The talk-show host Chelsea Handler wants to be a bigger part of the conversation. In a recent Op-Ed for the Huffington Post, Handler objected to the New York Times' coverage of late-night emcees, as in one piece where her E! series, "Chelsea Lately," was mentioned only in a parenthetical.
Handler's piece was a gripping, interesting read, not least because she was completely right. Her cultural influence, particularly over young viewers, is such that she should be covered as closely as Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. Maybe if she were, the ludicrous notion that what she's doing is in any way progressive or interesting would get tossed out the window.
For some reason, Chelsea Handler has successfully been able to frame herself as the thinking person's late night host. She has an appearance at 92Y to discuss "genius in comedy" with Ronan Farrow coming up soon, and appeared at AOL's recent Makers Conference, a gathering of female "thought-leaders" like Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem and Gabrielle Giffords. Handler was there to discuss her career trajectory and ideology: "As a woman, you have the responsibility to take care of other women."
That's a statement it's hard to disagree with. It's also, apparently, a statement with plenty of wiggle room, as Handler reserves her most potent vitriol for other women, as in an appearance on Andy Cohen's "Watch What Happens Live" during which she called Angelina Jolie "a demon" and implied Taylor Swift's dating history was embarrassing. Those at the Makers Conference presumably are aware of Handler's unique status as the only female late-night host and have managed to miss her profane rants about Jolie in particular, during which she claims Jolie's children are walking, breathing ploys for attention.
During the Oscars, Handler tweeted a series of objectionable jokes, many involving Jolie, who was in attendance as the recipient of a lifetime achievement award for her humanitarian work. (Handler's tweets are aggregated here.) These included jokes that Jolie, a mother of six including a daughter of Ethiopian extraction, had "just filed adoption papers" for Lupita Nyong'o, the Kenyan best supporting actress winner. By way of "congratulating" Nyong'o on her win, Handler urged the actress to pre-order her new book, titled "Uganda Be Kidding Me"; she also tweeted the title of the book to the producers of "12 Years a Slave." She also called presenter Sidney Poitier, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his best actor win, "Nelson Mandela."
Some of these are just idiotic, playing up Handler's attitude of blithe entitlement. Others, like the shade directed at Jolie for having the audacity to adopt children or at Nyong'o for being of African origin, fly in the face of Handler's stated goal of being a pathbreaker who helps other women. Handler helps no one but herself: In case you thought that any of her inopportune jokes would actually hurt her career, consider that her Oscar-night jokes were sent from the Twitter feed of the Huffington Post -- a news organization that, between the AOL-led Makers Conference and Handler's Op-Ed, gives her chance after chance. Handler was also able to promote "Uganda Be Kidding Me" with an interview in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. She'd broken free of the parentheses in which the Times had previously confined her!
Handler is a multifaceted person; that's another way of saying she plays different roles to different audiences. To her fans, she's a ribald and frankly mean comic; in the pages of the Book Review, she's a sly wit and voracious reader, one who gushes about the Paris Review and Alexander Pope. Amid all the author name-checks, she manages to sneak in a joke about how much the Kardashian sisters love sex with black men.
As an idea, Handler is compelling in just the same way Bravo's Cohen, a gay man, is -- she's a late-night host who brings to bear on her show a set of experiences other than those of a straight white male. But those experiences, contrary to what the ideas crowd unfamiliar with Handler's actual work may think, are more defined by Handler's trollish anti-woman and frankly racist manner of moving through the world than they are by her gender. Someday in the hazy, hoped-for future, when there is more than one female late-night host, Handler will seem far less like a thought leader. It'll be overdue, as, her lofty claims aside, Handler's most common thoughts are "black people are funny," "I hate Angelina Jolie" and "buy my book!"