Does “The Daily Show” still have a woman problem?

An exhibit illustrates the lack of women on influential talk shows -- even on Rachel Maddow and Terry Gross

Topics: The Daily Show, Gender, The Colbert Report, Television, TV,

Does "The Daily Show" still have a woman problem?

“What Does An Important Person Look Like?” That’s the question Jennifer Dalton poses in her new “Cool Guys Like You” exhibition, opening Friday at New York’s Winkleman Gallery. And in case you hadn’t guessed, the answer is: a dude.

As Dalton explains in her statement about the installation, an open letter to talk show hosts “Bill/Brian/Charlie/Jon/Leonard/Rachel/Stephen/Terry”: “When I looked closely at whom you interview — the people you collectively decide are the most important of the moment — I was very surprised…. In 2010, the most lopsided show among you featured only 17.5% female guests. The most balanced among you still only featured 34% female guests…. If I may be so bold, WTF?”

To illustrate her point about the demographics of shows like “Fresh Air,” “The Colbert Report,” “Charlie Rose” and others, Dalton lined up a sampling of screenshots of “Daily Show” guests and put the men in gold frames and the women in silver ones. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of silver on the walls.

Dalton loves to find novel ways to showcase gender disparity. In a previous work, she asked “What Does an Artist Look Like? (Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in the New Yorker, 1999 & 2009)” and displayed the magazine’s photographs of creative figures along a scale of “genius to pinup.” Similarly, in “This Is Not News,” she used light bulbs to illuminate the gulf between the number of women earning arts degrees in a single year and the percentage of women whose work had been given solo gallery shows and auctions.

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Now, by turning her attention to the pathetic dearth of females on the most beloved and otherwise progressive-seeming radio and television talk shows, Dalton’s demonstrates why some viewers feel conflicted about them. She’s not the first to point it out — last year, “The Daily Show” found itself embroiled in controversy after Jezebel pointed out its “woman problem” and called it “a boys’ club where women’s contributions are often ignored and dismissed.”

As Dalton told Friday, “These are heroes of mine and I think they’re doing really important work. But I just end up confused. It’s like are you with me or against me? I think of you as on my team, but maybe you don’t think of me as on your team?”

In her Salon piece on “Late-night’s real problem” last year, Lynn Harris sagely pondered the root causes for the lack of women behind the scenes at the most biting, insightful talk shows, acknowledging the masculine culture of those environments. And “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee has stated that “I just know so many female writers who never submit, and I’m not sure why.”

But even if women aren’t gunning for those off-camera jobs, it doesn’t explain why, as Dalton points out, roughly 80 percent of the guests on even the female-driven shows of Rachel Maddow and Terry Gross are men. Dalton says, “My gut is that it’s entropy. It makes me think that people are lazy.” It’s not necessarily a vast patriarchal conspiracy, just that sometimes people forget that women write books and run for political office and start grassroots campaigns and generally have things to say to America. Lots of women. More than 20 percent, even. And if a few frames on a wall can remind “The Daily Show” and “Colbert” and “Charlie Rose” of that, maybe, just maybe, those programs will start changing the picture.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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