Societal Forces and 'The Daily Show'

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Amanda Hess looks at the hubbub over the hiring of Olivia Munn at The Daily Show. She includes this perceptive quote from Madeline Smithburg, the show's co-creator:

"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."

For her part, Hess concludes the following:

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.

I think I'm more swayed by Smithburg's explanation, probably because it's akin to what I've experienced in magazine journalism and its seemingly unshakeable whiteness. There is a very direct correlation between the wealth gap and the diversity of masthead at magazines like this one. Us black and Latinos often come from backgrounds in which our families' primary reason for sending us off to college is stability. We often have siblings and parents to think about, and can't contemplate a year in New York at a free internship. Beyond that there are cultural factors--magazine journalism isn't simply very white, it's very Ivy League and Northeastern, which indicates that a certain kind of cultural capital is almost a requisite requirement. I think my life would have been very different had a gone to college in, say, Atlanta as opposed to a town that was home to The New Republic, The Washington Post, Slate, and The Atlantic.

I think that last point likely applies to women in comedy. I suspect that a certain kind of cultural capital--a kind that women are often not privy to--is really at work here. The problem is the accumulation of said capital, as Smithburg indicates, begins long before one is at a point in their career where employment at The Daily Show is a possibility.

None of this is meant to condone throwing up one's hands and feigning powerlessness. But by the time you're debating Olivia Munn, it's already too late. Better to begin by, say, setting up a summer program for girls in their junior or senior year of high school, and try to foster that needed cultural capital. The Daily Show may already have a program like that, I don't know. But this points to something else--these kinds of societal problems require root work, and there's no guarantee you'll get any credit for doing it. But if the point is to show the world how nonsexist you are, you've already failed. It has to go deeper.

H\T to Adam.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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