Bringing Up Baby: An Open Letter to Jon Stewart
It is with tenderness, regret, and hope that I pen this proclamation of devotion and disappointment. Our unrequited affair began nine years ago, when I was a freshman at Northwestern University, the very incubator of your colleague Mr. Colbert, who was nevertheless no apple to my eye. “Who is that man of intelligence and charm?” I inquired of my roommate after my first viewing of The Daily Show. These affections only deepened with time. And yet recently, your show has troubled me. My unequivocal idolatry deteriorated when I realized your jokes have a decidedly... frat boy flavor. Penis jokes, hooker jokes, stripper jokes, you know how it goes. Occasionally funny; usually insulting; often enough to make me downright uncomfortable. Two years ago, in an unpublished piece entitled “The Daily Show Turns Pornographic,” I blamed the increase of these jokes on your writers’ frustration with President Obama. Oh, the mental gymnastics it took to get there! Lies and self-delusion! I wasn’t ready to face the truth.
At that time, there were zero female writers for The Daily Show. Today, two of sixteen are female. Last year, Irin Carmon wrote a reported Jezebel piece that characterized your show as “a boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed.” In response, the female employees of The Daily Show composed a letter that indicated genuine feelings of deep insult, and The Daily Show website characterized the Jezebel story as an “inadequately researched blog post that clings to a predetermined narrative about sexism at The Daily Show.” An interesting accusation, considering that the article was reported, not just researched, and that the predetermined narrative existed only in older news stories that few (certainly not me) remembered or knew about in the first place.
In response to the letter, the mainstream media breathed a sigh of relief and swept the whole episode under the carpet, while others pointed out that the defense from your female employees is irrelevant to the irritatingly nuanced nature of the problem. But nowhere, dear Jon, did anyone accuse you, really, of being sexist. The problem, it seems, is systemic. The comedy world is not as welcoming to women, and our notions of what’s “funny” are shaped by a male-dominated industry. Or, as many have suggested, women just aren’t funny. Either/Or. Same difference, right? But I’m not here to talk about jokes. This blog is about babies.
This past August 11, you accused Fox News’ Megyn Kelly of hypocrisy because she attacked a radio host for demeaning maternity leave. You, Jon, said that “she’s making quite a spirited argument that workers are entitled to certain benefits.” You then spliced clips that show Kelly’s disdain for “entitlement programs and mandated benefits,” thus revealing her hypocrisy. You concluded that “they’re only entitlements when it’s something other people want.”
The United States is the only “developed” country that lacks mandated, paid parental leave. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, new parents who have worked for a company with at least 50 employees for at least 12 months may take three months off, unpaid. Since this flimsy job protection is technically an “entitlement,” and since Kelly's comments (ambiguously) implied that she might support federal paid maternity leave, they were hypocritical.
But what interested me most about this segment was that I had never seen coverage of parental leave before on The Daily Show. This coverage, however, was not a lampoon of our country’s shameful policies. Indeed, it seems “female issues”—workplace discrimination, underrepresentation in the media, economic inequality, single motherhood, gender-based violence, and countless issues relating to health and reproductive rights—are mostly ignored on The Daily Show, minus occasional nods to abortion, birth control, and Planned Parenthood (thanks in large part to “Women’s Issues” commentator Kristen Schaal). And on those occasions that issues of reproductive health are covered in-depth, it is often insulting, or from a conspicuously male perspective.
Take, for example, this recent skit about Jason Jones’ vasectomy:
And in this skit, we get a brief mention of maternity leave buried between Wyatt Cenac’s flirtations with his female interviewees:
But wait! I found a detailed skit about healthcare in pregnancy! Oh, right. It’s about nipples and vaginal secretions. (Did I already say something about frat boy humor?)
Occasionally your guests are female, and sometimes even pregnant, so pregnancy is inevitably mentioned, albeit awkwardly, as in this interview with the pregnant Maggie Gyllenhaal:
Try as you might to resist categorization as anything but “comedian,” The Daily Show is the primary source of news and commentary for many of your viewers. I know your strong stance against torture, because you talk about it a lot. Your support of gay marriage and gay rights is hard to miss. Coverage of immigration issues abound. Your pro-union stance is obvious. But your thoughts on the institutional discrimination of half the nation? Not so nuanced. Your coverage of bills, laws, and policies relating to this institutionalized discrimination? Limited.
On the Daily Show website, my search for “childbirth” yielded one result, “birth” a bunch of clips about Birthers, “parental leave” yielded zero results, zero again for “maternal healthcare,” “paid maternity leave” yielded just the Megyn Kelly skit, and “gender discrimination” turned up five videos, none of which had to do with gender discrimination. (You don’t want me to show what a search for “breastfeeding” turns up.)
Perhaps it’s unfair that this letter is addressed to you rather than overtly sexist colleagues like Bill Maher. But I appeal to you precisely because you’re not sexist. I believe your female employees’ defense of your character. From their letter: “How else to describe him? What’s the word that means the opposite of sexist? That one.” Perhaps it’s this description that emboldens me to voice these thoughts.
This is not a personal accusation of sexism. This is about underrepresentation. Below is a skit from The Daily Show about the silenced voice of women in the media. It’s a critique. Yet The Daily Show is part of this problem. When your jokes are written by fourteen men and two women, there is a gender bias, plain and simple. Coverage of political issues that are more relevant to women will be overlooked, intentional or not.
Am I asking too much when I ask for better?
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