by Michelle Dean
Perhaps you’ve heard that there’s been some… disagreements between certain feminist blogs and The Daily Show recently. If not, let me recap! A couple of weeks ago, Jezebel’s Irin Carmon (a hand-to-God Real Journalist, with non-blog bylines!) wrote a piece examining what she termed The Daily Show’s “Woman Problem.” She largely defined the show as being a hostile environment for women as evidenced by the perennially low number of female correspondents and the testimony of some named and unnamed sources. The piece didn’t really go too far, other than apparently being widely linked on Facebook. Olivia Munn, the Daily Show’s but-one-month-old lady correspondent may or may not have heard about it, and, uh, commented. But that was about it; I never thought you’d hear another peep. I mean, this is The Daily Show, surely they won’t condescend to deal with some blogs, right?
But then last week, in the middle of a long list of the travails of running a world-famous, critically-adored, massively-profitable talk show, Jon said, “Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist pig!” And I thought: they’ve got something planned. Sure enough, they did. Yesterday, an open letter
from various women staffers at the Daily Show hit the Internet, in which they say, among other things, that their boss is great guy! (He pays their salaries!) They are “integral” to the development of the show!
Then Emily Gould came in at Slate with that classic ladyfight ender
: “Y’all Are Just Jealous.” Her thesis is that blogs like Jezebel and Broadsheet and XX Factor drum up pageviews by exploiting women’s envy of other women’s positions: “Instead of mimicking the old directly anxiety-making model-for example, by posting weight-loss tips and photos of impossibly thin models like a traditional women’s magazine-Jezebel and the Slate and Salon ‘lady-blogs’ post a critique of a rail-thin model’s physique, explaining how her attractiveness hurts women. The end result is the same as the old formula-women’s insecurities sell ads.”
Gould’s giving a pretty vague gloss on what it is that those blogs do, in my experience-Jezebel’s anti-”bodysnarking” rule is Internet-famous, and just yesterday they had a post explaining why Crystal Renn oughtn’t to be criticized for losing weight. Also, in general I think it’s important to be skeptical of grand theses based on sampling of Internet comments. Internet commenters (and I’ve been one! Still am!) are assholes; on this I think we can all agree.
But that doesn’t mean that the only thing that can be going on behind these arguments is a feeding of the id. I don’t know that I can get on board with saying that the dominant dynamic among women on the Internet (or anywhere else!) is purely jealousy. In any event, I don’t really think jealousy or envy is at the root of what’s going on in the critique of sexism at the Daily Show particularly.
As a ladyparts-haver and even, gasp, a self-identified feminist of some years now, when I initially read Carmon’s article, I also wasn’t shocked or appalled by the allegations. This was hardlythe first time the issue of a Daily Show sausage-fest has been raised. In fact, and maybe your friends are different than mine, but every year, when they win an Emmy, everyone I know makes the standard joke about all those suits up on stage. (In fact, Jon made a version of it himself once! Though he was remarking on the prevalence of Ivy-educated Jews.) And while no one, not even Carmon, denied that Samantha Bee, Kirsten Schaal and now Munn, work there, the latter two are trotted out only occasionally-Schaal last appeared on the show, per IMDB, on July 1, 2009.
Now, to make that observation is to make an observation about The Daily Show’s image as a TV program. But The Daily Show staffers’ letter skirts the issue of image entirely, it seems to me, because it’s so hard to dispute. It’s the gigantic, entirely visible elephant that blots out their affirmations that their boss helped them through 9/11 (Really? 9/11’s coming into this?) and is reportedly “charming.” This even though, it seems to me, Carmon’s original article (with perhaps the exception of its initial diagnosis of “boys’ club”) was about the image of The Daily Show. Carmon’s piece thus dealt almost exclusively with writers and on-air talent, not the production staff. I’m not saying Carmon couldn’t have been more precise about what it was she was commenting on about the show’s makeup, but on the other hand it’s not like she actually claimed no women worked there, and so, therefore, it’s not like this letter is some grand corrective to the already objectively provable fact that women do work at The Daily Show.
Because here’s the thing that we all know: just because you employ a ton of women (40%, they say!) on your staff doesn’t negate the possibility that the content of your show, and its public image-as in, who actually writes and says the words, who, in a word, are presented as the show’s “authors”-is male-skewed. No matter how porous the boundaries between the creative and production staffs, no matter how integral they are to the-day-to-day work of putting on the show, that’s got to be obvious to you. If your male writers are, as The Daily Show’s are, dominating your women writers at a rough 15:1 ratio, if it is men that you take onstage with you at the Emmys, then let’s be honest about what that means.
The entire excuse of having a ton of female production staffers (in a mishmash of roles that includes two writers, a writer’s assistant and a co-executive producer, as well as a TelePrompter operator, a hair and make-up artist and a wardrobe stylist) reminds me more than not of the time I was in a corporate diversity seminar where someone was reduced to trotting out the high levels of people of color they employed in the mailroom as evidence of the company’s successes on that score. Women may be getting coffee, they may be building sets, they may even be giving comments on scripts, but the fact that they are almost entirely not in positions of creative control does, in fact, matter.
And in any event, I assume The Daily Show-like every other entity up to and including New York City’s government-doesn’t really want to talk numbers when it comes to diversity. The Daily Show can’t possibly be claiming that its staff is actually representative of the American population writ large. Because if we’re going to play that game, I’ll point out that I don’t see a lot of women of color in that picture they issued. (Not that you can tell just by looking, but still.) And when I went through the LinkedIn profiles of these women, trying to gather what it was they did precisely-and, absolutely, some of these women, like Kahane Cooperman, the co-executive producer, are involved at creative levels of the show-it was hard not to notice that many came from NYU, the University of Chicago, UVA, Yale. Their backgrounds are, indeed, uniform in a way, and probably uniform in a way that affects the way they view their audience and the comedy that they are prepared to do.
The thing about these discussions about diversity that’s so frustrating is that there is, of course, an essential truth to the proposition that meeting some kind of quota-6 women, 10 men, 3 people with disabilities and one with a freckle on the left side of his nose, on and on-won’t solve your diversity problem, necessarily. First of all, if you spend any time on any of the lady websites Gould mentions, it’s impossible to avoid notice of the fact that ladies, even ladies of some similar political affiliations, sympathies and even backgrounds don’t necessarily agree with each other on individual issues. (This makes her accusation that they are some kind of hive mind waiting on the Internet to pounce on successful women more difficult to defend, but I digress.)
Second of all, this is the entire reason the whole “My best friend is black” shtick can be so hysterically funny-it’s that just because you happen to know some people of x characteristic who you can live with, employ, have a beer with, even marry, it doesn’t mean you’re immune to discriminating against them in small ways. That’s because we live in a world, like it or not, that defines men as more qualified and reliable than women, whites as more qualified and important than people of color, etc. There are always different standards, and it was Gould who said-aptly!-that, “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition.”
But if you raise these issues, as Carmon did, the reaction is always ferociously defensive and immediate. For example, the words “Jon Stewart is a sexist prick” do not appear in the piece. Certain of her sources did make comments on Stewart’s behaviour, but the only money shot (heh) is aimed at former Daily Show host Craig Kilborn. (And who remembers That Guy?) But the moment Stewart used that phrase, this became about his hurt feelings, about his character, about whether or not you like the damn show.
And I can tell you, as someone who found the criticism somewhat trenchant: I do like the damn show! That’s exactly why it irks when it makes stupid jokes about sex workers, calling them “used vagina salesmen,” (which, uh, right?) because fundamentally I think it’s beneath them. That’s why it’d be nice if it didn’t feel like a show that was written for people other than me. That’s why it annoys me that they are plainly uncomfortable and out of step whenever they have to make jokes about gender. I have no desire to be a Daily Show writer, you see-I’m not Just Jealous-but it sure would be nice to feel as if the funny was meant for me too.
And now, I’m off to make myself a sandwich.
Michelle Dean has written for Bitch and The American Prospect. She blogs at The Pursuit of Harpyness.