It seemed some weeks ago that the public kerfuffle between Jezebel and “The Daily Show” — in which the women’s website reported on the fake news show’s history of hiring and retaining more male writing and on-air staff and “The Daily Show” responded with a fierce open letter from its female employees — would simply end with a lot of finger pointing and distorted interpretations of the criticisms being leveled. Jezebel reporter Irin Carmon never accused Jon Stewart of being personally sexist, but she did fail to account for correspondent Kristen Schaal (who was not listed on “The Daily Show” masthead as a correspondent), only mentioning her at the end of her original piece, in her claim that Olivia Munn was “the first new female correspondent on the show in seven years.” Munn told Salon‘s Sarah Hepola that “no one knew what the fuck Jezebel was before that story came out,” but in my forthcoming book, Samantha Bee says, “I’m always excited when something of mine ends up on Jezebel.” Bee also told me, “This place ['The Daily Show'] is very interested in gender and politics … There’s a lot of vaginas around here, and we make our presence known.”
The whole thing got magnified to epically feminized cat-fighting, hair-pulling, claw-bearing proportions. Like-minded people with similar political and social views were pulled into ugly public confrontation; feminists looked humorless and comedians looked sexist, images that both camps have gone to effective lengths to disprove in recent years, and in short, it all sucked and ended pretty grimly, right?
Well, maybe not. Despite its frigid refutations of Jezebel’s claims, “The Daily Show” has, from the start of the tussle, given signs that at least some people there not only noticed, but were more badly stung than they liked to admit by the website’s critique. Even before the open letter from the show’s women, Stewart himself did a segment in which he tallied his professional stresses on-air, hilariously kvetching: “I know we’re working on a book and we’re exhausted, people are frazzled, we haven’t had a break in months, Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist prick.” This was the first indication that Stewart and his show — a show I believe has been a huge part of the recent, long-overdue, but still delicate merge between feminism and comedy, thanks to unapologetically feminist correspondents like Bee and Schaal, as well as Stewart’s own often incisive commentary on gender politics — really did care about Jezebel’s report of gender imparity.
Bolstering the sense that the complaints did resonate with “The Daily Show” was the open letter, a very rare public response to media criticism. In recent weeks, Stewart has gone to some lengths to provide plenty of content about women and gender — see, for example, his great evisceration last week of the sexist criticism of Barack Obama for appearing on “The View.”
But as far as I’m concerned, the most welcome sign that someone at “The Daily Show” cares — not necessarily about fighting with Jezebel, but about demonstrating the show’s commitment to addressing women and their issues — came last night, when Senior Women’s Issues Correspondent Kristen Schaal, who had not appeared on the show since July 2009, returned to talk feminism, Sarah Palin and Mama Grizzlies.
Stewart kicked off the segment with a clip of Greta Van Susteren suggesting that Palin might be the new leader of the country’s feminist movement, and a follow-up crack about how “Sarah Palin has just stepped down as leader of the feminist movement to spend more time more effectively leading the feminist movement.” He then turned things over to Schaal, who parsed Palin’s recent “mama grizzly” advertisement, rocking out to its synthesized music (which she described as “like U2 without the copyright fees”) and explaining to Stewart that, no, liberals can’t be grizzlies. “If anything they’re like gerbils,” said Schaal. “They’ll eat their young if their welfare check is late.” The only bears who tend not to vote Republican, Schaal explained authoritatively, are the Berenstain Bears. “Because they’re Jews.”
After a clip of Palin talking about common sense, extending tax cuts and trashing healthcare reform, Stewart commented, “I don’t associate bears with common sense and supply side economic theory.” Schaal said, “Mama grizzlies’ real power doesn’t come from being a bear. It comes from being a mama.” And when Stewart described this attitude as “#*!&ing crazy,” noting that Palin is selling a political movement “the way they sell peanut butter and fever reducers,” Schaal nodded and chirped, “Choosy moms choose Palin!”
It was a smart and funny segment, and such a pleasure to see Schaal — whose biting sketches on Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and cougars helped to make 2008 the funniest feminist year in a long time — return to the desk next to Stewart. She has a book to sell, co-written with her boyfriend, “Daily Show” writer Rich Blomquist, and Stewart held it up at the end of the show. It’s a factor that could as persuasively explain her appearance as the theory that Stewart and company are attempting to redress complaints they denied were valid to begin with. But I don’t actually think it matters too much. Viewers, female and male, care much less about the politics of a public pissing match than they do about the possible result of the conflict: that the smartest — and often one of the most feminist — shows on television is re-asserting its commitment to making women’s politics and comedy a central and visible part of its daily work. And that’s good for everyone.