5 Unconvincing Excuses For Daily Show Sexism


Yesterday’s story about the experience of female talent on The Daily Show has elicited some heated responses—and a fair amount of excuse-making. Let’s survey the claims!

1) But I met Jon Stewart once, or my friend did, and he seemed like a really nice guy! Having seen Stewart interviewed live, attended a taping of the show, and written a long profile of one of his producers—not to mention having had a fangirl crush on him all these years—I could easily say the same. In fact, in no way is my piece stating unequivocally that Jon Stewart is an evil person. True, some of the experiences of some people who have worked with him raise the possibility that he too can be playing a character, though not as obvious one as Colbert is.

In any case, even very nice and charming people can be responsible for generating environments that feel sexist or unwelcoming to many people who pass through them. As the executive producer as well as the host, Stewart does bear a major responsibility for what happens behind the scenes.

2) But women just aren’t funny. Or there are fewer of funny women than men. Do we really have to have equality in everything?. Reluctant as I am to dignify this, there have been literally hundreds of suggestions of funny women from whom The Daily Show could benefit, including by TrueSlant today, and in the comments of yesterday’s post. A rough sampling: Sarah Haskins, Maria Bamford, Julie Klausner, Jessi Klein, Tig Notaro, Whitney Cummings, and more.

By the way, our own commenters crack me up several times a day. Not that I want to create a talent drain here, but maybe there’s more than one way to broaden the search…

3) You need to fit into a narrow category to be on The Daily Show — to look like a “reporter,” or be the right age. One commenter wrote,

I saw Samantha Bee give a Q and A a few days ago, and she did field a question on this subject. She said that they’ve been trying for another woman, but the women who tend to try for the job are too young, and they want someone who looks like they are an older, experienced reporter. I truly believed her, she sounded like she knew what she was talking about.

One of the women I interviewed did talk about how it was considered important to look like a “reporter,” whatever that means. That said, The Daily Show is increasingly relying less on Stone Phillips parodies and field segments, and more on repartee between host and correspondent. And anyway, the John Oliver is 33, Wyatt Cenac is 34, and Bee was about 32 when she was hired. Surely women can be found in that age range.

4) Stop making such a big deal out of everything. It’s a comedy show! Or, as one respondent put it,

seriously, jezebel. this is a waste of words and a waste of internet space. try going after something that actually matters, like an oil spill or wtf with women in the military. a “female friendly environment” isn’t a mandate for really good quality programming.

We have, in fact, taken up this precious Internet space to “wtf with women in the military,” and even for the oil spill, though its gendered implications aren’t immediately evident.

That said, we also spend a fair amount of time around here discussing workplace and diversity issues and critiquing cultural messages. Is it crazy to assume that one contributes to another? Or that the production of a wildly successful and influential cultural artifact is also worth examining? I’d say it isn’t.

5) People in show business are terrible. Get over it. What are you surprised about? And anyway, The Daily Show is probably better than most. Unfortunately, we’re not surprised, but that’s doesn’t negate any disappointment we feel that The Daily Show doesn’t live up to its own high standards. Reader SlayBelle put it well yesterday:

[Readers] are ‘shocked’ because Stewart, and by extension the Daily Show, are known for their progressive and liberal views, and identify with his on air persona — that is, the smart, likable mensch who seems to be the kind of ideal ‘modern’ man. He’s smart, tuned in, he talks about his emotions, and has a family he adores.
Which for a lot of people is crushing when they have to reconcile the idea that people who are otherwise progressive and forward thinking in many areas can be backwards in ones that mean a lot to them. In this case, it’s either casual or pointed (depending on whose version of events you go with) sexism and exclusion.

Right. And it’s worth talking about, because otherwise things continue as they are, particularly if even well-meaning people don’t realize how they’re perpetuating institutional exclusion.

Here are a few reasons — not excuses — that actually are convincing:

1) Employers tend to surround themselves with people with whom they are most comfortable, which can easily be from their particular demographic. That also extends to whether they think someone is doing a good job, which is an incredibly subjective thing. (I, for example, can’t believe Lewis Black, who has never made me laugh, is still on the show.) This is understandable to some extent — unless, of course, they’re conscious of creating a workplace—and a major media narrative—that is about more than reinforcing existing norms, and that reflects their stated values.

2) Comedy is full of neurosis and anger, which doesn’t lend itself to following guidelines intended to make everyone comfortable in the workplace. This is more of a description of the situation than a excuse. As Daily Show co-creator Madeleine Smithberg told me, “You’re talking about a group of people that are by definition dysfunctional. Unless they’re Dane Cook, these guys have probably not historically enjoyed much success with women in their personal lives. To most male comics and comedy writers, women are foreign creatures.” But that’s a starting point, not an ending point.

3) Women are less likely to submit to the process that gets them on these shows, on the air or behind the scenes. True, the number of women who have auditioned for The Daily Show in recent times reportedly numbers in the hundreds. But there is also the fact that as in many creative industries, talent searches tend to occur within social networks that tend to be white, male, and elite, and there is very little information readily available, usually by design to prevent a deluge, to outsiders on how to apply or submit.

One woman wrote me, actually inspired to try her wit at comedy writing, and asked me if The Daily Show or Comedy Central had gotten in touch with me to say, “We’d love more women on staff! This is how women can apply.” I’ve gotten no such message. (Though a commenter reported that her post on the Facebook wall of the show pointing out a stat our staff put together — that this year, the show has had 63 men as guests compared to 13 women, as of yesterday — was deleted without explanation, so that’s not a particularly encouraging sign.)

But, hey, Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, and anyone else: My email is at the bottom of this post. Let’s talk! Happy to send some talented ladies your way.

Earlier: The Daily Show’s Woman Problem

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