The Sexist

Hiring Inequality Through The Daily Show

TV Women of The Daily Show

As it turns out, that fawning defense of The Daily Show by its women employees illustrates exactly what's wrong with the show's hiring practices. They write:

Jon’s not just a guy in a suit reading a prompter. His voice and vision shape every aspect of the show from concept to execution. The idea that he would risk compromising his show’s quality by hiring or firing someone based on anything but ability, or by booking guests based on anything but subject matter, is simply ludicrous.

You see, The Daily Show hires only the best comedians; it books only the best guests. And if the best of the best are reliably, overwhelmingly male? Well: Perhaps men are just better than women.

But first, a quick recap of Jezebel reporter Irin Carmon's findings on the show's gender disparities: In the past seven years, only one woman, Olivia Munn, has been considered an able enough comedian to be hired as an on-air correspondent on The Daily Show (and she's still in try-out mode). Past employees have reported a boys' club mentality in hiring and firing. And this year alone, the show's roster of guests has featured 63 men, but only 13 women.

Here are a few possibilities for why this might be the case:

(a) Overt sexism. Jon Stewart, let's just suggest for the sake of argument, is a tyrannical sexist who deliberately keeps women off the air and out of his writer's room due to a deep hatred of the gender. This appears to be the argument the women of The Daily Show are dismissing as "simply ludicrous."

(b) Societal forces. Comedy is an overwhelmingly male industry, and The Daily Show is at the very top of the pyramid. As show co-creator Madeline Smithberg told Carmon, "The planet is sexist." She explains:

"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."

(c) Ingrained prejudices. The comedic culture naturally views men as comedians and women as audience members, regardless of "ability." And as Amanda Marcotte notes, this form of sexism is hardly overt:

Our culture does believe there is a female and a male sense of humor that differ. We tend to say that men have a sense of humor when they say funny things, and that women have a sense of humor when they know when best to laugh when men say funny things. This sense is so ingrained that I had a few occasions when I was younger where I'd say something funny, and get blank stares, only to find a man stealing my joke a half hour later and getting giant belly laughs for it.

(d) Ignorance. Stewart is not (a) a tyrannical sexist, but he does fail to take into account (b) societal forces and (c) ingrained prejudices when making hires and booking guests. He and his show operate in a culture that values men over women, both as comedians (his staff) and people (his guests). And he—according to every woman on his staff—believes that by hiring and booking the people (men) who reliably rise to the top in this sexist system, he's making decisions based on merit—and nothing else. Attempting to counteract the ingrained sexism of comedy by deliberately seeking out women performers and writers would "risk compromising his show’s quality."

Of  course, my guess is (d). I'm sure that the women employees of The Daily Show aren't lying when they describe Stewart as "the word that means the opposite of sexist." But it's not enough for him to be Jon Stewart, Really Swell Guy anymore—he's the head of a comedy institution, one with the power to either contribute to or counteract the overwhelming sexism of the field. In order to challenge structural inequalities and actually recruit the best people for the job, the men who run comedy—men like Stewart—will have to do more than just not be overtly discriminatory.

Here's an easy rule for any manager to live by: If you haven't considered the societal forces and ingrained prejudices that may contribute to gender disparities in your hiring practices, your hiring practices are probably sexist. And if you respond to suggestions that your hiring practices may be sexist with a letter signed by all the women on your staff dismissing these claims out of hand, then your hiring practices are almost certainly sexist. That, or men are just better than women.

  • Spiffy McBang

    @Raven: The percentage of minorities in on-camera roles is pretty decent; there may not be a large number, but there aren't a lot of correspondents in the first place. Moreover, basically everyone has a kind of cultural role that they slot into, Jon included. Obviously I can only speak for myself, but whereas most TV feels like a bunch of white people and a few not-white people, I watch TDS and see the Jew, the Brit, the young black guy, the Indian dude, the jarhead, and so forth. It doesn't quite feel right in the case of Sam Bee, since women are a much larger portion of the population than, say, Indians, but that's the only part of the casting that's felt like an exception- and that may change if they bring Olivia on regularly. (She's supposed to be the eastern Asian one, too, but it'll take some convincing for some viewers; even Jon had to point out on her first show that she's part Vietnamese.)

    Moving on.. it was already asked, why should The Daily Show have to answer for inequalities built into the industry at present? But I'm more baffled at how TDS ended up with the bullseye in the first place. As gennie (and possibly others, couldn't read all the comments) said, she's never been offended by the humor on the show. Neither have I, and given that it's basically not coming up in the conversation, I'd guess the same goes for most people posting here.

    I think Amanda Marcotte said she doesn't believe Irin at Jezebel realized the kind of shitstorm her article would start. Maybe not the extent, although I don't know how you could write an article that you know will turn everyone's perception of a rather beloved individual and television show on its head and not expect a pretty major response. But for a show that's based on very reality-based, non-derogatory humor- by far the most important effect it's going to have on a widespread social level- it seems odd that even if there's fire behind this smoke, there wasn't a more compelling option that could have been investigated.

    Or, to put it more correctly, we can probably all agree that there must be far worse work environments, in terms of sexism of whatever stripe you care to focus on, in the entertainment industry. And I wonder how much of this- both the writing of the article and everyone's enormous care factor level for it- stems from our resigned acceptance that most everyone else is bad, leaving us open to feast on the surprise that TDS may simply not be all good.

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  • Keith B

    Raven: Nope, but you might be one of the only ones who has so obviously not read any of the previous comments!

  • James Power

    The Washington City Paper has 6 editors, only 1 of which is a woman, and of it's 18 contributing writers less than 7 are women.

  • Athenia

    Yes, Jon Stewart is completely fair in his hiring practice [/sarcasm]

    ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this all come together? Did The Daily Show approach you?

    OLIVIA MUNN: Yeah! I was out here [in New York] for the upfronts for Perfect Couples. Jon Stewart saw some of my stuff online. As he told me, he saw it and said, “Yeah, she has what we want for the show.” They emailed and said, “Hey, we realize she has this new show on NBC, but do you think we could meet her for The Daily Show?” I was like: “Are you f—ing… YES!” I came in to meet him the day after the upfronts. We sat and we talked for two hours. Literally the next day, they said, “We want her to be a part of the show.”

  • MCW

    Ms. Hess's article provides a differentiated perspective to the issues she tackles. Many of the replies to the piece pick out only one tiny aspect of her critique and fall thus short of a comprehensive and adequate response. Well done, Ms. Hess! I hope readers take your article as a jumping board to start thinking about why we still have sexism and racism in this country, or globally, for that matter.

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  • Sally

    Can we get a gender, racial, religious, ethnic, and religious denomination breakdown of the City Paper's staff?

    It's imperative for the public to know whether the City Paper is racist, sexist, gender identity-ist, religionist, classist, ethnocentrist, or any other -ist based on societal forces and ingrained prejudices.

  • Tony

    "And if you respond to suggestions that your hiring practices may be sexist with a letter signed by all the women on your staff dismissing these claims out of hand, then your hiring practices are almost certainly sexist."
    I read that statement as either one, or a combination of, several possibilities:
    a) women are incapable of responding on their own when the merit of their position/work is questioned and need a hiring manager to make them do so
    b) at least 1 out of 32 women will always believe that sexism exists even where it doesn't or
    c) you can't get 32 women to agree on anything, ever, even if it's true
    What a perfect example of subtle gender stereotyping. Clearly Amanda Hess, while not overtly sexist, buys into the same unfounded beliefs that have plagued women in the work place for centuries: that they’re indecisive, weak willed, and cannot speak their minds without the approval of some big, strong male authority figure. As a professional woman who sets an example for young girls out there, she should recognize her responsibility “to do more than just not be overtly discriminatory” rather than contribute to outdated sexist modeling of the work place. For shame.

  • gennie

    @ jammes i love you
    can some please please please write an article in this paper or on the website about that actually wait no its still an amazing point but dont
    for the feminist movment to make progress we need to stop chasing down actually not very important leads like the daily show which is honestly only watched by a small minority of the country and focus on stuff that majority of population watch
    cause honestly i think the viewers of daily show are probably a hell of a lot more progressive then some. There obviously much much less then perfect. But frankly there are some pretty terrible programs out there much more obviously sexist on networks like mtv, vh1, bet, fox (obviously) that should be the focus of discussions like this. I know they are kind of like old news, but honestly
    they still exist and should be discussed until they change even if they never do.

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  • Erwinn

    For someone who claims to be a feminist you sure used a big silencing tactic right there:

    I'm sure this has been linked before but...

    I think it's an 'important lead' to talk about all sexism. The Daily Show is supposed to be progressive. As a commenter mentioned in the TBD thread. We feminists tend to run into a lot of progressives that support feminism until you point our their own. Then they're not so happy with it.

    Yes there's glaring sexism in other shows, and they've been covered and probably will be covered again. In case you didn't notice, Amanda kind of has this whole blog called "The Sexist" that deals with sexism.

    Feminists write about this stuff because it *needs to be written about*. Saying "there's worse stuff out there, write about that!" is irrelevant. Write about all Sexism, whether it's the guy telling you to smile on the street. Or the restaurant that hires employees based on 8x10 pictures.

    Either way, keep writing about it Amanda. :)

  • gennie

    wow im sorry that i offended you, but there is no need to questions my feminism or imply that i am too stupid to know the name of the blog i am commenting on. We are obviously fans of the sexist and probably agree on a lot of major issues. so there no need to be mean or hurtfull.
    All im saying is that we have bigger fish to fry then John Stewart. (honestly the guy is like five three) Sometimes it seems that media will run away with the hot new, but less telling, significant story because its hot and new, while leaving the really obvious in our face daily stories behind, because they are old news.

  • Mew

    Thanks for this, Amanda - a concise write-up that provides the best response to this entire discussion (and the letter from the female staffers, which really made me upset - for reasons you explored) - very cathartic to see my feelings put into words.

    It's too bad at least half of the commenters didn't seem to read the actual post, because although there's the typical bout of mansplaining and derailing, there are also quite a few comments seeming to interpret your post as a criticism of point a), instead of point d), which really does summarize the entire problem perfectly.

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  • Amanda

    I find it so ridiculous that bloggers who call themselves feminists have put this amount of effort into criticizing and trying to discredit the statement of the WOMEN who work at the Daily Show, women giving voice to their own experiences and disputing what they obviously felt were unfair allegations. Way to support these women, feminist bloggers. So does feminism now mean championing the perspective of women who feel they've been discriminated against and mocking and maligning the perspective of women who might dare to DEFEND someone against claims of sexism?

  • a dude

    Wow, got pulled into the blogosphere on this one.

    So your point, then, is that anyone hiring for a company should *not* hire solely on merit and instead should take "societal forces" into account, right?

    I was going to make an argument against that, but I realized that by stating it simply rather than hiding it behind a two-page long list, the flaws of that way of thinking should be obvious.

    Listen, I understand what you're trying to do with all this, I really do. And awareness is good--yes, comedy is dominated by men for a lot of reasons (though less so if you factor in romcoms). But you're falling into the same trap that at some point sucked in every other civil rights movement in history. You stopped fighting for equality and instead started fighting for reparations. But the world isn't "Men vs. Women," men and women aren't some sort of global teams, and asking men to favor hiring women even if they are less competent is only going to hurt the ultimate goal of equality, not help it.

    There are fewer women in comedy because fewer women try to do comedy. That's a problem. With a smaller pool of talent, when you're looking for people who are both talented and a creative fit, you will get skewed numbers. That's a problem. The targeted demographic for most comedy is male, who would naturally favor male sensibilities. That's a problem.

    But the point of intervention is not at the top, at a place like TDS. In fact, after some quick Google searches, it sounds like TDS is a pretty all-around good place to work. The point of intervention is much earlier in the process.

    A similar outrage stemmed from of Christopher Hitchens's Vanity Fair article "Why Women Aren't Funny" (And a female editor's response to it and then Christopher Hitchens's response to her response). Before you get too outraged at the title and his rhetoric (you should be a *little* outraged though), he was intentionally trying to start a fight--Christopher Hitchens is something of a literary troll. I think there's a lot more to be gained from that conversation, if you're interested, and it involves fewer personal attacks on a person who doesn't deserve them (Stewart).

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