Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Daily D'Oh

Like many of you, dear readers, I watch The Daily Show regularly (or used to, before going to bed at 11:30 every night meant sleep deprivation at the hands of a two-year-old who insists on getting up at 6 AM). And so, like many of you, I had a somewhat knee-jerk reaction when I heard about Jezebel's Irin Carmon (who, come to think of it, made an appearance in another recent blog post of mine, so congratulations Ms. Carmon, you're now important enough to appear on this blog read by, like, six people) accusing The Daily Show of sexism.

"Hey, that's not right," I thought. "The Daily Show is liberal. They're the good, tolerant, love-everyone people who make fun of sexists. They're not sexists themselves, right? That's impossible."

Then I bothered to, you know, read the damn article. And it's not just one possibly disgruntled employee - Carmon exhaustively catalogs complaints by numerous people who left the show, enough to conclusively demonstrate that there's probably a pattern going on here. Among the accusations: they hire predominately male correspondents and writers, their environment isn't really woman friendly, and so on. The article cites the hiring of the decidedly mediocre Olivia Munn over several presumably funnier women (whom Matt criticized in a recent comment) as proof that the producers weren't interested in hiring funny women, just in hiring women who look good catering to men.

The women who do work there - 40% of the total staff, actually - weren't necessarily impressed, and so offered this rebuke. Furthermore, Carmon cites longtime correspondent and noted female Samantha Bee as saying her gender has been "no impediment." Women aren't systematically kept down - the show hires completely on merit.

So who's right? Let's start with Carmon's quote of Madeleine Smithberg, the co-creator of the show who had a falling-out with Stewart in 2003:
"I don't think Jon is sexist," she says. "I don't think that there is a double standard at the Daily Show. I do think that by the time it gets to the Daily Show it's already been through the horrible sexist double standard of the universe. You're not hiring someone right out of school. By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces." Of the greater talent pool of comedians, she said, "All that's left are white men and Aziz Ansari."

"The planet is sexist," Smithberg adds. "At least in comedy we don't have genital mutilation. That we know of."
So maybe The Daily Show does believe that it hires on merit. I find this highly likely, in fact. The entertainment industry is oddly dominated by people who think that entertainment has to cater almost exclusively to men. Take a gander at this amazing article by former screenwriter Jennifer Kesler about why two women aren't allowed to talk to each other in a movie unless it's about a man. (Think about it. Find me some movies that pass this test. I'll wait.) That whole site is dedicated to the sexism of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, so a little other reading there and you'll begin to understand the environment in which The Daily Show operates.

Amanda Hess has a great take on this controversy that chalks this whole controversy up to ignorance. Stewart and the rest of The Daily Show's producers operate unaware of the larger forces of sexism that drive their hiring practices. They honestly believe that they're hiring the best people for the job, and that these people mostly happen to be male, not knowing that women are systematically kept out of the running by the way the entertainment industry operates.

Since we're talking entertainment industry, let's use a tortured movie analogy to explain what's going on here:

Jon Stewart, in this case, is Neo, operating blindly within a sexist system that he, for whatever reason, can't see. He believes himself to be doing good, but doesn't know what's really going on so can't fight against it. Carmon, then, would be Morpheus, showing Stewart the harsh reality of his world and offering him the chance to change it. Of course Stewart and the rest of The Daily Show's producers, actors, and fans are going to react badly, just as Neo originally wouldn't hear of Morpheus' "you're controlled by computers" bullshit. But eventually, just as Neo had to choose between remaining part of the system or trying to change it (in pill form), Stewart and his fans will have to choose between continuing to operate as if institutional sexism didn't exist and understanding that reality and going out of our way to change it.

I can choose the red pill, but I have no power over this kind of stuff and so it wouldn't do a damn bit of good. Let's hope Stewart does the same.

1 comment:

Mike said...

This post seems to imply that two women occasionally talk about something other than men. I simply refuse to believe that. (Though I concede the man in question is never, you know, me.)