which was delivered in a classic Bee way—woke, funny, uncomfortable, and cutting all at the same time. Context matters, and as Rebecca Traister brilliantly explains in The Cut, “language’s ability to inflict harm depends on the power of who’s wielding it and against whom it is being wielded.”
But while Bee attacked Ivanka for being complicit with an administration that’s doing harm to the lives of human beings, people have the right to be angry at her for using the word c-bomb. It’s an explicitly misogynistic swear word.
Bee would’ve had a head start in crafting the perfect apology.
Research shows that women apologize far more often than men do—not because men necessarily resist apologies, but because women believe they have so much more to say sorry for. Still, delivering a graceful, genuine public apology isn’t easy, regardless of your gender or life experience.
According to psychotherapists and relationship experts, to apologize like you actually mean it, you must follow a few simple steps. First and foremost, you need to say the words “I’m sorry.” More importantly, you need to follow “I’m sorry” with genuine expressions of remorse (not “I’m sorry if you feel upset”), and clear examples of what you’re sorry for. Next, your apology needs to genuinely reflect time spent imagining how the person you’ve hurt feels, and why.
At their core, apologies are not about you—they’re about the person you’ve hurt. Which is why it’s okay to briefly explain why you did what you did, but it’s not okay to turn your motivations into excuses. There’s no more surefire way to ruin an apology than being defensive or claiming the person you’re apologizing to is in the wrong.
Bee hits the mark on every one of these apology tactics, while skillfully employing humor both to bring levity to the situation, and to stay true to her values:
A lot of people were offended and angry that I used an epithet to describe the president’s daughter and adviser last week. It is a word I have used on the show many times, hoping to reclaim it. This time, I used it as an insult. I crossed the line. I regret it and I do apologize for that,” she continues, owning her mistake in no uncertain terms.
In her next statement, Bee goes beyond “I’m sorry if saying the c-word pissed you off,” putting herself in the shoes of those who were offended, and acknowledging the validity in their pain:
The problem is that many women have heard that word at the worst moments of their lives. A lot of them don’t want that word reclaimed. They want it gone, and I don’t blame them. I don’t want to inflict more pain on them. I want this show to be challenging and I want it to be honest, but I never intended it to hurt anyone, except Ted Cruz.
What Bee says next is perhaps the most important element of her apology. She resists the socially engrained pressure women face of melting into a sappy puddle of self-hatred whenever they’ve crossed a line. Instead of stopping at the admittance of her wrongdoing, Bee seamlessly wove a moment of feminine division into feminist unity by setting clear and unapologetic boundaries between who deserves her remorse, and who does not—riffing on Traister’s argument about language’s implicit power dynamics:
Many men were also offended by my use of the word. I do not care about that.
I hate that this distracted from more important issues. I hate that I did something to contribute to the nightmare of 24-hour news cycles that we’re all white-knuckling through. I should have known that a potty-mouthed insult would be inherently more interesting to them than juvenile immigration policy.
Bee continued, extending her apology to the migrant communities she was advocating on behalf of, who were overshadowed by her crass language:
I would do anything to help those kids. I hate that this distracted from them, so to them, I am also sorry. And look, if you are worried about the death of civility, don’t sweat it. I’m a comedian. People who hone their voices in basement bars while yelling back at drunk hecklers are definitely not paragons of civility. I am, I’m really sorry that I said that word, but you know what? Civility is just nice words. Maybe we should all worry a little bit more about the niceness of our actions.
Remorse expressed. Feminist shots fired. Personal boundaries sustained. That’s how it’s done, folks.