Comedy Central

‘The Daily Show’ has a woman problem

Why does the show not hold itself to the feminist yardstick by which it measures the rest of the world?

September 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

For a solid week this summer, our great nation stewed in outrage that Donald Trump dared refer to Megyn Kelly’s bodily fluids to discredit her tough questions during the Aug. 6 Republican presidential candidates’ debate.

Apparently, it was funnier when “The Daily Show” did it. A sophomorically titled 2011 segment, Lactate Intolerance, lampoons the Fox News anchor’s evolving views on parental leave, joking that the “mama grizzly’s” criticism of government benefits did not apply to laws requiring employers to give new moms 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, from which she personally benefited.

To drive home this point, Jon Stewart juxtaposed clips of Kelly defending her leave as “not a racket” against clips of her decrying government mandated benefits as a first step toward socialism.

While the satire would have been a success without reminding us all that Kelly has breasts, her lactating lady bits provoke uncomfortable giggles — which, it seems, is all the show needs to consider them fair game.

In the grand tradition of stand-up comedy, “The Daily Show,” along with its late-night talk show counterparts, tends to treat womanhood as though it is worthy of ridicule in and of itself. Misogynist jibes take precedence over satire focused on the competence, moral behavior or professional performance of any individual woman they seek to criticize. As Stewart vacates the host’s chair to comic Trevor Noah (and not the exceedingly funny longtime “Daily Show” staffer Samantha Bee), it is time to take stock of such humor.

For instance, in the regular segment formerly known as Headlines, the show’s writers regularly roast powerful men. Sen. Mitch McConnell is as slow as a turtle, Trump is a self-unaware cretin with orangutan hair, Bill O’Reilly is a hypocrite, and Bill de Blasio eats pizza with a fork and knife. The segment rarely subjects men to ridicule for being born male, unless Trump’s desperate attempt to camouflage male-pattern baldness counts. Women, on the other hand, are belittled for being women. To name just a few examples, Stewart and his mostly male writers cast Democratic hero Valerie Plame Wilson as a “fuckable blonde,” condemned Hillary Clinton as a boner killer, joked about first lady Laura Bush being covered in horse semen and suggested how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have earned the Secret Service nickname Ping-Pong Ball.

To be fair, “The Daily Show” sometimes invokes bigoted tropes to skewer harmful stereotypes. In Hasan Minhaj’s Muslim Makeover clip, which aired in June, women are encouraged to ditch their hijabs for American flag string bikinis to get what they want from an American airline. The satirical target here is the sexist West, not women or Muslims. But there is not always a clear reason for, say, drowning accomplished women in horse semen other than to degrade them just for being women and to get laughs.

The lazy, sexist jibes stand in sharp contrast to Stewart’s respectful treatment of his female guests. He champions policies in favor of women’s rights and eviscerates misogyny in other media outlets. He was one of the only critics to ridicule media gawkers for evaluating Caitlin Jenner’s ability to conform to the feminine ideal, noting that the only woman over 65 to ever appear on Vanity Fair’s cover had a penis. All of correspondent Jessica Williams’ appearances are feminist masterpieces, including a takedown of men who catcall.

Lazy comics rely on stereotypes, but intricate and fresh comedy has to capture the zeitgeist.

Ola the Comedian

Why does the show not hold itself to the feminist yardstick by which it measures rest of the world? It is strange that “The Daily Show” can quip that Clinton’s face “is where boners go to die” and then flip just as quickly to criticize other media outlets for a sexist double standard in their coverage of her.

Perhaps the answer can be found in the roots of stand-up comedy. To get a sense of where Stewart and his writers cut their teeth, see the 2013 interview with known serial rapist Bill Cosby, in which Stewart credits Cosby and Woody Allen for their trailblazing stand-up performances at the Bitter End nightclub as the reason Stewart entered the New York comedy scene. Cosby’s stand-up routines infamously included material about drugging and raping women, and one of Allen’s better-known routines centered on trapping and coercing models to undress in a room he secured with a police lock.

Today a comedian should fairly easily calibrate his or her sensitivity chip to know when a joke is satirizing misogyny rather than being misogynist itself. It’s not a difficult task. So why aren’t they paying better attention?

Comics I interviewed at the Comedy Cellar, where Stewart performed last month, told me that stand-up comedy material harbors a great deal of misogyny, largely because an unskilled comedian can go for the easy laugh from front-row frat boys. Sometimes comedians try to exaggerate misogyny to expose its absurdity but miss the mark. Other times, the object of seemingly insensitive satire is simply misunderstood because of clumsy delivery.

Comedy Cellar stand-up performer Greer Barnes explained that stand-up “came from the days of vaudeville.” Ola the Comedian chimed in, saying, “Lazy comics rely on stereotypes, but intricate and fresh comedy has to capture the zeitgeist.”

Sexism in stand-up and satire does not need to exist just because it always has. To accept as an immutable fact of comedy the derision of women for having periods, lactating, falling down on a perceived responsibility to be attractive to heterosexual men or for having an asset that is too sexually attractive means that what is funny should be defined only by what sexist men find funny. To accept misogyny in comedy as inevitable means accepting that objectification and dehumanization is a woman’s inherent fate to suffer, if it gets a laugh.

There are far worse assaults to women’s rights than “Daily Show” punch lines. And no one wants comedy completely oriented toward safety and correctness, as described by Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic piece on censored stand-up acts on college campuses. But it’s hard to laugh when the joke ignores a basic moral responsibility to treat women — half the world’s people — as human beings.

Stewart has guided us through the worst events of our century with humor and wisdom. Out of reverence for his legacy, one can only hope that as September ushers in a new season and a new host for “The Daily Show,” Noah and his writers will consider a more mindful approach.

This seems unlikely for now, because Noah is a product of the same stand-up culture that courts cheap laughs at the expense of women. Judging from his humor on social media and reports that most of the show’s writers will stay on, I expect its coverage of women in media and politics will be rife with boobies, boner killers and blonde jokes.

Chandra Kellison lives and writes in Brooklyn. She is a co-founder and the president of Kimcha Entertainment Group, a women-run television production company.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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